Welcome back to the third and final article on woodwinds! This time I would like to explore the different ways in which woodwinds can carry the harmony within an orchestration.
As it has been mentioned before, woodwinds do not possess the blending ability of strings. In other words, when combining instruments of the string section the result is a smooth homogenous sound. With woodwinds, however, due to great differences in tone colour from one instrument to another (and between different registers of the same instrument), it is much harder to achieve a homogenous sound.
The most important characteristic that a harmony part should exhibit is as Rimsky-Korsakov calls it “resonance equally distributed throughout”. In other words, different harmony parts should blend well together without moving the ear’s focus away from the melody parts. When it comes to woodwind harmony, there are a few tricks we can use to make the overall woodwind sound appear more homogeneous to the ear; i.e make the ear perceive all the woodwind harmony parts as one homogenous timbre instead of many different instruments playing together :
- Be consistent in the roles you give to each woodwind instrument. If you choose, for example, to give flute the soprano voice (the top note of the harmony) for the first chord, continue in that manner for the rest of the chords during the given passage where you have decided to have woodwinds play the harmony. This will ensure that each instrument has a smooth horizontal line and each chord flows as seamlessly as possible into the next.
- The safest and most effective way to build woodwind chords is to use the normal order of register; i.e. Flutes on the soprano voice, Oboes on the Alto, Clarinets on the Tenor and Bassoons on the Bass. This will help ensure that all instruments are sitting roughly on the same relative register. If, for example, we placed the oboe above the flute, the oboe would be in its high and strongest register, possibly overpowering the other harmony parts. The only exception to this is vertical dovetailing which we will discuss at a later point in the article.
- Instruments of the same kind or similar timbre should be voiced in consonant intervals (octaves, 3rds or 6ths) instead of dissonant ones. This is especially true for oboes which tend to overpower the rest of the woodwinds if not used properly.
A Note on Bassoons
Bassoons are kind of ‘joker’ instruments and can play several different roles in an orchestration :
- Woodwind function : where the bassoon either plays the bass line of the woodwind harmony or plays inner parts of the harmony;
- Horn function : where it is often used as an extra french horn or as a ‘blender’ between the brass and woodwinds.
It is best if you determine the role you want it to play as soon as possible.
II. HARMONY WITH WOODWINDS IN PAIRS
There are three basic ways to construct harmony when we have two of each woodwinds available :
- Super-position or Overlaying : essentially following the normal order of register 2Fl – 2Ob – 2Cl – 2Fg
- Crossing or (vertical)Dovetailing : roughly put this means having the two parts of the same instrument ‘separated’ by one part of another instrument. For example, instead of having 2Fl playing the top two notes of the chord and 2Ob playing the bottom, we have Flute 1 – Oboe 1 – Flute 2 – Oboe 2.
- Enclosure : when two instrument parts of the same instrument are enclosed or ‘surrounded’ by two parts of another instrument. For example, Flute 1 – Oboe 1 – Oboe 2 – Flute 2. Enclosure is also very effective (in fact, more effective) if the two ‘enclosing’ or outer parts are played by different instruments; e.g. Flute 1 – Oboe 1 – Oboe 2 – Clarinet 1.
Methods 2 and 3 help create a more homogeneous sound by blending different timbres as much as possible.
And now comes the million-dollar question….how do you choose which method to use?
Well, Mr.Rimsky-Korsakov comes to our rescue once again. Here are a couple of things to remember when in doubt as to which method to use :
- First of all, consider the register of each chord of your passage.
- Then, consider the register of each individual instrument you are going to use and be consistent in the choice of registers; combine the weak register of one instrument with the weak register of the other instruments. Combining one instrument in its weak register and one in its strong will result in a non-homogenous sound where one instrument is heard above the others.
- As with string harmony, knowledge of part-writing will help you enormously in creating effective woodwind harmonies. First make sure that you connect the chords as smoothly as possible. This means that some parts will be relatively stationary (held notes) and others will be more active. Assign one instrument timbre to your stationary parts and another to your moving parts and be consistent with it. The ear is very perceptive to movement and if you keep changing instrument roles your harmony parts might even overpower the melody of your composition.
- Avoid widely-spaced chords because when played by woodwinds they do not sound homogeneous. If you have to use open voicings, place them as high as possible because this makes the different timbres less perceptible and the sound appears to be more homogeneous.
- Avoid close four-part voicings comprising of four different instruments; i.e Flute – Oboe – Clarinet – Bassoon. This is most likely to result in the use of a different register for each instrument and make the sound less homogeneous.
What to do when you have three-part harmony?
There are two things you can do to ensure a nice-sounding three-part harmony :
- Use 2 instruments of the same kind and 1 other instrument in close harmony.
- Use overlaying, i.e. flutes above oboes, oboes above clarinets and clarinets above bassoons
III. HARMONY WITH WOODWINDS IN THREES
When we have three of each instrument available, the choices are a bit more straightforward.
The best way to orchestrate close three-part harmony is to use three instruments of the same kind; e.g. 3 flutes or 3 oboes etc.
In the case of open three-part harmony, using three instrument of the same kind will not be as effective. The only case where open three-part harmony will work with three instruments of the same family is by using the auxiliary bass instrument for the bass line. For example, 2 Oboes for the top two notes and an English Horn for the bass or 2 Clarinets for the top two notes and a Bass Clarinet for the bass note.
In the case of close four-part harmony, the best approach to use is overlaying of parts with three instruments of the same kind and a fourth instrument of another.
Dovetailing and enclosure can also be used but it is a much more complicated approach because you have to take into account the relative registers of all instruments as well as the smooth progression from one chord to another.
Remember that woodwinds don’t work well harmonically in open voicings!
IV. HARMONY IN MULTIPLE PARTS (5-, 6-, 7-, and 8-part harmony)
If the extra parts are chord tensions (9ths, 11ths and 13ths) then close voicings are always preferred using either of the three methods outlined in part II of this article (overlaying, dovetailing or enclosure).
If the extra parts are mere octave duplications of the existing 4-part harmony, then the best approach is to use the principles outlined at my previous article regarding the duplication of woodwinds in octaves, 3rds and 6ths.
Woodwinds in Paris
You can use any of the three methods you wish : overlaying, dovetailing or enclosure.
As a general rule, when you are after a homogenous harmonic BACKGROUND (that stays behind the melody and does not distract the ear from it) the safest approach is to use close-voiced harmony. When using open voicings you can voice your chords according to the harmonic series for a more homogeneous and natural result.
Woodwinds in Threes
The best approach is overlaying when you have close three-part harmony doubled in octaves. Crossing of parts will not be as effective because it will disturb the ‘natural order of register’.
V.HARMONY IN WOODWINDS AND OTHER ORCHESTRAL SECTIONS
In practice, woodwinds are seldom asked to provide the harmony alone. They are usually combined with other orchestral sections in several ways, including :
- The three upper parts of a 4-part harmony are given to woodwinds alone and the bass line is doubled by double basses arco or pizzicato.
- The three upper parts are assigned to strings and the woodwinds carry the middle harmony parts, usually in sustained notes.
In either case, each instrument section should be complete in itself.
VI. DIRECT DOUBLING OF WOODWIND LINES (MELODIC OR HARMONIC) IN OTHER SECTIONS
Below you will find a chart of the most commonly used combinations :
I hope that you have enjoyed these three articles on woodwinds. They by no means cover everything there is to know about woodwinds but they can certainly form a basis for further woodwind explorations! As a parting gift I have created a summary table outlining the most common uses of woodwinds both as a section and as individual instruments.
I wish you all the very best in writing for this wonderful instrument family! Should you have any questions please do not hesitate to leave a comment below. Also, do not forget that next week, my colleague Asimakis Reppas is going to explore ways in which you can make your woodwind mockups come alive!
Au revoir then!