Part 1 Intro & Basics Continued
Of all the instrument families of the orchestra, the woodwinds have consistently proven the most difficult to define. The term “woodwind” can be a misleading one, as the various instruments are made of assorted materials including silver, brass, plastic and wood. Suffice to say that every instrument we now classify as woodwind (with the exception of the saxophone) was, at one historical time or another, made of wood.
All woodwind instruments except the flutes use a reed (small strip of soft wood) to produce a tone. The player blows through the reed, creating a vibration that is amplified and given a pitch as it travels through a keyed pipe. In the case of the flute, the player blows across a small hole to create a vibrating column of air.
The woodwind section of the modern orchestra is divided into four family groups:
- C Flute
- Alto Flute
- Cor Anglais
- B flat Clarinet
- Bass Clarinet
The woodwind instruments offer a noticeable contrast to the other families in that each member has a very pronounced individual sound quality (timbre). Additionally, each instrument offers considerable variation of tone colour, brilliance and intensity that changes throughout the different octaves in its register.
Traditionally, the most common functions of the woodwind choir have been thus:
- To play solo passages (entire melodies / melodic fragments / small melodic gestures)
- To provide a harmonic background to a string foreground
- To provide a contrasting colour/ repeating or echoing a passage previously heard on strings
- To double the other instruments of the orchestra
In the modern orchestral score, the woodwind ensemble often takes on a supporting role, providing harmonies, countermelodies or simply doubling the string parts. While melodically subservient to the strings, the sheer variety of timbres available in the wind section make it extremely useful for adding colour and sonic variation. Their heterogeneous timbres makes them especially suited to contrapuntal writing, as it is peculiarly easy for a listener to keep track of different voices in a polyphonic passage. Try to give countermelodies to different wind instruments in short succession to capitalize on their individuality. (Contrapuntal writing will be discussed in more detail in a later instalment). Wind instruments also serve excellently as harmonic support: a well-balanced wind ensemble moving through a chord progression with appropriate voice leading will lend plenty of weight and harmonic colour to the passage. Experiment with these instruments in different combinations to add endless tonal interest to an orchestral piece.
The upper winds can serve as elegantly as soloists: The most usual instruments to take a leading role in an orchestral piece are the C flute, clarinet and oboe. The bassoon is occasionally used as a soloist, although its low register makes it more suited to bass lines and secondary roles. While these instruments have many of the same capabilities as soloists, and in fact, very often will share melodies, there are certain kinds of line that each instrument excels at.
The flute is a small and light instrument, and handles fast, virtuosic lines well in its highest register. The instruments dexterity makes it a perfect candidate for adding momentum to a performance using fast repeated figures such as arpeggios or rapid scalar passages. The third octave is brilliant with much carrying power, and as far up as A or even B flat, will cut through any accompaniment with ease and without becoming shrill. The second octave is full-bodied and clear- most suited for general writing and can be used equally for accompaniment and solo lines. The lowest octave can be weak on the flute, so should be restricted to harmonic writing in all but the most exposed of situations. Melodies in the lowest octave will almost certainly be lost when competing with other sections.
The oboe has an immediately recognisable sound that has been described as pungent, tangy, nasal, penetrating, biting, piercing and raspy. This distinctive tone colour and expressive potential make it a favourite solo instrument. Allow the oboe to dwell on long notes as part of a lyrical solo to benefit from the expressive vibrato that gives the instrument a voice-like character. In direct contrast to the flute, the oboe increases in intensity and power as it descends through its range. Generally speaking, fast legato arpeggios and rapid passages with leaps are not recommended. It is not that the instrument is incapable of such manoeuvres, rather the tight double-reed tone seems unsuited to such writing, at least when compared to the flute or the clarinet. Melodies of folksong character are especially well suited to the simple plaintiveness of the oboe.
The clarinet, besides the important melodic function it routinely serves in a score, also are supremely useful as a harmonic or colouristic instrument. The unobtrusive nature of the clarinets tone make it extremely useful for doubling the lines of and forming chords with other instruments. The clarinet is a close second to the flute in its agility, and its technical capacity as well as its tonal quality make it very suited for all kinds of rapid scales, arpeggios and other figurations that require ease of mobility. Note that wide legato leaps between registers are more easily accomplished in an upward direction, as is true of all woodwind instruments. Due to its single reed, the clarinet also plays repeated notes extremely easily, even at rapid tempi.
The bassoon serves as the natural bass of the woodwind section. Most typically, the bassoon will double the low string part (cello / double bass), either at the octave or in unison. Used in this way, the bassoon lends power and tonal variation to the lowest end of the orchestra. On a large instrument, fast passages become less viable, although the bassoon can play rapid scales and arpeggios with ease, and may necessarily do so if a bassoon solo is to be heard clearly amidst the rest of the orchestra.