69. Woodwind Exploration 1


Write or arrange for the orchestra? Listen with care to orchestra music? I’ve said it before: When it comes to the sections of the orchestra, nothing provides the array of timbres on a par with the woodwinds.

I already hear the arguments about trumpets and trombones, with and without their mutes and the variety of strings and their techniques. And, I will admit that the historically overlooked percussion section surely offers a virtually endless list of traditional and nontraditional sounds.

And I know I’m being more than just a bit dogmatic. But, when it comes to the big three (woodwinds, brass and strings), nothing provides the broad spectrum and depth than do the woodwinds.

This post will be highlighting some well-known and some lesser-known woodwind passages in the literature. It’s not that these selections are exhaustive in the scope of their unique sounds, the intention is to bring to mind some ideas for new ways of writing – and listening – to the orchestra.

Copland: “Saturday Night Waltz” from Rodeo

If one hears a parallel in the ranges between the string voices and those of the woodwinds, it may be expressed as Violin I = Flute, Violin II = Oboe, Viola = Clarinet, Cello and Bass = Bassoon. Naturally this is a simplistic view, but not unusual in any orchestrations. There are many passages, for example, of clarinets teaming up with violas in full scores. Their ranges are similar, filling in that spot just below the lowest violin note, but still sounding more like the upper instruments in the section than the lower ones.

In Example 69.1 Aaron Copland blends these two voices and adds the flute to the mix. In fact, the flute, clarinet and viola are all that’s happening in this slow section, save for the small mixture of instruments providing the waltz beats on one and two.

Example 69.1 Aaron Copland: Rodeo, “Saturday Night Waltz” (69 – 90)
Leonard Slatkin, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, Angel

Over the rich legato viola line, the clarinet provides a lazy set of chord tones with the flute essentially punctuating and echoing the final few notes of the clarinet lines.

This is not a particularly special or unique use of this group, however. In fact, all three instruments are playing in their middle ranges. These are the ranges where most instruments sound “like themselves.”

So often, composers focus on the very top or very bottom of an instrument’s range to exploit the lesser known sounds they can often produce there. But it’s in that comfort zone for most instruments that the composer has to step up and write compelling music that relies on its substance, creativity and intrinsic interest. Yet, it also gives the performer a chance to demonstrate the hours, months, years of honing his or her craft. (All those sustained tones.)

One more thing to point out is how Copland mixes up the accompaniment. The pedal downbeats are alternately played by the trombone and the bass clarinet, with the offbeats chords on two played by the clarinet and bassoon. After a few bars the second violins and the cellos are added. This again returns to the slight shift in color that each combination provides. It’s simple, economic and utterly charming.

Beethoven: Symphony Number 3 (“Eroica”), Movement 1

The orchestra of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was limited for a variety of technical, architectural, economic and sociopolitical reasons. As most students of music learn, Beethoven had a tendency to push boundaries wherever he could. As an example, his third symphony, the “Eroica,” has a first movement that is about as long as an entire Haydn symphony.

In this symphony, which premiered in 1805, the orchestration does not seem to be on his top list of icons he wanted to demolish. Nevertheless, he still used the winds in ways that would probably cause an audience to perk up their ears in surprise at their variety.

Example 69.2 Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony Number 3 (“Eroica”), Movement 1 (450 – 471)
John Eliot Gardiner, Orchestre Révolutionnaire Et Romantique, Deutsche Grammophon Archiv

Example 69.2 is from the first movement. It is a brief passage from the recapitulation in the lengthy transition from the first to the second theme. Beginning in measure 452 you hear a descending motif that is just a dotted quarter note beginning on the second beat of the measure followed by an eighth note and then a quarter note on the next downbeat.

Beethoven begins this in the flute, followed by the oboe, the clarinet, then the first violins. The pattern repeats after which the clarinet and bassoon return with it, now in a descending scalar line. The flute is added to the motif on its repeat just before the flute, oboe and all the strings return to end the phrase.

It’s a brief bit of “tossing the ball around,” colorfully showing the timbre of each of the woodwinds. What follows is an interesting employment of the clarinets being used as inner voices, rising in thirds in bars 464 and 465, as the viola and cellos double the second bassoon line. The warmth of the clarinets is apparent. It’s not too hard to imagine how much less colorful this passage would be if it were played by strings alone.

It’s what we’ve come to expect from Herr Beethoven. But one can only imagine how this passage sounded to unknowing ears some two hundred years ago.

Earlier I just mentioned the technical issues faced by the orchestra of the early nineteenth century and so I’ll just point out how in measures 458 and 459, two horns join the clarinet in its statement of the motif. Later in the century with the introduction of new technology, the horns could have easily played all of these parts. But while Beethoven was writing the limitations of the current technology would have made producing these tones on the horn virtually impossible.

Bernstein: Candide Overture

In the less than five minute overture to Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, the orchestra runs at an almost alarming pace. The composer often utilizes the woodwinds the way a chef sprinkles salt and pepper – a dash here and a trace there. In a manner frequently seen in scores many composers, a three or four note motif is played by one voice and then echoed by others. This can be heard and seen clearly in the Beethoven above (Example 69.2).

In the next two examples I have chosen two passages that show off some of the dexterity that the woodwinds offer the composer. Like most performers, the woodwinds can handle almost anything thrown at them. This is certainly true for world-class players. Of course, with a technically challenging passage, if you’re not sure that those playing your piece are up to a difficult part and you have the opportunity, it’s always a good idea to check.

Listen to Example 69.3, a transitional passage in the work. The flute has this eighth note passage first. But just a second or so later the clarinet replies. As soon as the clarinet finishes, the bassoon, joined by the bass clarinet, has the motif a couple of octaves lower. Although lower range performers, who generally play in the small and great octaves, are pushing more air through their instruments, they can still keep up with their above-middle-C neighbors.

As the composer deconstructs the motif it’s played by the flute and oboe, answered by two solo violins, partially joined by the solo flute, before being played again by the flute and oboe. The pattern repeats until it’s taken up at the end of measure 74 by the piccolo. The piccolo keeps it until measure 80 with the flute echoing the downward leaps in the second half of the alternate measures.

Example 69.3 Leonard Bernstein: Candide Overture (63 – 83)
Leonard Bernstein, London Symphony Orchestra, Deutsche Grammophon

Notice the way Bernstein hands off the B-flat on the downbeat of measure 80 from the piccolo to the flute. This note is just below the very top of the range of the flute. It takes a little bit more pressure to hit the note cold as in this example. The addition of the octave grace note means the performer may at some subconscious level play these five notes with just a tad more intensity than the piccolo, here in the middle of its range.

As the flute then hands it off to the E-flat clarinet on the downbeat of measure 81 the composer actually presents a plain old dominant seventh arpeggio in the E-flat clarinet. To cement the V – I tonality here he adds the glockenspiel on the leading tone and, on the second half of the first measure, the low octave pizzicato on the V. This leaves the E-flat clarinet to retain the notes of the V7 chord in its chalumeau register.

There is a lot of orchestration in this brief passage. One background element that’s easy to miss is the eighth note-quarter note downward leaps on the last eighth note of each half of each measure from 67 to 75, first in the oboe, then in the bassoon and lastly in the bass clarinet. It’s in some ways typical of this work that the listener is kept on his or her toes, with these rapid drops starting before the beat.

One other piece of work here is the sustained tones in the oboe and clarinets. With everything else going on it’s easy to miss it, but when you focus on what these three players do here, you notice how it glues the passage together. Once the whole notes end in bar 74, it’s as though the sun breaks through the clouds with the piccolo stepping in, acting as the sun.

Lastly, note the second pizzicato F on the second half of measure 81. Bernstein further plays with the listener to throw off the regularity of the beat. A more conventional composer might punctuate the downbeat of measure 81 in the same way as the F punctuates the downbeat of the previous measure. Instead, Bernstein provides the accent on the second half of the measure. This playful gesture is reflected throughout the piece so, in some ways, it’s the composer exploiting what he has already provided to the listener. It’s another way to color the music.

Remember that orchestration is about color.

And on that subject, listen to another section of the same piece a little bit later in Example 69.4. In this snippet, the solo flute has the passage that was just heard, but this time it has a bigger chunk of the theme. Before tracing the tune and what it does next, listen to the introduction. When the tutti descending scalar passage ends on the downbeat of measure 139 the composer has four horns in thirds stopped in the now-familiar three quarter note bars. The tone quality of these instruments playing this way is unique in the orchestra. The change in timbre is even enhanced by the horns entering fresh and not playing with the woodwinds and strings in the previous bar.

After their novel entrance, the horns give the three quarter note motif over to the middle register clarinets in harmony, as the bass clarinet and two bassoons have the off beat sustained notes. Note the way, for these initial two bars, Bernstein includes the cellos and basses pizzicato to double and emphasize the beginning of the off-kilter passage.

Example 69.4 Leonard Bernstein: Candide Overture (137 – 153)
Leonard Bernstein, London Symphony Orchestra, Deutsche Grammophon

At the beginning of bar 147 as the composer shifts the energy, a solo violin has rapid arpeggios across the strings while the rest of the upper strings have pizzicato downbeats and offbeats. Suddenly the contained sound of the previous measures is spread out. Here, unlike the earlier passage, the piccolo is doubled down an octave by the oboe. When the line returns it’s in octaves again in the flutes. The third iteration has the E-flat clarinet doubling the piccolo at the octave. To further emphasize the staccato line the composer adds the melody in the glockenspiel.

To return to the opening of the example, note the triangle roll during the descending quarter notes. The triangle has a long history as one of the more consistent orchestral percussion instruments and often it’s used to add a shimmering effect to a passage. Here it’s used almost the way a composer might use a snare drum roll.

And one last little bit is on the downbeat of bar 139, there’s just the extra emphasis of the bass drum. It’s a tiny thing, but it cements the ensuing syncopations so that the listener has at least some sense of where the beat is – or at least where it was.

Delius: A Village Romeo and Juliet, “Walk to the Paradise Garden”

The pace is going to slow down, so much in fact that tempo almost becomes secondary. Oh it’s there, but the languorous lush lines don’t provide much for those wanting to tap their toes. The passage has a few rhythmic motives. One is the opening ascending eighth note triplets on the downbeat of the bar. Another is the sustained dotted half note followed by a quarter.

Probably most prominent here are the simple woodwind solos of a bar or two in length. After the opening two string section bars the flute and English horn play in octaves. This is a range in which the double reed is rich and full and, though it often is overpowered in this range, the flute is too.

Next up is the bass clarinet followed by the horn and then the first violins who extend the line for an additional bar as the other strings enter on the fourth beat. The violins cede to the oboe in the following measure who also plays the two measure phrase. Next, the clarinet enters with a similar, but rhythmically more complex two measure phrase. The clarinet is in turn followed by the oboe and then the flute.

69.5 Frederick Delius: A Village Romeo and Juliet, “Walk to the Paradise Garden” (44 – 60)
Andrew Davis, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Teldec

This leisurely passage is a useful study of the woodwinds showing off the richness of tone quality, phrasing and fullness of sound. Once any of the instruments makes an entrance the strings seem to drift into the background. Although there is some variety in the flavoring in the string parts, it’s mostly support for the woodwind solos.

One important item to hear is the way Delius takes a brief pause from the string section at measure 49. Just as the sustained notes of the bass clarinet and the lower strings end, the first horn solo begins. But note the background. Although its range is very close to where the violins, violas, cellos and basses stopped, now we have an all brass background supplied by the three trombones and tuba. The chord they play changes in the next bar, but again they spend three beat alone – as the harmonic background to the first violins. This elegant transition from strings to brass and back to strings can be almost transparent because the composer’s slight of hand tricks the listener’s ears to remain focused on the repeating triplet phrase on the downbeat of each measure.

Strauss: Also Sprach Zarathustra

The passages presented above provide some great examples of a composer tossing the melody football around the woodwind section. This final example retains the same concept, but rather than spreading it around the woodwinds, it’s kept mostly in just one section. In this case it’s the clarinets.

This quiet passage begins with a pianissimo version of the well-known opening trumpet fanfare which is soon repeated in the oboe. But it’s just as the oboist is about to relinquish its note that the first clarinet enters on the same note, drops a fifth and has a rapid ascending line, returning near where it began. This is the point, on the second beat of measure 266, where the E-flat clarinet takes over.

Example 69.6 Richard Strauss: Also Sprach Zarathustra (263 – 279)
Lorin Maazel, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, RCA

And before the E-flat clarinet is done with its iteration, the second B-flat clarinet steps up. After a repeat of the root-fifth-octave motif in the English horn, the clarinet section does it again. It’s a great opportunity to hear the E-flat and B-flat clarinets playing almost the same lines in such close proximity. As I mentioned above, the E-flat clarinet can sound very much like the more standard clarinet in B-flat (AKA soprano clarinet).

Listen a little more and you’ll hear the English horn enter with the little line, joined then by the flute and a beat later it returns to the clarinet section.

A note of caution: Be aware that the example crescendos very rapidly near the end of the passage. So, if you’ve turned up the volume to listen to the clarinets and other woodwinds, when the full orchestra enters in measure 278 it gets loud! I included the last few measures to show how the same motif, now played in unison by the flutes, clarinets and all the violins, can be so nicely balanced by the double reeds, brass and lower strings when playing at a forte.


Chronologically these examples range from the early nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century. As I discussed, Beethoven and his contemporaries had fewer instrument options to work with than his successors. Nevertheless, what all of these examples provide is a composer’s use of the wide variety of sounds available from the woodwind family. These excerpts will continue for the next several posts.

I hope you enjoyed this post and/or found it useful. Feel free to send me a note (my address is on the About page) or leave a comment.

Matthew Yasner