71. Woodwind Exploration 3


In the previous two Woodwind Explorations, the focus was predominantly on the variety in this extraordinarily diverse orchestral section. This post will focus more on the instrument that generally sits on the top staff of the score: the flute.

Mendelssohn: Scherzo

Felix Mendelssohn composed incidental music for a performance of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1842. At the age of seventeen, after reading a German translation of the play, he wrote a concert overture entitled A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The delightfully effervescent overture was included with said incidental music.

The score indicates that the Scherzo is to be played between the first and second acts of the play. The two mismatched pairs of young lovers (Hermia, Lysander, Helena, and Demetrius) make a plan to meet in the evening in the woods outside of Athens at the end of the first scene. The play’s tradesmen too, led by Peter Quince, make a plan to meet in the woods the same evening. At the beginning of Act II, we also find the magical creatures (Oberon, Titania, Puck, and the fairies) in the woods.

Although these details are not necessary to enjoy Mendelssohn’s music, some analysis of the action may provide a more in-depth understanding of the music. In Act I the lowly peasants and the upper crust characters are introduced and their schemes set in motion. At the opening of Act II, Shakespeare presents the ethereal characters with their own set of desires and frustrations. So the scherzo acts as a bridge between the upper and lower class mortals and the soon to be introduced immortals.

The entire scherzo is but a few minutes in length and yet the composer crams quite a bit of delightful and intriguing music in that short span of time. At the very end of the scherzo, Mendelssohn’s solo flute plays a rapid staccato scalar passage. Listen to it in Example 71.1.

71.1 Felix Mendelssohn: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 2. Scherzo (328-375)
James Levine, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Deutsche Grammophon

Supporting the flute are strings with a few bars of other woodwinds added for color. The cellos and basses play downbeats pizzicato throughout most of the passage, only tacit for a few bars when the supporting chords move to the woodwinds. (For further punctuation the composer adds the sounds of the horns, trumpets and timpani playing octaves on the downbeats along with the low strings.) And those supporting chords begin in the strings on the downbeats and the third beat of each bar (the upbeat) almost as soon as the flute solo begins, adding to the 3-1 triple rhythm.

In bar 335 where the flute moves up to the high C, the upper strings enter with a supporting passage, consisting of mostly arpeggios, that lasts for three bars. Note that the bassoon is doubling the first violin at the octave to flesh out the block chords in the other strings. It’s notable that this technique Mendelssohn uses provides essentially static harmonies that give a sense of melodic movement. Perfect for a light and breezy scherzo. At the end of the 8-bar phrase the upper strings duplicate what they did under the flute, which then repeats the same passage. In the next few measures the same ensemble also repeats their earlier chords. On this repeat, though the string passage is extended by an extra three bars. To add some change in color it’s here that the brass and timpani drop out.

As soon as the strings finish these additional three bars in the phrase, the woodwinds repeat it almost verbatim. But we can see how Mendelssohn is moving toward the finish of the piece, to bring us to the introduction of the immortals. For instance, the strings are shifting to shorter phrases and interacting for one bar (355) with the woodwinds.

But the big change, the new sound that is not heard frequently in the orchestra is the flute delving down into its lowest range with the c-sharp in measure 361. As most musicians know the flute cannot project nearly as loudly in this bottom register as it can beginning in its next higher one. And it’s when the instrument is put on display in this manner that the remainder of the orchestra is tacit. The flute moves upward as it emphasizes the notes of the tonic (g minor) triad from one line G to three line D when the second flute joins for two measures, both recalling the opening measures and contributing to the playfulness at the end of the piece. The same passage at the octave is handed over to the two clarinets and then everyone joins in – quietly – to conclude the piece with g minor chords for a bar or two and then finally to diminish to just the tonic note in the final two bars. It’s here to punctuate the ending, that Mendelssohn has all of the strings play these Gs pizzicato.

Unlike his tragedies and histories where dark woods can often be a place of malice, Shakespeare has this wood surrounding Athens imbued with magic, mystical creatures, comedy, and romance. As the plot moves from its first two groups of characters, the composer supports it by bringing these same characteristics to the score.

Saint-Saëns: Aviary

On a regular basis Camille Saint-Saëns used to have a group of family and friends over to play music. The Carnival of the Animals is a work he wrote for those friends to play at these informal gatherings. In the work, he provides the audience a musical picture of each of a select group of (mostly real) animals.

Many composers have written music to reflect the sounds made by birds, but fewer have drawn a picture of the flight of these same creatures.

I’ve included Example 71.2 simply to showcase the agility of the flute. In addition, in bar 16 you can hear a simple chromatic scale beginning at the bottom end of the flute extending up two octaves. In this low end the flute is rich and full-bodied. The problem is that when writing for it here, the orchestrator must make sure to keep louder instruments to a minimum to allow the flute to sing.

Example 71.2 Camille Saint-Saëns: Carnival of the Animals, 10. Volière (1-16)
Charles Dutoit, Montreal Symphony Orchestra, London

Fortunately, Saint-Saëns was aware of that and he’s given the flute a stage on which to play with nothing to get in the way of its bright timbre. The accompaniment is tremolo upper strings with pizzicato upbeats and downbeats in the lower strings. It’s not until you get to bar 11 that the pianos enter with a bit of offbeat fluff and trills, after which the strings – counter to the upward flight of the flute – descend chromatically for an octave. It’s here that the composer gives the audience the top of the piano in rapid chromatic block chords, followed by trills.

One last item to note in this score is the ability of the flute to almost be in two places at once. Note the flute in measures 15 and 17, it is playing a D major triad in its lowest register while sustaining a high D a couple of octaves higher. While it’s not the most difficult of passages for the flute, it would not be within the capability for most flute students, especially at this rapid pace. For a flutist of this caliber it takes advantage of those years of practice, almost sounding like there are two flutes playing.

It’s a brief piece that at tempo is just a bit over a minute, but that minute is filled with a brilliant little showcase for the solo flute.

Rossini/Respighi: Cancan

The ballet La Boutique Fantasque, according to the score, had its first performance by the Diaghilev Russian Ballet in London in 1919. It states that it is the music of G. Rossini, orchestrated and arranged by Ottorino Respighi.

The score contains movements in the names of dances such as Tarantella, Mazurka, Cancan, and Valse Lente. I’ve selected this brief passage in the Cancan movement that showcases a solo flute supported only by one horn and two bassoons.

These three players supply the three-note chords behind the solo flute.

Example 71.3 Gioachino Rossini-Ottorino Respighi: La Boutique Fantasque, “Cancan” (142-151)
Ernst Ansermet, Orchestra de la Suisse Romande, Decca

The descending chromaticism of the passage is obvious from the start, but it’s interesting how the sound of the three players provide such a rich canvas on which the flute can play mostly octaves and fifths of their chords. Note the richness of the flute as it descends into its lowest octave and then hops back up to play the solo descending chromatic passage of the end of the example.

To give the passage a bit of color the composer adds the triangle on the downbeats of alternating measures.

This passage is virtually 180 degrees from the previous technical showpieces. It is in the instrument’s middle register and highlights the beauty and liveliness of the flute, especially when its accompaniment is light.

Tchaikovsky: Two Flutes

Tchaikovsky completed his third symphony in less than two months in summer of 1875. The andante third movement begins with just flutes and bassoons as you can see and hear in Example 71.4. Because the flute is playing in its lowest register, the composer opted to double the part in both the first and second flutes.

Example 71.4 Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 3, Movement 3 (1-16)
Lorin Maazel, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, London

Supporting the flutes at first are simply two bassoons. As the piece moves along the composer adds a clarinet and horn to fill out the harmonies in the bassoons. As the opening passage for the flutes ends on bar 8, the pizzicato strings add a punctuation mark to it.

The triplets introduced by the flutes become the dominant rhythm when the solo bassoon introduces the next line in bar 9 supported by the pizzicato strings. This same passage is repeated by the horn. It then moves to the oboe as the example ends.

One take-away from this example is the sound of the doubled flute lines at the opening of the movement. This is not a common sound. For those interested in scoring, it’s worth contrasting the low, rich sound to the previous examples, especially when doubled.

Another item that is noticeable by its absence is the two solo parts (bassoon and horn) have only pizzicato strings in the background. It shoves the soloists out front with very little integration with the rest of the orchestra. If a composer wanted a more cohesive sound, a sustained voice (say a clarinet or horn or even a string section) playing softly would provide it. Instead, the passages have the two solo winds only with the pizzicato stings.

Also, not the two bassoons supporting the flutes. Even when Tchaikovsky needs an extra note or two to complete the harmonies, he has the clarinet and the horn playing inside the two bassoons. This accomplishes a slight expansion of the palette as the ear still hears the sound of bassoons.

Brahms: That Solo Flute

In music appreciation classes, many music devotees, when introduced to the work known as a “symphony”, hear the Brahms fourth symphony when the passacaglia form is being studied.

This movement contains another good example of the solo flute (this time in mostly its second octave). It’s a memorable passage, transitioning to a return to the fullness and color of the other sections of the orchestra. The upper strings as well as those two sustained horns are softly sustaining the harmony.

Example 71.5 Johannes Brahms: Symphony No. 4, Movement 4 (97-104)
Leonard Bernstein, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Deutsche Grammophon

In the final two bars of Example 71.5 you can see and hear the solo flute descend to the bottom of its range, moving around the D, E and F. When writing for a flutist of less than professional caliber, although this part of the instrument can sound rich, it will frequently sound almost as much air movement as actual tone.

It’s another good example of how the background writing gets out of the way of the flute. The lowest tone throughout this example is the viola and horn one line E. And Brahms has the flute moving around in the range in the last two bars. But the sustained sound from the strings will make the flute movement the ear’s focal point.

Vaughan Williams: Closing Flute

In Example 71.6 we’re treated to a solo flute that starts out more as a secondary line, almost a pedal. Then we’re presented with these ascending scalar string parts, first in the viola and then in the first and second violins. This flute line begins to develop itself at the end of this string passage in bars 129 and 130.

Example 71.6 Ralph Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 4, Movement 2 (125-138)
Adrian Boult, New Philharmonia Orchestra, EMI

After the pause, though, the atmosphere changes dramatically: solo flute supported by three sustained muted trombones. As the flute descends into the bottom of its range, the entire string section, wisely marked triple piano and with mutes sustains an F major chord. In the flute part, the composer seems to be purposely avoiding that root note, with the melody consisting of just A, G and E.

And you can’t get much more open for the soloist than simply having all the other instrumentalists in the orchestra not playing. Vaughan Williams does this for the final bars with the ominous sound of the muted trombones giving way to the full yet quiet sound of the strings.

One final note on string mutes for those composers and orchestrators just learning about strings: They don’t necessarily make the instrument quieter. In a manner similar to the brass, mutes mostly change the timbre of the instrument.

Tchaikovsky: Three Flutes

It’s not common, but it’s not that uncommon for two or more instruments of the same section to be doing different things. In this passage from the first act of Nutcracker, that is exactly what the flutes are doing. In Example 71.7 Tchaikovsky has a seemingly simple passage. The accompaniment is just two clarinets and two bassoons playing I – V7 chords in A-flat for the sixteen bar phrase. It’s the flute section which has the show.

Example 71.7 Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky – Nutcracker Ballet, 5. Scène et Danse du Gross-Vater (119-136)
Semyon Bychkov, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Philips

The first flute is playing a tune that had earlier been played by the strings. To echo the mechanism of a clock, the second flute is playing an ostinato turn on A-flat. What makes this interesting from an orchestration viewpoint is the placement of the sections in terms of octaves. The bassoons are playing right around middle C. The clarinets are up in the two line octave, just beneath the solo flute. This arrangement leaves room — sonically — for the second flute to do these mechanical turns in the open one line octave.

For the second half of the phrase, the first flute’s melody moves up into the three line octave and this leaves space above the repeated chords in the clarinets. Tchaikovsky felt the need to fill that space with a third flute repeating the A-flat that began the melody. It balances the sound of the flutes nicely, thoughtfully filling the new hole that opened once the first flute went up to its top octave.

Stravinsky: Alto Flute

Though the focus has been on the flute, especially in its lower range. There are other items similarly of interest in Example 71.8 from Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps.

Probably the first thing you notice – once you dismiss the soloists – is the nonstop motion the composer has created. Unlike strings that can continue to repeat a passage or hold a tone endlessly, the winds need to breathe. To retain the fluidity and make sure the pattern is seamless as the composer shifts the part from one player to the next for four bars, Stravinsky has the first bassoon tremolo for four measures (F-E), ending on an eighth note F. At that downbeat, the third bassoon begins the same pattern. Similarly, the second bassoon trills (C-D) for four measures and then hands off the part to the fourth bassoon. To ensure that the section is seamless, the composer even has the hand-offs spaced two measure apart.

In addition, he calls for two solo first violins to play the exact same passage for the entire passage through the two 3/4 measures, following which the pattern changes.

Example 71.8 Igor Stravinsky: Le Sacre du Printemps, Part 1, “The Augurs of Spring” (168 – 189)
Ricardo Muti, Philadelphia Orchestra, EMI

The composer enhances this apparent vibrato by having the second violins, violas, and cellos play a repeated pattern throughout col legno. Given that this relatively rare style of playing is not very resonant, this pattern functions as much as percussion as it does harmony.

The real meat of the background is the repeated pattern (D-flat, B-flat, E-flat, B-flat) in the first violins. At measure 180, the composer starts to shift this rhythmic pattern by adding two clarinets and concurrently, dividing the second violins to play the same pattern (still col legno).

To shift the color even more at measure 182, one horn is added to this eighth-note pattern doubling the first violins.

Now that the orchestra channeling a percussion section has been deconstructed, let’s examine the solos. The example begins with the first flute, reproducing some similar material presented earlier. The next soloists are the oboes divided in octaves. For those learning about orchestration, it’s useful to note that the high E can be difficult for an amateur oboist, but a professional would not have a problem with it.

Alternating with these oboe passages are the trumpets and here the composer takes advantage of the different timbres made possible simply by playing the trumpet open versus playing with a mute. Note the first trumpet enters on the last note played by the oboes, two line D. The first time the passage is played the first note, the D, is sustained for a quarter note before being tied to an eighth note triplet. When it repeats a couple bars later it’s right on the first note of the triplet. But in next measure, playing the same notes, the timbre changes dramatically when it’s played muted by the second trumpet. Although performers can insert or remove a mute quickly, it does require physically picking it up and placing it in the bell of the instrument. Similarly, when removing a mute the process is reversed: grabbing the mute, extracting it and placing it down without making a sound. Hence, the first trumpet would not have enough time to insert a mute after the B-flat eighth note at the end of measure 178 and to play on the downbeat of the following bar.

When the horn enters in measure 182, the composer presents a new timbre: the alto flute playing the previously noted melody. It alternates at the end of the three measures with the second flute and then it enters again. Frequently a composer will use the alto flute to extend the range of the flute. Stravinsky could have used a flute to play this solo passage because it’s certainly within the range of the soprano flute. Instead, he uses it for its full timbre.

The following section is out of the scope here, but I included it to tempt you to listen and analyze the piece further. Note how the color changes and gets richer. The string pattern ends, but there’s a lot of busy work in the clarinets and the first flute enters with staccato eighth notes along with the trombone, timpani and pizzicato lower strings.

The bassoons continue their patterns as the second clarinet, the bass clarinet and the contrabassoon enter sustaining a chord. So, the rhythmic pattern continues but with a completely new color at measure 190. In many ways this sound is just as “new” as it was a century ago.

Grieg: Mountain King

In the previous post, we looked at a passage in the Paul Dukas The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, which features low woodwinds, specifically bassoons. Another familiar work that has a somewhat similar orchestral palette is the “In the Hall of the Mountain King” from Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt.

In Example 71.9 you can here the pizzicato low strings in octaves playing the B minor theme. The only background is provided by the two bassoons in octaves playing Bs and F-sharps. After four bars the cellos and the bassoons change roles as the pattern continues from b minor to F-sharp major and back to b minor. Most of these first measures of the work, illustrated in the example, are simply just pizzicato low strings and bassoons.

At measure 26 the composer ups the ensemble putting the tune in the pizzicato violins in unison as the low strings have octaves and the flute, clarinets and horns have off-beats.

To add a bit of color to the now rather bland bassoon and pizzicatos, the composer adds two unique sounds. The bass drum has a pianissimo downbeat every two bars. The horns have a closed pick-up beat just before the bass drum. The closed horn sound, similar in some ways to the muted trumpet in the Stravinsky above, is a special use of the hand in the instrument’s bell. Unlike the trumpet or trombone mutes, the hand has a range of placements in the bell each with its own timbre. Horn players know their instruments and will sound the correct pitches. (The hand in the bell can actually change the pitch of the notes. The modern horn is a strange blend of tubing that can be more than one type of transposing instrument.)

Example 71.9 Edvard Grieg: Peer Gynt, Act II, In the Hall of the Mountain King (1 – 28)
Thomas Beecham, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, EMI

At some level this is a quite simple piece of scoring. But much of this incidental music is about painting a picture to enhance the play’s performance. And Grieg is drawing a sonic landscape of the home in or under the mountains. He starts small and simply and as the passage continues, he adds more color, thereby luring the audience into this fantastical — and scary — place.

Gershwin: Concerto in F

If you’re familiar with George Gershwin’s Concerto in F, first performed late in 1925, almost two years after Rhapsody in Blue premiered, you will be familiar with the emotion, angst and playfulness of its first movement and the driving forces in its third. The middle movement is a slow and sometimes cool blues exploration. In its final moments, there is a haunting interplay between one flute and the piano. The second flute, an oboe and a clarinet join the first flute in the last few measures. Then they provide the space and time for a handful of slowing eighth notes in octaves echoing the previous measure’s woodwind lines.

Example 71.10 George Gershwin: Concerto in F, Movement II, (211 – 222)
Eugene List, Howard Hanson, Eastman-Rochester Orchestra, Mercury Living Presence

In Example 71.10 the flute, playing the same lines as the muted trumpet does at the opening of the movement, provides a (mostly) sustained backdrop for the piano. There are a few notes of interplay between the two. This continues with D-flat as the tonal center with some “blue” notes for four measures until it moves to G-flat for a couple of bars, only to return to D-flat for the ending. This appears to be another link to the standard and popular twelve-bar blues. At the end the piano returns to some block triads in second inversion, just before the other three woodwinds combine with the flute to produce a final D-flat chord (interestingly with A-flat as the bottom). As this chord is left to sustain and fade, the piano plays those three octaves, basically bookending the top and bottom notes, A-flats, of the woodwinds.


I hope this exploration of some flute writing provides insight into ways the instrument can be used in the orchestra. Please feel free to contact me with any questions or comments.