70. Woodwind Exploration 2


The previous post in this series, “69. Woodwind Exploration 1,” examined some uses of the winds as a source for a variety of different sounds as well as a source for exploiting the constancy of timbres among them.

This post will continue these observations with the woodwinds with just a bit of an emphasis on the double reeds. So without further divagation, we will dive right into the lake with Tchaikovsky.

Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake

Unless you are a woodwind (or possibly horn) player you may not know that there is a subcategory of music repertoire called a “woodwind quintet” whose roots go back to the eighteenth century. The (mostly) standard instrumentation is for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn. A diverse range of composers have written for this type of ensemble (e.g., Berio, Carter, Grainger, Hindemith, Holst, Ibert, Jacob, Milhaud, Nielsen, Piston, Reicha, Schönberg, Stockhausen, Villa-Lobos, and Wuorinen).

Example 70.1 comes from the first act of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake Ballet. The passage in this example begins just as the strings are finishing a phrase with the upper winds rising chromatically.

Example 70.1 Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake Ballet, No. 4 (47 – 62)
John Lanchbery, The Philharmonia Orchestra, EMI

The clarinet begins the next phrase in measure 49 in the central portion of its range. This is where most instruments produce their most typical sound and generally where the performer has the fewest technical challenges. In the example, the instrument produces a warm and rich sound, not very bright, but still with a good deal of presence. When the clarinet hits the downbeat of the following measure on its (concert) F, the flute enters on the same note, taking the line up into the bottom end of the flute’s highest octave. In this area the instrument has similar characteristics to the clarinet: warmth and richness, but without the bright (what some flute haters might refer to as “shrill”) sound at the top end of this highest octave.

The bassoon enters on a similar ascending passage in measure 51 as the flute and clarinet descend. Finally the oboe and horn enter in the next measure with the oboe echoing the flute line in the previous bar and the horn duplicating the same notes played by the flute in measure 50 – down two octaves of course.

These four bars are repeated and then the composer deconstructs pieces from the previous phrases to end the passage in measures 57 through 60. The example ends with the clarinet on a solo trill accompanied by pizzicato strings.

This is almost prototypical woodwind quintet writing. The one big difference is the sustained string section providing just the faintest of chords with some dissonance and resolution behind the winds.

I’ve begun with this example because it so perfectly illustrates the kind of diversity of sounds that a composer can get with just the timbres of the five winds, each showing off its unique qualities.

Dukas: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

Paul Dukas wrote his best-known work, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice in the 1890s, based on Goethe’s eponymous poem from a century before. Dissatisfied with many of his works, Dukas stopped composing before World War I, but remained a teacher and critic until his death in 1935.

Walt Disney acquired the rights to The Sorcerer’s Apprentice after Dukas’s demise and incorporated the music into the animated film Fantasia in 1940. It is scored for a large orchestra including two flues, piccolo, two oboes, two clarinets, bass clarinet, three bassoons, contrabassoon, two trumpets, two cornets, three trombones and a variety of percussion.

The simple story involves an apprentice magician who’d been tasked with carrying buckets of water to a cistern. The inventive young sorcerer puts a spell on a broom to do his work for him. His ingenuity works well until the cistern is full and the broom continues at its task, causing the cistern to overflow. In this passage, the apprentice has just employed his still-not-fully-mastered magic to stop the broom by splitting it in half. His spell is imperfect and each of the broom’s pieces begins to fetch water again, now working a double speed, much to the chagrin of the apprentice awash in the superabundance of water.

Example 70.2 is from the exact moment when the two pieces of the broom begin to stir and soon recommence the task of fetching water.

Unlike the previous example that employed all of the woodwinds, here Dukas focuses only on the two reeds that arguably have the “woody-est” resonance, the clarinets and bassoons. It’s a deceptively simple passage for this evocative tune. The example begins with a staccato eighth note played by one bassoon on a small F accompanied by the timpani and the pizzicato low strings. In the next bar, the contrabassoon has a five-one line in the contra octave. Note that while the bassoons here are accompanied by the staccato horns, timpani and low strings, the contrabassoon is accompanied only by the bass drum and contrabasses. (For orchestrators unfamiliar with timpani: Note the similarity of sound between the timpani and the bass drum. It’s often OK to use the timpani for its impact and not be overly concerned about pitch. While the timpani is a piece of tuned percussion similar to the xylophone, celesta and chimes, it’s also similar to the bass drum when it comes to delivering a staccato punch. And if you need a such an effect and there’s not enough time for the timpanist to tune the available drum, sometimes an alternate pitch – say the five of the chord – will do the trick. In fact, in Gershwin’s An American in Paris the timpanist is instructed to strike the drum at the center of the head, producing a pitchless effect more like a bass drum.)

These measures are an exercise in balance between the two-bar phrase in the contrabassoon and the punctuation in the ensuing measure. (This portion of the score could have been written in 9/8.)

Example 70.2 Paul Dukas: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (628 – 688)
Neville Marriner, Academy of St. Martin in the Field, Philips

Things begin to pick up when the bass clarinet joins the contrabassoon at the tenth in measure 641 and they continue in this fashion until the three bassoons begin the melody in measure 651.

Before moving into that next section, however, let’s review the meat on these thin bones in this lead-up to the melody. The bassoons and horns have a nearly closed harmony on these B-flat minor chords every three measures. As stated above, they are joined by the timpani and the pizzicato low strings at the unison. Even though the passage is marked piano the size of the ensemble on these downbeats is considerable: three bassoons, four horns, timpani and perhaps fifteen or twenty low strings. That’s quite a big sound for a simple two note chord, practically all of which is below middle C. Just marked staccato with no notated accent, there’s enough of a punch that it plays off perfectly with the contrabassoon and soon the bass clarinet for these roughly 24 measures.

Note that the two soprano clarinets join the ensemble to add a little bit more punch – as well as a slight shift in tonality as the two note chords consisting of F and D-flat are now topped with an A-flat. It seems that as Dukas brings in the bass clarinet to play the tenth over the contrabassoon, he wants to emphasize the duality of the relative major of B-flat minor. This makes sense given the D-flat major V – I line in the bass clarinet’s temporary tonal center. It does work to emphasize the programmatic material, expanding the colors as the music starts to reanimate (becoming the equivalent of zombie brooms, perhaps?).

Once the main course arrives at measure 651, it’s simplified to just the three bassoons on the melody and the pizzicato violas and cellos behind them with mostly full triads. The string writing gets a bit more interesting at measure 669 when the cellos unite to double the bassoons and the divisi violas, now arco, have a lovely chromatic ascending I to V line over six measures. This recalls a similar ascending line in the very quiet opening bars of the piece.

The color changes when the clarinets once again join the ensemble with a little fake-out from the bassoons and cellos, just for the first three measures. This is not really an orchestration feature; it’s mostly a feature of the arrangement. But notice how the bassoons and cellos end their six-bar phrase at measure 675, when the clarinets enter. But they really don’t end the phrase there. It actually ends three bars later at measure 678 as they begin the busy background to the melody in the clarinets and pizzicato violas.

As I said, this is brilliantly deceptive scoring. It seems so simple, but the undead broom, the zombie, has come alive again and has doubled its effort to fill the already overflowing cistern. Where’s a fully trained magician when you need one?

Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 5

Written in the late 1930s and early 1940s, Vaughan Williams’s fifth symphony is infused with material the composer had been developing for many years for an opera.

Example 70.3 is from the slow and expressive third movement, “Romanza.” The passage focuses on the interplay between two double reeds, the oboe and the English horn.

Example 70.3 Ralph Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 5, Movement 3 (63 – 84)
Leonard Slatkin, The Philharmonia Orchestra, RCA

As in the previous example, the strings here start as just divisi violas and cellos. But after those first few measures, they merely provide a solid sustained linear motif for the next eight or nine bars.

The ranges of the two upper double reeds are but a fifth apart with the English horn sounding a fifth below where it’s written. The timbres of the two are quite similar with the English horn providing a bit more richness, especially when it delves below the range of the oboe. As this passage later shows, though, the oboe still retains the double reed sound even above high C. Given that the English horn sounds more and more like an oboe as it moves up towards the top of its range, there’s often little to be gained by writing high passages for it when an oboe is available.

Yet the English horn shines in its luscious lower end. One thing to note when writing at the very bottom or the instrument’s range: playing there softly, consistently and with beautiful tone is not necessarily easy for some amateur musicians. Be cautious in this range if you are unsure of the performer.

When the clarinet enters at measure 79 it shows its rich, sonorous tone at the bottom end of its range. There is a minor difference in timbre between the A and B-flat clarinets in addition to the one extra low note the A clarinet delivers, but the timbral difference is for many listeners virtually imperceptible.

In previous examples I’ve shown how the bassoon can take on the timbre of an instrument playing the same rhythmic passage, but harmonically running above it. Note the way the bassoons do that in this example. In measures 66 through 73, the low reeds have a two parallel block chord pattern. In the first of these the first clarinet doubles the first bassoon at the octave leaving the second bassoon and the second clarinet to play in tenths. Combined they comprise a series of parallel triads under the two double reeds playing seemingly unrelated material.

Yet the parallel block chords return (practically double-time) after the first clarinet joins the double reeds at measure 80. Here again we are presented with the chameleon effect of instruments under a higher voice adding little of their timbre to the top line. In measures 80 and 81, the flutes have the top two voices of the block chords as the second clarinet provides the bottom one. Then in bars 81 and 82, the first clarinet timbre is more noticeable than the two bassoons in third below it.

For those interested in the unique contributions of these woodwinds this is a useful passage for reference.

Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade

For this next example, number 70.4, I’ve chosen a brief passage from Rimsky-Korsakov’s well-known Scheherazade. It highlights the timbral differences in quick turns around a central note in all four woodwinds.

Example 70.4 Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade, Part 2 (328-347)
Andre Previn, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Philips

The passage begins with the turn around two line G in the oboe. It continues with the turn around high C in the flute. It’s then given to the A clarinet an octave below the flute. The bassoon makes its voice known as it enters on F above middle C. And the example ends with the first violins joining the clarinet on one line B.

The voices of all the winds are clear and sing out in comfortable areas of each instrument’s range.

Note the string tremolos under the winds. As the chords shift in some chromatic stuffing, the pizzicato basses – alone – provide a bit of punctuation to the winds. It’s also notable that the composer chooses to remove the first violins when the bassoon enters at measure 340. It is a sensible, but subtle, choice, given how the strings would be playing exactly where the bassoon is. For orchestrators who may worry that these pianissimo string voices would feel this sudden removal of a line, it shows how the solo bassoon provides more than enough presence to compensate for any sudden loss of a string part.

This is a simple piece of orchestration: solo winds over soft tremolo strings. Sometimes a simple approach is all it takes to give a passage the excitement and drama it requires.

Holst: “Neptune, the Mystic” from The Planets

Gustav Holst was a contemporary and close friend of the composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams. We just examined Vaughan Williams’s fifth symphony in Example 70.3 above. As colleagues the two composers often critiqued each other’s works. Holst is probably best known for his orchestral suite The Planets written during World War I. He was also a highly regarded educator.

The Planets is scored for a large orchestra of quadruple reeds, six horns, four trumpets, three trombones and tuba, as well as a large variety of percussion, organ and women’s choruses.

A passage from the final movement of the work, “Neptune, the Mystic” is in Example 70.5. It also highlights the upper double reed section. Here, Holst has called for a rarely seen instrument, the bass oboe, which sounds one octave lower than the oboe itself. After the cellos have provided their upward impetus in measure 50, the bass oboe enters with the same tones at the octave. This is followed an octave higher by the English horn in the next measure.

The two oboes enter in a staggered fashion with the English horn, all playing three-part block chords over the next few measures. Concurrently, the bass oboe is playing its two-note second alternations.

Example 70.5 Gustav Holst: The Planets, “7. Neptune, the Mystic” (50 – 65)
Adrian Boult, London Philharmonic Orchestra, EMI

With the density of the double reed writing through measure 56 the sneaky entrance of the women’s choir on the two line G in that measure is almost imperceptible. It’s a brilliant device that, used sparingly, can be an extremely effective way to introduce a new sonic element.

Once they are noticeable the emphasis shifts to the horns. Their parts are quite similar to the writing for the double reeds in the preceding five or six bars. The other element that Holst throw into this mix is the solo clarinet, which has a solo melody line that could get overwhelmed by the horns. In this recording, it’s clear but with the four high horns in thirds, the clarinet part, marked dolce, is far from being the only focus.

One more item to listen for here is the addition of the alto flute (called bass flute a century ago) doubling the descending second line with the violas. If you can not hear it, don’t fret. It’s one of those elements that enriches the overall sound without calling attention to itself.

Respighi: Ancient Airs and Dances, No. 2

There’s a section in the delightfully charming Bergamasca from the second suite of Ottorino Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances that shifts from big orchestral writing to chamber writing quite suddenly. Example 70.6 begins with a highlight on just the three double reeds: two oboes and bassoon.

Example 70.6 Ottorino Respighi: Ancient Airs and Dances, Suite No. 2, Bergamasca (97 – 130)
Christopher Lyndon-Gee, Australian Chamber Orchestra, Omega

The passage seems to show the three instrumentalists having fun in a mostly staccato passage. At the end of the section the passacaglia returns, this time with the trumpet playing the repeated bass line. But on this entrance the staccato melody is handed to the piccolo and two flutes for the next seven or eight bars. Note that they are doubled at the unison by the harp.

As the flutes end the staccato melody, the flute and harp enter as a separate unit, playing the also-returning line that sounds almost like a reel you might hear in Ireland or Appalachia. This tune even extends to the next section with the flute playing the arpeggio-like lines as if they were syncopations.

This section is so thinly scored that Respighi occasionally adds horns or oboe to flesh it out for punctuation as the bass is now played by the bassoon and left hand harp. The oboe enters at measure 127 to play a line identical to the one the flute introduced two bars previously.

As generally befits an orchestra, the strings are the go-to section for most orchestral writing. Therefore, it’s especially interesting to note how long a section the composer gives us with no strings at all. So here the orchestrator part of Respighi’s creativiey chooses to have the strings remain tacit to let the bright, playful sound of the upper woodwinds run with the ball, so to speak. The one exception has to do with the “bass” line, which moves for just a handful of measure to the trumpet. And then it’s right back to the bassoon. All the while, the harp provides the little nugget of background.

Note that the score calls for a standard sized orchestra with one harp and four hands at one harpsichord. In this section though, it’s all harp.


If you’re considering scoring for a bass oboe, you may want to check with your orchestra’s oboist. One may not be available or in the budget. Another consideration (unless you’re scoring for a professional ensemble) is that the double reeds in general can be challenging for many performers.

Those who are still craving for more woodwinds are in luck, the next post will continue exploring good (i.e., blatant) examples of orchestral woodwind writing.

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