The traditional line-up of the brasses is: Horns, Trumpets, Trombones, Tubas. The numbers and combinations of these instruments vary greatly according to historical period, geographical location and, of course, composer choice. Probably the most common orchestral combination is:
but there are numerous variations on this, including massively expanded groupings where required.
Horns are often used in combination with woodwind, and generally have a weaker sound than the other brass. The convention when writing for four horns is to give high parts to horns 1 and 3, and low parts to 2 and 4 (with 1 taking the highest, and 4 taking the lowest). A fifth horn may well be used even when only four are required by the score, to cover the less important passages in the Horn 1 part, allowing the principal to concentrate on important solos. A quartet of horns will be very effective and unobtrusive when carrying the harmonic background to a passage.
The trumpet is sometimes seen as just a loud instrument, but there is much more to it than that. It is true that it can be extremely loud and that before the days of telecommunications it was one of the best ways to transmit messages across a battlefield, but in the hands of a skilled orchestral player the trumpet is much more flexible than you might imagine. For example, when playing a soft melody with a mute it can sound as gentle and sweet as an oboe (an effect Schostakovich plays with in his First Symphony by switching music between the two). The trumpet can also play extremely rapid sequences of notes or even hold a romantic, lyrical melody. But having said all that, for the times when a composer really needs to grab everyone’s attention and blast out a tune that will pin their ears back, on those occasions the trumpet really is quite irreplaceable.
The trumpet is the soprano voice of the brass family. Other forms of trumpet include the flugelhorn and cornet, which are more accurately described as saxhorns. Although cornets are relatively rare in orchestral writing, flugelhorns have seen a surge in popularity in recent years. They are an alto voice, and are pitched in Bb with a written range from F#3 to C6.
The Horn, often called the French Horn, is thought by many to be the most beautiful sounding instrument in the orchestra. Its mellow sound can turn a simple tune into something that both soothes and lifts the spirit. They can also be tremendously powerful and when the whole section plays loudly the sound will break through any orchestral texture.
Before the 20th century most people recognised the horn’s strong relationship with the hunting horns of the past and composers frequently used wrote rustic hunting style music for the horns. However in our modern, urbanised times the horn has lost its rural connotations for us.
Perhaps the most common use of the horn is simply as harmonic filling – somewhere between the bass line and the melody. Horns are perfect for holding long, sustained notes discretely in the background above which melodies can float, around which accompaniments weave and beneath which bass lines wander. This use of the horn is one of the key orchestral techniques that composers learn early on. This is not simply because it’s one of the great ways of tying the orchestra together to create a unified sound, but because it’s very easy to do and sounds fantastic.
If you think of how the orchestra sounds at its grandest and most powerful moments, that sound is probably underpinned and given its power by the trombones. This capability has been repeatedly exploited by composers over the years and, in common with many instruments of the orchestra, this has created a stereotype of what people think the trombone is all about. It can also be a very soft melodic instrument. In fact during the Renaissance the trombone had a golden era and a tremendous amount of subtle and delicate music was written for groups of trombones which would be played during church services. It wasn´t until the beginning of the 19th century that the trombone ceased to be thought of as a church instrument and became a regular member of the orchestra.
Today the trombone is also known for one of its most distinctive capabilities: the ability to slide between notes or glissando. Using the slide of the instrument to create swooping sounds often sounds unavoidably comic and as a result this effect has long been a staple of cartoon soundtracks.
Trombones come in three main sizes: alto, tenor and bass. The tenor is the standard instrument and features in most brass sections. Bass is also often added when low notes are required. The alto is relatively rare and is pitched a fourth higher than the tenor. All three instruments have a cylindrical bore and a slide for selecting pitches.
The tuba has a beautiful warmth and richness in its sound. The most basic writing for the instrument treats it as just a loud ´oom-pah band´ instrument used to just pick out the bass line of the music, but this falls a long way short of what the tuba does best. In great orchestral writing it plays expressive bass melodies that, due to its depth of tone, loom through the lower half of the orchestral texture. It is also perfect for creating tremendous swells which can be used to heighten the emotional peaks of the music in much the same way as the timpani is often used. And of course, when playing loudly alongside the whole brass section its effect of its immense power can be awesome.
There are several different tubas (or saxhorns), including the tenor tuba or euphonium, the bass tuba, and the BBb or contrabass tuba. Most modern instruments have a conical bore, but there are variations in construction and name from country to country. In the USA a ‘baritone’ refers to a euphonium, whereas in the UK it means a tenor horn. The ‘Wagner tuba’ is called ‘Tenor-Tuba’ in Germany, and so on. The three most common instruments in orchestras are the bass, the contrabass, and the euphonium, which are featured in these pages. The tubas are of course the bass instrument of the brass section, but they are more than capable of playing melodies in the tenor register.