The wind section is traditionally known as the woodwind section even though not all the instruments are made of wood (for example the saxophone is made of metal). The woodwind section usually includes flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons. Saxophones are less commonly used in symphonic settings.
The phrases “double-” “triple-” and “quadruple-” woodwind are often used to mean that there are two three or four of each type of instrument. Typical lineups would be as follows (saxophones can be added to any of these):
2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons*
2 flutes + piccolo, 2 oboes + English horn, 2 clarinets + bass clarinet, 2 bassoons + contrabassoon
3 flutes + piccolo, 3 oboes + English horn, 3 clarinets + bass clarinet, 3 bassoons + contrabassoon.
The standard woodwind section is made up of flutes, oboes clarinets and bassoons.
The sounds that woodwind instruments make fall into two main types: clear sounding (flute and clarinet) and slightly ‘reedy’ sounding (oboe and bassoon). These two main ‘colors’ work well in combination with each other but may also be used separately. Over the years composers have continually explored the many sound combinations achievable within the woodwind section.
The flute is perhaps the best known member of the woodwind family and flute solos are among the most magical moments in orchestral music. The flute’s pocket-sized relative, the piccolo, may be small but it’s brilliant tone can carry above the full might of the symphony orchestra. As well as being capable of extreme virtuosity the flute can create beautiful sustained melodies. It also blends perfectly with all instruments and spends much of its time providing background colour to foreground activity elsewhere in the orchestra.
The flute is the highest pitched instrument of the woodwind section. In Bach’s time, back in the 18th century, recorders were used in the orchestra but gradually the brighter tone and increased power of the ‘transverse flutes’ replaced the recorder. In the 19th century flute technique really took off with the invention of the Bohem System, which is the set of metal keys and pads that cover the surface of the flute and enable far more complicated music to be played than was previously thought possible.
The oboe and its larger relative, the cor anglais both produce a beautiful, sweet, haunting sound. When used as solo instruments the sound is sometimes described as a ‘pastoral’ sound. This is because they are descended from the type of reed instruments that have been used in folk music and by shepherds the world over for thousands of years. Modern oboes blend superbly with all instruments of the orchestra and can also be surprisingly agile.
Clarinets are known for their smooth, creamy tone: warm and resonant low down, bright and clear up high. It’s plaintive, clear sound can be perfect for a romantic melody or when agitated for creating angular accented textures and effects. They can make a surprisingly loud sound or play incredibly softly. Clarinets are also associated with the sound of jazz and are perfect for producing the typically rhythmic, swooping, rippling sounds of traditional jazz and swing.
The saxophone is best known for its use in jazz and popular music. The instrument has many characters such as the smooth sounds that defined the Big Band dance music of the 1940s and a raunchy edge that helped turn the 70s track Baker Street in to global mega-hit. It is also widely used in orchestral music but even today, less so than the other members of the woodwind section.
The reluctance of many composers to wholeheartedly adopt the instrument is somewhat of a mystery given that the saxophone was invented as long ago as 1840: four years before Mendelssohn wrote his Violin Concerto and 25 years before the first production of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. When it is actually used in the orchestra, in pieces such as Ravel’s Bolero or Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, the effect can be wonderful. It has the power to carry a solo line over large orchestral textures and like other reed instruments the sound when soft can be quite melancholy. Another benefit of its use is that in passages when all the woodwind section is playing chords together it adds a slightly harder and clearer outer shell to the sound.
The bassoon is the lowest sounding member of the woodwind family and is perhaps the most versatile. Its double reed gives it a rich, slightly buzzing quality in the lowest notes and a sweet nasal sound higher up. Bassoons can be extremely expressive as solo instruments and their warm vibrato enables them to sound remarkably human, a little like a resonant baritone singer. They are also great for creating punchy rhythmic lines and as bass instruments they help provide support for the whole orchestra.
*Oboe and bassoon will not be taught this year as we do not have either instrument at our school.