From String Quartet to Symphony Orchestra

Let's now look at the composition of various flavours of symphony orchestra. The smallest is the chamber Orchestra, having perhaps 6 first violins, for 5 2nd violins, for violas, 3 or 4 cellos and one or 2 bases. In the woodwind department is customary to have one flute, one oboe, one clarinet, one pursued, whilst in the brass one French horn, one from someone from bone. A feature of the chamber orchestra is that the instruments are treaties as soloists, that is as individuals, in contrast to the corporate unity of a large orchestra.

In a small orchestra you may have 10 to 12 first violins, 8 seconds, for violas, 4 cellos and 2 or 3 bases, 2 flutes, one or 2 oboes, to clarinets, to bassoons, for French horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones and perhaps a bass tuba. In addition there could be a few percussion instruments, totaling 50 players all told.

In a full symphony orchestra, such as you get at the Proms in London, you may well have 20 firsts violins, 16 2nd violins, 14 violas, 12 cellos, 10 bases, 2 or 3 flutes, 2 oboes and probably a cor anglais, to only clarinets with perhaps a small E flat clarinet and a bass clarinet, to bassoons or possibly 3 or more, 6 or 8 French horns, 2 or 3 trumpets, 3 or 4 trombones, 2 tubers with 3 or 4 drums as well as timpani, symbols, gongs, belts, strung up teacups and all sorts of other odd ironmongery (oh dear, I forgot the simple but very penetrating triangle and the spectacular gong as bolts by Mr universe at the beginning of a cine film.)

There is no one who defined the pattern of a Symphony Orchestra, it was a process of evolution. You could argue that Johann Sebastian Bach started the whole thing off, as there was not much purely instrumental music before his compositions, and it was him who arranged instruments in his score the same as is done today. In the score, the instruments were divided into the 4 families of woodwind, brass, percussion and strings in the same way as is traditional today. Traditionally, schools follow this with woodwind at the top. Furthermore, the subdivisions of the instruments is stereotyped into four-part choirs, with a string quartet being the simplest possible form of these 4 parts. The jazz quartet does similarly, but with brass and woodwind instruments taking the lead parts.

So in the woodwind, the Sopranos are represented by the flutes and oboes, the Altos are lumped together with the tenors and played by the English horn, clarinets and bassoons. The bass is represented also by the bassoons, but in a different register, and double bassoons.

In the brass, the trumpets of the Sopranos, the horns are the Altos, trombones of the tennis and the base trombones and tubers are the base.

In the string section the first violin of a string quartet represents Sopranos, the 2nd violin represents the Altos, tenors are played by the viola and the base part by the cello. Perhaps a part of the legendary perfection of a string quartet is that it is the closest to the human voice, in that it can represent all 4 vocal parts and play the music with the same, or indeed in some respects greater, flexibility and emotion than the human voice.

All this lot faces the composer with the need to have a very extensive knowledge of all instruments. The composer must be able to hear in their head the exact tone cultivation instrument in all its registers, for the flute for example, is weak in its 4 bottom notes, the bassoon has quite a different tonal quality is higher registers compared to its lower register: the kind of trumpet that is used in a Symphony Orchestra is brilliant and dexterous in its top notes, but rather cludgey in this lower registers. This means that when orchestrating a composition, the composer has available a huge array of possibilities. A common analogy is made is between a composer and an artist (painter), where the painter has a palette of colours that can be mixed into an infinite variety of shades.

Naturally there's a lot of convention in how music is scored, and that convention differs by the genre, just for example compare a string quartet, jazz band, and ceilidh band, what each is trying to achieve is quite different. It gets interesting when you hear a classical composer including jazz elements or folk elements into their writing. You can normally hear where the music originated from, but it's vastly different, sometimes in good ways, often in bad.

As well as the tonal differences, there are differences in the range of notes that any instrument can encompass, and often the tune will be passed from instrument to instrument, not necessarily because of the different tonal quality but because of the different range that each instrument has and make it sound intended natural, is part of the art of composition.

Have a look at the various instruments that appear in the classical Orchestra. Let's start with a flute. The modern orchestral transverse flute is very different to its predecessors. Antique flutes have been excavated in Egypt and Greece, but there were wooden or bone pipes have finger holes, with no real resemblance the instruments of today, other than using a vibrating air column. The modern flutist invention of Theobald Boehm, who developed the flute in the 1800s. Earlier flutes were more like penny whistles, with contemporary instruments have a hole cut near one end to form the mouthpiece and is held horizontally, hence the name F flauto Traverso. The orchestral flute has a range from middle see too, for practical purposes, the C3 octave is above. In some registers it resembles the quality of a trumpet so closely, that one trainees ears it can be mistaken. Probably to be seen (1862 to 1918) knew more about the flute possibilities in an orchestra, than any other composer. His composition, L'Apres-Midi d'un Faune is a masterpiece in flute writing, exploiting its various qualities to perfection.

All these qualities of an instrument have to be borne in mind by a composer. If you can play a theme by herself, or play in unison with violins or an octave above them. It could also be combined with any one of several other wind instruments. It can even reinforce one of the horns. Each use of the flute gives a different sound. His most conventional uses to give brilliance to the upper strings by playing with them, as long as the melodic line is smooth. Ravel (1875 to 1937) often use the device of arpeggios on the flute, usually writing for 2 or 3 flute running parallel with each other, such as, for example beginning on the common key of C major (C,E, G ) and running up or down step-by-step, such as used in Ravel's Daphnis and Chloe. There are 2 kinds of other flute that are common, the piccolo (small in Italian) and the bass flute. The piccolo is fairly common in the orchestral schools, but the base flute is uncommon, particularly as it has limited volume and exhausts the musicians I can only play for short periods of time. It's perhaps more used in folk music, such as in the folk group Fluke. An example of why doesn't work very well is in Gustave Holt's planets, where the base flute has exactly 5 bars of solar right at the end of the last movement. In other places where it was used, the clarinet could have worked just as well and in fact composer has written a footnote suggesting that in the absence of the bass flute and clarinet can take its part. Where the instrument is used to great effect though, is in The Right of Spring by Stravinsky, where it introduces and subsequently accompanies a theme played in octave is on to muted trumpets and bass trumpet (another unusual instrument).

This is the flute and bass flute and piccolo used in an orchestra, but the flute is also a well-known jazz instrument and often the reed player of a jazz band will play clarinet, saxophone and flute (though not simultaneously!) The flute and piccolo is also common in ceilidh bands and in barn dance bands. The flute is an integral part of an Irish ceilidh band, where the traditional wooden flute is sometimes played instead of the concert flute. It gives a much richer, chocolate flavoured sound, but is limited in the keys it can play in and is somewhat physically more exhausting to play, as it takes more puff and the fingering holes are stretched along way apart. As I said earlier, the bass flute is sometimes used in Irish folk bands, and also the Irish piccolo, which is a reflection of the difference between the concert flute in the Irish flute, in that it's about the same size as the concert piccolo but doesn't have the keys, and has more mellow tone but limited keys that it can play in. Thus the player of an Irish piccolo in an Irish ceilidh band will sometimes swap to concert piccolo for certain keys, and then swap back again.

The piccolo is also sometimes used in Scottish ceilidh bands and in English barn dance band. In the Scottish ceilidh band it's more traditional equivalent is the Fife, and in the English barn dance band, the tin whistle. However being able to play in a range of keys, and produce more volume, the piccolo is often the preferred instrument.