Blowin’ in the Wind instruments
I frequently hear music in the very heart of noise.
– George Gershwin
CHAPTER AIM: Injecting much wind, both wooden and brass, into proceedings
Gershwin Piano Concerto, 2nd movement
Welcome to the slow movement of George Gershwin’s first (and only) piano concerto, written around 1925. Since the first 3 minutes of this track describe a rather ‘windy’ soundscape, it is an ideal place for a blow-by-blow account of the various wind instruments involved…
Blowing in the Wind
Learning to distinguish the separate components of an orchestra is a great way to get comfortable with the sound of classical music. To use a cooking analogy, this is all about learning about ingredients, and how they are mixed, rather than just sticking the result in our mouth and eating. It all greatly adds to our understanding and pleasure
As discussed in our Mozart Instruments chapter, a symphony orchestra traditionally employs two sections of ‘blown’ instruments: those made (mostly) of metal, and those made mostly of tree. Respectively the Brass and Woodwind sections ( ).
For this chapter, we’re going to look at recognising some of the individual instruments from both sections. Starting with the loud boys, the brass.
A Hunting Call
Our story begins with the opening notes of our Gershwin piece:
Piano Concerto 2nd movement (First 4 mins )
That first instrument you can hear, quietly bouncing up and down between two notes, is a horn, a single horn playing on its own.
The low sound of a single horn could be calling across a forest, a reminder of the hunting origins of the instrument.
The horn is a member of the brass section. It’s a softer, less brash creature than its cousins, the trumpets and trombones. In pitch terms (ie how high or low the instrument plays), it usually sits comfortably in the mid-tones between the higher trumpets and lower trombones and tubas.
But its actual pitch range, at four octaves, is the widest of the brass instruments. That gives the instrument dynamic range and flexibility, to add to that textured warm sound.
Wagner, Valhalla motif
Wagner makes superb use of horns, and used them often (and in large numbers).
In the above clip, we hear the leitmotif for Valhalla, the home of the Gods. Listen to how he uses the binding strength of horns to define the sturdy authority of the Hall of the Gods. And those warm mid-tones lend it an emotional sense of home and hearth.
Piano Concerto 2nd movement (First 4 mins )
So again from the beginning, first up (0.00) is that single horn. The horn isn’t particularly featured in our Gershwin: those opening notes are the horns’ stand out moment!
Immediately next (0.15) come clarinets, playing in a group. If you can also pick out a further deep sound, that’s the cellos, playing a single low note to bed depth in the background.
Scarcely have we time to utter the words ‘single reed instrument’ (we’ll come back to the clarinets shortly) than (at 0.21) a far louder voice joins the mix…
You can’t miss the trumpet. It has a brassy, sassy swagger immediately redolent of jazz.
Don’t be fooled by that jazz heritage into thinking the trumpet is a recent arrival on the musical scene. It has the oldest pedigree of any of the instruments in this chapter (as seen ). You only have to remove the valves of the trumpet and stretch its tubes out into a straight line, and you have an approximation of the instrument used in ancient Egypt.
The range of notes for a single tubed instrument like this is not large. You can purse your lips to reach a few different overtones, but that is all. So not many notes.
By Bach’s time, the trumpet had acquired a looped tube with some holes in the tubing, so more notes could be played. But you couldn’t play all the twelve notes in the octave, and certainly not without disturbing the integrity of the tone.
Despite its undoubted loudness (and its appearance in our 2nd Brandenburg Concerto) the trumpet was hardly a stand-out performer for the bulk of European classical music’s history.
It was the technological advance of the valve which brought out the trumpet as a solo instrument with a much more personal voice. The mechanical valve itself was invented in 1818, but it wasn’t really till the start of the 20th century that the trumpet evolved into the instrument we know today.
With the valves of a modern trumpet, a player can pick every one of the twelve notes of the chromatic octave, and play each without sounding different. The trumpet could now comfortably take on melody and act as a lead instrument.
Little wonder the trumpet appealed to generations of great jazz musicians, like Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis.
For this opening section Gershwin has nominated the instrument as the first amongst equals (at least until the piano enters and assumes control which happens just after these opening four minutes). Here, the trumpet is revealed as an instrument with an individualistic swagger of confident freedom. But also the emotional range of the Blues
What better instrument to represent America?
First 4 mins
Let’s go back to the beginning of the piece…horn at the start, and then (0.15) come the clarinets.
Just to make sure we’ve got that, here is that clarinet entry isolated on its own:
There are in fact three clarinets playing. Two clarinets playing the higher notes, and a bass clarinet underneath. See if you can distinguish between all the instruments…
First 4 mins
Unlike the trumpet or oboe, the clarinet is a late arrival on the musical scene. It was invented around 1700. That dates the instrument to Bach’s time, around the same time as the development of the piano. So the clarinet, like the piano, was a new kid on the block by Mozart’s time.
Mozart adored the clarinet, enjoying its mellow sound and deep tonal (and therefore emotional) range. He composed some of the most beautiful music we have for the instrument.
The Clarinet is played through a single reed, as opposed to the double reeds of instruments of the oboe family. Consequently the instrument sounds less ‘reedy’ than the oboe. It is thicker in the mid-tones, producing a warmer sound. The timbre of an oboe tends to penetrate further, whereas the clarinet is better at blending tones. It is capable of providing a warm bed of background tones, exactly as it does here.
Yet Clarinets also possess a beautiful tone of surprising versatility; unassuming and gentle, yet also witty, playful and sassy.
That playful quality has always made the clarinet popular with jazz music, particularly in its earlier ‘trad jazz’ incarnations. It’s the instrument of Benny Goodman, and Woody Allen, who used to play clarinet every Monday night at his New York jazz club .
Clarinets are operated by a complex system of levers that give it the widest pitch range of all the woodwind instruments.
Gershwin begins what is probably his most famous work, Rhapsody In Blue (1924) with a traffic wail of a glissando. What better example to show off the cocksure side of the instrument, as well as its fantastic range:
Rhapsody In Blue (Opening)
Three more instruments to go, all belonging to the same family. Let’s go back over our piece to review our instruments so far, before adding our final woodwind:
First 4 mins
- 0.00 Solo Horn
- 0.15 Clarinets (two clarinets and a bass clarinet). Bass strings.
- 0.21 Solo trumpet
- 0.56 Violins and violas now enter
- 1.35 A new solo instrument takes over. The Oboe.
Notice the change in tone. We’ve also already looked at the oboe in our opening Bach chapter (), where we discussed the effect that double reed in the mouthpiece has on the tone or timbre of the instrument.
Something more duck-like, yes ok, but also something more exotique, something with a more penetrating tone, something darker even. The solo Oboe takes the movement into a more ambiguous space.
As the solo oboe plays, the clarinets continue their interlocking shifts below.
Finally (at 2.51) the solo Trumpet takes over the lead again, and we return to our original mood of cool warmth.
That leaves two final woodwind to introduce. And both, like the oboe, use double reeds. They both enter very rapidly at 3.45.
First comes the cor anglais. Cor Anglais is french for English Horn. The instrument isn’t a horn and isn’t English, so there you have it, the most stupidly named instrument of the orchestra.
It’s a woodwind instrument played like the oboe through a double reed. In essence, it is a lower register oboe. If you think of the oboe as the Alto of the reed instruments, then the Cor Anglais is the tenor.
Let’s just isolate the introduction of these two instruments, as it comes pretty fast:
3.45-3.56 Cor Anglais & Bassoon entry
- 0.00 A single Cor Anglais. Before you have time to translate Cor Anglais into Anglais…
- 0.05 A single bassoon parps out a reply lower down.
Gershwin Prelude No 2 with piano and bassoon
So to our final and I think strangest woodwind instrument.
The Bassoon also belongs to the family of instruments played with a double reed. It is the bass of the woodwind section: the deepest, tallest, and perhaps most surreal wind instrument of all. Watching it at the centre of the orchestra, towering high whilst quietly parping away…there’s something comic about these instruments.
And yet they provide such wonderful tones from the depths, when the lower strings are too precise, and trombones and tubas too intrusive.
And they are versatile. Composers continually call on Bassoons to create textural sounds in many different ways; from mystery and dread to a more quirky wit and humour.
Don’t neglect the bassoon. Train your ear to detect its deep warble.
First 4 mins
This piece is a piano concerto. And yet, before the piano has even entered, we’ve been introduced to a solo horn, a solo trumpet, a solo cor anglais, and a solo oboe. The trumpet in particular is given freedom to roam.
These instruments are usually paired in a symphony orchestra. Yet Gershwin specifically indicates in his score that each of these instruments play alone. Solo.
All as a scene setter before the solo piano makes its entrance.
These aren’t the only cases of solo instruments being scored by Gershwin in this piece. Something similar occurs six minutes into the piece, when we get a solo violin:
6.09-6.33 Solo violin
And then again, about 10 minutes into the music, we get a solo flute.
10.05-10.38 Solo flute
In a lovely touch, the flute is even joined (0.04) by a ‘solo’ string quartet (2 violins, viola, and cello).
It’s subtle, but the cumulative effect of so many solo instruments from within the general sound gives the music a real stamp of individuality and informality. Here are the proud voices of individuals, happy to sing out from amidst a crowd. This is informal music, happily idiosyncratic.
It’s very American, very New York, and very Gershwin.
And this all points us towards a larger morality lesson we can take from Gershwin’s deployment of the symphony orchestra: what makes us different should, in the end, unite us, and make us sound better.