Saxophone sections in the orchestra – Part 2

In my last post, I wrote about several pieces that include a saxophone section in their instrumentation.  Today, I will present potentialities and realities.

Reality 1 – The soloist supreme

Generally, when we hear a saxophone in the orchestra, they are a featured soloist.  Pieces like L’Arlesienne, Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, and Pictures at an Exhibition are all well known for their saxophone usage, but in every case they are featured soloists.  The saxophone is not here to blend in and add to the whole, but rather to contrast and stick out.

There is nothing whatsoever wrong about this approach.  The saxophone is a marvelous soloist.  In fact, because it is an unusual voice, it can make for a dramatic scoring potential.

Reality 2 – The magical section

When a section is used, the effect is often times to invoke an otherworldly quality, e.g. The Wooden Prince and Fervaal. Again, this means that the saxophone section is thought of as separate from the rest of the ensemble.

Reality 3 – Where to sit

Something an composer may not think about is where the saxophones are going to sit in the ensemble.  This is no small matter. With the current orchestral seating chart, the four woodwind sections sit together in a nice well meshed unit.  There are two rows:

seating chart

In this arrangement, the principal players of each section are all right in the center of the ensemble.  With a fifth section, this balance is thrown off.

One solution to this is a third row behind the clarinets and bassoons.  The principal player, however, would not be in line with the other principals.  Another solution would be in a group to either the left or the right of the main woodwinds.  This would work well if the side not occupied by the saxophones is occupied by the horns.

seating chart 2

The above arrangement keeps the saxophones all together with B-flat instrument and E-flat instruments behind on another and high saxes and low saxes together.  It also places the saxophones next to the double reeds, their natural tonal allies.  Tenor Saxophone will be near the Bassoon (a favorite combination of Prokofiev), Alto Saxophone will be near the English Horn.  Soprano Saxophone will be near the Oboe.  In my mind, this is the best solution to where to place the odd ensemble.  This arrangement presupposes a section of four instruments, but this needn’t be a limit.  Just as more Horns can be placed in the rows, so can more saxophones.

seating chart 3

This arrangement give some other advantages.  It places the saxophones closer to the horns and the clarinets, while still keeping them close to the bassoons.  Assuming that the “principal” saxophone is the Soprano, then they would not be in line with the other principals, but if the “principal” is the Alto, then the solution is perfect.  It also places the Tenor Saxophone next to the principal Bassoon and the Baritone Saxophone next to the 2nd Bassoon – a very logical solution.  The only disadvantage is distance from the saxophones to the oboes.

Last, but not least, I present a purely hypothetical situation for expanded woodwind section.

seating chart 4

Since arranging 5 sections is tricky, why not use a more friendly 6?  To achieve this, I’ve added a recorder quartet to the mix.  In doing this, I now have all the flute-like instruments on one row.  The double reeds (including a Bass Oboe and a Tenor Bassoon) are now together on the second row.  Finally, all the single reeds (with extra instruments as well – E-flat and Contrabass Clarinet and Bass Saxophone) are together on the third row.  The principal players of each section are firmly in the center of the ensemble.

Of course, there are many variants to each of the above possibilities, but these give you some idea of what could be done.

Creative Saxophone Scoring

Having studied a lot of scores and played in a lot of ensembles and played the saxophones themselves, I have come to several conclusions on how best it may be to score for the saxophones in an ensemble.

Option 1 – As a quartet equal to the Horns

Before Horn players throw something at me, hear me out.  I suggest them being equal to, but not the equivalent of Horns.  by having two mid-range quartets, we have have interesting dialogues between the two (especially if the groups are placed spatially apart).  The Horns act as a bridge between the other brass instruments having characteristics of trumpets, trombones, and tubas.  The saxophones can do the same for the woodwinds.

However, the effect of doubling Horns and saxophones, except in a massive tutti section, is counterproductive and diminishes the effect of both instruments.

Option 2 – As woodwind “glue”

The orchestral woodwinds are not a cohesive sound unit like the strings or brass.  Strings all have the bow to produce their sound.  Brass all have a similar mouthpiece to produce theirs.  The woodwinds are really three separate families thrown together.  As the saxophones have characteristics of all three of these families, it is only natural to use them to bind together the disparate qualities of the group.  The biggest disparity comes between the clarinets and the double reeds (particularly the Oboe). If a saxophone ensemble is used as a foundation to the woodwind section, then the other instruments can come out as the soloists that they are.  This is perhaps why the saxophone is so advantageous in the band.

Option 3 – As string doubles

Saxophone, surprising, can act in a very similar way to the string instruments.  If the composer wants a more forceful attack to the string sound, then adding saxophones to the mix can be an effective way of punching up the sound.

1st Violin + Soprano Saxophone

2nd Violin + Soprano or Alto Saxophone

Viola + Alto or Tenor Saxophone

Cello + Tenor or Baritone Saxophone

Bass + whatever low saxophone you happen to have (Contrabass Saxophone would be ideal, but unlikely)


Whatever the scoring option, I feel like the saxophone can be a valuable addition to the orchestra if used creatively.  It can be as expressive as an Oboe, as technically advanced as a Flute, or as plaintive as a Bassoon, yet, they are still a rarity.  Perhaps the ultimate decision comes down to money.  Since a regular saxophone section isn’t on the payroll of any orchestra, few composers are able to use them.  Since composers can’t use them, orchestras don’t keep saxophonists on the payroll.

2 thoughts on “Saxophone sections in the orchestra – Part 2

  1. Juan María Gómez

    In Jeanne d’Arc au boucher you can find three alto saxophones. Honegger doesn’t use horns in this work, I think that in a certain sense the saxophones replace them. There’s a very mystical moment with the three instruments playing chords while Frere Dominique is talking to Jeanne, it reminds me the example of Fervaal that you mention here.

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