The Woodwind Section Part 1 – Orchestral Ensembles

Much has been written over the years about how to properly constitute a woodwind section, but these words have been used almost exclusively for orchestra, not band.  Before I go over the band constitution, it will be a good idea to go over the typical orchestral arrangements.

An auxiliary instrument is defined as any instrument in the woodwind family that is not a C Flute, Oboe, C, B-flat, or A Clarinet, or Bassoon.

Note on clarinets: anytime the simple term Clarinet is seen on here it could mean C, B-flat, or A Clarinet.  The choice of the instrument is up to the composer, and there are many works where all three are used throughout the course of the piece.

Woodwinds in Twos

This is the standard setup for a Classical or early Romantic orchestra.

  • 2 Flutes
  • 2 Oboes
  • 2 Clarinets
  • 2 Bassoons

8 players

There are no auxiliary instruments in this line up.

Woodwinds in Twos (plus)

This would have been a standard setup for an early Romantic orchestra in France

  • 2 Flutes (opt. Piccolo)
  • 2 Oboes (opt. English Horn)
  • 2 Clarinets
  • 4 Bassoons

10 players

This is the setup for a work like Symphonie Fantastique. French orchestras of the day almost always used 4 Bassoons.

Another configuration would be closer to woodwinds in threes:

  • Piccolo
  • 2 Flutes
  • 2 Oboes
  • 2 Clarinets
  • 2 Bassoons
  • Contrabassoon

10 players

This setup is used by Beethoven and Brahms.

Woodwinds in Threes

  • Piccolo (=Flute 3)
  • 2 Flutes
  • 2 Oboes
  • English Horn (=Oboe 3)
  • 2 Clarinets
  • Bass Clarinet (=Clarinet 3)
  • 2 Bassoons
  • Contrabassoon (=Bassoon 3)

12 players

In this setup, each family has one auxiliary instrument.  This is the standard modern orchestral composition.

Woodwinds in Fours

Woodwinds in fours is what would be used for a standard “large” orchestra.

  • Piccolo
  • 3 Flutes
  • 3 Oboes
  • English Horn
  • E-flat Clarinet (=Clarinet 3)
  • 2 Clarinets
  • Bass Clarinet
  • 3 Bassoons
  • Contrabassoon

16 players

Note, in this configuration, only one new auxiliary is added (E-flat Clarinet).  Holst in his Planets goes a bit further by having one Flute player also play Alto Flute and one Oboe player play Bass Oboe.

Woodwinds in Fives

Only rarely will we encounter a section of woodwinds in fives (Mahler symphonies and The Rite of Spring).  This set up will usually have multiple auxiliaries (e.g. 2 Piccolos, Alto Flute, 2 English Horns, etc.).  There is no standard arrangement.

20 players

Maximum effects

The largest works call for huge woodwind sections.

Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder

  • 4 Piccolos (=Flutes 5-8)
  • 4 Flutes
  • 3 Oboes
  • 2 English Horns (=Oboes 5, 6)
  • 3 Clarinets
  • 2 E-flat Clarinets (=Clarinets 4, 5)
  • 2 Bass Clarinets (=Clarinets 6, 7)
  • 3 Bassoons
  • 2 Contrabassoons

25 players

Brian’s Gothic Symphony

  • 2 Piccolos (1=Flute)
  • 6 Flutes (1=Alto Flute
  • 4 Oboes
  • Oboe d’Amore (=Oboe 5)
  • 2 English Horns
  • Bass Oboe (=Oboe 6)
  • 2 E-flat Clarinets (1=Clarinet 5)
  • 4 Clarinets
  • 2 Basset Horns
  • 2 Bass Clarinets
  • Contrabass Clarinet
  • 3 Bassoons
  • 2 Contrabassoons

30 Players (save for bassoons, this is woodwinds in eights)

Note: none of these ensembles use saxophones or recorders as part of their make-up.

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One thought on “The Woodwind Section Part 1 – Orchestral Ensembles

  1. Pingback: The Woodwind Section Part 3 – The Band’s Ensemble | Bandestration

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