Bassoons Part 6 – The Use of Tenor and Treble Clefs

A question arose recently on the Orchestration Online Facebook page about the use of the tenor and treble clefs for the Bassoon.  As a Bassoonist, I feel I can clarify this fairly well.

Bass Clef

For the first few years of a Bassoonist’s life, they will only read in bass clef.  The standard range will be around two and a half octaves from B-flat1 to F 4.  This means two ledger lines above and two ledger lines below the bass clef.  This is easy.  Once the range starts to ascend above this range, then the tenor clef is usually brought in.  Occasional high notes can be handled in bass clef, provided that the whole of the tessitura is not in the higher range.

Tenor Clef

If the passage has a tessitura of around G3 to C5, then the tenor clef is far preferred.  Notes below F3 should always be put in the bass clef.  Bassoonists do not like reading passages written in the bottom two lines of the tenor clef.  Passages below the tenor clef are virtually unheard of (though, the famous Bassoon solo in Shostakovich’s 9th Symphony does go below the tenor clef, this is an anomaly).

Treble Clef

In passages in the extreme high register, the treble clef is preferred.  This means passages that include the notes E5 to G5.  Anything within the tessitura of roughly A4 to G5 is best read in treble.  Passages that are better suited for tenor clef should never be written in treble.  Many times, inexperienced composers will write their bassoon parts in treble and bass and leave it to the editor or publisher to sort out.  This is not a good solution, as often times the publisher will leave the part as is with no changes.

Physical comments

On the physical side of things, Bassoons keep their music stand further away from them than will other wind instruments.  This is due to the size of the instrument.  This means that the player’s music will be further away and therefore slightly harder to read.  This is not usually a problem except when it comes to multiple ledger lines.  Anything over 4 ledger lines becomes difficult to read accurately (this would be B4 in bass clef and F5 in tenor).  Notes at this height are best taken in the alternative clef.

Switching between the clefs

Rapidly switching between bass and tenor clef can be done as long as it is the clearest and most effective way of writing the passage.  Tenor clef for a single note or group of notes can be done if needed, but shouldn’t be done regularly.

Contrabassoon, Tenor, and Alto Bassoons

On occasion, the Contrabassoon will be written in the tenor clef (see Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1).  This is somewhat antithetical to the point of the Contrabassoon, but when needed, it works.  In my own Contrabassoon Concerto, I even wrote passages for the Contra in treble clef (up to a written A-flat5).

The Tenor Bassoon, will use tenor clef as frequently as the regular Bassoon.  No issues here.

The Alto Bassoon really has no need for the tenor clef as the highest written note is only F4.

The Woodwind Section Part 3 – The Band’s Ensemble

In my previous post, I highlighted the various forms that the standard orchestral ensemble can take.  However, in the band, there is no real equivalent to such a thing as “woodwinds in twos” or “woodwinds in fours.”  instead, each section is though of as a single unit.  The distinct family structure of each ensemble of woodwinds is the real distinction between writing for band versus writing for orchestra.  In the orchestra, each woodwind instrument is a soloist.  in the band, it is the mass of woodwinds that make up the core of the sound.

Historic ensembles

Baroque

In the Baroque Era, an ensemble of double reeds, trumpets, horns, timpani, and snare drums was the standard makeup of a band.  This is usually best exemplified by Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks.  There are no flutes, clarinets, or trombones in the make up.  The other “normal” band instruments had yet to be invented.

Classical and Early Romantic

By the Classical Era, the ensemble had diversified.  Woodwinds in pairs (1-2 Flutes, 2 Oboes, 2 Clarinets, 2 Bassoons) and pairs of horns were standard.  To this, trumpets and drums were usually added, especially in military music. Occasionally, we will see a pair of Basset Horns and a Contrabassoon added in.

Late Romantic

This standard pattern of the Classical and early Romantic Eras expanded in the late Romantic to include tubas, trombones, and occasionally saxophones (though only in France and rarely in Britain and the U.S.).  German bands saw use of Flügelhorns, while French bands saw use of saxhorns.

Today

For the purposes of this post, I am going to refer to a standard American wind band line up.  Note, this line up will vary from country to country and from band to band.  This is one reason that composing for wind band is one of the hardest ensembles to write for.

Today’s standard line up is close to this:

  • 1 Piccolo
  • 2 Flutes
  • 2 Oboes
  • 1 English Horn
  • 1 E-flat Clarinet
  • 3 B-flat Clarinets
  • 1 Bass Clarinet
  • 1 Contra Clarinet (Contra-Alto or Contrabass)
  • 2 Alto Saxophones
  • 1 Tenor Saxophone
  • 1 Baritone Saxophone
  • 2 Bassoons
  • 1 Contrabassoon

This would be the standard line up for a college or professional ensemble.  Instruments like the Contrabassoon, and to a lesser extent the Contra Clarinets and English Horn, are not universally found.

In the realm of the orchestra, this is somewhere between woodwinds in threes and woodwinds in fours (flutes, oboes, and bassoons are in threes; saxophones are in fours; clarinets in sixes).

To this,  we can often find Alto and Tenor (Bass) Flutes, Alto Clarinet, and Soprano and Bass Saxophones added to the mix.

Multiple Players on a Part

When dealing with the flutes and clarinets, we will most of the time run into the fact that each of the parts will have more than one person playing the part.  Larger bands can have many clarinet players playing a single part.  In some bands, clarinets alone will make up one third of the entire ensemble.

We might be able to expect 2-3 Flutes per part, and 3-6 B-flat Clarinets per part in a standard concert band.

This variability is full of potential, but it also makes composing for wind band extremely difficult as a composer has no dictation of the exact ensemble used for their work.  Band composers are usually just happy to have their piece performed rather than expect exacting specifications from ensembles.  This is the biggest difference from an orchestra.

Various Ensembles

I’ve covered various types of wind bands in previous posts.  Here are some links to those previous posts.

The Wind Ensemble

The French Band

The Wind Symphony

The American Wind Symphony

Potential

If we were to expand our horizons, it might be possible to start thinking of a wind band as something close to orchestral woodwinds in sixes or woodwinds in eights.  In order to do this, the double reeds (oboes and bassoons) can be though of as one family.

In order to think this, it is probably best to abandon the idea of multiple players on a part, and go with an orchestral standard of one player per part.

Woodwinds in Sixes

  • 1-2 Piccolos
  • 2-3 Flutes
  • 1 Alto Flute
  • 2 Oboes
  • 1 English Horn
  • 1 -E-flat Clarinet
  • 3 B-flat Clarinets
  • 1 Bass Clarinet
  • 1 Contrabass Clarinet
  • 1 Soprano Saxophone
  • 2 Alto Saxophones
  • 1 Tenor Saxophone
  • 1 Baritone Saxophone
  • 1 Bass Saxophone
  • 2 Bassoons
  • 1 Contrabassoon

Here we have 6 flutes, 6 double reeds, 6 clarinets, and 6 saxophones.  It provides a nice balance from top to bottom.

Woodwinds in Eights

  • 2 Piccolos
  • 4 Flutes
  • 1 Alto Flute
  • 1 Tenor Flute
  • 2 Oboes
  • 1 English horn
  • 1 Bass Oboe
  • 1 E-flat Clarinet
  • 3 B-flat Clarinet
  • 1 Alto Clarinet
  • 2 Bass Clarinets
  • 1 Contrabass Clarinet
  • 1 Sopranino Saxophone
  • 1 Soprano Saxophone
  • 2 Alto Saxophones
  • 2 Tenor Saxophones
  • 1 Baritone Saxophones
  • 1 Bass Saxophone
  • 3 Bassoons
  • 1 Contrabassoon

This is a much larger ensemble (though only 2 extra players per section – 8 total).  We have a wider range and diversity of tone colors.  There of course can be additions and doublings here, but it is a solid arrangement that isn’t too outside of the realm of possibility.  The only uncommon instrument here is the Bass Oboe, which should really become more widely used – especially in the band world.

A List of All Available Brass Mutes

This post is more of a catalog of availability than suggestions or orchestration

Horn

  • Straight
  • Stopping
  • Cup (rare)

Wagner Tuben

  • Straight

E-flat Cornet

  • Straight
  • Cup
  • Harmon (rare)
  • Plunger
  • Hat/derby

B-flat Cornet

  • Straight
  • Cup
  • Harmon
  • Plunger
  • ClearTone
  • Bucket
  • Hat/derby
  • Pixie (straight mute used in combination with plunger)

Alto Horn

  • Straight
  • Cup

Baritone Horn

  • Straight
  • Cup

Piccolo Trumpet

  • Straight
  • Cup
  • Harmon
  • Hat/derby

Trumpet

  • Straight
  • Cup
  • Harmon
  • Plunger
  • Cleartone/solotone
  • Bucket
  • Hat/derby
  • Pixie (straight mute used in combination with plunger)

Bass Trumpet

  • Straight
  • Cup
  • Harmon

Alto Trombone

  • Straight
  • Hat/derby

Tenor Trombone

  • Straight
  • Cup
  • Harmon
  • Plunger
  • Bucket
  • Cleartone/solotone
  • Hat/derby
  • Pixie (straight mute used in combination with plunger)

Bass Trombone

  • Straight
  • Cup
  • Harmon
  • Plunger
  • Bucket
  • Hat/derby
  • Pixie (straight mute used in combination with plunger)

Contrabass Trombone

  • Straight

Cimbasso

  • Straight

Flügelhorn

  • Straight
  • Cup
  • Harmon
  • Bucket
  • Solotone/cleartone

Mellophone

  • None

Euphonium

  • Straight
  • Bucket (rare)
  • Cup (rare)

Tuba (Bass and Contrabass)

  • Straight
  • Bucket (rare)
  • Cup (rare)

With some of the rarer instruments, like Flügelhorn, Mellophone, Alto Horn, Bass Trumpet and others, they can use mutes designed for some of the other brass instruments (in most of these cases, the Tenor Trombone).

Tuned Gongs

I haven’t updated the percussion section in quite a while.  Here’s a quick remedy.

Tuned Gongs.

First off, what is a gong?  By definition, a gong must have a definite pitch.  Therefore, the term “Tuned Gong” is redundant.  I use this term however because many times the term gong, especially in traditional orchestral scores, actually refers to a tam-tam.  Tam-tams will never have a definite pitch.  Tam-tams will have a flat surface, while often, gongs will have a raised center (called a nipple), though, this is by no means always the case.

Tuned Gongs will have a chime-like quality to their sound. They will  have the “splash” associated with a tam-tam at higher dynamics, but the pitch center will disappear.  Strict “in tuneness” is not a given with gongs as the act of sticking them will cause some pitch distortion, especially at higher dynamics.

Pitches available will vary widely.  Full chromatic sets are (or in some cases were) available from noted manufacturers.  A quick Google search shows that I can find pitches available from B-flat1 to C6 – just over four octaves.  (In case you’re curious, the total set is over $40,000.)  Individual gongs are usually purchased for the needs of a particular composition rather than full sets.  A complete set will be rare, but not impossible. http://www.steveweissmusic.com/product/tuned-thai-gongs/gongs

One major concern is space.  These instruments, when all put together will take up a large amount of real estate.  Performers will come up with all sorts of creative ways to arrange the instruments on stands, but with the lower pitched gongs, there will be large distances covered (sometimes feet or tens of feet).

One other concern is the length of each strike.  Left to their own device, a gong will resonate for a long time (though not usually as long as a Tam-Tam).  Specific durations will need to be dampened by the player’s free hand or by a second player.  Larger gongs have longer durations than so smaller gongs.

Vaughan William’s 8th Symphony.  This movement focuses on the tuned percussion and includes a major part for tuned gongs.  One of the great master’s overlooked works.

This video of Et exspecto… starts in the 5th Movement where there is a significant accompaniment from the gongs.  Note how the player has his gongs arranged.  Also note how, at 32:53 one of the gongs goes flying off the stand ne’er to be recovered.

Oh, the perils of percussion…