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.

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