Performance Notes

As I continue to work on my 2nd Symphony, I have begun to draft a series of performance notes.

Symphony 2 “Alfheim”

Performance notes

It is very apparent to the composer that this work poses many challenges and uses unconventional instrumentation and orchestration.

At its heart, “Alfheim” is an exploration of a new world, both in the storyline of the symphony and in the new ensemble techniques used here.  Here I shall attempt to explain some of these oddities.


All parts are one player to a part.


There are in total 8 flute parts.  Each appears on a separate staff in the full score.  All 8 players are required to play at least two members of the flute family.  No member of the section can be thought of as the principal players.  Players 1 and 2 primarily play Piccolo.  Players 3 and 4 primarily play C Flute.  If a principal player were designated, it would be player 3.  Players 5-8 primarily play the lower flutes.  Players 4 and 5 are the only members to play three instruments (4 = Piccolo, C Flute, Baritone Flute; 5= G Treble Flute, C Flute, Alto Flute).  I use a nonstandard nomenclature for the flute family.  Starting at the C Flute and going lower, I designate the flutes as thus:

  • C Flute
  • Alto Flute
  • Tenor Flute (Bass Flute)
  • Baritone Flute (Contra-alto Flute)
  • Bass Flute (Contrabass Flute)

I do this because of the mess that ensues with the newer low flutes now being constructed and the absurdity of have four “contra” flute but no tenor or bass.


There are four recorder parts in the symphony.  Each player must have at their disposal a full complement of recorders.  In general, player one will play the higher instruments (Garklein, Sopranino, Soprano) while player 4 will play the lower (Bass, Great Bass, Contrabass).  Recorder players, unless specified, should play without vibrato.


The oboe section shows some oddities.  Players 1 and 2 only play Oboe.  The only doubling parts are parts 3 and 4.  Player 3 plays Baritone Oboe while player 4 plays Bass Oboe.  A word about these two instruments: a Baritone Oboe, in this work, is an instrument that is pitched one octave below the Alto Oboe (English Horn), while the Bass Oboe is an instrument that is pitched one octave below the Tenor Oboe (Bass Oboe).  As these two instruments have yet to be constructed, there are some possible substitutions.  A Lupophone, a bass oboe that descends to a low F2, may be used – in fact it is encouraged to be used – to cover the Baritone Oboe part.  A Bassoon, is probably the only option to cover the Bass Oboe part.  If possible, a French Basson is preferred.  This solution will, more than likely, require a second player.  Players 5 through 8 all use non-standard nomenclature.  A Mezzo-Soprano Oboe is an Oboe d’Amore, an Alto Oboe is an English Horn, and a Tenor Oboe is a Bass/Baritone Oboe.  This nomenclature is needed due to the two extreme instruments.


Unlike most band works, this work is required to have only one player on a part for all the clarinet parts.  There are enough soprano clarinet parts (8 in total) to supply most bands with players for one per part.  The use of C, B-flat, A, and G Clarinets is mandatory.  Under no circumstance should another instrument be substituted.  The F Alto Clarinet is in reality a Basset Horn with extension down to low C.  The E-flat Alto should never be used.  Clarinets should never use vibrato.


Each saxophone part is important and individual.  The F and C saxophone parts (C Soprano, F Alto, and C Tenor) should, wherever possible, be played on those exact instruments.  Those parts are designed for the lighter sound of the smaller instruments.  Wherever possible, all saxophones must use a large, round-chambered mouthpiece.  The sound of the small, square-chambered mouthpiece is antithetical to the sound of this work.  The Contrabass and Subcontrabass parts may be played by a full sized instrument or a compact Tubax.  All saxophones should use vibrato sparingly (exposed solos only).


This 8-member section presents two problems, the Semi-Contrabassoon and the Subcontrabassoon.  The former, as it currently is not in production, can be taken by a combination of Contrabassoon and Bassoon.  The latter is being written in conjunction with the development of such an instrument and is designed around the instrument in development.


These five parts are not obligato or substitutes for other double reed instruments.  These instruments form a cohesive unit akin to the Wagner Tuben in the brass section.


There are no special instructions here save for the fact that players 5-8 must double Tenor and Bass Wagner Tuben.


This section needs no special notes.  Vibrato should be used vary sparingly.


These 6 parts are all required to play multiple instruments.  Under no circumstances, should another instrument be substituted for the one prescribed.  The only exception to this is the player’s choice of using an E-flat Alto Trumpet in lieu of an F Alto Trumpet due to both instruments being uncommon.  No vibrato should be used on any instrument.


The Baritone Trombone is, by my own designation, an old fashioned G Bass Trombone as used in the U.K.  As this instrument is rare nowadays, it can, in a pinch, be played by a small bore Bass Trombone or a large bore Tenor Trombone (assuming the other Tenors use smaller bore instruments).  In use, it is meant to be lighter than the Bass Trombones but heavier than the Tenors.


The Flügelhorns are treated as soprano tubas.  The “Alto Tuba” part is designed for a wide bore marching Mellophone in F.  This instrument best fits as an Alto Flügelhorn.  It should never be played with a Horn mouthpiece with adapter.  Bass and Contrabass Tubas must be played on F/E-flat and C/B-flat instruments respectively.  The Bass Tuba parts are intended to be lighter in nature than the Contrabass Tuba parts.

The Octobass

I’ve just returned from several weeks of traveling.  It was mostly non-musical stuff (bird watching), but I was able to get one music related stop in: the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix.  The MIM is a completely overwhelming experience.  The number of instruments is mind-boggling.  My only complaint is that I couldn’t play any of them.

My reason for going was to see the mighty Octobass one of the largest string instruments ever created.  The MIM had an Octobass specially constructed for them when the museum opened.  As far as I can tell, it is one of 5 in the world.  Two were made in the 1850s, while the other 3 are modern reproductions (one in Phoenix, one in Italy, and one in Norway).IMG_5200

The Octobass, as currently figured, is pitched one octave lower than the Double Bass with an extension down to low C.  In other words, its lowest note is C0 (32′ C).  This may not have always been the case.  Berlioz in his Treatise says quite emphatically that the instrument only reaches C1 (16′ C).

“This instrument is not – as many imagine – the low octave of the double bass; it is the low octave of the violoncello.  It consequently descends lower – by a third – than the four-stringed double bass.”

I’m not one to argue with Berlioz.  He alone, among all the writers of instrumentation and orchestration texts, was intimately familiar with instruments and their manufacturers.  However, the surviving instruments, the same ones that Berlioz saw and heard, do seem to belie this fact.  With the surviving strings, they are an octave lower than the Double Bass.

The instrumental developments and innovations of the 19th century amaze and fascinate me.  Berlioz sang the praises of this instrument and said three should be available for large orchestras.

Sadly, I was not able to heard the Octobass at the museum.  They only play it occasionally.  What I have heard are the various clips on YouTube of the instrument.  But herein lies a problem.  The Octobass has to be heard live.  The sonic capabilities cannot be transferred via video or most recordings.  It also needs to be in a large resonate room.

Technique for the instrument is unique.  There are seven levers pressed by the right hand.  Each lever pressed down a large bar covering all three strings at what is essentially a fret.  This means that each string has a chromatic compass of only a perfect fifth.  The instrument itself only has a compass of one-and-a-half octaves from C0 to G1 or A1 depending on the tuning of the highest string.  In other words, its highest note is only a third or fourth above the standard Double Bass’ lowest note.

IMG_5201 IMG_5202

Obviously, the capability of speed and technical passages on the instrument are completely lacking.  It is best as a gigantic pedal point.

Few, if any, orchestral composers have ever used the instrument.  It does seems to have been used in one Hollywood film (The Hunger Games) using MIM’s instrument.  It is possible that adventurous bassists could take up the instrument.  There is now one luthier in the world, Antonio Dattis, who makes the instrument.

I leave with Berlioz’s words:

“We shall not contest the opinion that tends to consider the recent inventions of instrument-makers as fatal to musical art.  These inventions exert, in their sphere, the influence common to all advances in civilization; the abuse that may be made of them – that even when indisputably made – proves nothing against their value.”