Instruments and instrumental practices

General information that will be helpful in using this online tool.

FLUTES and RECORDERS. When a baroque composer used the term flauto unmodified, or perhaps flauto dolce, he meant recorder. If he wanted a transverse flute, he took pains to call it traversa or flauto traverso or some such term.

WOODWIND DOUBLING. As late as the time of Mozart, players were likely to alternate on several instruments. This explains why an eighteenth-century work otherwise for 2 oboes, 2 horns and strings, suddenly uses 2 flutes and strings for a middle movement. The oboists simply switched to flute. Nowadays, of course, that is largely impractical.

CLARINETS. There is a huge plethora of clarinet types, to which this book does not do justice. I repent my previous naiveté (apparent in earlier editions of this book) in assuming that everything found in orchestral works would be played by standard clarinets in B-flat or A, piccolo clarinets in E-flat, or bass clarinets in B-flat. I have gradually realized that instruments in D and C actually exist and are owned by some (but by no means all) professionals; and that even the bass-clarinet in A is not entirely unknown.
Of course the motives of the composer in choosing a particular type of clarinet may not be fully known. Sometimes it may have been mere convenience, but at least on some occasions it was clearly the desire for a particular tone color. In any case, it is important that musicians and librarians know in advance what is called for in the score. Even if the non-standard instrument will be covered by a feat of transposition at sight, still, forewarned is forearmed.
I have gone back through many scores in an attempt to rectify this shortcoming—and received very welcome help on the matter from many active clarinetists, conductors and librarians—but I know I have only scratched the surface; there must be many works in which my entries fail to specify these important details. Hence these warnings for entries that have not yet been updated:

  • If my entry merely gives a number of clarinetists required, it is possible that some or all of them call for clarinets in C (abbreviation: C-cl)
  • If the entry reads Ebcl, it is certainly possible, especially in music from the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-centures, that the composer specified clarinet in D (abbreviation: D-cl)
  • If you find bcl you may be facing a part for bass clarinet in A that goes below the standard range available on a bass clarinet in B-flat—though professional bass clarinets nowadays are constructed to go all the way down to C2. When I have been able to verify that the part was originally in A, I have used the abbreviation bcl(A).

Sometimes my findings, if complicated, are given in the notes rather than the instrumentation formula; such oddities as “clarinet in A-flat” (Bartok: Scherzo, op. 2) will be mentioned in the notes also.

BASSOONS. In eighteenth-century practice, a bassoon played the bass line of an orchestral work, whether specified in the score or not. The bassoon may have been optional in works for string orchestra, but if other wind instruments were present, the bassoon was de rigueur. In such cases, some editions list the bassoon and some do not. I have merely followed the edition in hand, but in awareness of this practice, conductors may wish to employ the bassoon, perhaps playing from a cello or bass part, whether it is called for or not.
Nineteenth-century French orchestras normally had 4 bassoons doubling two real parts. Occasionally they might split into four parts for a few bars. I have attempted to distinguish between the number of bassoons called for and the number of real parts involved, if different.

SARRUSOPHONE. Originally this was a whole family of double-reed brass instruments, analogous to the single-reed saxophone family. Only the contrabass size made inroads into the orchestra, where it competed with, and was eventually superseded by, the contrabassoon.

TROMBONES. In eighteenth-century choral music, it was customary for trombones to double the altos, tenors, and basses of the chorus, and sometimes for a cornetto (also known as Zink, a soprano relative of the serpent) to double the sopranos. These instruments were often not mentioned in the score at all. You may add them when they are not indicated, or omit them when they are—since in any case, a modern chorus with large-bore trombones is not going to sound much like an eighteenth-century chorus (using boy sopranos and male altos) with the sackbut-like trombones of the period.

SERPENT, OPHICLEIDE, and CIMBASSO. These cup-mouthpiece keyed instruments were ultimately replaced by the tuba. The ophicleide was the brass bass instrument of choice for such meticulous orchestrators as Berlioz and Mendelssohn.
In 19th-century Italy the term cimbasso was used generically for the lowest brass instrument. This could have been either a wooden serpent, a valved ophicleide, or (after 1845) a newly developed instrument: the pelittone. Giuseppe Verdi preferred a small-bore instrument for these parts, and caused a trombone basso Verdi to be made to his specification. The modern revival of the cimbasso is essentially a bass trombone: a slide-, rather than a keyed-instrument. The confusion of nomenclature may be seen in many late 19th-century and early 20th-century Italian scores which may call for 3 trombones and a cimbasso—or alternatively for 4 trombones. Sometimes the scores call the bass instrument a trombone but the parts label it a tuba or cimbasso; sometimes the labeling in the score changes from movement to movement, but the intention is for the same instrument to be used throughout.

BASS DRUM & CYMBALS. In nineteenth-century bass drum parts, especially Italian opera, cymbals were expected to be played along with the bass drum, even though they were not specifically notated in the part. Probably the cymbals weren’t added indiscriminately to every single note, but were applied with a certain amount of taste and discretion—a vague and not terribly helpful recipe.
A related question is whether two players are required in these cases, or whether mounting one cymbal on the bass drum and clashing it with the other is acceptable. Some say that attaching one cymbal spoils its tone; others that having a single musician play both instruments has compensating virtues. Personally, I switched from the former to the latter position after hearing Jeffrey Fischer, a Boston percussionist, play with exquisite delicacy the two instruments at once.
For the purposes of the percussion count in this book, I have indicated two players in all these situations—even in cases where I was pretty sure the composer had in mind one player, and I as a conductor would prefer only one.

TENOR DRUM & FIELD DRUM. In American practice it seems clear that of these two deeper drums, the field drum has snares and the tenor drum does not. Other nations have other traditions, and especially with such terms as tamburo rullante, caisse roulante, or Rührtrommel, it is not always entirely clear in a particular composition which instrument is intended. Sometimes the composer helps by specifying: caisse roulante avec cordes (“… with snares”), for example.

DOUBLE BASS TUNING. When the double bass is used as a solo instrument, a traditional scordatura comes into play. Each string is tuned up a whole step, to F#1–B1–E2–A2, respectively. The music is normally transposed for the convenience of the player, so that the solo part becomes essentially a D-transposition, the player fingering it as it appears. The resulting heightened tension on the strings serves to mitigate the balance problems that might arise between solo double bass and orchestral accompaniment. Parts for works for solo double bass are often available in two keys, depending on whether or not the soloist employs the traditional scordatura.