Instrument Glossary

Instrument names in orchestral scores can be found in several languages; I will use this page to build up a glossary of the ones I come across.

English French Italian German
Piccolo Piccolo Piccolo
Flutes Flauti Grosse Flöten
Oboes Oboi Oboen
Cor anglais Englisch Horn
Clarinets Clarinetti Clarinetten
Bassoons Fagotti Fagotte
Contrabassoon Contrafagott
French horns Corni Hörner
Trumpets Trombe Trompeten
Cornets Cornetti
Trombone Trombone Posaune
Timpani Pauken
Triangle Triangolo Triangel
Cymbals Becken
Glockenspiel Glockenspiel
Harp Arpa Harfe
Violin Violino Violine
Viola Viola Viola
Violoncello Violoncello Violoncello
Bass Contrabasso Basso

Figured Bass

Exercise 3.1

This exercise asks us to experiment with different chord spacings for the figured bass at the start of Handel’s Dixit Dominus. It was interesting to see what effects different chord arrangements had. The choices I found myself thinking about were:

  • The spacing of the chord (closed or open)
  • Which note to double in triads
  • Which note to place at the top of the chord

These all have an effect on the overall colour of the sound; for example I decided to start with closed chords in the first bar and open them out in the second bar as a more forceful restatement of the musical material. I also found that using some contrary motion between the bass and the top note of the chord creates a better balance. Here is the result I settled on:

Realisation of the figured bass from Handel’s Dixit Dominus (bars 1-8)

Exercise 3.2

I found a good reference manual for figured bass notation here.

I used the conventions described there for abbreviations, e.g. no numbers indicate 5/3 (root position triad), and a sharp/flat without an associated number refers to the third above the bass.

Here is my solution to the exercise:


There are just two chords in the whole of the first two bars, followed by a quick succession of six chords in the third bar. I think this has the effect of building up tension and providing a dramatic resolution.


Handel’s Dixit Dominus

Exercise 3.0

This exercise asks us to listen to Handel’s Dixit Dominus and annotate the score to highlight specific ways in which the instruments are used. I listened to a performance by the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner.

I found many instances of antiphony (alternating between different voices and/or instruments), as well as imitation of rhythmic patterns. The alternation is particularly effective when it involves one part sustaining a note while the other has a melodic line, and then swapped around. Sometimes it is strict alternation, and sometimes it is overlapping, giving a sense that the new part is interrupting (e.g. in bars 69-70).

At other points in the score the instruments are supporting the voices, for example in bar 52 where the violins play in unison with the sopranos. This is an important point in the music as it is the first change in the words being sung, and the change in texture gives this a greater impact.

The basso continuo begins with a continuous quaver bass line, giving the music a feeling of momentum. At other times it repeats the rhythmic pattern that is such a feature of the piece, and towards the end of the piece plays a sustained line which builds up the tension.

I have scanned the first few pages of my annotated score here.

The Phrygian mode

After reading about the Medieval and Greek musical modes, I wanted to experiment with them myself in some of my own compositions. In the Rarescale summer school in August I decided to try writing a piece for alto flute quartet in the Phrygian mode, which has the following pattern:

Phrygian mode, starting on C

This has a very characteristic, eerie sounding minor second, which I decided to exploit with a falling pitch bend. I based it on a scale starting on A, making the most of the alto flute’s range and deep tone.

Here is an extract from the start of the piece, rendered by Sibelius:

Saxophone concert

Last night I went to a concert given by the Amstel Saxophone Quartet. They performed a varied programme: it began with an arrangement of the Chromatic Fantasia by Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562-1621) – an acclaimed late Renaissance composer from the Netherlands. This was originally written for organ, and as the name suggests is chromatic in nature, based on a four note descending line. I thought an arrangement for saxophones was an unusual idea, but it worked really well – if I closed my eyes I could really imagine how it would have sounded on the organ, especially the deep pedal notes played by the bass saxophone. The group reproduced the sustained sound of the organ, only it was more expressive because they were able to crescendo and decrescendo through the notes independently. Later they played another arrangement of an organ piece, this time Mozart’s Fugue in G minor.  This is a beautiful fugue which employs many of the imitative counterpoint strategies I have been learning about – inversion, modulation to the relative major and stretto etc.

They also played an original piece written for the quartet by a contemporary composer from the Netherlands, Renske Vrolijk (1965-). This piece, entitled Lachrymae was written as an expression of grief during a period of mourning, and I found it very moving and atmospheric. It is quite chordal in nature, using some close harmony which ironically invoked a feeling of loneliness.

Other pieces by contemporary composers included Mishima by Philip Glass (1937-), and Summa by Arvo Pärt (1935-). They were both very hypnotic, and I could tell that the audience was quite captivated. Mishima sounded like every other Philip Glass piece I have listened to and I didn’t find the piece itself particularly inspiring, but the quartet did a remarkable performance of it, using what seemed like some impressive circular breathing to create a completely continuous sound and the feeling of a single organism.

One of the most interesting arrangements was a twenty-minute suite of music condensed from Wagner’s Ring Cycle! Again this seemed to me like a very unusual idea, but I was surprised at how orchestral the quartet managed to sound, creating a large variety of tone colours. Played softly they often sounded like horns, and other times I could imagine clarinets, and even occasionally (from the soprano saxophone) an oboe. They certainly conveyed the drama and excitement of the piece really effectively.


Renaissance Composers: Palestrina

This exercise asks us to research the life and work of a Renaissance composer; I have chosen Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina.


This influential Renaissance composer was born in the town of Palestrina, close to Rome, around the year 1525. He became a choir boy at the church of S. Maria Maggiore in Rome, and later returned to his home town as an organist and singing teacher.

When the Bishop of Palestrina was appointed as Pope Julius III, he took Palestrina with him to Rome as director of the Cappella Giulia (the choir of St Peter’s Basilica). Here he wrote masses showing a strong command of the polyphonic style introduced from the Netherlands by composers such as  Guillaume Dufay and Josquin des Prez.

After the Pope’s death, Palestrina returned to the Basilica of his choir boy days. This was an interesting period in history, coinciding with the Counter-Reformation which led to the complex polyphonic style being simplified to ensure that it didn’t interfere with the clarity of the words of the liturgy.

In 1571 Palestrina was reappointed to the Cappella Giulia where he stayed until his death in 1594. He suffered tragedy in his personal life during the 1570s through the loss of his wife, brother and two sons in an epidemic. Palestrina himself died a wealthy man, and was honoured by a burial in St Peter’s.


Palestrina was a prolific composer who wrote 105 masses, as well as hundreds of madrigals, motets and other forms during his lifetime. Although he did write secular music, he is most well known for his sacred works, probably due to his close ties with the Catholic church.

I have written notes on a selection of his works on my listening log.

Musical legacy and influences

Palestrina was very well respected in his lifetime, described by a contemporary diplomat as “the very first musician in the world” ([2]). His works continued to be copied after his death, and he is one of the first composers to have had a continuous role in the history books. Bach is known to have had copies of his music, and even transcribed his setting of Missa sine nomine. 

Palestrina’s smooth style of polyphonic writing became held up as a model for later composers, and Fux’s text on species counterpoint (which I have previously written notes on here) was largely based on Palestrina’s style of music.


Listening to Palestrina

Missa Papae Marcelli (c. 1562)

Oxford Camerata | Jeremy Summerly | Naxos 1992

I thought this was a really beautiful piece of music. In the Kyrie, the voices enter one by one, creating a continuous flow of music which is very serene and peaceful. The Gloria is treated in a similar way; sometimes my ear is drawn to one particular voice which has a faster moving line than the others at that point in time, but generally the voices seem to have equal importance – there is no ‘main melody’ as in a lot of later music. I think this aspect of the music contributes to its peaceful character, as does the smooth, stepwise nature of the melodies. The end of the Credo is particularly beautiful; each voice sings a descending line in turn until the changing harmonies are resolved into the final major chord.

Song of Songs: 9-11 (1584)

The Sixteen | Palestrina: Vol 1 | The Sixteen Productions Ltd 2011

These songs form part of a cycle of 29 sacred motets called Canticum CanticorumThey are written in 5 parts (SATTB), and the polyphony is more evident than in the previous work – voices continually coming in and out of focus. As a result I feel they have a less serene and more passionate character.

Madrigals, Book 1

Concerto Italiano | Il primo libro de Madrigali a quattro voci | Tactus 2012

This set of madrigals is sung by solo voices, some with lute accompaniment. They are all short, and many of them have a very gentle character. Like the previous works they employ polyphony, the voices frequently imitating each other in turn. As in other Renaissance music, I very much like the fluid nature of the modal harmony (sounding almost simultaneously major and minor). There is a tendency in these madrigals to finish either on what we now call the dominant, or on a ‘Picardy third’.


Carlo Gesualdo (1561-1613): Madrigals, Books 5 & 6

Delitæ Musicæ | Marco Longhini | Naxos 2013

This is a set of unaccompanied madrigals by the leading Italian composer Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa. I found them wonderfully expressive – full of sudden changes in dynamics, dissonant clashes, suspensions and resolutions, and really interesting chromatic harmonies that sound surprisingly modern. They use a variety of textures, sometimes homophonic and sometimes polyphonic with the voices entering in imitation of each other. They are quite serious and sombre in nature, evoking a sense of reflection. A common way of ending a phrase involves a suspended dominant chord, resolving into a perfect cadence (usually major).

Monteverdi (1567-1643): Madrigals, Book 8

Delitæ Musicæ | Marco Longhini | Naxos 2017

This album of Monteverdi’s music features vocals with instrumental accompaniment (strings and continuo). They convey a larger variety of moods than the Gesualdo collection I listened to, including some joyful and light hearted sections. They seem to be generally simpler from a harmonic perspective, though there are nevertheless some beautiful harmonies. Sometimes the accompaniment sounds a little too heavy, overpowering the voices slightly, though perhaps this is just the modern interpretation.

Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625): The Silver Swanne

The Cambridge Singers (YouTube)

This song in five parts starts with all voices singing homophonically, and progresses into a form of imitation. It is a slow, simple song with generally straightforward harmony, though there are some unexpected chords such as the one shown below at the beginning of bar 17 (with the b natural in the soprano line). This coincides with the word ‘death’, providing effective word painting.

Extract from The Silver Swanne

Thomas Morley (c. 1557–1602): It was a Lover and his Lasse

Soprano and lute performance (YouTube)

This is a light hearted song about lovers in spring time, and features the words “Hey nonino”, which on the surface appear to be nonsense words but in fact were references to the lovers’ intimate relationship! It has a verse/chorus structure, with four verses in total. The song has an appealing syncopation to it, with words tied over the bar lines, and the lute accompaniment is sometimes imitating the voice part.