Instruments of the orchestra

Poulenc: Sextet (woodwind)

This sextet was written for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, french horn and piano in the 1930s.  The allegro first movement opens with a decisive ascending scale, and the short, fast melodies that follow demonstrate the agility of these instruments.  The jazz influences that were starting to come through in this decade are quite apparent through the rhythms, and the sudden changes in dynamics add a touch of the comic.  The middle section of this movement conveys a darker mood: it has a chromatic, wandering style, and starts to show the expressive qualities of each instrument.

The middle, slower movement is more lyrical – each instrument taking a turn at the melody with accompaniment from the others.  The expressive phrasing showcases the contrasting sounds of staccato vs legato playing.  I really like the different sound colours created by different combinations of the instruments in this movement.

The final movement is marked ‘prestissimo’, but it doesn’t have quite the same driving, frantic quality as the first movement throughout as the fast sections are interspersed with short reprieves.  The piano is particularly featured in this movement.  The piece finishes with another beautiful slow section, started by a melancholy melody in the bassoon and going on to reveal impressionist influences in the harmonies, reminiscent of composers such as Debussy or Ravel.

Malcolm Arnold – Quintet for Brass (Op. 73)

This piece was composed in 1961 for horn, 2 trumpets, trombone and tuba.  The combination of instruments creates a rich, resonant sound.  I’m used to associating brass with loud, brash sections of a symphony, so it was refreshing to hear them play a much greater range of dynamics, including some very effective soft sections.  The second movement is quite chromatic, containing some dissonances and suspended harmonies that build a tense mood.  Sudden crescendos are used very effectively on these instruments, creating some spine tingling moments.  The final ‘con brio’ has typical fanfare style melodies – a reminder of the brass section’s military associations, and also includes some characteristic trombone slides often featured in jazz pieces.

Elgar: Serenade for Strings

This famous short piece for string orchestra was composed in 1892, early on in Elgar’s career.  It features a few solo lines in amongst the full sectional melodies which are passed around between the violins, violas and cellos.  The ebb and flow of the phrases in the larghetto second movement demonstrate well the expressiveness of string instruments, with their unique ability to sustain notes and play almost infinitely quietly.

Bartok: Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta

The strings open this piece with mysterious, chromatic melodies added one by one in fugue form.  The texture and dynamics gradually build up to a desperate sounding climax, where they are joined by the cymbals and timpani before fading out again.  The second movement unexpectedly features a piano and is much faster paced, with short staccato piano chords combining with the percussion, a harp, and pizzicato in the strings.  It retains the same chromatic style as the first movement, but in a much more frantic setting.  The adagio movement features a xylophone and uses glissandos in both the timpani and string parts, building on the mysterious mood already set from the beginning of the piece.  Sparse notes played simultaneously on the celesta and piano also create an unusual sound.  The syncopated rhythms and lydian mode used in the opening of the final movement betray Bartok’s folk influences; this movement has a dance feel to it, whilst continuing the strongly chromatic theme of the piece.

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