A woodwind trio

Pierre-Octave Ferroud: Trio a vent en mi

Ferroud was a French composer who wrote this trio for oboe, clarinet and bassoon in Paris in 1937.  I like the combination of instruments together – the oboe and bassoon have a similar timbre but provide a contrast in pitch, and the clarinet has a different quality of sound which adds another colour.

The first movement is quite playful with lots of fast runs and grace notes.  It has a cheeky ending with a bar’s rest to build up the anticipation followed by a single, loud staccato note played in unison.

The second movement is in 2/2 and starts with a walking crotchet bass line in the bassoon which then moves to the clarinet, but played upside down.  The feeling of steady movement is maintained throughout the piece; usually one of the instruments is playing a continuous line of crotchets or quavers and the phrases indicated in the score are also quite long.

The third movement is again fast paced (indicated interestingly in the score as ‘quasi presto’ – seemingly fast?), with two of the instruments always providing a driving rhythm on the main beats of the bar.  The emphasis is on the second beat, shown in the score as a tenuto rather than an accent.

Some more polyphony

Thomas Tallis: Spem In Alium

This is a motet (sacred vocal work) written, impressively, for eight 5 part choirs.  It starts with an individual line and adds in more one at a time, quickly becoming a very full and rich sound.  As the work progresses different voices can be heard coming into the foreground and then dying away back into the harmony again, producing quite a hypnotic effect.

Stravinsky: Octet for Wind Instruments

Although entitled ‘Octet for Wind Instruments’ this piece in three movements is actually written for a collection of wind and brass instruments: flute, clarinet, two bassoons, two trombones and two trumpets. During the piece you get to hear most combinations of instruments playing together which provides some nice contrasts.  On the woodwind side I thought the use of two bassoons was an interesting choice (usually just one bass instrument is more common in small groupings) but it seemed to work well.  In the middle movement which is a theme and variations, one of the bassoons is given a fast running repeated motif so is not just used as a traditional simple bass line.  Overall, the piece has a playful feel and doesn’t seem to take itself too seriously, quite different to my previous encounters with Stravinsky.

Villa-Lobos: Quatuor for Flute, Oboe, Clarinet & Bassoon

I came across this by chance in my search for scores written for wind quartet.  It was written by the Brazillian composer Villa-Lobos in 1928, and is in three movements.

I really liked the contrasts between the sections where the instruments are playing together rhythmically, and the sections where they are more independent.  In the second movement three of the parts are playing the same triplet rhythm while the fourth has a different melody, which I thought worked really well.  Sometimes the instruments are playing the same melody an octave apart; one section in the middle movement has the clarinet and flute playing in octaves with the oboe playing a fifth in the middle.

There is quite strong use of imitation throughout the piece, with the different instruments often following each other with the same phrase (sometimes at a different pitch).  It ends with all the parts playing in octaves which gives a definite sense of closure.


Thomas Morley

As part of my research for Part 3 I listened to an album of Morley’s music called ‘Ayres and Madrigals‘, a collection of secular, mostly unaccompanied songs from the sixteenth century. They are quite varied – some very jolly with often funny lyrics (‘Arise, Awake, You Silly Shepherds Sleeping’!), and others quite sorrowful.  In the latter category I very much liked ‘Phyllis, I fain would die now’, which is sung as a kind of conversation between two groups of singers, one all female and one all male.

Some general observations below:

  • The different vocal parts frequently imitate each other both rhythmically and melodically
  • The parts take it in turns to have the first entry, often coming in a fifth higher than the previous one
  • There is often no identifiable ‘main’ melody, rather all the parts are equally important
  • The most contrapuntal sections are often in the refrains between verses, e.g. sung to ‘fa la la…’ rather than words
  • The melodic lines finish together at the cadences
  • Passages running up or down the scale are quite common, often with one part continuing where another part has just left off
  • The music is very much written to reflect the words e.g. ‘stay heart’ (sung slowly) followed by ‘run not so fast’ (a fast passage)
  • The minor songs often resolve with a major chord which seems quite typical of this era of music
  • You can sometimes hear sustained bass notes while the harmony changes in the upper parts