Auxiliary Instruments

Eb Clarinet

The Eb clarinet (often appearing in scores as the piccolo or soprano clarinet) is smaller than the standard Bb clarinet, and capable of reaching three octaves above middle C.  It started to be used in the early nineteenth century, but wasn’t often featured in orchestral music until the twentieth, when it was used by composers such as Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Ravel and Prokofiev.  I recently played Prokofiev’s 5th symphony with the Dundee Symphony Orchestra, and the Eb clarinet was a very noticeable addition to the standard setup of the orchestra.  It has an extremely piercing sound, and Prokofiev often uses it to double the flute line to create a louder and more intense effect – it really penetrates the rest of the orchestra.  Richard Strauss also uses it as a solo instrument in Till Eulenspiegel’s Lustige Streiche – it very successfully conveys Till’s character at the dramatic point of the execution.

Wagner tuba

Prokofiev’s 5th symphony also opened my ears to the possibilities created by the tuba in orchestral music – he uses its deep rumbling sound to create a hair raising, dramatic effect.  I had never heard of the Wagner tuba before however: this is a less frequently used instrument that was specifically created for for Wagner’s operatic Ring Cycle, and combines features of the French horn and the trombone (some say it is somewhat of a misnomer).  Bruckner’s 8th symphony uses four of the instruments in the Finale –  a very dramatic piece reminiscent of Wagner’s music.  As they have a mellow sound like the horn, he uses them for quiet passages.  You can hear it being demonstrated here.

Saxophone Music

The Very Best of John Coltrane

John Coltrane was an American jazz saxophonist, and this album showcases some of his classic tracks.  The saxophone has a very characteristic breathy sound, and its ability to ‘gliss’ (slide in pitch between two notes) is used a lot here.  The songs range from slow ballads to upbeat, rhythmic tracks. As with most jazz, there’s plenty of syncopation and a strong bass part.  Coltrane plays both alto and soprano sax in this album; I generally prefer the sound of the alto, the soprano tends to sound a little squeaky to me in its higher register but that’s just my personal preference.  The soprano does seem more suited to faster paced music though, as it’s a more focused sound.  It’s feel-good music – lots of major keys and a very relaxed mood.

Jazz Masters by Charlie Parker

Charlier Parker was another well known American saxophonist, born in 1920.  In this album again there are lots of saxophone glissandos, and also some quite fast chromatic passages.  Some of the tracks are heavily improvised, using a characteristic jazz technique which creates melodies wandering up and down the saxophone’s register almost too quickly to follow as you listen to it.  I find too much of this style of playing a little tiring to listen to after a while!