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Thursday, November 18, 2010

Top 10 Uncommon Orchestral Instruments

The standard orchestra that most of see these days consists of four sections: strings, woodwind, brass, and percussion. In each of these we have standard instruments, approximately four different instruments per section (not counting percussion). Not all composers, however, choose to limit themselves to these instruments, and add in extra instruments not usually seen in the standard orchestra. Here are listed ten instruments you would not usually see in an orchestra. In no particular order:
10. Organ
The pipe organ is one of the world’s oldest wind instruments, with examples found as far back as the 3rd century BC, in ancient Greece. The organs back then would have looked a lot different than the ones we are used to seeing, with water power supplying the air pressure required to push air through the pipes. Modern pipe organs are a lot more complicated than this, with multiple keyboards (including one played by the feet) and rows of stops. The video shows one of the most well known, and impressive pieces of solo organ music: J.S. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor.
9. Baritone/Euphonium
I‘ve lumped these two instruments together because a baritone is, to the casual observer, essentially a small euphonium. The euphonium is best known for being the ‘small tuba’ in a wind or marching band, though it’s range is a lot higher than a tuba. It is very rare to see a baritone or euphonium in an orchestra, as they are usually found in big bands or marching bands. The video shows a euphoniums duet, playing a tune called ‘Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms’, which is based on a poem by Thomas Moore.
8. Saxophone
The saxophone, apart from maybe one other, is probably the most well known of all the instruments on this list. It is a single reed instrument, similar to the clarinet. It is best known as a jazz instrument, although it has surfaced in some pop songs, most notably in the famous solo in Gerry Rafferty’s ‘Baker Street’, which is the song in the video. The saxophone has only appeared in orchestras relatively recently, only starting to appear in late romantic and early 20th century music. The saxophone has been popularised in recent years thanks to the character Lisa Simpson, whose ‘sax-a-ma-phone’ has brought the instrument to even more people.
7. Piano
Well, what is there to say about the piano? Apart from maybe the guitar, it is probably the most well known instrument in the world. The piano is mainly used as an accompaniment to soloists, though there are many thousands of pieces written for solo piano. In an orchestral environment, pianos are mostly used as solo instruments, in concertos and other similar pieces. There is so much piano music out there to choose from, for this list I decided to pick a personal favourite, a beautiful duet written by Danny Elfman for Tim Burton’s ‘The Corpse Bride’.
6. Celesta
The celesta is a keyboard instrument, similar to a piano, but instead of having hammers hitting strings, the hammers in it hit metal tubes suspended over wooden resonators. It was invented in the late 1880s in Paris. The first major user of the celesta was Tchaikovsky, who most famously used it in the ‘Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies’, from the ballet ‘The Nutcracker’. Unfortunately I could not find any good performance videos of the celesta, but this one shows the basic sound of one.

5. Harp

The harp has been one of the most common instruments in history, with use of the different styles found all over the world. The most basic harp would have simply been a bow used for hunting, played by plucking the string. The type of harp most used in modern classical music is the pedal harp, which can have up to 47 strings, spanning six and a half octaves, and is an impressive 6ft high. Pedal harps usually have seven pedals, one for each natural note of the scale, and these can be put into one of three positions. The first position, with the pedal up, flattens the note by a semitone. The second position, in the middle, keeps the note at its natural tone, and the third position sharpens the note by a semitone. The video shows an incredibly talented 8-year-old playing part of Bach’s “Concert for harp”
4. Cor Anglais
The Cor Anglais is probably the most common of these ‘unusual’ instruments, usually being played by an oboist. It is longer than an oboe, pitched a 5th lower, and has a pear shaped bell at the end. Unlike the oboe, which has a reed set straight into the instrument, the cor anglais has a bent crook to attach the reed on to. The name literally means ‘English horn’, though the cor anglais is neither English nor a horn. The wikipedia entry has more details on the naming for those interested. The video shows a cor player playing ‘The Swan’ from Saint-Saens’ ‘Carnival of the Animals’
3. Alto Flute
The alto flute is, in basic terms, a long flute. Much like the piccolo, it is used to augment the flute section and add a deeper tone. Unlike the piccolo however, which is pitched an octave higher, the alto flute is pitched at 4th below a normal flute. There are two designs for an alto flute. The first, favoured by smaller players, has the neck bending back on itself, so the fingers are closer to the player, and so easier to reach. The second, and more common, design is simply a longer flute. The video shows an arrangement of Pachelbel’s ‘Canon in D’ for 3 alto flutes and a harpsichord (keyboard).
2. Bass Clarinet
The bass clarinet is a much longer version of the standard Bb clarinet, with a curved mouthpiece and bell more resembling a long saxophone. It is pitched an octave lower than a Bb clarinet, and has a much deeper tone. The bass clarinet was invented in the late 1700s, with different forbearers of the instrument we know now being created in Germany and France. The bass clarinet as we know it now was finalised by Adolph Sax in 1838, who, in the following decade, invented another instrument on this list (see if you can guess which one!). The video, from 1961, shows Eric Dolphy playing ‘God Bless This Child’ on a solo bass clarinet.
1. Contrabassoon
Being a bassoon/contrabassoon player myself, this is my personal favourite on this list. The contrabassoon is almost twice as long as a standard bassoon, which comes to almost 16ft of tubes! It is pitched a whole octave lower than a standard bassoon, which, to put it in context, is a semitone higher than the lowest note on the piano. It is usually supported by a spike at the bottom, similar to a contrabass or cello, rather than a seat strap or sling. It takes a hell of a lot more breath to play than a bassoon, and the lowest note can make the room you’re in shake! The video shows the ‘Super Mario Bassoon Quartet’ playing an arrangement of their piece with a contrabassoon as well.
Bonus: Harmonica
After seeing this clip at the BBC proms this year, I knew I’d have to include it in this list. This is the only piece of music I’ve seen with a harmonica playing with an orchestra, so enjoy! I can’t remember what the piece of music is, but I do know it is a piece of film music by a British composer.
So here it is, my first list! Any comment and (constructive) criticisms are welcomed. For any of you wondering, I didn’t include the piccolo on the list as pretty much all of the larger orchestral pieces I’ve played (and many of the smaller ones) have included it.

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