What Is the Importance of the Clarinet or Oboe in an Orchestra?

The clarinet and oboe are both woodwind instruments with distinctly different timbres; both instruments also use reeds to produce their sound. Composers have historically used these two instruments to create specific effects and tone colors not otherwise possible with an orchestra. Learning about these two wind instruments and their roles in the orchestra will increase your appreciation for and understanding of orchestral music.

Oboe Timbre

The oboe is a double-reed instrument from the woodwind family. The oboe is a temperamental instrument for the performer to play. In its upper range, the oboe produces a pale but piercing effect that can be useful for delicate melodic lines; the higher the oboe goes in its register the less brilliant it becomes. The highest pitches are very difficult for most performers to produce. The oboe has the ability to create short staccato accents and can become gruff in the lower register, sounding like a duck.

Oboe Uses

While the oboe is capable of playing quickly, it is better suited to melodic and lyrical playing. One familiar use of the oboe in the orchestra is from Sergei Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf," in which the duck is represented by an oboe. Some famous examples of oboe passages from the orchestral literature include Bach, "Brandenburg Concerto No.2" in the second movement, and Tchaikovsky, "Symphony No. 4" in the second movement. In both of these pieces, the oboe is required to play in the upper part of its range.

Clarinet Timbre

The clarinet, in contrast, has a light, airy quality that lends it to playing solos in quieter, pastoral passages. Unlike the oboe, the clarinet is more homogenous sounding from its lowest to highest ranges. The clarinet has four basic ranges; each one has a slight difference in timbre. The lowest range is known as the "chalumeau register; it gives off a deep and dense sound. The next range is the "throat" range, which gives a pale, thin sound. The third range is the "clarino" register, which is much brighter than the other ranges. Finally, the highest range is not given a name, but it is very shrill and can penetrate the entire orchestra; this upper range is rarely used in orchestral writing.

Technical Abilities and Uses

The clarinet is extremely agile and can even be virtuosic, as clarinets are capable of playing extremely quick lines with wide leaps. It is not as good as the oboe at staccato playing, but can play both lyrically and quickly in all registers. For the most part, clarinetists do not use double-tonguing -- a special technique for speeding up articulations -- but they are able to single-tongue very rapidly. An example of highly virtuosic playing from the literature is from Rimsky-Korsakov's "Le Coq d'or Suite," measures 33-36.


"The Study of Orchestration" Adler, Samuel, 2002. [http://books.wwnorton.com/books/detail.aspx?ID=10849]


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