Creative woodwind writing is the orchestral arranger’s secret weapon.
Last month I introduced the woodwind instruments and gave examples of their usage in classical, film and contemporary media music. My focus was on an exposed melody line played by a solo instrument such as oboe or flute, but while that classic arranger’s standby always works a treat, it only scratches the surface of what woodwinds can do. In this article I’ll explore more areas of woodwind writing which, if handled with care, have the potential to transform a bread-and-butter arrangement into something far more magical and enticing.
In addition to being supremely good at melody, woodwinds are a great source of rhythmic propulsion. This is famously demonstrated by the woodwind-driven breaks in the much-covered Tamla Motown classic ‘The Tears Of A Clown’ by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. I’ve notated the parts in Picture 1 — the top line is played by piccolo and harpsichord in unison, the middle line is handled by an oboe and the fabulous, jolly staccato bass line (which gives the breaks their rhythmic drive) is pumped out by a bassoon, played by orchestral musician Charles R Sirard.
On a side note, I always imagined this charismatic arrangement was written in response to the song’s subject matter, but in fact, it’s the other way round. According to Smokey Robinson, the backing track was written, arranged and recorded by fellow Motown artist Stevie Wonder (then aged 16), who brought it along to a Christmas party and asked the singer if he had any ideas for a song lyric. Inspired by the ‘circus-ey’ atmosphere of the woodwinds, Mr Robinson recalled the tragic character in the opera Pagliacci and proceeded to pen the immortal words: ‘Now there’s some sad things known to man, but ain’t too much sadder than the tears of a clown’. A sad thought indeed, but this colourful break is a positively joyful example of how woodwinds can energise a pop track.
Thirty two years before ‘The Tears Of A Clown’ topped the singles charts, a new composition by the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky was receiving its first airing. Entitled Dumbarton Oaks, the piece (a concerto for chamber...
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