Brass and horns ignite the fire at the heart of the orchestra.
Having taken a detailed look at strings and woodwind over the last four articles, it’s time to turn our attention to the tremendous sonority that is orchestral brass. For casual listeners, the jet-engine roar of brass in full flight epitomises symphonic grandeur and power — given their capacity for tumultuous, high-decibel delivery, it’s no wonder that trumpet fanfares are associated with cataclysmic events like bringing down the walls of Jericho, or sounding the final trump on Judgement Day (does the MU have special rates for those gigs?). Apocalyptic duties apart, quietly played brass instruments can also sound beautifully rich, warm and expansive, making this the most dynamically versatile section of the orchestra.
The four main orchestral brass instruments are trumpet, trombone, tuba and horn. While pop and jazz so-called ‘horn sections’ usually contain a mixture of brass and wind instruments, in orchestral circles a horn invariably means a French horn, that complicated assembly of coiled tubing with a distinctive flared bell attached. For more details on how this instrument works, I recommend you watch Katy Woolley’s excellent demonstration at www.philharmonia.co.uk/explore/instruments/horn, where you can also see the rest of the orchestra’s brass team in action.
A common orchestral brass line-up would be four horns, three trumpets, three trombones and one tuba, but depending on the nature of the piece and ambitions of the composer, section sizes vary wildly. Stravinsky scored The Rite of Spring for eight horns, while Arnold Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder demanded 10. (The latter work requires a total of 150 instrumentalists and 200 singers; not the sort of thing you should attempt to stage in your local village hall.) When budgets permit, film composers also go over the top — Joel McNeely’s bombastic score for the 1998 film Soldier called for 18 horns, 12 trumpets, 12 trombones and six tubas, arranged into three separate sections so their performances could be dramatically fanned out across the stereo speakers.
Noting its enduring popularity in action movie soundtracks and trailers, sample library manufacturers have jumped on the ‘cinematic brass’ bandwagon over the last few years. One company even described a horns preset as a “good pirate program”, which baffled me until I realised it was a reference to Pirates Of The Caribbean’s brass-rich score — a bit of a disappointment, as I’d enjoyed the thought of a group of scurvy seadogs practising horn pieces below decks, cursing each other in salty language for minor irregularities of intonation. Regardless of their suitability for accompanying big-screen piratical hijinks, all the current pro-quality orchestral brass sample libraries are listed in the ‘Orchestral Brass Sample Libraries’ box.
As with the woodwinds, the principal brass instruments are augmented by a variety of models which extend each section’s pitch and timbral range. Standard trumpets (usually built in Bb, but C trumpets are increasingly...
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