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Saturday, February 24, 2024

Exploring the forgotten instruments of the orchestra

UC Davis faculty members offer insight on what makes often overlooked instruments unique

By Sarah Han — arts@theaggie.org


Although orchestras are composed of musicians playing a large variety of instruments, the violin and cello seem to shine the most. But beyond these two, others also play a significant role in the group’s layered sound.

Meet the double bass, considered the largest instrument of the string family. Oftentimes, the “double” part of the name comes from basses doubling the cello parts; however, it is also known as the contrabass, string bass, upright bass or stand-up bass.

Michael Schwagerus, a professor of double bass in the UC Davis Music Department, explained why the instrument has so many different names. 

“It’s a very diverse instrument, it presents in so many genres; [therefore] it has all these confusing, different names,” Schwagerus said. “[Bass is] in bluegrass, jazz, wind band — which is European music and African American music blended in Louisiana in the early 1900s — string band, concert band and pop music.”

In addition to playing a lower register of the cello parts, the double bass has unique characteristics of its own. 

“The bass has a wide range of interesting sounds that it can make harmonics, double stops and percussion-wise,” Schwagerus said. 

 Harmonics are specific places on the strings that produce a higher, more delicate sound. Oftentimes, the notes are a higher octave of the open string notes (G, D, A and E), but they can also be the fifth of the open string note or simply any notes for higher position harmonics.

Despite the bass’s ability to project through harmonics, the overall deep sound of the instrument can prevent it from standing out in the orchestra, according to Schwagerus.

“In my opinion, it’s because of the way harmony is layered, and how sound projects through the layers of harmony,” Schwagerus said. “Because it’s doubling down and it’s in such a low octave, it’s difficult for the instrument to project and present.” 

Beyond projection, Schwagerus explained some other reasons why the double bass is more unpopular than the violin and cello.

“Well, all of our orchestral solos generally retain the bass, change the strings and use solo tuning, which moves our pitch up a whole step and helps the instrument to project,” Schwagerus said. “This is why all the repertoire has to be in the thumb position very high up ,so that the melody needs to present towards the top of the harmony to be heard well and to work well. Because of that reason, I believe that our solo repertoire is kind of thin compared to the cello, [which] naturally can project quite well. The relationships between the size of the string and the size of the box for cello and violin are more resonant.”

Additionally, the massive size of the double bass is often seen as unfavorable to the smaller and more manageable violin and cello.

“It’s difficult for a composer to help the instrument project because of its awkward size,” Schwagerus said. “[Moreover], families don’t want to deal with the enormous instrument that’s very expensive. It’s easy to break when you have doors [and] things, and you need a big car.”

However, despite these challenges, the double bass is a diverse instrument that can be played in various genres and is essential to many of an orchestra’s works. Schwagerus has performed on the double bass in a triple Concerto, a Mahler piece, a contemporary version of the national anthem and more. 

Another consistently overlooked instrument is the bassoon — the largest wind instrument in the orchestra. Dr. David A. Wells, the Department of Music’s applied faculty member for the bassoon, explained how it works.

“The bassoon is a woodwind instrument, [a section] we can divide up into the flute and reed subfamilies,” Wells said. “[The bassoon] uses a double reed, [where] two reeds [are] strapped to each other that then vibrate.”

The double-reed aspect of the bassoon contributes to its unique history. According to Wells, the instrument is “quite ancient… they go back many thousands of years.”

In addition to the reed, the complex functions of the bassoon also distinguish it from other woodwind instruments. It’s more physically demanding than some other instruments, as it requires all 10 fingers to be used. 

“The bassoon [is] more complicated [and] expensive to construct and maintain,” Wells said. “Double reeds are fiddilier, and take more care and attention than single reeds.”

The bassoon lacks history compared to other instruments, making it more difficult to stand out.

“The clarinet, for instance, you can find all over the place; [they] were a regular member of what were otherwise known as brass bands in the 19th century,” Wells said. “And that goes for some of the other woodwinds as well.”

However, the bassoon has a diverse set of characteristics, along with a signature sound, that gives it a purpose within an ensemble. 

“Usually, the principal bassoonist is playing more melodic and harmonic roles, adding the unique tone color of the bassoon to woodwind chords and things like that,” Wells said. “So we really have lots of roles within the orchestra.”

The classical sound of the french horn is another often forgotten player. One of the main brass instruments in the orchestra, it can be identified by its subtle yet broken-up tone, which is generally used to sustain chords for other melodies.

Pete Nowlen, the director of concert bands and horn instructor at UC Davis, described the primary role of the french horn in an orchestra.

“[The horn is] kind of a moderator between the brass and the woodwinds, because the horn can be a very mellow, soft instrument and a very lyrical instrument; therefore it can work very well as a soloist or woodwind instrument or with the woodwinds, but then also can be very, very powerful and fill out the brass color,” Nowlen said.

The french horn also has a noted orchestral background.

“ [In the 1700s] it came in with the purpose of playing just for hunting scenes in operas, because horn was the instrument of the hunt,” Wells said. “And so […] when they brought out a hunting theme, they brought in the horn players to play the hunting calls.”

Wells said that as a wind instrument, the horn works very differently from the strings in the ensemble.

“Playing a wind instrument feels a lot like singing,” Wells said. “We actually have the feeling of the sound in our body and [we feel the] impact of the sound.”

Moreover, the horns offer a plethora of different roles in the orchestra as well as in non-orchestral ensembles, playing a role in woodwind quintets, brass quintets, brass choirs, woodwind octets and large woodwind ensembles. 

The popularity and need for the french horn has also increased with technical innovations.

“The big change for the horn that made it function and be able to accommodate more users was when the valve was invented in the 1820s and then, over about 50 or 60 years, it caught on and the horn went from being a very diatonic instrument to being a chromatic instrument,” Wells said. “So by the time of Wagner and Strauss, most of the possibilities of the horn existed.”

Finally is the viola, informally known as a compromise between the cello and the violin — it takes a violin shape and is played like a violin, but has the same strings as the cello. Oftentimes, the viola plays accompaniments to the melody by itself or with the second violins, cellos and double basses.

Ellen Ruth Rose, a lecturer of viola and chamber music at UC Davis and UC Berkeley, the violist of Empyrean Ensemble and a member of the new UC Davis music ensemble, explained the viola’s primary role.

“In the orchestra, the viola adds color, texture and the inner-workings of the harmonies,” Rose said. “It kind of fills in below the melody to give it color and also above the bass to give it a context.”

But Rose said that beyond this, the most poignant part of the viola lies in its mimicry of the human sound.

“[The viola] has a unique sound because its range is very connected to the range of a lot of human voices like tenors, sopranos and even baritones,” Rose said.

Although somewhat similar in sound to the violin, the viola doesn’t project as much due to its lower resonance — which may be just what gives the instrument its unique qualities.

“It has a more human voice, a more vulnerable voice,” Rose said. “It’s not acoustic, it’s more personally expressive. And that plays out a lot in the new music of our times.”

Rose also mentioned that violas and many other accompaniment instruments “internalize” melodies, which requires tremendous multitasking and focus. This practice requires viola players to listen to music from the “inside out,” or hear the piece starting from the middle sounds and moving outwards to the melody and the baseline.

“I think the type of person who gravitates towards the viola is somebody who, regardless of their technical skills, would rather be part of music from the inside out than just kind of the soloist or the melody on top,” Rose said.

Needless to say, the orchestra involves a diverse range of instruments and each plays a crucial role in producing beautiful music — regardless of how popular or unpopular it is.


Written by: Sarah Han — arts@theaggie.org