by Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov

Chapter III

Part 3 - Wood-wind Harmony

Lesson Notes: In this lesson we discuss harmony in the wood-wind instruments. We laid down the general principles of harmony in the previous chapters discussing the process of orchestrating with multiple lines at the same time. There are no interactive scores in this lesson. The information provided in this lesson will set the groundwork for the following lessons dealing with harmony among the wood-wind instruments.

Wood-wind harmony.

Before entering upon this section of the work I would remind the reader of the general principles laid down in the beginning of the chapter.

Harmonic texture, composed of plain chords or ornamental designs, simple or contrapuntal in character, must possess a resonance equally distributed throughout. This may be obtained by the following means:

Professor Belkin Comment: By “resonance equally distributed throughout” RK means: BLEND. In the case of wood-wind this requires fooling the ear, so it accepts different timbres as more alike than they actually are. Note that this is more difficult in smaller orchestras than in large ones, since having only two of each instrument will not allow complete chords in one timbre.

Instruments forming chords must be used continuously in the same way during a given passage; that is to say they must be doubled or not throughout, except when one of the harmonic parts is to be made prominent:

Professor Belkin Comment: This is because changes in the number of parts tend to attract attention.

The normal order of register must be followed, except in the case of crossing or enclosure of parts, which will be discussed later on:

3. Corresponding or adjacent registers should be made to co-incide except for certain colour effects:

The second flute will sound too weak and the oboes too piercing.

Professor Belkin Comment: It is useful to think of each wood-wind instrument as really three instruments in one, high, medium, and low. Although the borders are not very sharp, treatment will vary in general according to register. So, for example, high flutes and oboes will blend, where low flutes and oboes will NOT.

4. Concords (octaves, thirds and sixths) and not discords (fifths, fourths, seconds and sevenths), should be given to instruments of the same kind or colour, except when discords are to be emphasised. This rule should be specially observed in writing for the oboe with its penetrating quality of tone:

Four-part and three-part harmony.

Harmonic writing for the wood-wind may be considered from two points of view: a) instruments in pairs, 2 Flutes, 2 Oboes, 2 Clarinets, 2 Bassoons; and b) instruments in three's, 3 Flutes, 2 Oboes, English horn, 3 Clarinets, 2 Bassoons, Contrabassoon.

A. In pairs.

There are three ways of distribution:
  1. Super-position or overlaying (strictly following the normal order of register),
  2. Crossing, and
  3. Enclosure of parts.
The last two methods involve a certain disturbance of the natural order of register:

Professor Belkin Comment: All of these methods, apart from superposition, have in common that they aim to confuse the ear. For example, if oboes are simply placed above clarinets it is easier to hear the two distinct timbres than if they are overlapped.

In choosing one of these three methods the following points must not be forgotten: a) the register of a particular isolated chord; the soft and weak register of an instrument should not be coupled with the powerful and piercing range of another:

Professor Belkin Comment: Again, think of each instrument as three (registers) in one.

b) In a succession of chords the general progression of parts must be considered; one tone quality should be devoted to the stationary and another to the moving parts:

Professor Belkin Comment:
… since, all other things being equal, the ear tends to notice movement.

When chords are in widely-divided four-part harmony notes may be allotted in pairs to two different tone qualities, adhering to the normal order of register:

Professor Belkin Comment: However, widely spaced woodwind chords virtually never sound homogeneous. The normal way to arrange woodwinds in chords is in close position.

Any other distribution will result unquestionably in a grievous lack of relationship between registers:

If one tone quality is to be enclosed, it must be between two different timbres:

It is possible to lend four distinct timbres to a chord in widely-divided four-part harmony, though such a chord will possess no uniformity in colour; but the higher the registers of the different instruments are placed, the less perceptible becomes the space which separates them:

Professor Belkin Comment: In the first fifth or so above the treble staff, flutes, oboes, and clarinets can be mixed freely. The high registers blend quite well (but: Avoid the shrill, top notes of the oboe and clarinet – that is to say roughly above D, 2 ledgers above the staff).

The use of four different timbres in close four-part harmony is to be avoided, as the respective registers will not correspond:

Professor Belkin Comment: This is the most common beginners’ error.

Note. In Mozart and Salieri, which is only scored for 1 Fl., 1Ob., 1 CI. and I Fag., wood-wind chords in four-part harmony are of necessity devoted to these four different timbres.

The same rules apply to writing in three-part harmony, which is the most customary form when it is a question of establishing a harmonic basis, the lowest register of which is entrusted to another group of instruments (strings arco or pizz., for example). Chords in three-part harmony are generally given to two instruments of one timbre and a third instrument of another, but never to three different timbres.

Overlaying of parts is the best course to adopt:

The use of crossing and enclosure of parts (which in a way amount to the same thing) must depend on the manner of their progression:

B. Wood-wind in three's.

Here the distribution of chords in close three-part harmony is self-evident; any grouping of three instruments of the same timbre is sure to sound well:

Overlaying of parts is the best method to follow in writing close four-part harmony; three instruments of the same timbre with a fourth instrument of another. Crossing and enclosure of parts may also be employed. Correspondence of timbres and the progression of remote parts must be kept in mind:

The method of using three instruments of the same timbre in widely divided three-part harmony is inferior:

Professor Belkin Comment: Again, woodwinds don’t work well harmonically in open spacing!

But if the third instrument is of low register (Bass flute, English horn, Bass Clarinet, or Contrabassoon), the resonance will be satisfactory:

In chords of four-part harmony, three instruments of the same timbre should be combined with a fourth instrument of another:

Next Lesson: Lesson 14 - HARMONY - Wood-wind - Several Parts & Duplication