String instruments. Orchestrating a Melody within the String Section doubled in the Woodwinds
As a general rule, all combinations of strings and woodwinds are good because the strings soften the sound of the woodwinds and the woodwinds amplify the sound of the strings so it is a win-win situation.
Combinations in Unison
As Rimsky-Korsakov wrote, the best and most natural combinations are those between instruments with corresponding registers:
- Violins + Flute, Piccolo, Bass Flute, Oboe, Clarinet. A very effective technique to soften a harsh violin melody is to double with a piccolo playing at a softer dynamic, in unison.
- Violas + Oboe, English Horn, Clarinet, Bassoon
- Cellos + Clarinet, Bass Clarinet, Bassoon
- Basses + Bass Clarinet, Bassoon, Contra Bassoon
Combinations in Octaves, Thirds and Sixths
Doublings of strings in octaves with woodwinds in octaves are common and can be used according to the combinations mentioned above. However, since they create a rather big wall of sound, they should only be used when a particular effect is desirable (such as tutti) rather than for an entire musical passage.
Another concept worth mentioning here is heterophonic doubling. This is Korsakov’s solution to the loss of transparency arising from doubling a melody in too many different instruments. Heterophonic doubling essentially means employing a slightly varied version of the melodic line in each doubling instrument. Variations can be of rhythmic or melodic nature, as long as the ‘essence’ of the melody remains unaltered.
Orchestrating a Melody within the String Section doubled in the Brass
Due to the ‘special’ nature of brass instruments, string-brass combinations are not as smooth as string-woodwind ones. In such combinations, each family can be clearly heard (e.g. in a violins-trumpets combinations, the listener can easily discern the violins and trumpets).
As with string-woodwind combinations, when we want to double strings with brass instruments it is best to choose instruments of ‘relevant’ registers:
– Violins + Trumpets
– Violas + French Horns
– Cellos + Trombones
– Basses + Tubas
However, since rules are being formed to be broken, one of the most beautiful orchestral sounds is Cellos + French Horns. These two families blend beautifully together; the cello adding a ‘mournfulness’ to the sound of the horn and the horn adding nobility to the sound of the cello.
String-Brass combinations are also useful when we want to make counterlines more present in an orchestration. For example, when a Viola or Cello countermelody is too weak, we can bring it out by doubling it with French Horns.
Orchestrating a Melody in Strings + Woodwinds + Brass
String-Woodwind-Brass combinations are usually employed in unison rather than in octaves and the woodwinds play the role of the ‘mediator’ between strings and brass, helping them blend better with each other. A melody doubled in all three sections is effective in loud passages and should again be used as a special effect rather than as a regularly-employed technique.
The most important goal when writing string harmonies is to achieve an equal balance of the harmonic parts. The first step in successfully and effectively orchestrating your harmony in the string section is to have a nicely-crafted harmony to begin with. Make sure that each chord flows into the next as smoothly as possible and each instrument has a playable and interesting line.
The next step is to take your 3-, 4- or X-part harmony and assign each line to a string family. Let me clarify here that when I refer to 3-part harmony I don’t necessarily mean triadic harmony (i.e. chords comprising of Root-3rd-5th) but any chord comprising of 3 parts. Also, ‘4-part harmony’ refers to any chord structure that comprises of four notes (R-3-5-7 or R-3-5-9 etc.). Any 3-part structure can be turned into a 4-part structure with doubling.
The standard and most straightforward approach to orchestrating any chord in the string section is to assign chord tones according to the range and role of the instrument. For example, the obvious choice for the top note(s) of the chord are the violins and for the bottom are the basses. Another thing to always have in mind is that while close voicings sound well in higher registers, it is best for the lower notes to be spaced in larger intervals because close intervals between basses and cellos will sound very muddy.