Woodwind instruments are common to virtually all musical cultures. The basic principle -- that of a hollow piece of wood blown to create a musical tone -- has been known since the earliest times, and examples can be found among the ancient Egyptian, Assyrian, Judaean, Greek and other civilisations.
In the Greek tradition, the aulos -- in which the vibrations of a reed mouthpiece create a sound amplified by the cylinder to which it is attached -- was celebrated, while the panpipes or syrinx (consisting of a bundle of pipes of different lengths tied together) was particularly associated with shepherds. The Romans had their own names for similar instruments.
These, together with the simple flute (in origin just a hollowed-out stick, with a series of holes providing different notes) continued on into the middle ages, when the recorder (the word once carried the connotation of singing) was added as an import from Slavic countries. The Medieval French composer Guillaume de Machaut defined recorders as 'flaustes dont droit joues' ('flutes played straight') as opposed to flutes proper, which he called 'flaustes traversaines' (i.e. held across the player's face). The Medieval period also saw the arrival of the shawm , possibly via Sicily but of Arab origin. Its double reed enabled the player to breathe through his nose while he played without pausing. Also first recorded at this time was the bagpipe , which was originally a herdsman's instrument in which the task of supplying the air to the reed was delegated to a leather bag pumped by the player. With the exception of the bagpipe -- which has remained a successful folk instrument within many cultures (not least that of Scotland) to this day -- all of the other woodwind mentioned above have, in various modified forms, found their way into the concert hall on a regular basis.
Flutes and recorders long remained rivals, but rather in the same way as the violin family put viols out of business for centuries (until the modern revival of interest in 'early music'), so the larger and richer tone of the flute once appeared to have ousted the recorder completely. During the Renaissance period, however, the recorder (or its 'duet-for-one' form, the double recorder : two instruments held together, each played with one hand) was immensely popular, while the transverse flute was relatively neglected. By the time of the theoretician Michael Praetorius , writing about 1620, eight different sizes of recorder were known (contrabass recorders were nine feet long).
Meanwhile a development in the range of the flute brought about by giving the tube a wider cylindrical bore made that instrument more appealing. The increased expressivity of the flute in its altered form saw recorders largely discarded at the end of the Baroque period, but the instrument made a remarkable come-back in the twentieth century -- partly due to the exertions of the English early-music pioneer Arnold Dolmetsch , who saw to it that virtually every child in the land attempted to play one.
The flute, meanwhile, went from strength to strength, achieving early admittance to the regular line-up of the Baroque orchestra and gaining in technical sophistication in the hands of makers such as Theobald Boehm during the nineteenth century. Together with its relatives the alto flute , the rarer bass flute and the shrill piccolo , the flute occupies the top range in the woodwind section with pride.
The oboe derives directly from the shawm, and its raw, nasal tone contrasts vividly with the smoother sound of the flute. The name comes from the French 'hautbois' (high or loud wood) and the instrument's first appearance in domesticated form was in France during the Baroque era: drawing on the example of the fashionable French orchestral line-up it was quickly taken up elsewhere. Of its variant forms, the most notable is the cor anglais (or English horn ), a kind of tenor model; more rarely met with are the alto and bass oboes . Following the example of Boehm and his revamping of the flute, nineteenth century oboe makers developed the instrument for the larger contexts in which it was then operating (much the same could be said of the other woodwind). More keys were added, and ebony or rosewood became the standard materials. In the case of the flute, metal replaced wood entirely during this period.
Lower down in pitch but arriving at much the same time as the oboe was the bassoon , whose predecessor was the rough-toned dulzian or curtal . The bassoon provided a strong woodwind bass line in Baroque orchestral textures. Sounding an octave below, the double bassoon was also a creation of the Baroque, though its particularly vivid tone colours had to wait for the late Romantic era for their full exploitation.
Last to arrive on the regular woodwind scene was the clarinet , a single reed instrument evolved from an obscure folk instrument called the chalumeau by a Nuremberg maker called Johann Christian Denner around 1710. Its dark, smooth tone took some time to win wide approval, and it made its first notable orchestral appearances with the works of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart , who wrote for it with outstanding sympathy. In the Romantic period, Carl Maria von Weber and Johannes Brahms followed his lead. In time-honoured fashion, smaller and larger forms were invented: the E flat clarinet and bass clarinet are the most common. Alone amongst true woodwind instruments, the clarinet later found a second home for itself in jazz .
Even more popular with jazz musicians is the saxophone , a kind of metal clarinet with a broad reed and a conical bore invented by Adolphe Sax in Brussels around 1840. Sax created fourteen members of the family, of which the soprano (in C), the alto (in E flat) and the tenor (in C) are the most popular. Composers ranging from Georges Bizet and Claude Debussy to Alban Berg and Mark-Anthony Turnage have frequently made use of the instrument in 'classical' contexts.
Guide to Classical Music
on radio 3
Essential Guide to Classical Music
What's On Classical TV and Radio
Guide to the Orchestra
on the web
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