Brass and Saxophone Quartets

A February edition of this blog mentioned the useful fact that a sax quartet arrangement, written for the conventional line-up of soprano, alto, tenor and baritone, works equally well for a brass quartet comprising cornet/trumpet, Eb horn, euphonium and Eb tuba (providing the euphonium and tuba read treble clef). The pitches of the instruments are the same without transposition but occasional modifications might be necessary:

(1) The Eb tuba can go much lower than the baritone sax so that a change of octave in the bass part may be beneficial, within the constraints of voice leading considerations*.

(2) A change of key may be desirable to respect the Eb horn’s lesser ability to stay aloft for long periods.

*Taking bass notes up an octave needs to be done with care. The book describes the potentially damaging effect to sonority, especially when higher extensions are used (which can also limit the variety of inversions).  

Only one thing spoils the ‘fun’. Most brass quartets employ a different instrumentation. One reason for the existence of the cornet, Eb horn, euphonium, tuba line-up is the British tradition of writing brass band arrangements so that, with members of the band absent because of industrial injury, shift work or political activities, each voice of the quartet ‘core’ of the ensemble (soprano, alto, tenor and bass) is represented. Because of this style of orchestration, bands can still produce a good sound without the full complement of musicians. Here, the soprano voice is represented by cornet/trumpet, not the soprano cornet (which was generally used to bring a sparkle to ensembles by providing an upper octave).

It’s also worth pointing out the (obvious?) fact that various sizes of tuba are chosen. The Eb tuba (together with its bigger brother, the BBb) are standard in all British brass bands.

Typical brass quartet line-ups worldwide are:

Two trumpets, (French) horn (or trombone), euphonium;

Two trumpets and two trombones (one of them being a bass trombone);

Two trumpets, trombone (or euphonium) and tuba.

Cornets can be used instead of trumpets but the cornet, although very agile because of its more conical air column, lacks the projection of the trumpet. Good players can overcome this to an extent that makes a blindfold test quite tricky. (A conical column of air responds more readily than the more cylindrical shape of the trumpet.)

The so-called (in Britain) tenor horn is an alto instrument, one reason I now call it an Eb horn to avoid confusion across national boundaries. Other alto instruments include the single horn, mellophonium and mellophone, all of which tune down from F to Eb. (the term French horn has largely dropped out of use),

Further confusion exists with regard to the baritone horn, which is a tenor instrument with the same compass as the tenor trombone. The three valve euphonium has a similar range but the four valve models now in common use possess an extended low register. Euphoniums were also called tenor tubas in older scores.

All this is more evidence of the confusing effects of tradition and local customs in music.

Some publishers include alternative parts (for example, trombone instead of horn) at no extra cost. All publishers should offer horn, transposed appropriately, as an alternative to the Eb horn.

Bass clef parts (in concert pitch) should also be offered for the benefit of the many trombone, euphonium, tuba and baritone horn players who don’t read treble clef. This is especially true in the USA. Bass clef tenor trombone parts are standard in big bands, orchestras and military bands, although tenor clef is occasionally used (but never in the big band, at least not in my wide experience). Tradition and customs again play an important role here.

The sax quartet situation is simpler. There are hundreds of sax quartets worldwide and they all, with one exception I’ve encountered so far, use the soprano, alto, tenor, baritone line-up as the standard format. Together, these instruments offer a huge orchestral range, comfortably exceeding the compass of treble and bass clefs combined. Unusually wide-spaced voicings may be used because of the tendency of the rich overtones in the saxophone sound to ‘fill in’ the voids.

Some players double on all the saxes, in addition to offering flute, clarinet, bass clarinet, oboe etc.

Many quartets have a clearly defined musical policy. They may specialize in classical styles, the Baroque, jazz, popular music or the avant-garde. Most have found that it pays to be versatile and vary their program to suit the occasion.

The richness of sound, range and versatility of the sax quartet never ceases to amaze me.


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