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If I were to write a score for a symphonic orchestra, could I include five separate staves for five separate flutes (each one having its own unique part throughout the score) or is it forbidden in classical music?

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  • Edward Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance March No. 3 in C Minor has 3 bassoon parts. Anything's possible.
    – Dekkadeci
    Feb 24, 2023 at 10:54
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    Are you asking about the notation (how the score looks) or about the orchestration (how many people are required)? Feb 24, 2023 at 14:26
  • @KilianFoth - Well, I only realized it just now that I was, in fact, asking about both the notation and the orchestration. Sorry if that was not according to the rules on this site.
    – brilliant
    Feb 24, 2023 at 15:10
  • It's not against the rules to ask closely related things in one question. But, it would be helpful if you edit your question so that the title, body, and tags matchup a bit better. Feb 24, 2023 at 15:29
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    .The rite of spring score has 4 bassoon (of which one doubles on contra 2) and a separate contra 1. The take home is that you write what you want. But the odder the setup the less chance you have of getting it performed.
    – ghellquist
    Feb 24, 2023 at 20:11

3 Answers 3

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A classic symphony orchestra has two flutes, a symphony orchestra with doubled woodwinds has four flutes, and occasionally we see something in between with three flutes. This means that while it is perfectly fine to score a piece asking for a fifth flute it means that an orchestra would need to get a fifth flute player. Many big orchestras have more players than what fits a single orchestra, to have reserve if a player cannot play and to have multiple ensembles such a symphonic ensemble, an opera ensemble, an ensemble of young players and so on. So in this case getting the orchestra may already have a fifth flute player available. With smaller orchestras there will still be the possibility of the orchestra getting an external player (often regular players might be teachers and get one of their students to play such parts).

Point is: If you really do need five flutes most orchestras should be able to get this done. But of course if you can avoid having to use five flutes it will make it a bit easier for an (especially small) orchestra to play the piece and will thus increase the chances of your piece actually being performed. So at least think about whether maybe one part could be played e.g. on a clarinet instead.

Regarding the number of staves you should use: Use as many staves as necessary to make the score easy to read. If all five flutes have very complex, individual parts it makes sense to notate them on separate staves in the score. It is very common to see this in notation. E.g. in Berlioz’ La Damnation de Faust there is a part where all 3 flutes change to piccolo:

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This is notated of three individual staves, to make the whole thing more readable. At the same time we have violins divided by 2, also notated on separate staves:

enter image description here

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  • Your question provides both very valuable theoretical as well as practical information. Thank you very much for your time!
    – brilliant
    Feb 24, 2023 at 11:21
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    Three flutes are far more common than four.
    – PiedPiper
    Feb 24, 2023 at 13:22
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    Would it be unusual for a symphonic piece to include instructions that if a fifth flute is available, it should play a certain part and a portion of some other instrument's part should be omitted? In pieces for smaller groups, I've certainly seen notations in piano parts like "Play cue notes only if no trumpet present".
    – supercat
    Feb 24, 2023 at 20:48
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    @supercat This could be done, but if the fifth flute is only taking an insubstantial part you’d need to call for a fifth flutist only for a small part, if on the other hand it took a substantial a part such an instruction you’d need keep an instrument free or occupied only with insignicant stuff to take the part if necessary.
    – Lazy
    Feb 25, 2023 at 7:25
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There's nothing stopping you from using however many flutes you want. There are no "forbidden" instrumentations in classical music. If you wanted to, you could use 500 flutes, though nobody would take the time to gather 500 flutists. Mahler's out here using a sledgehammer as an instrument!

A classical orchestra usually has two flutes, a larger symphonic orchestra usually consists of four. You'd rarely need five flutes in any context, though. It's a questionable choice, but if you want five flute lines, you can have five flute lines.

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  • -1 from me. The kind of “everything is allowed” answer is not helpful. Sure you can do everything, but lots of things are possible yet very unlikely to give good results. Using 500 flutes is one of those, and so is e.g. using 4 contrabassoons. But crucially, using 5 flutes is both completely managable for most orchestras, and also quite promising to enable musical feats that could work very well in a symphonic setting. Feb 24, 2023 at 17:23
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    Mahler's 8th symphony is scored with 4 flutes and piccolo, but between figures 25-29 in the 2nd movement he instructs the first piccolo to change to 5th flute. So it's not just allowed, its been done! Annoyingly, the instrument list at the front of the score says "ottavine" implying more than one piccolo but I think there's only one line for piccolo throughout. At figure 17+2 he says "1st piccolo change to 5th flute" so he was obviously expecting more than one piccolo in performance. As a side-issue, the more instruments you ask for, the less likely it is that you'll get it performed.
    – Peter
    Feb 24, 2023 at 17:59
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    I wouldn’t back the assumption that nobody would try to gather 500 flute players for a piece for 500 flutes ...
    – Lazy
    Feb 25, 2023 at 7:36
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    @leftaroundabout: I think it’s am important point, though, that “allowed”/“forbidden” is totally the wrong way to think about it. There are constraints, but they’re not rules in a book somewhere, they come from real-world practicalities — which makes a big difference when considering whether to “break” the rules.
    – PLL
    Feb 25, 2023 at 12:01
  • @PLL but that's just a matter of choice of worlds. Saying there are “constraints” is also not true, it has the same false dichotomy problem: for any constraint you could find an ensemble that makes it possible. Saying “it is allowed” is just as useless as saying “it is within the constraints”; instead one should be concrete and discuss what particular challenges this or that would incur and what it would take to overcome them. Feb 25, 2023 at 14:33
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Of course you can! You can orchestrate as many of whatever instruments as you want - it's your composition!

If you decide not to use a particular instrument, that player can usually be found in the bar, waiting for the next piece in the concert that it will be played in!

There's also the high possibility that someone in the orchestra may be able to double on flute - bear that in mind when writing all the other parts. If not, then bringing in a 'dep' for any missing flautist won't be a problem for the conductor, or manager, who between them probably know several. Go for it!

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  • May I ask you what exactly you mean by "doubling" here? Do you mean that one part written for only one flute may be played by two flautists in unison (perhaps, in order to increase the volume, or maybe to change the timbre a bit) or do you mean that a player of some other similar instrument (say, a clarinetist) because of being idol at that time can take over the flute and play that flute's part?
    – brilliant
    Feb 24, 2023 at 11:26
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    I mean there are players who double as in are good on more than one instrument. So it may not need to involve players brought in to augment the flute section, as an existing orch. member could play the part. Or, a player of a different instrument could swap over to flute while having a section of tacit anyway.
    – Tim
    Feb 24, 2023 at 12:47
  • @Tim Expecting an orchestra to have, say, a clarinettist who's willing and able to double on flute limits the chances of a performance. And they'll ask for a doubling fee as well. I assumes that we're talking about so-called "classical" music and a regular symphony orchestra. Instrument doubling is very common in theatre bands and jazz bands.
    – Peter
    Feb 24, 2023 at 18:08

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