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I'm writing a paper on the song 'Mood Indigo' by Duke Ellington, from 1930. It is known for its achingly beautiful sound, which is achieved via three-part harmony of trumpet, trombone, and clarinet. However, it places the trombone in its highest register, and the clarinet in its lowest register, so that the order of voicing from top to bottom is trumpet-trombone-clarinet. This combined with mutes in the trumpet and trombone has the effect of creating a unique, elusive tone color.

I read from John Hasse's "Beyond Category" biography of Duke Ellington about the arrangement for Mood Indigo: "As Gunther Schuller has asserted, the resulting tonal colors probably had never been heard before in all of music history."

I imagine he's right if you restrict your search to harmonies involving muted trumpet, muted trombone, and clarinet in the same voicing order. But are there any examples of simply voicing clarinet below trombone at all, in any previous works? I would be interested to know of them.

  • Ellington was well known for writing parts for instruments that were outside their "normal" or typical range. I personally do not know of a piece that has your particular instruments voiced that way. – ggcg Mar 17 at 13:55
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    MIght be interesting to expand the scope a bit. Perhaps find music with any lower brass (trombone, baritone horn, even French Horn) voiced above single reeds (clarinet, tenor or bari sax, etc. ) – Carl Witthoft Mar 18 at 12:43
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    Good question. Unfortunately, pretty hard to answer definitively. But I would guess that the Duke wasn't the first to score a clarinet lower than a trombone. It's pretty common for the trombone in jazz to play around middle C or above, and a clarinet accompanying it might well hit notes lower. I've done it myself in a ragtime band, playing clarinet below a trombone solo- admittedly, post 1930. So my guess is that although you might be hard put to find a written example, if you listen to lots of jazz from the twenties and thirties you will probably hear some. – Scott Wallace Mar 18 at 14:44
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    @ScottWallace makes a good point in that in a context where the trombone is a soloist, it's possible (even likely) that clarinet backgrounds will be below them from time to time. But that would be a contrapuntal orchestration. In a chordal harmony, voicing clarinet below trombone is indeed quite rare, and I'm also curious if there are other and earlier examples. – Max Apr 25 at 1:11
  • @MaxKapur - I'm sure you're right- in a normal chordal setting, for instance in classical symphonies, the clarinet is probably just about never if ever scored below the trombone. – Scott Wallace Apr 25 at 12:18
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John Hasse appears to be correct, for as far as I am aware, this mixture has not been deliberately used by a skilled composer previously, with some possible exceptions by Ravel and Mahler. It is rare due to the rough harmonics such a combination may produce. (depending upon the register)

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    What are the "possible exceptions" you have in mind? This seems like a pretty clear-cut issue. Either the trombone is above the clarinet or it isn't. – Max Apr 26 at 6:35
  • It depends on the pitch of the instrument because the frequency spectrum is different depending on the register. Additionally, perception is also significant as the harmonics become less audible above an instrumental tone of about 3000hz. – Laprtsenia Apr 26 at 7:10

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