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Classical Music

Instruments In Costume

A look at the instruments of the orchestra and the roles and characters they sometimes “dress up” as.


Conductor Brett Mitchell reveals his true identity at the Cleveland Orchestra Spooktacular Family Concert

Costumes are one of the most enduring aspects of Halloween. For kids and adults alike, dressing up as spooky monsters or larger-than-life characters is a pivotal part of the holiday's identity, and spending one night as Freddy Krueger or Queen Elsa can be a fun bit of role play.

Believe it or not, classical music also has its moments of role play! Though not all pieces tell a story, many of them do, and sometimes specifically enlist the various instruments to "dress up" and portray characters in the narrative. Here, we take a look at some of these instruments in their very own Halloween "costumes."


If the flute were an actor, you could definitely say it gets typecast quite frequently. Given its high pitch and whistle-like timbre, it's no surprise that bird songs are plentiful in the instrument's repertoire. Still, there is one fluty frequent flier who might be more famous than those birds: the bumblebee!


For this particular entry, you might liken the oboe to a one-man show. In Benjamin Britten's Six Metamorphoses after Ovid, he takes famous characters from Roman mythology and uses the solo oboe to represent their stories. "Narcissus," for instance, features a number of musical gestures that are mirrors of each other, representing the character falling in love with his own reflection.

English Horn

Possibly the most well-known solo for this instrument, the Swan of Tuonela by Jean Sibelius is inspired by Finnish mythology. In the story, the hero Lemminkäinen is told to kill a sacred swan that swims around Tuonela, the world of the dead. This particular piece is one of four in Sibelius' Lemminkäinen Suite, and the English horn represents the titular bird.


Like the flute, the clarinet has its share of birdsong excerpts. In fact, its particular timbre is a strong match for the call of the cuckoo bird, which it has portrayed in music by Beethoven (joined by the flute and oboe) as well as Camille Saint-Saëns.


Not only does the instrument itself represent one of the biggest American pop icons in history in this work, but the tradition goes that the soloist should also dress up in costume during live performance. Michael Daugherty's Dead Elvis is a quirky piece combining all of the magic of rock and roll with the famous Medieval plainchant tune Dies irae.


Perhaps one of the best pieces of music to illustrate this idea of instruments as characters, Peter and the Wolf is often used as an educational work to teach children about the sounds of the orchestra. Here, the horns are used for the ominous theme of the Wolf.


Ravel's orchestration of Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (originally for piano) brings many of the programmatic elements of the piece to life due to the superb orchestration. This is particularly striking in "Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle" where a high, stuttering trumpet line represents the poor beggar Schmuÿle.


The robust sound of the trombone seems quite fitting for the Greek god of wine, ritual madness, and religious ecstasy, among other things. Thus it was for John Mackey when he was tasked with writing a concerto for the instrument and wind ensemble with the trombone starring as Dionysus.


Given the instrument's size, what could be more fitting for the tuba than a big, dancing bear? And so it is for Igor Stravinsky's ballet Petrushka as a peasant and his pet bear are part of a big carnival that occurs throughout the story.


Though more of an abstract concept than an actual character, the rattling of bones is an important component of two works by Camille Saint-Saëns, the Danse macabre (where the solo violin "dresses up" as Death), and "Fossils" from Carnival of the Animals, represented both times by the dry, staccato sound of the xylophone.


For such a prolific instrument, the violin has had its share of "costumes" in the classical music canon. One of the most intriguing comes from Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber, a Baroque composer and violinist. His Sonata representativa is quite a clever piece for its time, using the violin to represent a number of animals like various birds, a frog, and even a cat.


Though Hector Berlioz's Harold en Italie is inspired by Lord Byron's poem Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, the symphony itself does not present the same narrative from the story. It's more like Berlioz took the character of Harold (represented by the viola) and created his own set of scenes that are depicted through the music.


And in complete contrast to the previous example, Richard Strauss' Don Quixote takes scenes directly from the original novel by Miguel de Cervantes. The piece itself is an elaborate theme and variations, with Don Quixote himself represented by the cello and his faithful companion Sancho Panza by the viola, bass clarinet, and tenor tuba. Each variation depicts the characters' various adventures (and mishaps).

Double Bass

Much like the tuba and the bear, the double bass embraces its size and deep sound in representing the elephant in Camille Saint-Saëns' Carnival of the Animals. And for an instrument that is usually relegated to playing accompaniment, it's a fresh bit of melodic writing for the bass.

Joshua Zinn

Joshua Zinn

Producer, Houston Matters

Joshua is a producer for Houston Matters on News 88.7 as well as the host of Encore Houston on Houston Public Media Classical. He joined Houston Public Media as a radio intern in 2014 and became a full-time announcer the following year. Now he prepares segments and occasionally records interviews...

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