The Instruments in Ponchielli's Bands



The only woodwind instruments that Ponchielli used were clarinets, as a family extending from the tiny A-flat clarinet to the bass clarinet in B-flat. The 1884 picture of the band contains only one image of a clarinet with its mouthpiece attached or uncovered. While this is only one B-flat player, the image clearly shows the reed on the bottom as opposed to the upper placement that some Italian players used as late as mid twentieth century. While it may be a stretch to assume this was the norm in the Cremona band, the “school” approach used in its structure would allow the general assumption that this was practice in the band of Cremona.

In the scores Ponchielli refers to the clarinets as "clarini," though "clarinetto" is used in the audition documents and correspondence. While the clarinets played almost constantly, their main technical advantage over the high brass was their agility in arpeggiated passages and very soft accompaniments. One surprising technique that all of the clarinets were expected to accomplish was a rapid, tremolo-like agitation that seems to have been accomplished by the same technique that brass players use called “double-tonguing.” What is even more amazing is that all of the clarinet section, including the students, was expected to do this.

A-flat Clarinet

Ponchielli called for this instrument in both Piacenza and Cremona. In fact, the Cremona band used a flute/piccolo player before and after Ponchielli’s tenure. In both ensembles one man, Vittorio Franchini, was the designated performer. A measure of Ponchielli’s regard for Franchini was that Franchini’s name topped a list Ponchielli scribbled on the last page of a score with “Piacenza/Parma” noted after it. Franchini was from Parma, and Ponchielli was going to search for him as the situation in Cremona had become untenable. Though the A-flat clarinet had a range that extended to G6, Ponchielli rarely writes above E4. While it usually plays in octaves with the first B-flat clarinet, it can also be used to double the E-flat clarinet at pitch. In a few rare cases, Ponchielli expected Franchini to switch to E-flat clarinet to have two in the ensemble.

E-flat Clarinet

Francesco Ottoboni was designated as the E-flat clarinetist in Ponchielli’s band. Sometime after Ponchielli’s departure Ottoboni assumed the position of B-flat soloist. Ponchielli’s use of the E-flat clarinet was fairly straightforward in the band as it was treated as reinforcement for the upper register of the B-flat clarinets and an occasional doubler at the octave, i.e., as a “flute.” Ponchielli was very fond of Ottoboni’s ability adapting a work intended for B-flat clarinet to E-flat clarinet. As this is a direct transcription raised a fourth, Ponchielli carries the instrument up to G4, nearly the highest practicable note on the instrument.

B-flat Clarinets

There were eight of them most of the time, divided among two firsts, three seconds, and three third/fourths. In 1868 two of the student positions were left undesignated as to instrument, so more might have been possible. Alessandro Peri was an old friend of Ponchielli’s, one of the two dedicatees of the virtuosic II Convegno for two clarinets and piano composed in 1856. The “associate” (di spalla) first clarinet is treated as principal player as well, indicating that he was to carry a significant part of the work. All of Ponchielli’s solo works for clarinets were transcriptions from other composers though he often improved and tightened their material. Aside from the obvious difficulty of his writing for the clarinets, Ponchielli showed a remarkable knowledge of technical information about intonation and the real difficulties of playing, e.g., he would voice the third clarinets above the second clarinets.

Bass Clarinets

After the manner of referring to the clarinets as "clarini," Ponchielli calls the bass clarinet "clarone" or ‘big clarinet.” These instruments appear after 1867 and always as a pair. The players for these instruments were always drawn from the top of the section. The late arrival of these instruments may have been the result of part of the deal Ponchielli struck with the city government in the founding of the 1865 band. As part of the plan for the continued improvement of the band, the city agreed to allow the musicians access to low or no-interest loans to buy instruments and uniforms.


Cornets and Flugelhorns

The exact position of solo cornet or flugelhorn does not appear in a Cremona band roster until 1868. The 1861 roster from Piacenza lists the Vicemaestro “Nicari (no first name)” as “cornet or flugelhorn.” Achille Bissocoli (who became Vicemaestro in Cremona) is initially listed as a flugelhorn player and later as solo cornet. The second player seems to have been called a “high” (alto) flugelhorn player. Eventually there would be two of each in the scores produced after 1870. The cornets usually doubled the clarinets at the unison or octave lower. The flugelhorns might double the cornets or add layers of harmony from other clarinet parts. The technically simple parts for the E-flat cornet can be understood as they seem to have always been played by a student. In spite of its name “pistoncino,” the instrument was likely a rotary valve instrument as were all of the brasses.

Genis and Horns

None of the rosters (except for the first “test” roster of 1865) lists a first horn. Ponchielli preferred a genis in E-flat. The exact etymology of this term is unknown, but it certainly referred to an instrument called a “tenor horn” in the British brass band or an “alto horn” in American usage. The same length as the contralto trumpet or alto trombone, it was half the length of a normal horn. Ponchielli often has it play a melodic line in unison with the flicorno basso or at the octave with cornets. Otherwise, it was the top part of a trio of horns. Though written in E-flat, the actual pitch of the horns used in Ponchielli’s band cannot be ascertained. The horns played almost constantly as the brass accompaniment instrument of choice. In spite of their simple, continuous parts, the horns were often required (with no doublings) to provide important harmonic-rhythmic parts in their extreme low register.


There were as many as six of them playing up to five distinct parts. Pitched in low E-flat, they were the successors to the unvalved, “natural” trumpet that was used before the invention of valves. Except for the first trumpet part, they were relegated to a harmonic-rhythmic function similar to the horns. In fact, it was often the same actual part re-voiced to accommodate their slight difference in range. Occasionally they added a new rhythmic unit, complicating the rhythmic drive. The principal trumpet was often assigned to play in unison with the first cornet. A common colla parte in Ponchielli’s scores is for the first trumpet to double the E-flat clarinet at the octave. Giuseppe Cesura seems to have been hired as principal trumpet without audition. He had been in the Cremona band before, but no document of his audition exists. His rise to Vicemaestro by 1868 suggests that there was too much work for Bissocoli to do by himself. Francesco Belforti continues in the dual role as tromba di spalla (associate principal trumpet) and copyist that he held in Piacenza. From a list supplied by Ponchielli to the band's oversight committee (Comitato di sorviglienza) we know that Cesura played an Austrian-made instrument pitched in F. Whether he merely read the E-flat parts directly or had an extra long bit inserted to lower the pitch to the normal key used in the band, one cannot say. Ponchielli’s solo works for trumpet are all for F trumpet.

Flicorno basso

Ponchielli’s concerto for this instrument suggests a prominent solo role. Pitched in B-flat and used to replace the vocal tenor in opera scenes, the flicorno basso might best be replaced today by the baritone used in the British brass band. It had a tenor-bass range, but likely had a light sound due to its usually narrow bore. No one is listed in the roster of 1865 as the man to whom the position was offered refused it. Though the position is listed in 1868, there are no names given for any position. The result is that the soloist for whom the concerto was intended cannot be discovered.


There seems to have always been two of them, though rarely is there more than one part. This seems to be similar to the position of the euphonium in the modern British brass band. Pitched in B-flat like the flicorno basso, the solo bombardino had an operatic function as the bass-baritone voice in the vocal quartet. From this one might assume a larger bore and a darker sound. Alessandro Fantini was paid the same as the first trombone and flicorno basso in the roster of 1868. This is further borne out in the scores as these three instruments played exactly the same notes in almost every tutti scored by Ponchielli. While duets (even in purely instrumental works) between bombardino and flicorno basso were frequent, the trombone rarely was used in this manner.


These were, of course, the “modern” valve trombones. Their appearance was different from today’s instruments regarding the placement of the valve section. The first trombone‘s part was indistinguishable from the flicorno basso and bombardino as noted above. Second and third trombone often doubled the horns and low trumpets as part of a larger harmonic-rhythmic structure. The third trombone may have been pitched in F and often seemed to have no part. This is one of many places where Belforti had to create a part, usually a double of the upper tuba part. One cannot depend upon Ponchielli to always provide such a written direction.


There seem to have always been three tubas. Alessandro Zavarroni was another direct transplant from Piacenza for whom no audition documents remain. In Piacenza he was listed as “Pelittone” and as “Bombardone” in Cremona. While the three-man genis and horn section cost 780 liras annually, the three-man bass section cost 1900 liras per year. Generally, instruments in E-flat and F seemed to have predominated, though there are suggestions of a BB-flat contra instrument as well. The Pelittone could have been in any one of these keys. Oddly, there is a hint that the F instrument played the lower line of the often two-octave bass parts as it may have had four instead of three valves. Roberto Haagen was the third son of the former Austrian bandmaster to play in the band. He appears in the 1865 roster as a “student” and first Pelittone. A letter from Ponchielli in 1866 asks that he be advanced to 800 liras as a principal player, a position he would hold until his death in 1916. Ponchielli obviously thought a strong bass line important to his band. Both Haagen and Zavarroni were paid at the highest possible wage and had (between them) to be able to negotiate nearly three octaves of range, greater than any other brass performer.


Officially there were two performers, a snare drummer and a bass drum/cymbal player. The preliminary roster of 1865 lists a separate cymbal player, but he does not appear in the final version. The low pay of the snare drummer may have had to do with supply and demand as many young boys learned to play for the Guardia nazionale. While Ponchielli’s snare parts seem very easy, the performer was expected to ornament the part in a tasteful manner using the rudiments learned as a drummer boy. The 500 liras for Luigi Avulli as bass drum/cymbal player reflects Ponchielli’s dependence and confidence in his contribution to the band. Ponchielli rarely writes in a cymbal part, expecting Avulli to add it appropriately. Triangle and tambourine are called for occasionally, and the “servants” or students likely played them.