One of my favorite chamber ensembles is the woodwind quintet. Nestled in the pocket between solo instrumental music and orchestral music is a colorful world of chamber ensembles with a wide array of literature that is widely unknown to the general population. The string quartet is one of the most common chamber ensembles (2 violins, 1 viola, 1 cello), but when you look at wind instruments, there is nothing quite like a woodwind quintet.
Whereas the string quartet is very homogeneous in sound, the woodwind quintet consists of five distinct tone colors that blend in unique ways to create marvelous music. We will be discussing the development of the woodwind quintet, woodwind quintet instruments (answering the question “Why is a French Horn in a woodwind quintet?”), and some of the most popular pieces in the woodwind quintet repertoire.
The Development of the Woodwind Quintet
Many scholars have attempted to pinpoint the origin of this ensemble, but it is difficult to say for certain exactly when and how this ensemble came to be.
During the 18th century, woodwind instruments were not seen as incredibly virtuosic. Technical limitations on the instruments relegated them as accessories to string instruments in large ensemble settings, adding volume, accents, or harmonic support to an otherwise string dominated piece. However, many enhancements to all the woodwind instruments started pushing their technical abilities and improved intonation, allowing them to have a more significant contribution.
Classical orchestras often had 2 clarinets, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, and 2 french horns. The flute was not a staple in the genre. A somewhat popular chamber music genre from the classical era is the wood octet, which basically featured the woodwind section from the orchestra.
Mozart wrote several well-known compositions for these instruments, and there are even arrangements of major orchestral works for this genre, presumably to make the music more accessible to the population. You have to think, without recorded music, how did people experience a Mozart or Beethoven symphony? Sometimes, arrangements for smaller ensembles helped expose this music to more people.
It is believed that the woodwind quintet is a natural evolution of the wind octet, taking one principal player from each member of the wind section of a classical orchestra. The twenty-four wind quintets of Anton Reicha and the nine quintets of Franz Danzi really provided the foundation that inspired other composers to write for the ensemble, and thus, the wind quintet flourished.
Woodwind Quintet Instruments
Why is a French horn in a woodwind quintet?
Hopefully, in some way, we have already answered this question. The inclusion of the french horn in the woodwind quintet is confusing mostly because the ensemble was named a woodwind quintet. However, as we can see, the genre evolved from the wind section of the classical orchestra, and the standard classical orchestra only had one brass instrument, the french horn.
To composers of the mid-18th century, the horn was an important instrument that could sustain a beautiful harmonic texture, provided volume and drama, and was used rhythmically to accent certain beats of the music. Its distinct tone color creates yet another texture for the ensemble.
Orchestrationally, the horn blends well with the clarinet and creates a tonal balance in the ensemble. While one early iteration of the quintet uses an English horn instead of a French horn, it tends to make the ensemble a bit heavy on the double reed tone, which, to some, can create a tonal imbalance. Yet another reason for the French Horn to be the horn of choice for this combination.
The Woodwinds in the Quintet
The other four instruments in a woodwind quintet are the flute, clarinet, oboe, and bassoon.
The flute was on the verge of a renaissance in the late 18th century. Technical developments were pushing the instrument into the limelight, both in chamber music, and becoming a standard member of the orchestra. The flute provides a wide range and can play the highest notes in the ensemble. Its range and unique tone in the ensemble makes it a likely candidate for soaring melodic lines and melodic counterpoint, while the lower register can blend well with the clarinet and horn to create harmonic support for other instruments.
The clarinet’s conical construction and warm, wooden tone, allows for wonderful blending with the horn and the low register of the flute. It also has a large range and, in its upper registers, makes a nice melodic instrument or a good counterpoint for the flute and/or oboe.
The oboe’s double reed cuts through the ensemble, adding drama and intrigue to the music. Its distinct tone can highlight melodic lines in the middle and lower register which is sometimes difficult for the flute or clarinet to do in certain settings. It blends well with its double reed counterpart, the bassoon.
Lastly, the bassoon provides a low foundation for the ensemble. It is often used in conjunction or alternating with the horn to provide harmonic context. As a double reed, it can cut through a fully orchestrated section of music and carry a melodic line as needed, but can also provide a rhythmic bass to help ground a piece of music.
So as you can see, each of these instruments are unique, but each can contribute to a wonderful texture that allows for a wide range of musical possibilities.
Woodwind Quintet Repertoire
The woodwind quintet repertoire is vast, and many well-known composers have contributed to the genre. Below is just a highlight of some pieces in the genre to help you start exploring.
Reicha - Woodwind Quintet in Eb Major, Op. 88 No. 2 (1818) - As we mentioned before, Anton Reicha is one of the first composers to seriously write for the woodwind quintet and helped establish the genre. The Quintet in Eb Major (Op. 88 No. 2) is perhaps his most loved and most often played piece in the genre. Here is a performance of the second movement by the Midic Winds.
Hindemith - Little Chamber Music (1922) - What do you do if you want to push the boundaries of tonality? You find a Hindemith Woodwind Quintet. Paul Hindemith, one of the great composers of the early 20th century, contributed to the genre with his Kleine Kammermusik or Little Chamber Music (Op. 24/2). Hindemith’s music is always full of drama, and this is no exception. A fun and exciting, but difficult, piece and a jewel in the genre. Here is a performance by Wally Hase, Nick Deutsch, Thorsten Johanns, Ole Kristeian Dahl, and Saar Berger.
Nielsen - Quintet for Wind Op. 43 (1922) - The Nielsen Woodwind Quintet is another piece that has elevated the genre. Carl Nielsen, a Danish composer, is introduced to many students through his chamber music. He wrote six symphonies and two operas, but this wind quintet is one of his most beloved works. Oddly enough, it was written around the same time as Hidemith’s composition. Here are the winds of the Berlin Philharmonic playing Nielsen’s Woodwind Quintet.
Many other composers contributed to the genre from Gustav Holst to Percy Grainer, Samuel Barber to Jacques Ibert. It is a repertoire as vast as any solo catalog which has allowed this ensemble to flourish. Better yet, new works are being written all the time. There is so much to discover.
The wind quintet is one of the staples in the chamber music scene. Most major universities have a faculty wind quintet and most major orchestras produce wind quintet concerts as part of a chamber music series. Playing in a wind quintet is a wonderful experience, and exploring the repertoire as both a player and a listener will open your ears to a whole new sonic world not possible within orchestral or solo literature.