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Chronicle of the NonPop Revolution


On Composing for Woodwind Quintet

by Zeke Hecker


This essay originally appeared in Consorting, newsletter of the Consortium of Vermont Composers.

    Since I first played oboe in a woodwind quintet at about age 13, I've been a fan. I love the richness of five distinct, heterogeneous voices that blend in innumerable ways, so unlike the insistent unity of the string quartet. (Only two of the quintet instruments share the same sound-producing mechanism, and even those two don't sound much alike. The oboe and bassoon are both double reeds; the clarinet is a single reed; the flute has a sound-hole; the horn isn't even a woodwind, but just wandered in from sheer curiosity, and stayed for 200 years.)

    I have played through much of the regular repertory in ad hoc groups, for fun, and I've been in one or two longer-lived quintets. I first wrote for woodwind quintet in the mid-1970's, and since have composed about 90 minutes' worth of quintet music, in addition to doing some transcriptions (yes, there are always transcriptions). The point is that I'm an admirer, not an expert. What follows are some observations, some half-baked truths, some principles I try to follow but often can't.

    The standard woodwind quintet -- flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon -- first appeared in the late 18th century. It flourished briefly around 1800, all but disappeared until the late 19th century, and made a triumphant reappearance in the 20th. The very qualities which left the Romantics cold have recommended it to modern composers: precision, clarity, lightness, wit. Since 19th-century values and repertory still dominate concert life, the woodwind quintet has never achieved the status with audiences that its tireless and passionate sister, the string quartet, enjoys. Permanently constituted touring woodwind quintets appeared only in the 1950's (the Philadelphia group was perhaps the first great one), but in recent decades they have proliferated as part of the chamber music boomlet. Amateur quintets abound. The repertory, overwhelmingly 20th century, has been enriched by hundreds of composers, including some of the most eminent.


    The first things to consider when composing for this medium are the capabilities and limitations of the individual instruments. I won't say much about that here. You should know their ranges (if you don't, keep a chart on your piano rack); you should know what to avoid in the clarinet's throat register; you should know which fingerings drive bassoonists crazy.

    But don't think primarily in terms of limitations. The refinements in design and construction of woodwind instruments (achieved mostly by 19th century French builders), combined with the increasing demands made on players by 20th century composers, have produced astonishing results. Wind players can do much more than is customarily required of them. The virtuoso potential, especially of the treble instruments, is tremendous; players often have great flexibility in rapid passages. The expressive potential is no less powerful. Modern woodwind tone is rich and sensuous, with phrasing influenced by subtle uses of vibrato and inflection. We are a long way from the village band.

    The players usually sit in a semicircle: from audience left, it's flute, oboe, horn, bassoon, clarinet; sometimes horn and bassoon are switched; no array is sacrosanct. In score the order from top down is flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon. I do the score at written, not sounding, pitch, since it's mainly for the players' use: flute, oboe, and bassoon in C, horn in F, clarinet in A or Bb depending on the key orientation of the piece, if any. Each player is usually given only the appropriate part, not the full score, to play from, the score being reserved for study and consultation.


    Here, then, in only a vague semblance of sequence, are some suggestions:


    I wish I actually practiced half of what I've been preaching here. Usually what happens is that, after a shaky start, I get rolling on a piece and slide into a groove, like a bowling ball in its gutter, with results that lack the variety I was aiming for. And then it occurs to me how presumptuous this has all been, anyway.

    Most of it has undoubtedly been said, and better, in textbooks, or else contradicted by same with unchallengeable authority, and many of you reading it are in a better position to hold forth on the subject than I am, having actually read and even taught from those same textbooks. And further: Can you really learn how to compose by reading about it, in authoritative textbooks or presumptuous articles? And futher still: I can't say that this article is truly about composing at all. It's more like musical cosmetics. The way you ompose for woodwind quintet is, I assume, pretty much the way you compose for anything else; it has something to do with the incarnation of an impulse, a thought, a shape, a mood; of couse the Word must be made flesh, but what good is the flesh if there's no Word behind it? Ives wasn't being merely truculent when he asked what music has to do with sound, anyway.

    Enough, already, of the metaphysical digression. Let's wrap this up, earthbound.

    So too in Britain and Eastern Europe (Hungarian Györgi Ligeti wrote two superb works). These few hardly suggest the extent of the repetory. Consortium member Don Stewart's group, the Boehm Quintette, has programmed something like 100 works covering all eras, including some transcriptions and numerous commissions, and there are lots of other groups functioning on a similarly ambitious level. Consortium members who have written quintets include Don, Lou Calabro (IsoNova, a nifty piece), Gwyneth Walker (Braintree Quintet), Jim Grant, Nick Humez, Allen Shawn, and probably about two dozen I don't know about.


    Make friends with a quintet (approach confidently but slowly, without showing fear; they can sense that) and watch them rehearse. You'll discover more in one session than from having read this whole discourse.