Friday, March 13, 2009

Wind Quintet vs String Quartet

Let’s face it, there are more string quartets in the world – at least, in the professional, touring concert world – than there are wind and brass quintets. This may also have something to do with orchestras having more strings players than wind players in them, but maybe not. A standard orchestra can have 40-50 string players but maybe only 8-12 woodwind players (they can add more for the occasional Mahler performance, but generally speaking).

Why wind players who played in bands haven’t created the same kind of awareness and level of playing orchestras have has always been a mystery to me. And yet every high school and middle school will probably have a band – maybe a marching band for football season and a concert band or two the rest of the year. In addition, colleges may also have an elite band usually called a “wind ensemble.”

The point is, there are lots of string players who end up playing in orchestras and forming string quartets. Look at any brochure for a chamber music concert presenter around the country and there will be plenty of pianists, violinists and string quartets.

Not so many wind quintets.

So where do all those wind players go after they’ve played in bands and formed student wind quintets in college? If they haven’t joined an orchestra or are out there teaching somewhere, that means they’re probably making money (“Question: what’s the difference between a free-lance musician and a pizza? Answer: A pizza can feed a family of four”).

Part of the problem is repertoire. It’s a self-feeding conundrum, perhaps, that Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven wrote, like, 107 string quartets between them, but nothing originally for a woodwind quintet. When your standard works are by, say, Franz Danzi and Anton Reicha, contemporaries of Haydn and Beethoven, whose music is unknown to modern concert-goers used to standard symphonic and the usual chamber music fare, it’s an up-hill battle.

So it basically boils down to, let’s say, apples in one corner and oranges in another.

Part of the issue is the “unity of sound” you get out of a string quartet, where the sonorities of the two violins, the viola and the cello match each other because they’re members of the same instrumental family. It is easier to create and blend the layers music needed in the late-18th Century – melody, bass-line and the inner parts filling in the harmonies - with instruments who have matching sounds.

Life is different in a wind quintet (or woodwind quintet, though nobody refers to a brass quintet as a brasswind quintet except in Germany). Here you have five different instruments, each one a member of its own family. The clarinet is a single-reed instrument with a mellow tone. The oboe and bassoon are both played with double-reeds and have a more “reedy” tone but are very different from each other in sound. The flute (which at one time in its history was made of wood) has no reed, the sound created entirely by the player’s breath and lips. I’m not even sure how the horn (commonly called the French horn though it’s not really French but German) got into the group since it was never made of wood. But that’s not the point.

For one thing, a “wind section” in Haydn’s orchestra consisted of pairs of oboes, horns and bassoons, sometimes adding a flute or two, later adding clarinets after they started cleaning up their ax. Trumpets were only used on “special” occasions (like when you need something loud) and trombones weren’t added to the symphony orchestra until after 1800, anyway. So the horn sort of became a member of the “wind band” by default. A frequent ensemble heard at aristocratic dinner parties and outdoor serenades consisted of pairs of oboes, horns and bassoons (later adding clarinets) - and maybe a string bass to beef up the bass-line. Anyway, I digress (a bit).

In Haydn’s day, these instruments were considerably different from those you’d hear today. Flutes were wooden, keys and other details on all of them were not as extensive as they are now, the horn had no keys (or valves) at all, and the clarinet didn’t really exist except in popular music meant for dancing and even then was fairly primitive compared to the modern instrument.

Not only were their sounds different: mellower, they would have blended better than their modern counterparts which continued evolving through the mid-19th Century. Compared to string players who could be playing instruments made at the time of Johann Sebastian Bach, around the early-1700s, that’s a big difference. (String players like to think of their instruments as having attained perfection earlier.)

A lot of this “evolution” happened because wind players playing in orchestras were now playing in large concert halls, not the music rooms of the aristocracy. Their sound was too mellow. It’s ironic that orchestras would add more violins to beef up the sound and its projection in a bigger hall, but not add more flutes or oboes to do the same thing. Instead, they worked on the instruments themselves to increase their ability to project - and, another irony, to cut through the mass of string sound.

(Side-note: French orchestras got into the habit of writing pairs of winds but using four bassoons because they wanted to bolster the bass-line. Four modern bassoons in some of these scores can create the bull/china-shop effect today.)

And to have these wind instruments duplicating the standard string quartet allocations of melody-bass-and-middle-harmony might place the flute as the equivalent of the 1st Violin, but then the oboe is not an easy instrument to (at least willingly) be subservient about playing the 2nd Violin’s inner harmonies, especially since its lower register is not conducive to balancing with much of anything. This would also put the clarinet at a disadvantage since “inner-harmony parts” would place it in the least adventurous part of its range. (Enough violists have gone into therapy for similar reasons, I suspect.)

And so, the ensemble is better suited to what we call “polyphonic” music – where the individual instruments can serve in melodic or bass-line roles (sound organized horizontally), creating the necessary harmonies by their vertical alignment.

It’s just too bad that composers who wrote such great polyphonic music for string quartets like Beethoven or Brahms never thought to try the same thing with the wind quintet.

Or maybe it was because there weren’t as many professional wind quintets out there begging them to write for them.

Okay, so in this corner you have the chicken – in that corner, the egg...

Given all this, it’s a little unusual – not really, but sort of – to have one of the best known wind quintets, the Dorian Quintet, appearing on the next program with Market Square Concerts when they perform at 8pm on Saturday, March 21st, at Whitaker Center.

They’ll play one of those “early” wind quintets by Friend-of-Beethoven Anton Reicha (actually, they grew up together, playing in the court orchestra in Bonn), the Bartok-inspired Bagatelles by György Ligeti (written in 1953) and a delightful bit of tropical breeze from Cuban-born clarinetist, Pacquito d’Rivera.

To this ensemble of disparate instruments, then, add one that creates its sounds by hammers hitting strings in a wooden box, that can play its own melody/bass-line/harmony but is really a percussion instrument – the piano.

This will add Stuart Malina to the mix, more often seen by local concert-goers playing a stick while standing in front of the Harrisburg Symphony. He’s one of those conductors equally at home as a performer (not that conducting isn’t performing... I just mean... oh, nevermind...) – he loves to play chamber music and has joined the Market Square Concerts roster in the past with various guest string quartets to play some of the finest pieces for the combination by Schumann, Brahms and Shostakovich.

(You can see him next month in a special annual concert called “Stuart & Friends” when he’ll join with several of his colleagues in the orchestra for an evening of chamber music at Whitaker Center on April 28th at 7:30.)

This time, it’s the Sextet for Wind Quintet & Piano by Lee Hoiby – and I’ll tell you more about that and the other music on the program in future posts.

- Dr. Dick

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Photos: Top - Guarneri Quartet who, incidentally, will be playing one of their last concerts - ever! - with Market Square Concerts on April 5th.
2nd - Dorian Wind Quintet (more casual, in a recording session) who are playing on March 21st
3rd - L-R: Viola, Violin & Cello (the 2nd Violin is not a separate instrument: it's a state of mind)
4th - Instruments of the Woodwind Quintet (upright: clarinet, oboe, horn; lying down on the job: flute, bassoon)

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