On Composing for Woodwind Quintet
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:
- Woodwind players must breathe. Unlike a viola, a clarinet can't keep up an unbroken Alberti-bass-type figure for 32 measures, but needs a 16th note rest every few bars. This is not to say that woodwinds can't sustain long phrases; they can. To gauge breathing intervals, think in terms of the human voice. Make breathing part of the music's essence.
- Woodwind players must also rest. The muscular effort of forming the embouchure requires periodic, and fairly protracted, relaxation. A woodwind part should not appear on the page the way the first violin part of a Beethoven quartet does, nearly solid black. Rests ought to occur frequently, and at least some should last measures instead of just beats. After a particularly strenuous passage, give the player 10 or 15 seconds to recover. Before a demanding passage, give some time to prepare the embouchure.
- The temptation in quintet writing is to take the traditional "pastoral" approach: sighing zephyrs, rippling watery effects, bouncy folk-style tunes. Certainly, if that's what you had in mind when you chose the medium, go ahead. I've done it myself. But be aware that the combination is capable of more than that, of more serious, less predictable modes of expression. (John Harbison, in his recent and much admired quintet, delibarately avoided the pastoral, with impressive results.)
- Don't think of the instruments as a fixed heirarchy, with the flute invariably soaring on top, followed in score order down to the bassoon lurking on the bottom. That way boredom lies. Juggle instruments vertically. Use the clarinet's chalumeau register as bass to another instrument. Put the horn on top, or the bassoon. Try the flute on the bottom.
- To make such tactics work, give your vertical writing space. Write chords in open position, wide open. Winds are rich in overtones, which will fill in the spaces if you deploy your forces cleverly. Example: if you want to hear the low-register flute as a bass, put the melody 1 1/2 octaves above in the oboe.
- Don't make the sound bottom heavy. Avoid thickness in the tenor region. Get the horn and clarinet, in particular, up on the staff. It'll sound better, and you won't bore the players.
- Avoid purely triadic thinking. You've got as many as five notes to sound simultaneously, which means the richness of "color" chords: 6ths, 9ths, 11ths, and beyond. (If the technical language is opaque to you, as it mostly is to me, all I mean is that you can add interesting notes to the common chord for expressive purpose.)
- But don't use all five instruments all the time. Make permutations and combinations: create a kaleidoscopic effect, instead of a monotonous one. The great virtue of the woodwind quintet is color, so mix your palette. (To give some idea of the range of options, David Van Vactor's Music for Woodwinds consists of pieces using every possible combination of the quintet instruments from one to five, ending with double quintet. There are over thirty of them.)
- Think, too, of variation in texture. Straight homophonic writing (sustained hymn-like chords, or melody with chordal accompaniment) works fine for a while, but does not show off this ensemble to best advantage if carried on too long. Try a more contrapuntal approach. These instruments like to move, not just hang on to notes, even in slow music.
- Speaking of color, you can achieve some startling and wonderful blends. High bassoon and low flute can be virtually indistinguishable. Horn and bassoon together, in parallel motion at consonant intervals, sound like a pair of hunting horns. Above the staff, the three trebles begin to sound very much alike. Using these and other combinations, you can create an almost orchestral effect.
- Don't be casual about doublings. Treat them more as colors, less as ways of manipulating balance or volume. Horn and bassoon in unison make hardly more noise than either alone. Octave doublings can be effective, but use the cliche ones (flute above oboe, for instance) sparingly. I'd rather double high flute with low bassoon, four octaves down, and stick some contrasting material in the middle. But mostly I try to steer clear of doubling. Why waste your resources in redundancy?
- And then consider extreme contrasts: a zippy flute, in rapid staccato motion, against a lazy legato horn figure, or a lugubrious low-reister oboe fighting off a jaunty bassoon. Use the group to invent various simultaneous "musics".
- ...which further suggests that you avoid excessive uniform legato. These instruments offer a vast menu of non-legato possibilities, from nasty accented staccatissimo to gentle pulsation. Make horizontal space as well as vertical. Silence is essential in wind music.
- More about attacks: don't demand unobtrusive entrances in, say, the oboe's low register or the flute's high one. Extreme registers require extreme discretion from the composer, because that's where the player will most likely experience technical difficulties.
- But use those extreme registers. Get away from Middle C.
- Think of dynamics as part of the meat, not just the sprig of parsley. You can do a lot with woodwind dynamics (as Elliot Carter shows in his Eight Etudes for Woodwind Quartet, a demonstration piece well worth your study). The horn can purr, or blast the audience out of the room. The flute gets louder as it gets higher; the oboe does the reverse. The clarinet is more capable of immense crescendi and diminuendi than are the flute, oboe, and bassoon. Use these and other dynamic capabilities of the group to your advantage. Get away from the constricted mezzo-piano-to-mezzo-forte range caused by too much composing at the keyboard.
- Since the bulk of woodwind repertory is modern, players are skillful at counting, and can negotiate tricky time signatures and frequent metrical changes. (My string playing colleagues often envy us our sightreading abilities in contemporary music; but hell, if you're a wind player, what else is there?) Don't stick to unchanging 4/4 or 6/8. Play around with rhythm and metre.
- Finding intervals on wind instruments is much easier than on strings, since all we do is push buttons to get our pitch (or pretty near it). Passagework thus doesn't have to be as predictable, as key- or scale-oriented, as string players are accustomed to. Tuning chords is obviously easier, too, so non-traditional (and non-consonant) harmonies work out more easily than they do in string groups. Take advantage of that.
- Wind players are good at handling wide leapps, especially articulated (that is, not slurred), and at moderate tempi.
- The wind bag is full of new tricks: microtones, bending and sliding pitches, flutter tonguing, key clicking, muting, blowing into detached mouthpieces or instruments without mouthpieces, and so on. The horn can do elephant calls and harmonic glissandi. Use these, of couse, but again be cautious: it's easy to be seduced by them. Don't fool yourself into thinking they will mask a lack of musical substance. Multiphonics are the most recent major development in woodwind virtuosity, but they are beyond the competence of many players, and are somewhat difficult to notate and unpredictable in practice. (Check out Lukas Foss's Cave of the Winds for a wild ride through Multiphonia.)
- Most flutists play piccolo; many oboists play English horn; some clarinettists play bass clarinet. You can widen your color range with these, or go even farther: alto or bass flute, oboe d'amore, Eb or alto clarinet, contrabassoon. I've dreamed of writing a movement for the lowest member of each instrument family: bass flute, Heckelphone, contrabass clarinet, contrabassoon and low horn or Wagner tuba. But a dream is what it should probably remain. Practically, unless you know the arsenal of your players, you ought to stay with the basic combination. Many players don't like to fool around with switching axes in mid-swing, anyway.
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.
- Woodwind quintet, which really is a sort of miniature wind band, works nicely in combination with other forces. I particularly like voice(s) and quintet. The group goes well with piano, especially if the keyboard writing is percussive and motoric, to match the winds' attack. Add solo strings to the basic quintet, and you have a miniature orchestra, as Piston and Martinu, among others, have demonstrated. Some composers have successfully woven electronics into the quintet texture. And then there is Janacek's Mladi (Youth) sextet, where the addition of bass clarinet seems to open new sonic worlds. Unfortunately, quintets don't often get a chance to expand beyond the conventional unit, the concert world being what it is.
- To test the waters, try transcribing something. Arguments about the aesthetic validity of transcription always rage noisily, but you won't hurt beloved old Johann, or your local flutist, or your own technique by perpetrating an arrangement or two. The repertory has been fertilized by some excellent transcriptions; they were vital in the decades before a substantial original body of work emerged. Some works have lent themselve beautifully to the medium, ranging from the French baroque to Ravel's "Tombeau de Couperin" (in several versions, notably by Philadelphia hornist Mason Jones and hornist-plus-everything-else Gunther Schuller). You'll probably succeed better with keyboard music than with music originally conceived for strings, for reasons suggested earlier.
- Listen to reams of quintet music. The big names from the classic era are Danzi and Reicha, both estimable advocates of the medium. Two persuasive late Romantic works, by Klughardt and Foerster, are worth attention. Acknowledged masterpieces of the repertory include everybody's favorite, the Nielsen, and Hindemith's Kleine Kammermusik Op. 24, No. 2. Schoenberg's formidable quintet, his strictest twelve-tone work, is seldom dared by either players or listeners. The French have predictably excelled: Milhaud's Cheminée du Roi René, Ibert's Trois Pièces Brèves, and dozens of others. Barber's Summer Music is one of his loveliest, most engaging creations, and other major American composers (such as Fine, Piston, Druckman, Carter, Dlugoszewski, Persichetti, and Alec Wilder) have made notable contributions.
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.