Friday, September 3, 2010

Composing for Wind Quintet

I composed my Wind Quintet No. 1 in 2007-08 and learned so much in the process.  The versatility of this ensemble is amazing and there is so much to like about the way the instrumental voices can be used.  I was really motivated after listening to some of the great modern works for this medium.  I had always found the classical era wind quintet pieces too dainty for my taste.  The pieces of Reiche and others however laid a solid foundation on which the repertoire could develop.  I was really excited by Carl Nielsen's famous Wind Quintet, and also works by Hindemith and Irving Fine.  I could hear in these pieces a very powerful and driving use of the instruments, and a great potential for color - both harmonic and instrumental.  After writing my own piece, I discovered works by Muczynski and Maslanka on recordings which went a long way to enhance my appreciation.  I was introduced to other works by the Scirocco Winds through their live performances.  Works by Ewazen and others.  I happened to be in the process of composing my piece when I learned of the Scirocco Winds inaugural concert, and through a very happy turn of events we were able to set up the premiere of my piece on another concert later in the year (Feb. 2009).
My thoughts here are about how the different voicings of the wind quintet that can be used.  The voicing options have more variety than any chamber ensemble that I know of.
The standard voicing structure of the wind quintet looks like this:
Flute - soprano 1
Oboe - soprano 2
Clarinet - soprano 3
Horn - alto
Bassoon - tenor/bass
At first I worried about writing for 3 soprano instruments in a group, but I quickly understood the variety that could be achieved.
The group should really be viewed this way in its variety:
Flute - sop. 1 & 2 / alto 1
Oboe - sop. 2 & 1 / alto 1 & 2
Clarinet - sop. 3 & 2 & 1/ alto 1 & 2 / tenor 1
Horn - alto 1 & 2/ sop. 2 & 3 / tenor 1 & 2 / bass 1 & 2
Bassoon - bass 1 & 2 / ten. 1 & 2 / alto 1 & 2 / sop. 3
One doesn't have to use the extreme registers of the instruments to achieve this much variety in the voicing stack.  When smaller combinations are extracted - trios, duos, quartet - the variety of usage is amazing.  The clarinet is the most chameleon-like in the group in that it tends to blend in the easiest in almost any circumstance.
If one wants to use the extreme registers of the instruments the variety can be even greater.  Horn as soprano 1,  bassoon as soprano, clarinet as bass (chalumeau register, not bass clarinet) for example.
I did not have the musicians double, but options are piccolo, alto flute, English Horn, Bass Clarinet, etc..  Some composers go for the doubling, but I didn't feel it was necessary.  In fact I think the doublings would hamper the group to some degree and I preferred to maximize the usage of the standard instrumentation.
The Scirocco Winds warming up before their recital
February 2, 2009 - Houston, TX
© 2010 Steve D. Matchett

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