The wind quintet, with its combination of instruments with widely varied timbres and techniques, presents some unique and exciting challenges and possibilities. While it can be difficult to produce a cohesive, unified sound with such an ensemble, composers are provided with a wide, rich range of sounds, colours and individual strengths. These unique qualities of the wind quintet genre are particularly effective in creating images and evoking places, pictures, moods and characters. All the works presented here make full use of this, so that the colours of the wind quintet add an extra dimension to the initial inspiration for the work - whether that was folk songs, fairy tales or the personalities of friends.
The French composer MAURICE RAVEL is renowned for his impressive talent for orchestration, his ability to use instrumental colour to great effect. It is therefore not surprising that his Ma Mere L’Oye, originally composed for piano duet, transfers so well to wind quintet. Ravel composed the piano duet version in 1910 for the children of his close friends the Godebskis. The five movements illustrate several old French fairy tales from the 17th and 18th centuries, and Ravel seems to relish the challenge of recreating the fairy tale worlds. “It was my intention”, the composer wrote, “to evoke the poetry of childhood and this naturally led to my simplifying my manner and style of writings”, and yet the music lacks nothing for this simplicity.
The first movement is a Pavane for Sleeping Beauty, a short movement consisting of a simple and hauntingly beautiful melody. Then follows Tom Thumb, where Tom is heard wandering in the forest accompanied by the chirping of little birds. The third movement, Laideronette Empress of the Pagodas, uses pentatonic scales to illustrate the Empress bathing under a Chinese pagoda. A conversation between Beauty and the Beast comprises the fourth movement, with the clarinet and bassoon taking on the respective roles. The work concludes with a romp in the Garden of Fairies.
The two works by Australian composer LYLE CHAN are excerpts from his Harp and Wind Quintet. Calcium Light Night contains a folk tune, ‘O Shenandoah’, and an original melody that was conceived as the composer fell asleep one night. These two melodies happened to work well when played simultaneously, and for the composer, signified a happy union of the two life paths he was considering at the time. Passage [Untitled 2010], in contrast, is much more extroverted and is written in the musical style of the 1920s: the Jazz Age. It is in some regards a homage to the music of Carl Stalling, the composer for the Looney Tunes cartoons. Like Stalling’s music, Passage is light-hearted and energetic. The New Sydney Wind Quintet premiered these works in June 2010.
The Australian born composer PERCY GRAINGER is best known for his settings of traditional British folksongs, but he was actually a surprisingly experimental composer who took the art of arranging to a level well beyond that seen before. Grainger had an impressive understanding of instrumental colouring, and although he often produced several versions of the same work they are always far more than a straight transferral.
The Irish Tune from County Derry is one of Grainger’s most popular works and is now instantly recognisable as the familiar ‘Danny Boy’. Grainger produced five versions of the folksong, including one for six-part choir on which this wind quintet version is based. With a diatonic melody and classic song structure, this old tune is one of the most beloved of any of the songs Grainger arranged.
Grainger first heard the folksong that is set in Lisbon being sung at a workhouse in Brigg, Lincolnshire, in 1905. Unfortunately the singer, a Mr Deane, was unwell and overwhelmed by the emotion of performing a song he had not sung for 40 years, so Grainger did not manage to capture the whole tune. A year or so later the composer returned to attempt to record the complete song, but found his singer in hospital. Luckily, after some encouragement Mr Deane was convinced to perform, and with a phonograph propped on his bed Lisbon was captured. By 1931 Grainger had worked it into his piece for ‘wind fivesome’.
Walking Tune is an original composition based on a melody that the then 18-year-old Grainger hummed in accompaniment to his steps whilst hiking in the Scottish Highlands in 1900. Five years later he worked this tune into versions for piano solo and wind quintet.
CARL NIELSEN’s Wind Quintet is one of the key works of the wind quintet repertoire. It is modern yet very accessible, and while each instrument has a distinct voice, the whole is expressive and cohesive. In 1921 Nielsen was inspired to compose a wind quintet after overhearing a rehearsal of Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante by members of the Copenhagen Wind Quintet. Nielsen’s wind quintet was then dedicated to the ensemble and they premiered the quintet in 1922. The role of the Copenhagen Wind Quintet in the genesis of the work in fact goes even further, as Nielsen captured musical portrayals of his friends’ characters and used their talents and personalities to inspire his composition.
The first movement of the quintet is in sonata form, with the first theme introduced by the solo bassoon. The second is a Menuet and Trio that is not far removed from those of Baroque suites. The final movement begins with a Praeludium but is primarily a set of variations on a theme taken from Nielsen’s own setting of the hymn “My Jesus, make my heart to love thee”. The variations then showcase the qualities of the individual instruments and the characters of the original players. The eloquence, timelessness and the humanist warmth of the character studies of the Wind Quintet meant the work was an immediate and continuing success, and explain why it was chosen to be performed at Nielsen’s burial in 1931.