By Andrea Moore

Ludwig van Beethoven, Octet for Winds in E-flat Major, Op. 103

Although a great deal of attention is paid to Beethoven’s fascination with variations very late in his life, he also wrote sets of them in his early years, some more successful than others (one musicologist writes that “many of the variations are of the insipid decorative variety”). It was also during these years that he wrote most of his wind ensemble music, including the Wind Octet, Op. 103. While not all of these pieces made it into his catalogue, he kept many of them, reworking and publishing them later in his career.

Originally titled “Parthia dans un Concert,” Beethoven completely overhauled this piece in 1795, turning it into his String Quintet, Op. 4. It may be that the wind version that survives is also a later reworking. The first movement is a sonata form—generally considered to be one of Beethoven’s few early successes in the form—and one that perhaps anticipates his intense work with motivic development later in his career. The second movement, Andante, exploits the instrumentation to create a series of dialogues between pairs of instruments. The third movement, Menuetto, is akin to a scherzo, with its bright tempo, explosive dynamics, and underlying sense of humor (reminiscent of Haydn). A spare, possibly absurd, middle section offers the expected contrast in mood. The last movement, Presto, is a rondo, again making the most of his forces with forceful unison sections, and virtuosic horn calls, especially in the coda.

Carl Nielsen, Wind Quintet, Op. 43

Carl Nielsen was born on the island of Funen, Denmark, in 1865. He studied violin at the Copenhagen Conservatory, where he also developed a social network that would remain part of his life. Over the course of his career as a composer (he was also a performer, conductor, and administrator), he wrote chamber music, dozens of songs, choral works, both accompanied and unaccompanied, stage and incidental music, and six symphonies. In Copenhagen, he also landed a job as violinist in the Royal Theatre Orchestra, which gave him an income and time to develop as a composer. He spent some months traveling through Europe, during which time he “fell in and out of love with Wagner’s music dramas,” according to one scholar, which may have honed his own musical instincts and his sense of the kinds of music he did, and did not, want to associate his own with. 

While the bulk of his formal training was as a violinist, Nielsen also played cornet and trombone as a child, and was part of a military band in his teens. These experiences may be at the root of his affection for wind music. He wrote a number of brass trios and quartets in his youth, none of which survived, and in addition to this Wind Quintet, he wrote a flute and a clarinet concerto. In fact, it was his intention to write a concerto for each instrument of the Quintet, but that project was left unfinished.

It was in 1922, while he was writing his Fifth Symphony that he wrote this Quintet, partly as a way of stepping back from the Symphony, which is one of his most emotionally intense and difficult works. Having heard the Copenhagen Wind Quintet rehearsing Mozart, Nielsen wanted to write for the group, and they gave the premiere of this piece. It is in three movements, or maybe three and a half: the third movement has a Praeludium, followed by an extensive theme and variations. The piece opens with a lyrical theme stated by the bassoon, and eventually repeated by all the instruments, while the ornamental material introduced by the flute, oboe, and clarinet at the beginning—full of quick gestures and leaps—returns in the coda.  The second movement is a minuet and trio that emphasizes smaller groupings within the larger instrumentation: it opens with a duet for clarinet and bassoon, followed by one for oboe and flute, and aside from a few moments where the horn enters, the minuet sections are almost all for duos. The trio’s change in texture, to three voices (oboe, bassoon, and horn) thus becomes a significant event.  The final movement’s Praeludium begins with a somewhat free character, featuring brief but elaborate cadenzas; here, the oboe is switched for the English horn. The theme is played at the end of the Praeludium, and is one of Nielsen’s original chorales, titled “My Jesus, make my heart to love thee.” The 11 variations that follow are a showcase for each instrument’s ability, as well as the unique blends and timbres of the wind quintet.

Ludwig van Beethoven, Quintet for Oboe, Three Horns, & Bassoon, Hess 19

Most of Beethoven’s music is classified and catalogued by opus numbers, most of which were assigned by publishers during his lifetime. However there are catalogues of his music besides the opus numbers: some of his early works are categorized as Werke ohne Opuszahl, works without opus numbers, a designation formalized in 1955 in a new catalogue dedicated to works published without a number, and those that existed only in part. The Hess catalogue, put out by Swiss musicologist Willy Hess in the 1950s, is another attempt at organizing Beethoven’s oeuvre, and includes even more fragmentary works than the WoO catalogue.

This quintet is one of them. It was probably completed around 1793, although started earlier. What remains in its original form is part of the first movement, not including the exposition (which could be reconstructed from the recapitulation), the entirety of the second movement, and about 20 measures of the Minuet. It was originally scored for six instruments—these five plus clarinet—but the original manuscripts include only an empty clarinet line. It is also unlikely that it would have ended with a Minuet, so we can assume a final movement is missing altogether. The fragments were put together, and the piece completed, by Leopold Alexander Zellner, a professor of harmony at the Conservatory in Vienna. The first performance of the Zellner completion was in 1862, and Hess edited the published version available today.

Antonin Dvořák, Serenade for Winds in D Minor, Op. 44

Dvořák’s Serenade, Op. 44 is at least partly a tribute to Mozart’s Harmoniemusik, but perhaps especially to Mozart’s Serenade in B-flat Major, which he heard performed in Vienna just before writing this piece.  Possibly inspired by what he had heard, Dvořák wrote Op. 44 very quickly, taking only two weeks at the beginning of 1878. Its instrumentation calls for pairs of oboes and clarinets, two bassoons plus contrabassoon, three horns, cello, and bass. This ensemble is based on the traditional Harmonie, a small wind band often employed at court from the mid-18th to the mid-19th centuries, and used largely to provide entertainment. The term could also refer to street musicians who emulated this instrumentation and its music. The core of any Harmonie is the pair of horns, underscored by bassoons, with at least a pair of higher instruments, either oboes or clarinets, or later both. The contrabassoon and double bass were common, but often optional.

The character of this Serenade mixes classical forms with Dvořák’s affection for folk music. The first movement is a march, a typical introduction for a serenade, and the mood is humorous, perhaps mocking the pomposity of the form—the self-important descending lines in the bassoons are especially notable. The second is a minuet, with a beautiful opening theme first played by the clarinets; the descending sixteenth notes of the second half of the phrase are developed by being passed around the ensemble. The clarinets lead the way into the trio—this takes a much faster tempo and evokes Czech folk music and dance with its use of hemiola, a rhythmic device that displaces the beat in triple meter. The third movement opens with solo statements from the upper winds, and although it grows denser, more intense, and darker in tone, it is essentially lyrical and even pastoral.  The finale also suggests a dance, putting its simple and somewhat sardonic material through four varied segments.  The music builds to what seems to be its conclusion; but instead, up pops the piece’s opening march.  The coda takes an upbeat tempo, and concludes with clarinet trills, horn calls, and a triumphant cadence. The piece was premiered in Prague in November 1878, with Dvořák conducting.