The Rogues’ Gallery of the Chamber Music World

Yesterday morning BBC Radio 3 played Vaughan Williams’ Oboe Concerto. The piece has the gentle, archaic and bucolic qualities of a Samuel Palmer painting, using only a string orchestra to accompany the oboe, a delicate sound-world perfectly suiting the gorgeous spring weather. It was introduced as ‘one of the most commonly performed oboe concertos’ – a statement that raised an ironic laugh from me, such is it damning with faint praise. Because let’s face it, how often do any concertos that are not for piano or string soloists really get a look in?

It is interesting to ponder why, but whatever the reasons, strings and pianos rule the concerto roost. But equally, they hold disproportionate sway over chamber music too. The standard chamber ensembles are various combinations of strings and/or piano.

It’s in this context that I wanted to declare my love for the strange beast of chamber music, one that exists in complete defiance of the prevailing instrumental hierarchies. It’s a band of outcasts, it’s a rogues’ gallery. It’s…the wind quintet.

Normally comprising flute, oboe, clarinet, French horn and bassoon, the wind quintet is notable for the highly varied timbres of its instruments, through the different ways they make sound: oboes and bassoons through a double reed, clarinet through a single reed, flutes ‘edge-blown’, and the horn through lip vibration.

The big three composers of the so-called ‘Classical’ period – Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven –  advanced the tradition of the string quartet and piano trio, but they showed relatively little interest in the wind quintet. This is also the period more than any other where we commonly hear the least variety in terms of whose music is played today, so much do these three names dominate.

The wind quintet, on the other hand, gives you a very different slant on this period of music history. Here you will find works by less familiar names, such as the twenty-four quintets by Anton Reicha, (1770-1836), the nine from Franz Danzi  (1763-1826), and three from Guiseppe Cambini (1746-1825) among many others; showing how much our classical repertoire is bound up in tradition of forms of writing. The bold contrasts, lightness of touch and sense of humour in the Classical style suits the colourful palette of the wind quintet brilliantly, so if anything it is surprising that more composers from the period didn’t take it up.

Writing for wind quintet seems to have waned somewhat in the later nineteenth century. It’s not obvious why, but perhaps in the age of Romantic sensibility such a jauntily contrasting ensemble was less appealing for composers wanting to express something of their innermost selves. Nonetheless there are a few examples, and a delightful one is by French flautist-composer Claude-Paul Taffanel (1844-1908).

But then the wind quintet underwent an extraordinary renaissance in the twentieth century, perhaps in no coincidence to the growing stylistic diversity of the time. Nielsen, Françaix, Barber, Holst, Hindemith, Malcolm Arnold, Villa-Lobos are just some of many who contributed works for the ensemble. Schoenberg even composed an atonal quintet. It seems the potential expressive range, from playful quirkiness, murky strangeness, to delicate lushness, found a broader appeal in a more modern sensibility. There’s much to delight and surprise in the wind quintet repertoire, and I’ll leave with you with a few more examples of composers discovering the endless possibilities of writing for this motley crew of instruments.