Nielsen’s Wind Quintet

It was autumn in Copenhagen, 1921. Scandinavian composer Carl Nielsen had just put down the receiver of his telephone after having a brief conversation with his friend, the pianist Christian Christiansen. On that evening in particular, Chrisrtiansen was rehearsing for an upcoming concert to be performed by himself and the Copenhagen Wind Quintet. So it was that the background music of the rehearsal hall (in which the musicians of the Copenhagen Wind Quintet were rehearsing Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante) made its way to Carl Nielsen’s ear for the first time. He was immediately struck by the incredible musical synchronicity between flautist Paul Hagemann, oboist Svend C. Felumb, clarinettist Aage Oxenvad, hornist Hans Sørensen, and bassoonist Knud Lassen. Nielsen vowed that very evening to begin writing a wind quintet with the talents of these specific players in mind.

One of Nielsen’s biographers, the British composer Robert Simpson, stresses that it was Nielson’s fondness for the great outdoors and the people he met which served as the greatest inspiration for the Wind Quintet’s inception. “Nielsen’s fondness of wind instruments is closely related to his love of nature, his fascination for living, breathing things. He was also intensely interested in human character, and in the Wind Quintet composed deliberately for five friends, each part is cunningly made to suit the individuality of each player.”

Nielsen’s programme notes provide a window into the composer’s relationship with the work itself. He writes that “The quintet for winds is one of [my] latest works, in which [I have] attempted to render the characters of the various instruments. At one moment they are all talking at once, at another they are quite alone. The work consists of three movements: a) Allegro, b) Minuet and c) Prelude – Theme with Variations. The theme for these variations is the melody for one of C.N.’s spiritual songs, which has here been made the basis of a set of variations, now merry and quirky, now elegiac and serious, ending with the theme in all its simplicity and very quietly expressed.” Critics of Nielsen’s work have pointed out that it is this delicate balance between aspects of modernism and neo-classicism which make the composer’s work on the Wind Quintet so prolific.

The first movement of Nielsen’s Wind Quintet (Allegro ben moderato) is in sonata form, beginning with the bassoon’s statement of the theme in E. The upper winds echo this in their reply before it is repeated once more by the French horn (this time in the key of A major). The theme is played in fragments until the arrival of the second theme in D minor. First played by the French Horn, the bassoon and oboe are soon to follow with an accompaniment of triplet figures by the flute and clarinet. With a restatement of the first theme, the development of this movement’s melody begins. In the final segment of the movement, the recapitulation of the first theme in E major flows into the second theme (now in B minor) with harmonizing thirds in the horn and bassoon employing a rich texture throughout.

The second movement (Menuet) takes the shape of a pastoral minuet and enjoys a certain neoclassical sensibility. The French horn is scored lightly in this section, which allows the player to rest before their involvement in the third and final movement. The first theme of the Menuet features a duet between clarinet and bassoon, while the second theme follows a similar pattern of exchange between the oboe and flute. A simple and elegant dance, the movement sees all instruments engage in a recapitulation of the first theme. After this, a trio (played by oboe, flute, and bassoon) makes use of contrapuntal textures to provide contrast to the simplicity of the first two themes.

The third movement of the Wind Quintet sees a brief Praeludium executed before the piece embarks on a set of variations. For the Praeludium, the English horn takes the place of the oboe. Music historians have posited that this change was included after Nielsen fell in love with oboist Felumb’s English horn solo during a performance of Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. Nielsen himself conducted this performance in Bremen, and was absolutely blown away at the raw emotion that Felumb’s English horn skills could evoke. The central theme of this third movement is taken from Nielsen’s own chorale tune “Min Jesus, lad min Hjerte faa en saaden Smag paa dig” (My Jesus, make my heart to love thee). The eleven variations which stem from this theme are very complex, not only in the skill required to execute them but also in their harmonic structure. The theme from Nielsen’s chorale is restated at the end of the Wind Quintet and builds to a triumphant climax.

Nielsen’s Wind Quintet was completed in 1922 at his residence in Gothenburg, Sweden. First performed on April 30th at a private gathering at the home of Herman and Lisa Mannheimer, the piece became an immediate sensation. Each of the five musicians who had performed in the Copenhagen Wind Quintet (and who had directly inspired the work’s composition) debuted Nielsen’s Wind Quintet on this occasion. They reconvened for an official concert debut on October 9th of that same year at the Odd Fellows Mansion in Copenhagen, a relatively intimate venue which showcased superbly the unique qualities of each instrumental voice.

Nielsen would pass away only nine years later, but his Wind Quintet would live on to inspire countless woodwind musicians in the decades following. The Wind Quintet itself is regarded as a staple of modern woodwind repertoire, and is performed more often in Nielsen’s native Scandinavia than any other piece he composed during his lifetime. Your Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra is delighted to bring this classic to the stage at our Mother’s Day Concert!

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