Nielsen's Woodwind Quintet, Op. 43

Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) was a Danish composer known for his use of a wide range of styles. His music mimics the time period in which he lived, with some pieces containing movements that would easily belong in the Classical Period alongside contemporary sections very typical of 20th century writing. Though he is most well-known for his symphonies, Nielsen wrote many chamber works, of which his Woodwind Quintet being the most famous.

In 1922, after finishing his Fifth Symphony, Nielsen took a respite from his orchestral writing to compose a chamber piece for the Copenhagen Wind Quintet, to which it was also dedicated. The quintet showcases each instrument soloistically and harmoniously, as well as showing experimentation in tonality and traditional writing of the time. This piece contains four movements, each with a distinct sound and style all its own.

The first movement, “Allegro,” begins with a solo bassoon line, which is then overtaken by a flute, oboe, and clarinet line with ornamentation resembling the chirping of birds. The melody is echoed through every instrument, however the writing stays quite sparce and allows exposure for each player. The flute and clarinet swap a rhythmical pattern as the horn melody soars beneath it. The melody becomes an oboe and bassoon duet and is then passed around to each instrument once again. It unceremoniously decays into a repeat of the first section which then ends with a coda section, bringing back the chirping of the high woodwinds.

The “Menuet” begins with a clarinet and bassoon duet, which is taken over by the flute and oboe. The melody still contains a similar ornamentation as was used in the first moment. Though it is not quite as “chirpy,” it does retain the same charm and elegance as the first. The oboe begins a fugue-like section with a smoother line to the melody. The opening line repeats with thicker instrumentation, as the flute and oboe take turns doubling the clarinet line, and the movement ends with a very solid finale sound.
The third movement, “Praeludium,” is considered a prelude to the fourth movement. Its dissonance sets it apart from the rest of the piece, however it does contain moments that remind us of the first movement, along with melody lines taken from the fourth.

The fourth and final movement contains eleven variations which each showcase each instrument and Nielsen’s varied styles of writing. The opening is very hymn-like and simple. It gives way to Variation 1, which is written in such a way that the bassoon and horn play off of each other and are able to coexist with two very soloistic lines. The second begins with flute melody with some lines borrowed from the first movement. The third variation showcases the oboe and uses a heavy dotted-eighth sixteenth rhythm along with the use of an occasional note sounding dissonant, but only momentarily. The fourth variation is scored thickly with a very lively upbeat rhythm played by every instrument. The fifth allows the clarinet to experiment a bit with range and style, with light accompaniment by the bassoon. The sixth variation has a very solemn sound, beginning with a trio of flute, clarinet, and bassoon. Variation seven is competely a bassoon solo, and is very cadenza-like. Variation eight is written with an oboe melody, echoed by the clarinet, and accompanied by the horn and bassoon with a countermelody in the flute line. Variation nine is a horn cadenza and contains the returning dotted-eighth sixteenth rhythm from the third variation. Variation ten has the returning duple melody in the bassoon line with a melody similar to what was heard in variation two played in the flute line. Lastly, variation ten is a march, with thicker writing than what has been heard in this movement, and ends with a duple version of the hymn melody.

This piece is reminiscent of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, with a very ornamental and soloistic line given to the high woodwinds. This piece, for the time period in which it was written, gives each individual musician a chance to be just a bit showy while still staying true to the classical writing of the 19th century. Though it is quite classical in its writing, it allows for more exploration of the instrument’s abilities by the performers.

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