Carl Nielsen
Quintet for Winds op. 43

A descriptive Essay by Ray Ashley

1.  Introduction

2.  I:  Allegro ben Moderato

3.  II:  Menuett

4.  III:  Praludium: Adagio.  Tema con variazioni: Un poco andantino

5.  Recommended Recordings


This work is scored for five winds, flute, oboe (doubling on Cor Anglais), clarinet, horn, and bassoon.  It was originally dedicated to the members of the Copenhagen Wind Quintet, who debuted it in 1922.  It was a rehearsal by this group of Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante, which Nielsen heard over the telephone, that inspired him to write the work.  After composing this, he had planned to write a concerto for each f the five instruments with orchestra.  Unfortunately, he only completed two of the five, the flute and clarinet concertos, before his death in 1931.

To me, this Quintet is one of Nielsen's most characteristic works.  It shows off his ability to compose pan-stylistically, with both modern and neo-classical elements.  It shows his ability to bring out the tone characteristics of different wind instruments.  It shows off his ability to rework and reinvent material in both sonata form and a theme-and variations setting.  It has some of the modern touches of Nielsen's late period, while still being very tunefull and accessible to a wide audience.   It was very successfull when first presented, and has been a staple of the wind quintet repertoire ever since.  Not only is it one of Nielsen's major works, but I believe it is one of the major works for winds composed in the 20th century. 

First Movement:  Allegro ben Moderato
Links are to MIDI files with musical examples.

For various reasons, I find this movement similar to the opening movement of the Sixth Symphony.  The tempo is about the same, and the melodic material is somewhat similar.  The Sixth Symphony's first movement is far more developed though, with more use of dissonance and other modern harmonic devices, and more fully worked out counterpoint.  

This is a sonata allegro which begins with a statement of the brief main theme on bassoon in E , with an "answer" to that theme in the upper winds.  The horn repeats the theme in A major.  Germs of ideas (what I call the "chirping theme") are presented in a cannonical nature passing through E minor, G minor, and A minor, before we arrive at the second subject.  The lyrical second subject in D minor appears first in the horn, and then from the oboe and bassoon, both times accompanied in alternating triplets by the flute and clarinet.

After a repeat of the main theme, The development commences.  The development is mainly based on the transitional material and the "chirping theme" that were briefly presented in the opening statements.  This takes us from D minor around to F sharp minor and then into a new idea on the horn in D major.  After some more tonal wandering, featuring a lyrical F sharp minor, then D minor excursion on the oboe (based on the "answer" from the beginning of the movement), we arrive back to B major, which sets up...

The recapitulation begins with a modified E major statement of the main theme, with the lyrical horn theme now in B minor and harmonized in thirds below by the bassoon.  A brief coda brings the movement to a soft landing in E.

The overall tonal scheme of the first movement appear this way to me.  E major - >transitional music which takes us to -> second theme in D Minor -> development goes out to G minor and then works its way back, through the sharp keys,  to a re-cap in E major, with the second subject stated in the dominant B minor, to lever us into an E major ending.  This is a rather conventional harmonic approach for Nielsen, though I would venture to say that the whole first movement is a prelude set in the dominant E major, for the music in A major which is to follow.  

Second Movement:  Menuett

The second movement is a neoclassical, comical minuet in A major.  The horn doesn't get a lot to do here, except to make commentaries on the main themes played by the other voices.  The theme is initially presented as a a duet between the clarinet and bassoon.  The second subject is also basically a duet between flute and oboe.  When the theme is reprised all instruments are present.  This menuett is an example of how Nielsen could get a lot of mileage out of such simple melodic material.

The trio, in F major,  is cannonical in nature, involving the upper woodwinds and bassoon.  The more complex counterpoint here is a nice contrast to the jollity of the main menuet theme.

Third Movement:  Praludium: Adagio.  Tema con variazioni: Un poco andantino

This is the most complex of the three movements, and the most elusive to me as listener.  For years I thought that this set of variations was slow and boring.  One day last year when I was driving up the New York State Throughtway, I heard this movement as if for the first time.  I think it was just the hypnotic effect of the highway that made me focus on this variation set, and think about how Nielsen brought out the character of the different instruments in each variation.  The variations were also meant to bring out the character of the different players that Nielsen wrote the quintet for.

To put this into context, it may be helpful to listen to Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante K297B for four winds and orchestra, after which this was modeled.  In that work, Mozart also uses the different variations of the third and final movement to bring out the character of each instrument.  The four solo instruments are presented in solos, duets, and such in different variations.

I would say now that the first two movements, as well developed as they are, are both merely preludes to the theme and variations third movement, which is the true heart of this quintet.  Here I will discuss the various sections of the movement.  If you are listening along with a recording, it is easy to tell which part is which, as the sections are clearly defined with pauses in between.

Introduction:  The dour introcuction in C minor features the oboist playing cor Anglais.  The flute, Cor Anglais, and clarinet get  nice workouts here, fine opportunities to show off the unaccompanied sounds of these instruments.  This is a forshadow of what is to come in the variations. 

Theme:  This is a chorale tune in A Major that Nielsen wrote himself called  Min Jesus, Lad Mit Hjerte Faa (My Jesus make my hear to love thee).  Nielsen had written this original tune as a setting to a Lutheran hymn in 1916.  I have made a midi file of the complete chorale. The leading voices in the chorale are flute (first section) and Cor Anglais (middle part).  There is some nice Cor Anglais playing in its high register in the mid section of the chorale.

Variation 1:  Scored mostly  for horn and bassoon only in a question and answer format, this variation has an expansive, noble character to it.

Variation 2:  At this point the oboist has switched back to oboe from Cor Anglais.  This one features the flute playing an elaborated version of the hymn tune over chords played by the other winds.

Variation 3: A somber oboe re-working of the theme.  In typical Carl Nielsen fashion, the lines between major and minor key have become blurred in the prevailing chromaticism.

Variation 4:  All five engage in a brief but lively scherzando.

Variation 5:  The bassoon is the sole accompaniment for a clarinet tour de force which relies on the expressiveness of the instrument, almost bending notes in a jazz-like fashion.  It sounds as if the bassoon is trying to tame the outlandish clarinet with its noble seriousness.

Variation 6:  Re-worked in the key of A minor, the chorale is briefly restated.

Variation 7:  A soliloqy for solo basoon in A minor.

Variation 8:  The oboe in its high register plays what could almost be a 'funeral dirge' in 3/4 time, assisted by the flute and clarinet with the horn and bassoon droning an open fifth accompaniment.  This variation has an eastern flavor reminiscent of Nielsen's Alladin Suite.

Variation 9:  Another solo variation, this time from the horn.  The F major key of this variation brings some light back onto the landscape after the sadness of variations 6 - 8.

Variation 10:  The sun comes fully out from behind the clouds again as the flute leads the horn with a tune stemming from a descending A major triad.  The accompaniment is at first just bassoon, but the others join in, eventually sharing the melodic duties.

Variation 11:  Alla marcia, a cheerfully complex summing up of melodic ideas of the theme, with all five voices equally weighing in on the counterpoint.

Theme, reprised, back in A major.  Interesting how the tune is in 4/4 time this time around, while it had been in 3/4 when we first saw it.  As though we learned something along the way for having gone through this set of variations.  There is something humorous about the way that this reprises, it is almost a kind of mocking seriousness.  The point may be that the varaiations are meant to be fun, and here at the end, fun time is over.  Something like that.

Recommended Recordings:
(limited discography, more to come soon)

1.  Vestjysk Chamber Ensemble recorded this for DG and it was released with all the string quartets as DG431156-2.
2.  The Philadelphia Wind Quintet made a recording some time ago of this which may now be out of print.  They do not take the repeat in the first movement.

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©2000 Ray Ashley
Thanks to Jim Blau of the Musicology Department at Brown University for help in locating the score, and to Joe D'Andrea,for his help with the MIDI files.