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Early Development of the Woodwind Ensemble
The Early Development of the Wind Quintet
Melanie Morley
October 25, 2003


The woodwind quintet is comprised of the four principal woodwinds from the orchestra: flute, oboe, clarinet, and bassoon; and one brass instrument, the horn.  Although most of the attention given to instrumental chamber music is aimed towards the string quartet, the woodwind quintet has both a history and a collection of music that is worth recognizing.  This specific instrumentation took quite some time to develop through chamber and orchestral-music evolution.  During the middle ages there was a strong tendency towards strictly vocal music.  According to Ernest Meyer,

The 16th century was a time of fierce religious and social struggle.  In all such times the emphasis in vocal music laid upon the words (and text in general) becomes stronger.  In all countries the movements of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation alike endeavored to convey their messages through the medium of vocal music…[1]

Because of this, instrumental music was not emphasized until later.  Although the first music to be written strictly for instruments were dances used for entertainment, instruments were also used in vocal chamber music.  Instruments doubled or replaced voices in chamber music.

Early instrumental music was not specific in its orchestration.  Any instrument with the proper range could be used.  The instrumentation of flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and horn developed around 1800.  This combination of instruments developed from the imperial Harmoniemusik.

The nucleus of the Harmonie was a pair of horns, beneath which were bassoons (in early Harmoniemusic where there was only a single part two players would commonly play in unison) and above a pair of treble instruments, usually oboes or clarinets; by the 1780’s it was standard practice to employ both oboes and clarinets in an octet Harmonie.  Flutes, English horns and basset-horns were also occasionally used as alternatives or in addition.[2]

The octet was first used in central Europe by Prince Schwarzenber, but the ensemble was used extensively in the Vienna court of Joseph II around 1782.[3]

Although this ensemble was used in courts and for outside performances, it did not flourish as the string quartet did.  One of the reasons for this was that the wind instruments were technically highly-flawed and difficult to control.  With technical advances in instrument making, composers were able to write more virtuosic passages as well as discontinue the practice of instrument doubling.

The first composer to write for a wind quintet was Franz Anton Rösler, better known as Francesco Antonio Rosetti (1750–1792).  Rosetti was a Bohemian-Bavarian composer whose main compositional activity was from 1773 to 1789, after he renounced his vows as a secular priest.[4]  He served Prince Kraft Enrst of Oetttingen-Wallerstein in Bavaria during this time; his court had a large number of wind players in the orchestra.  “A flood of symphonies, instrumental concertos, wind chamber music and sonatas give testimony to the beneficial effects of the early years at Wallersein.”[5] Rosetti wrote twenty-six pieces for wind ensemble. Included in these works was Partita in E-flat, K. 2b:17, a work scored for flute, oboe, bassoon, clarinet, and English horn.  Because of the fact that the piece includes English horn instead of the traditional French horn, it is not a woodwind quintet by today’s standards, but it is the first documented work to utilize a combination of five winds, specifically orchestrated in this manner.  Modern arrangements of this piece have substituted the horn for the English horn.  Because the work is at such an early stage of instrumental writing, the technical possibilities of each instrument are not exploited.  The fast passages are short and diatonic and the range of each instrument is narrow.  The bassoon is used as an accompanying instrument to the other winds, and the flute carries most of the melody.

The first composer to write for the modern wind quintet was Giovanni Giuseppe Cambini (1746–1825).  He wrote three works for the woodwind quintet entitled Quintetti Concertans “which were dedicated to Jean Xavier Lefevre, a clarinet teacher on the Paris Conservatory staff from 1748 to 1825.”[6]  Each piece is brief and does not challenge the instrumentalists to the full extent possible.  He treated the quintet much as he would have a string quartet, and tried to blend all five of the unique sounds together instead of allowing differences in timbre to make the piece more interesting.  Just as in the works of Rosetti, Cambini utilized only the middle register of each instrument.  Cambini did give soloistic lines to each instrument, including the bassoon, but it was in the form of solo and accompaniment, with the solo being traded between voices.

Franz Danzi (1763–1826) was the composer son of Innocenz Danzi.  Danzi was a cellist in the courts of Munich and Württemburg and the Kapellmeister in Karlsruhe.  “Although his public career, like that of most court musicians, revolved around his work for the operatic stage, Danzi composed in all major genres.  From the early 1790s until 1825 he published chamber and orchestral works.”[7]  Opus 56,67, and 68 are wind quintets and the best known of Danzi’s compositions.  Just as the previous composers’ works for wind quintet, Danzi does not take advantage of the full ranges and technical capabilities of the instruments.  The few technical passages in these works are scalar or arpeggiated chords and are limited to the flute and clarinet.  Again, Danzi did not experiment with different combinations of instruments and he kept the pieces in common meters.

If Haydn was the father of the string quartet, Anton Reicha (1770–1836) is the father of the woodwind quintet.  Reicha was a Czech composer who was active in all aspects of music in both France and Austria.  Reicha was adopted by his uncle-a virtuoso cellist, concert director, and composer-after the death of his father only ten months after he was born.  “After the family moved to Bonn in 1785, Reicha played the violin and the flute (his main instrument) in the Hofkapelle under his uncle’s direction, alongside Beethoven and C.G. Neefe.”[8]  In 1789 he entered Bonn University where he met Haydn.  When he moved to Hamburg, because of the French invasion of Bonn, he vowed not to perform any more and instead taught piano, harmony, and composition.  In 1881 he became professor at the Paris Conservatoire, and in 1835 successor to Boieldieu.  Today, Reicha is best known for his treatises in theory and his woodwind quintets.  His most important treatises Traité de haute composition displayed Reicha’s thoughts that counterpoint was almost synonymous with harmony.

“Reicha’s actual predilection was for chamber music, but he also wrote a few operas, which explains some of the operatic passages in his chamber music.”[9]  Reicha wrote twenty-four woodwind quintets in four sets of six, opus number 88, 91, 99, and 100.  These works were composed between 1810 and 1820 and were widely performed during this period.  Reicha said of his quintets

At the time there was a dearth not only of good classic music but of any good music for wind instruments, simply because the composers knew little of their technique.  The effects which a combination of these instruments could produce had not been explored…instruments have been perfected by the addition of keys, but there was no worth while music to show their possibilities.  Such was the state of affairs when I conceived the idea of writing a quintet for a combination of the five principal wind instruments (flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, and bassoon).[10]

Reicha’s treatment of the instruments separated his works from those of earlier composers.  Each voice was important: the bassoon was no longer an accompanying instrument.  He used the ranges of each instrument more fully and moved away from strictly diatonic and arpeggiated passages.  The combinations of instruments within the quintet were explored in these quintets so that different timbres were created.   “His treatment of the instruments was not the only different quality in his quintets.  Rather than using all of the voices all of the time in a homophonic style, he exposes the various themes in different voices, with a varied combination of accompanying instruments.  Reicha experimented with the forms and keys as well as the rhythms and tonalities in all his works.”[11]  Each of the quintets has four movements as was customary during this time.  The first movements were in sonata-allegro form.  Most of the quintets followed the key relationships that were standard during this time: relative major or minor keys or the subdominant or dominant for the second movements, for example.  However, he differed in the fact that he changed between major and minor freely, he changed keys frequently within movements, and he chose keys that were previously thought unsuitable for winds such as six sharps or six flats.  According to Shanley, “Dynamics also play an important role in the effectiveness of his quintets…Reicha’s attempt to achieve balance by the adjustment of dynamic markings is unusual in the classic period, and, indeed, only within the present century has this technique been adopted as standard practice.”

Even though Reicha paid special attention to composing for this ensemble, the wind quintet did not become a popular medium until the twentieth-century.  Such composers as Hindemith, Milhaud, and Poulenc are among the major composers to write for this ensemble in the twentieth-century.



Cobbett, Walter W. Cobbett’s Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music. 2nd Ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1963. vol. 2.


Corneilson, Paul, and Alexander, Peter M., [Franz Danzi] Grove Music Online, ed. L. Macy (Accessed 09 October 2003), http://www.grovemusic.com


Fitzpatrick, Horace [Antonio Rosetti] Music and Letters, XLIII (July , 1963), 234-237.


Hellyer, Roger, [Harmoniemusik] Grove Music Online, ed. L. Macy (Accessed 02 October 2003), http://www.grovemusic.com


McGlaughlin, Bill, Antoine Reicha and the Wind Quintet, Saint Paul Sunday, (Accessed 02 October 2003)


Meyer, Ernest H., English Chamber Music, London, England, Lawrence and Wisehart Publishing, 1946.


Prod’home, J.G. [From the Unpublished Autobiography of Antoine Reicha] The Musical Quarterly, XXII, (July, 1935)


Shanley, Helen Ann, The Woodwind Quintet: Its Origin and Early Development, An unpublished master’s dissertation, North Texas University, 1969.


Stone, Peter Elliot, [Anton Reicha] Grove Music Online, ed. L. Macy (Accessed 09 October 2003), http://www.grovemusic.com


Suppan, Wolfgang, [Wind Quintet] Grove Music Online, ed. L. Macy (Accessed 09 October 2003), http://www.grovemusic.com




[1] Ernest H. Meyer, English Chamber Music (London, 1946), p.78.

[2] Roger Hellyer, Harmoniemusic, Grove Music Online, ed L. Macy (Accessed on 02 October 2003) <http://www.grovemusic.com>

[3] Wolfgang Suppan, Wind Quintet, Grove Music Online, ed. L. Macy (Accessed 09 October 2003), <http://www.grovemusic.com>

[4] Horace Fitzpatrick, “Antonio Rosetti,” Music and Letters, XLIII (July, 1962), p. 234.

[5] Helen Ann Shanley, The Woodwind Quintet: It’s Origin and Early Development, An unpublished master’s dissertation, 1969. p. 33.

[6] Shanley, p. 34.

[7] Paul Corneilson and Peter M. Alexander, Franz Danzi, Grove Music Online, ed. L. Macy (Accessed 09 October 2003), <http://www.grovemusic.com>

[8] Stone

[9] Cobbett, Walter W. Cobbett’s Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music. 2nd Ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1963. vol.2 p. 284.

[10] J.G. Prod’home, “From the Unpublished Autobiography of Antoine Reicha,” The Music Quarterly, XXII (July, 1935), p. 342.

[11] Shanley, p. 50.