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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

No Strings Attached

In the world of orchestral music we've become accustomed to stringed instruments being not only the largest but also the most ubiquitous section of an orchestra. Winds, brass and percussion come and go in varying combinations, but the strings seem ever-present.

In this post I want to explore music which largely omits the strings and which focuses on wind and brass instruments. The strings may be the foundation of the orchestra but there is a great deal of music which does perfectly well without them.

The orchestra as we know it is largely an invention of the early 19th century, which grew out of developments in European music making in the mid to late 18th century. Before about 1750 there were orchestras, of course, but their constitution was very flexible according to localised practice. European composers of the late Baroque (the period 1700-1750) had a small string ensemble as their basic group, to which winds, brass and percussion were added as required. In the 17th century, orchestras were little more than slightly enlarged chamber ensembles, and before that the distinction we make between chamber ensembles and orchestral groups completely disappears; orchestras were chamber groups, on the whole, and often - if the context required - these were wind and brass ensembles without strings.

The instrumental music which survives from the Renaissance and earlier - that is, before 1500 - often doesn't specify the instruments intended. In fact most instrumental music was designed to be played by whatever instruments were available. This is why recordings of Renaissance dance music, for example, can sound so different from each other, even when performing the same piece.

Early wind instruments as illustrated in Michael Praetorius' Syntagma Musica (1612)

One of the best-known collections of early dances was compiled by Tylman Susato in the mid-16th century. Published in 1551, The Danserye has been recorded, in whole or in part, many times, and it is played today in all sorts of arrangements. This actually continues the spirit of the period in which it was published, and early music groups today, seeking to recover the spirit of the original, can interpret Susato's pieces in a huge variety of ways. What is interesting, though, is that this music works best on wind instruments (albeit with a discreet lute accompaniment in some versions, and often some indiscreet percussion). This is Philip Pickett’s take on one of the dances from the collection with the New London Consort. It’s just one of many versions you can find online. [listen]

So music for wind ensembles, while not specifically scored as such, was well-entrenched in secular music in the 16th century, and of course wind instruments themselves go back to the earliest civilisations. Wind instruments particularly lent themselves to outdoor performance, or for performance in large indoor spaces. This connects very much with Mozart's use of wind instruments, of which more in a moment.

Large spaces indoors often meant churches and wind ensembles were favoured in Italian cities such as Brescia and Venice in the 16th and 17th centuries. This ceremonial music designed for use in church is by Antonio Bertali, a 17th century composer at the Viennese Imperial Court who was trained in, and strongly influenced by, the north Italian style. [listen]

The "north Italian style" that Bertali would have known usually meant the Venetian style. The canzonas of Giovanni Gabrieli (c. 1555-1612), often for multiple instrumental choirs, were deigned to make use of Venice’s spectacular church architecture, and in particular that of St Mark’s basilica, where he was employed as one of the resident organists. These were used in both sacred and secular contexts; indeed, in Venice there was (and probably still is) little distinction between the two. St Mark’s has multiple galleries and choir lofts elevated around the building, from which groups of singers and instrumentalists could “play” with the building’s fabled acoustics. This canzona for three instrumental choirs would have been tailor-made for such a space. [listen]

Later in the 17th century, music for wind ensembles was well established in France at the court of Louis XIV. There were several wind bands established for outdoor ceremonial occasions, attached to the military or to the grande écurie (the large stables). A famous oboe band existed (comprising double reed instruments - oboes of varying sizes and bassoons - as well as percussion) and this played for both outdoor ceremonial occasions and indoor for theatrical performances and balls.

Sallaert: Procession of the Maids in the Place du Grand Sablon in Brussels (1615)

Two composers who dominated this sort of writing in the late 1600s were Jean-Baptiste Lully and André Danican Philidor. This is part of Philidor's oboe band music for a comic farce known as Le Mariage de la Grosse Cathos (Fat Kate's Wedding), in which all the parts were sung by men (the bride is a baritone in drag). This was first performed in 1688. [listen]

Further east, German-speaking composers were also writing music for multiple wind instruments. This is part of a sonata for seven recorders and continuo by Johann Heinrich Schmelzer, who lived in the mid-17th century and worked at the Imperial court in Vienna. [listen]

Johann Heinrich Schmelzer

Music for brass instruments on their own was largely limited at this time by the instruments themselves; trumpets and horns were mostly restricted to the notes of the harmonic series. Still, some composers managed to create vivid and stirring ceremonial music for brass, among them Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber, who lived from 1644 to 1704. (An earlier post in this blog is devoted to Biber’s life and work.) Biber's later career was based in Salzburg and his ceremonial sonatas for multiple trumpets and continuo would have sounded spectacular in the resonant acoustic of St Rupert's Cathedral there. This is his Sonata Sancti Polycarpi of 1673. It's scored for nine trumpets, timpani and continuo. [listen]

A very famous example of a composer writing exclusively for an orchestra without strings took place in London in 1749. George Frideric Handel wrote the Music for the Royal Fireworks for outdoor performance, and even though he wanted to include strings, he relented at the last minute to the King's desire that no strings should be involved. The piece is scored for oboes in three parts, bassoons in two parts, contrabassoon, horns and trumpets, each in three parts, and timpani. At the first performance there were some 24 oboes, 16 bassoons, nine horns, nine trumpets and multiple percussionists involved. Although Handel later sanctioned the addition of strings for indoor concert performances (presumably with single players on the wind and percussion parts), the original concept with multiple winds (especially when played as it is in this video on period instruments) is pretty spectacular. [listen]

A view of the structure erected in Green Park, London, in 1749. On this flimsy theatre set (which burned down) Handel and his band performed the Music for the Royal Fireworks.

The association of wind instruments with outdoor performance remained strong and by the time Mozart was at work - a few decades after Handel - the idea of the Harmonie was well-entrenched in music of German-speaking countries.

Harmonie is used in German to denote the wind section of an orchestra. In Mozart's time, though, it was a term which was used to describe a wind ensemble of 6-8 instruments which played lighter music, usually designed for entertainment at social events. The music written for such ensembles was sometimes just called Harmoniemusik, although other terms such a serenade, divertimento or cassation were used. Mozart wrote many such works (as did his contemporaries). Mozart, though, developed a special affinity with writing for wind instruments, especially in the operas, and this shows in his music for wind ensembles as well. Even in his earlier works of this type, there is no hint at all that this is merely functional music, or music which would work for strings. It's music tailor-made for winds, and it suits the sonorities of winds in combination in a way which set a new benchmark for wind writing. This is part of a divertimento for pairs of oboes, horns and bassoons which Mozart wrote in 1775 when he was 19. [listen]

Music of this type was designed for performance in a social setting, such as a party or a reception. We play such music in concerts nowadays but Mozart knew full well people would be talking and laughing and drinking and eating while this music was being played. Yet this didn't stop him elevating the wind serenade to being on a par with his string quartets and quintets as truly great chamber music. When he was in Vienna (he moved there in 1781) he contributed much to the genre and was spurred on in this respect by the establishment of a permanent Harmonie at the court of Emperor Joseph II. This comprised eight instruments: pairs of oboes, clarinets, horns and bassoons. This event made Mozart revise his serenade K375, which was originally scored for only six instruments (there were no oboes), for the eight instruments in the Emperor's ensemble. This is part of the revised version. [listen]

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

That version of K375 dates from 1782 but it's probably fair to say that the wind serenade Mozart wrote a couple of years later is, in part at least, his most famous. The B flat serenade K361 has acquired the name "Gran Partita" (Great Suite) and while that is not Mozart's title, it's certainly apt. K361 is scored for thirteen instruments; to the basic eight of the Harmonie (that is, pairs of oboes, clarinets, horns and bassoons) are added a second pair of horns, a pair of basset horns and a double bass line. The use of the string bass in otherwise exclusively wind serenades of this type was quite common, although some performances of this work today use a contrabassoon.

Peter Schaffer rightly singled out the third movement of this serenade for special mention in Amadeus, a perfect illustration of the way Mozart elevated functional music into the realm of the sublime. [listen]

Another popular sort of music for the Viennese Harmonie in Mozart's time was the arrangement of potpourris of "greatest hits" from popular operas of the day. These were designed to be used either as serenades - usually outdoors - or in the home. A number of arrangers made Harmonie versions of great slabs of Mozart's operas, including Joseph Triebensee (who arranged music from Don Giovanni forwind ensemble) and Joseph Heidenreich, who arranged music from The Magic Flute. [listen]

Music for the Harmonie remained popular in German-speaking countries after Mozart's death in 1791. Writing music for some important person's social events was one way of getting noticed and making useful contacts; we'd call it networking, or schmoozing. Beethoven, while not in any way a person who sucked up to the aristocracy, knew the importance of making good contacts as much as anyone. It's interesting that his works for wind ensembles are nearly all early works, some dating from his Bonn period before the move to Vienna.

Beethoven's Octet Op 103 is not as late as its high opus number would lead us to believe. It was given that opus number in 1851, decades after his death, something which disguises the fact that its original version dates from his pre-Vienna years. It's scored for the same combination of instruments as Joseph II's Harmonie - pairs of oboes, clarinets, horns and bassoons - and while the composer probably revised it for use in Vienna, it is a charming work that reflects well the classical roots from which the young Beethoven sprang. On the other hand, it's no pushover. Like the early sonatas and symphonies, this Octet evokes a sort of "aggressive playfulness", pushing the players and daring them to deal with the technical demands of his music, while smiling politely all the time. [listen]

The final flowering of the Viennese-style Harmonie came at the hands of Franz Schubert and Felix Mendelssohn. Schubert's Octet of 1813 is unfortunately only known to us in an incomplete form, but two movements survive intact. [listen]

A work which seems to bridge the gap between wind chamber serenades and the new idea of a wind orchestra is the Overture for wind instruments composed by Mendelssohn in 1824. This was originally scored for eleven players and written for a band which worked at a spa resort where Mendelssohn was holidaying. He originally called it Notturno, or nocturne. This term was used as a synonym for "serenade" in the 18th century (because serenades were usually played at night) and so Mendelssohn is invoking a tradition in this title which by his day was rather old fashioned. Two years later he prepared it for publication by arranging it for a full wind orchestra and changing the title to Overture, but in the original form it has an intimate charm which reflects its function as lighter entertainment. [listen]

Felix Mendelssohn

As far as wind chamber music was concerned, the wind quintet (comprising flute, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon) started to replace the Viennese Harmonie in the early 19th century. The five distinct tonal qualities of these instruments set it apart from the homogenous-sounding string quartet, for which composers had been writing since the mid 18th century. The wind quintet provided composers with a very different creative experience and many central European composers took to the wind quintet with gusto. Franz Danzi and Anton Reicha, both of whom lived in the decades before and after 1800, wrote many wind quintets. This is part of a quintet written by Reicha shortly before 1820. [listen]

So far in this survey I’ve made no real distinction between wind orchestral music and wind chamber music. This was because wind orchestral music, as we would think of it, was so rare as to almost not exist. Handel's Music for the Royal Fireworks was a one-off and spawned no imitators. Wind music in the 19th and 20th centuries, though, falls very clearly into chamber music on the one hand and wind orchestra music on the other. The Mendelssohn and Reicha works we've already heard are quite definitely chamber music, whereas some composers thought on a larger scale and devised ensembles which would be more accurately termed wind orchestras.

In 1840 Hector Berlioz was commissioned to write a work for outdoor performance to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the July 1830 Revolution. He decided to use a very large orchestra made up of winds, brass and percussion (although he later sanctioned the addition of strings in the first and last movements for indoor performances). The first performance of the Symphonie funèbre et triomphale (Funeral and Triumphant Symphony) featured a massive wind orchestra of over 200 players and it remains one of his most impressive works. [listen]

Hector Berlioz conducting a massive ensemble

Some notable works for wind ensemble were composed in the later 19th century. The 31-year old Antonín Dvořák had an early success with his D minor wind serenade in 1878. This follows the spirit of the 18th century Harmonie by including not only a string bass but also a cello in an otherwise all-wind ensemble of 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons and 3 horns. There is also an optional part for contrabassoon. [listen]

Richard Strauss wrote significant works for wind ensemble at the start and end of his career. The early works are a serenade and a suite, each scored for 13 instruments, which date from only a few years after Dvořák's serenade. The 1884 suite was a significant work in Strauss's career, providing him with important new contacts and catapulting him into a conducting career when he was asked at short notice to direct the first performance. The suite (published as Strauss's Op 4) is in four movements, and is scored for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 4 horns, 2 bassoons and contrabassoon. The third movement is a lively Gavotte full of intricate detail and high spirits. [listen]

A famous French example of music for winds was written around the same time as Strauss's suite. This was the Little Symphony for winds by Charles Gounod. The use of the word "symphony" in the title might lead us to expect a larger ensemble; what he actually wrote for was almost the same combination as the 18th century Harmonie: there are pairs of oboes, clarinets, horns, and bassoons, to which is added a single flute. The flute part is in deference to the French flute virtuoso Paul Taffanel, who commissioned the work. [listen]

Charles Gounod (1870)

In the 20th century several parallel strands of music for wind ensemble became well-established. The British brass band, the American concert band and all manner of variations on these forms grew out of social needs within communities and the needs of music education. Composers in the classical mainstream occasionally wrote for these types of ensembles, particularly in Britain where the brass band and the military band (an ensemble comprising both woodwind and brass) were very popular, especially at an amateur or community level.

In 1909, Gustav Holst - who was not only a fine composer but a fine teacher and a trombonist - wrote the first of his suites for military band. The first known performance wasn't until 1920, but it's one of his most seriously thought-out and detailed works. Holst wrote on the title page of the score that each movement is based on the same phrase and the three movements are designed to be played without a break. Why Holst wrote the it (or the second suite, written two years later) is not known but it's one of the "classic" works of its kind, and one of the very few military band works to have been arranged for orchestra; that process normally happens the other way around. This is the final movement, a march. [listen]

Holst's contemporary and compatriot, Ralph Vaughan Williams, also contributed works to the military band genre, perhaps the most famous of which is the English Folk Song Suite of 1923. (This too exists in an arrangement for regular orchestra made by the composer Gordon Jacob.) [listen]

Holst's and Vaughan Williams's works for band were seminal in helping to establish the band movement in the United States, and it's unthinkable now to consider American education without the wind band as a core part of the music curriculum.

A composer who tapped into the expertise of American concert bands (as mixed woodwind/brass ensembles are called in the US) was Paul Hindemith. Hindemith emigrated to the United States in 1940 and was deeply involved in that country's music-making as a composer, conductor and teacher. In 1951 he conducted the premiere of his Symphony in B flat for concert band, one of the most important works of its kind to come from the pen of a major composer. Hindemith saw a special connection between wind music and folk music and his works for winds occasionally quote folk melodies (like those of Holst and Vaughan Williams). But beyond this, he was impressed with the virtuosity of the 100 musicians in the United States Army Band for whom he wrote this piece and created for them a work which is now a cornerstone of the wind band repertoire. [listen]

Paul Hindemith

Shortly before Hindemith wrote this symphony for winds, Richard Strauss, in his final years, contributed two more works to the genre. The two late sonatinas for winds date from the mid 1940s, and the second (also called a symphony for winds) is a gorgeous work about which the elderly Strauss had some reservations. Surrounded by the horror of the end of the second world war, Strauss confessed that in his late works he aimed to invoke again the spirit of Mozart, a composer he had always adored. The minuet from the second sonatina seems to do this perfectly. [listen]

In the realm of chamber music for winds there is much to choose from in the 20th century but my choice has fallen on Stravinsky. Stravinsky's predilection for the sounds of winds and brass is a common feature of so much of his music, even when strings are involved. There are many occasions when winds and brass come to the fore in Stravinsky, both in an orchestral context and in chamber music. One need only think of the Symphonies of Wind Instruments, the Symphony of Psalms, the Mass, the Piano Concerto or the revised version of the Concertino. In chamber music, though, the Octet of 1923 stands apart in my mind as a real gem.

Igor Stravinsky

Scored in its revised version for flute, clarinet, 2 bassoons, 2 trumpets and 2 trombones, the Octet is very much at the centre of Stravinsky's neoclassical phase. It takes its inspiration from the same world which led to his classically-inspired ballet Pulcinella, but even with only

eight instruments, the Octet has a symphonic sound about it, mixed with the sort of clarity only Stravinsky could achieve. [listen]

Of a very different nature is a monumental work for winds, brass and percussion composed in the early 1960s by Olivier Messiaen. Messiaen was commissioned to write a Requiem to commemorate the dead of both world wars but this he refused to do. The work which resulted was called Et expecto resurrectionem mortorum, (a line from the Mass which means "and I look for the resurrection of the dead").

Olivier Messiaen

Scored for 18 woodwinds, 16 brass and metallic percussion, the work seeks to evoke timelessness and eternity, and the composer envisaged it being performed in very large cathedrals or, even better, outdoors. Any performance of this piece is a major event. [listen]

It's important to realise that despite the almost ubiquitous presence of strings in art music of the past three hundred years or so, there are works which find much to say without them, and some of the greatest minds in the business have chosen to write for combinations of exclusively wind and brass. I hope you've made some discoveries in this article and that they'll inspire you to explore this corner of the repertoire a bit more on your own.

This article is based on a pair of Keys To Music programs first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in July, 2010.

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