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John Harbison
Quintet for Winds

John Harbison

  • Born: December 20, 1938, City of Orange, New Jersey


Quintet for Winds

  • Composed: 1979
  • Premiere: April 15, 1979 in Boston’s Jordan Hall by the Aulos Wind Quintet
  • Duration: approx. 22 minutes
“I regarded the writing of a quintet for woodwinds as challenging. It is not a naturally felicitous combination of instruments, such as a string quartet.” —John Harbison

With his 1979 Quintet, John Harbison clearly overcame the obstacles to the merging of five instruments distinct in their timbres, their ranges, their expressive possibilities, and their limitations. The resulting work is extremely challenging to play—its classical transparency notwithstanding.

The piece opens with an Intrada structured on modulations of timbre and harmony. The upper registers of horn and bassoon give way to a melody in the upper winds, joined by the bassoon before the full quintet takes the movement to its conclusion. The Intermezzo second movement contains an asymmetrical, lilting tune that brings to mind the Intermezzo interrotto of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. The Romanza alternates lush, cantabile lines with an ironic, playful motive before winding down to a placid state of equilibrium. The structure of the Scherzo reveals its kinship to the symphonic scherzo of the 19th century: the only remaining vestige of its minuet origins are its two similar outer sections encasing a slower, contrasting middle trio. The Finale is a kaleidoscope of ever-changing texture and character that invokes associations with a full range of musical idioms, from the wind quintets of Anton Reicha to George Gershwin’s An American in Paris.

The composer writes:

I was determined to deal in mixtures rather than counterpoints, and to strive for a classical simplicity of surface—to maximize what I felt to be the great strength of the combination, the ability to present things clearly. The piece especially emphasizes mixtures and doublings and maintains a classically simple surface. It is extremely challenging to play, and one of the principal rewards of the piece has been the opportunity to work with a number of resourceful, inquisitive, and fearless wind players in the mutually beneficial expansion of their repertory.

—Dr. Scot Buzza