About this Piece
Hindemith's affection for the "blowing" instruments was not just a matter of lip service - his very large catalog is liberally dotted with works featuring the winds. Notable among these are the sonatas with piano for, in chronological order of composition, flute, oboe, bassoon, clarinet, horn, trumpet, English horn, trombone, and tuba. Before embarking on the sonatas, apparently thinking there was safety in numbers, he gathered five winds - flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, and bassoon - for an adventurous quintet romp.
The quintet, with the title "small chamber music," appeared in 1922; his first Kammermusik, Op. 24, No. 1, written the same year, was for a small orchestra that included accordion and a siren. That piece found the composer examining the Russian/Parisian Stravinsky under his microscope (the first movement is neo-Petrushka), and flirting with jazz (one movement is titled Shimmy, another Ragtime) as well as with polytonality. One might conclude that he seemed determined to jolt his audience.
Having got this bizarre behavior out of his system, Hindemith relaxed his experimental zeal considerably for the wind quintet, but still kept Stravinsky clearly in view. The dry, caustic timbre of the winds is matched perfectly to the lean, chic, and impersonal materials that speak clearly the Stravinskian neo-classic tongue, as translated into what was to become Hindemith's characteristic language. This is music that, while invoking the outdoor wind divertimentos of the 18th century, sneers at the late 19th century's sonorous and emotional indulgences.
The very opening of the first movement sets the pungent, cerebral tone that pervades the work. The main theme in clarinet is comprised of three motifs which are subjected to expansion, development, and serious repetition, the latter by way of the kinds of obsessive ostinato figures (repeated musical patterns) on which Stravinsky held a lifetime patent. A contrasting theme in oboe suggests a relaxation of tension, although the propulsive three-note rhythm of the opening supplies energetic locomotion to its incipient lyricism. After a repeat of the main theme (in oboe, with a buffoonish figure, not in bassoon, but clarinet), the bassoon recalls the lyric tune, and then the movement ends in a puff of whimsical, dissonant smoke.
The second movement dances a satiric waltz, whereas the third movement has a dirge-like archaic character. The brief interlude that follows, really just a bridge to the finale, exploits the repeated notes that Hindemith has seized upon with such relish in the preceding movements. Within its mere 23 measures, each of the instruments has a mini-cadenza, with the repeated note figures forming the connective tissue. The whirlwind last movement is coolly sophisticated, bracingly syncopated, and bristling with the by-now-familiar ostinatos and repeated notes.
Orrin Howard served for 20 years as the Philharmonic's Director of Publications and Archives.