Notes on the transcription of
Beethoven's 6 String Quartets Op. 18
for Wind Quintet

I heard a concert in Prague by the Prague Wind Quintet in which they played a transcription of Beethoven's Sextet for two clarinets, two horn, and two bassoons. Much music for wind quintet is of a light character, and the serious nature of Beethoven's music was to me a welcome contrast to the eternal happiness of music for the wind quintet..

The idea of transcribing Beethoven's string quartets came a few days later. Looking first at my favorite string quartets, No. 11 in f, Op. 95, and No. 14 in cis, Op. 119, they seemed very difficult if not impossible to transcribe for woodwind quintet. However, the six quartets of Opus 18 seemed very natural for this project, for the voices seemed to be appropriate for wind instruments. The quartets after Opus 18 become more and more integrated with the idioms of the string instruments.

The goal was to make the transcriptions as Beethoven might have done them, using the instruments that Beethoven had available and the manner he would have used. In this way one tries to reconstruct Beethoven's thought process, which should enlighten one's own interpretation of Beethoven's music.

Beethoven's flute had a range of d' to a'''. However the music urges that the flute be pushed above a''', at least to b''' and h''', and optionally to c'''' even c#''''. Discussions with players of period instruments left it undecided exactly when the ranges of the woodwinds was extended, but it was around this time. A particular issue is when flutes and oboes had c#', but remembering that most ancient blockflutes had a c#' because of two adjacent holes, c#' is avoided as much as possible but used when necessary. Sometimes the oboe has h or b, but this is optional. So far the question of HH for bassoon has not come up.

The clarinet often has the viola part and this would keep the clarinet in its lowest register. This is a wonderful register, but it can become too much of a good thing. So the clarinet is sometimes one octave higher. Also the clarinet is missing one or two of the viola's lowest notes.

The natural horn was the main challenge because of the limited notes available even using hand horn technique. The hand technique required here is more than Beethoven's normal orchestra parts, but it is on the level of the Horn Sonata, Quintet for Winds and Piano, the 3rd horn in the Eroicabut not the 4th horn in the 9th symphony. It is aldo not as demanding as Reicha required in his contemporary wind quintets.

I used several principles of instrumentation. The first grouping is the obvious, flute plays violin I, oboe plays violin II, clarinet is viola, and bassoon is cello. But the flute and oboe lack the low g, g#, a, b, h, and maybe c#' of the violin, and the clarinet lacks the c and c# (clarinet in B) of the viola. There are times when all four strings are around c' or below, out of the reach of flute and oboe.

This leaves the horn as a free agent. The horn can double or support one of the other parts of the above two groupings or offer some relief.

The second group (oboe, clarinet, horn, and bassoon) is the standard wind ensemble of the time and was used by Beethoven and Mozart in their Quintets for Winds and Piano and Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante. In this group, the oboe is violin I, clarinet is violin II, horn in viola, and bassoon is cello. The upper range of violin I is not available to the oboe and the horn does not have all the notes of the viola, but this works surprisingly well. If you let the horn wander around the three lowest parts, picking the notes it can play, and thus switching the clarinet and bassoon around, you can still have very good voice leading.

Thirdly, winds can't and shouldn't play as continuously as string instruments, therefore the music is more playable when there is a little rest for everybody. It also gives more variety of sound.

Fourthly, everybody should have good solos. Thus violin I is given to flute, oboe, and clarinet and even a few times to the horn and bassoon.

Last, sometimes the flute and oboe play violin I in octaves. Sometimes the horn doubles the bassoon in octaves, or plays rhythmically with the bassoon on a slightly invented part, or emphasizes melodic elements of the upper voices. A few times passages are moved up an octave because of the low register, other times the passage is kept low but a voice is dropped because there is no instrument available. Sometimes a voice is changed, usually to accomodate the horn. Double or triple stops in the strings sometimes provide a fifth part, other times they provide too many parts.

The Czech wind sound was in mind for these transcriptions. This is an intensely personal and emotional sound with a wide and controlled range of dynamics, very expressive phrasing, a beautiful elegant vibrato, especially in the clarinet, perfect rhythmic control, good sense of tempo, balance that lets you always hear the right voice, and a precise focused natural sounding ensemble. Fortissimos are very strong without overblowing. Pianissimos are very emotional and intense. The Czech wind sound soars and can lift your soul into heaven.

The low flute is especially focused and dark, not hollow and metallic. The low flute is used under the oboe when the horn is not available. It is especially helpful when everything is low for the flute to take the viola part one octave higher.

A special Czech sound is flute and oboe in unison even in the lower register. The rich flute sound predominates, but oboe adds definition which makes the combination very forceful in forte and intensely sweet in piano. This is used mostly in forte passages.

The oboe has an intensity and expressiveness that keeps the listener's interest in a solo line and blends well in ensemble. Thus the oboe avoids what Pierre Monteux calls "the mezzoforte of indifference", the fate of many oboes.

The Czech clarinet sound is unique and beautiful and a joy to hear. This sound can identify a Czech ensemble, although the English John Denman uses a similar sound as did the late Reginald Kell. Czech clarinets are quite happy to play pianissimo, especially in the low register, where it has a wonderful mysterious effect.

Czech horns can be as strong as you want, but live peaceably with their neighbors, share their good qualties, and in fact have pleasant, interesting, and rewarding conversations with them. The history of the horn really started in Bohemia.

The bassoon is as stylish as the others, but quite naturally, is much like the oboe. Its style gives interest to the bass line, which supports and energizes the entire ensemble.

The Beethoven string quartets certainly do not need a transcription to make them more popular. It is hoped that through these transcriptions wind players can also become involved personally with the music. Also it is hoped that any listener who hears this quintet would seek out the original quartet, if he does not already know it.

Notes On Performance

The score and parts were prepared by computer using SCORE. If there is a mistake in the parts, it is likely to also be in the score. Also it will be quite helpful to keep the original score of the string quartet available.

The computer numbers every bar lines. Therefore, unlike the normal publishing standard, incomplete bars are given a separate bar number.

There are some suggestions in the clarinet part to take some small passages one octave higher and one suggestion for the bassoon in the lower octave.

The tempos of the movements generally speak for themselves. Being standard works, there are many recordings and different interpretations. The slow movements need the most attention to tempo.

Quintet in F, Op. 18, No. 1

Rehearsal number 4 of the 2nd movement (bar 48) of the first quintet can be used to help set the tempo. The oboe will easily see how intense (appassionato) this movement is.

Quintet in G, Op. 18, No. 2;

Bar 72 (nine bars after Rehearsal number 6) of the 2nd movement of the second quintet really determines the tempo. The oboe must determine how to handle the 64th notes and must have the help of the bassoon from Number 6 to set this tempo. It is possible to take Number 6 slower than the beginning of the movement, but it would be better to feel the four sixteenth pulses per quarter note from the very beginning and to sustain the listener's interest by phrasing and emotion rather then driving the tempo forward. Then the Allegro section will be even more effective.

-- Thomas Widlar