One recent answer to the horn problem: the “reed quintet”

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If you have ever felt like a fifth wheel in a woodwind quintet, the one that does not really belong, you might have been correct. One type of ensemble that has emerged recently is the reed quintet: oboe, clarinet, alto saxophone, bass clarinet, and bassoon.

Personally, I have enjoyed playing in woodwind and in brass quintets over the years. Each has challenges for the horn player, but we can meet them for sure.

When I first heard of the reed quintet the grouping sounded like a bad idea. Composers and audiences seem to be embracing the ensemble; it is the “new cool group.” So far as I can tell this grouping has existed for less than ten years, but several of these groups are already active in my area here in Arizona — and are probably in yours too.

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We have to wonder, what problem the group is solving exactly by replacing the horn and the flute? Horn wise I am guessing the thought they that they might admit to is that the balance is easier. Flute wise I’m not sure the thinking other than maybe the traditional woodwind quintet is perceived as top heavy. Essentially the flute voice is eliminated, the sax plays in the range the horn vacated (with more technical agility, a better high range, and relatively speaking no chance of missing notes…), and the bass clarinet can provide a stronger bass voice than bassoon.

[And, of course, there are brass quintets out there that don’t have horns, almost certainly to also solve a perceived “horn problem.” If a Euphonium playing horn parts is a solution….]

I suppose the take away of the reed quintet topic is that if you are a horn player in a woodwind quintet be devoted to playing soft (my standard advice is to match the actual dynamic of the clarinet and bassoon at basically all times) and be enthused about the group, or you could be replaced! There are simply too many works for woodwinds without horn (reed trios, woodwind quartets, etc.) for the other members to not consider the option of a group without horn solving a problem ….