Three generations of wind quintet
by Esben Tange
As father, son and grandson respectively, there is a close family connection between Herman D. Koppel, Anders Koppel and Benjamin Koppel. Despite this, the music of the wind quintets by the three composers differs considerably.
In his Sonatina for Wind Quintet from 1932 the 24-year-old Herman D. Koppel has created a lyrical work focusing on the fundamental building-blocks of music that creates most of all the impression of a sensitive piece of musical cubism. Anders Koppel's Sonatina for Wind Quintet from 2002 is to a much greater extent a diverting piece that adds humour and a breath of fresh air to the wind quintet, strongly inspired as it is by such things as Italian folk music and commedia dell'arte figures. And in his Krazy Kat Music from 2000 Benjamin Koppel, with inspiration from George Herriman's surrealist strip cartoon universe, has created a musical fusion where classical music meets jazz and salsa.
By means of these three highly divergent musical idioms, Herman D. Koppel, Anders Koppel and Benjamin Koppel have, in their distinctive ways, all helped to extend the musical range of the classical wind quintet.
All three composers share not having studied composition at an academy of music. Instead, their compositional work has to a great extent grown out of their lives as practising professional musicians. Since his debut in 1930 and right up until a few years before his death in 1998, Herman D. Koppel was one of Denmark's leading and most diligent concert pianists. Anders Koppel, as an organist in Savage Rose, the world music orchestra Bazaar and a number of jazz ensembles, for example, has left an indelible mark on the Danish rhythmic music scene for over 40 years. And Benjamin Koppel had already established a name for himself by the mid 1990s as one of Denmark's most wide-ranging jazz saxophone players.
Experiences from the concert stage characterise in particular Anders Koppel's Sonatina for Wind Quintet and Benjamin Koppel's Krazy Kat Music, both of which possess a high degree of artistic brilliance. In both works the musical drama is characterised by a particular ‘concertising' quality, where the technical skills of the individual musician are challenged to the utmost both by the call for soloistic feats and for intense inter-action with the other musicians.
Herman D Koppel: Sonatina for Wind Quintet op. 16 (1932)
Herman D. Koppel is in an enquiring phase when he composes his Sonatina for Wind Quintet op. 16 in December 1932. Earlier in the year, he has composed Music for Jazz -Orchestra and Piano Concerto no. 1, both of which are influenced by a rhythmically insistent style reminiscent of Bartók and a cultivation of a virtuoso brilliance that had been reined back in an age characterised by ‘Neue Sachlichkeit'. But in Sonatina for Wind Quintet, first performed in March 1933 at The Young Composers' Association, the mode of expression is first and foremost lyrical. And then there is obvious inspiration from Carl Nielsen - whom Herman D. Koppel knew personally - who with his Wind Quintet (1922) created one of the most important chamber works of the 20th century.
The first movement Allegro moderato of the Sonatina is based on a number of musical modules that, repeated again and again in a gently rocking metre, symbolise a carefree form of existence. Here we are listening to music anchored in nature, where love of the completely simple building-blocks of music is in focus. This applies for example to the frequent use of one of the most fundamental musical intervals, the third, which also appears as a musical signature in the movement's concluding flute motif.
In the second movement Andante quieto the simplicity is even more striking, with the two lowest instruments, horn and bassoon, repeating the same two notes time and again. The expression is plaintive, the movement culminating in a heart-rending clarinet solo, signalling that a painful longing burns beneath the apparently cool Nordic surface of the young Herman D. Koppel.
The last movement Allegro ma molto quieto is also conspicuously calm. Koppel admittedly introduces a playful mood when he lets the five instruments improvise freely on a small turning motif. But instead of letting the movement culminate in a festive finale, Herman D. Koppel, with a reprise of the simple flute motif from the first movement, chooses instead to let the music fold in on itself, pointing inwards towards the nature with which both music and humanity are connected.
Anders Koppel: Sonatina for Wind Quintet (2002)
When Anders Koppel composes his first and, so far, only wind quintet in the winter of 2002, he has just completed his stage music for Holberg's Masquerade. And, as a natural extension of his work on characterising Holberg's theatrical figures, Anders Koppel is inspired by the Italian dramatic form, the commedia dell'arte.
First and foremost, there is a divertive quality in the music of the quintet, and in the first movement Moderato it is in particular the colourful servant figure Harlequin that haunts the music. The individual instruments appear in turn as gesturing figures in a puppet theatre, which also enables the clarinet to flare up like a hysterical woman, ably assisted by the large dynamic range possessed by precisely this instrument. And with a constantly changing tempo that shifts from the harassed to moments of lingering tranquillity, the essential nature of the piece is capricious.
In the second movement Andante sostenuto time suddenly stands still. Dissonant chords kept pianissimo create a chilling mood, and with meticulously placed notes in the high register the flute reveals itself like brief glimpses of light in a night sky. The oboe assumes the main role with a plaintive melody, and even though this is released along the way in a cadenza, the atmosphere is still one of melancholy. Like a dejected, lonely Pierrot, staring at the cold stars on a clear and frosty night.
Led by a proudly prancing piccolo and with a march-like Tarantella, Anders Koppel opens the door in the final movement Allegro con brio to Italian folk music, which for centuries has been heard when a local wind band marched through the streets on some festive occasion. There are intermezzi inserted on the way, however, where in short passages samples are provided of the symphonic breadth that the instruments of the wind quintet are also capable of. This also illustrates just how freely Anders Koppel moves -between various musical traditions. And what the listener is left with is a -distinctive -music sustained by a high degree of self-confidence and that in a liberating way is -unafraid of caricature.
Benjamin Koppel: Krazy Kat Music (2000)
In continuation of his pioneer work with the crossover ensemble Mad Cows Sing, Benjamin Koppel composes Krazy Kat Music in 2000 for the Dutch reed quintet (oboe, clarinet, saxophone, bass clarinet, bassoon) Calefax. As in several other works from the period, Benjamin Koppel is here inspired by elaborate strip cartoons. In this case, it is the American George Herriman's Krazy Kat (1913-44) strips, which depict a both funny and yet sinister universe and where the main character Krazy Kat retains an unfailing zest for life despite being repeatedly hit by a brick!
Completely in accordance with the naivistic manner of Krazy Kat, Benjamin Koppel frames Krazy Kat Music in simple, fluent music that is kept in an intimate, solemn tone. The quick main section of the work, on the other hand, is packed with in particular rhythmic energy, as each voice in the quintet has its own individual life which, in conjunction with the other voices, creates an ingenious chamber-musical prism. By making use of both the virtuoso playing technique of classical wind instruments and the percussive force present in very rhythmic music, Benjamin Koppel creates a music of rare intensity. This is clearly in evidence in, for example, the conclusion of the quick main section of the work, where a truly swinging boogie-woogie has the nature of a pointillistic ride in which a heavy shower of accented notes is part of a finely meshed network.
Krazy Kat Music builds to a great extent on a playful approach to music, where the individual participants in the musical ensemble often get the opportunity to comment on and influence the whole with a personal twist. At the same time, it is also a modern, surrealist work of art where Benjamin Koppel departs from the traditional musical image by inserting such features as skewed metres, where the familiar musical pulse is suddenly dislocated, filling the attentive listener with both joy and surprise.
Esben Tange holds degrees in musicology and media science. He is an editor and concert host at DR P2 Radio, and Artistic Director of the Rued Langgaard Festival.