Composers Datebook®

Cowell for winds

Composers Datebook - Feb. 21, 2024


Henry Cowell was one of the most prolific of all 20th-century American composers. Some of his works are aggressively experimental in nature, while others tap into folk traditions and world music. The range and variety are quite remarkable. Cowell wrote so many works, in fact, that even the composer himself often had trouble keeping track of all he had written.

Take today’s genial little Woodwind Quintet, for example. It was written in the early 1930s for the great French flute virtuoso Georges Barrère, who commissioned and premiered many new works involving his instrument. In 1934, Barrère even made a recording of the suite for New Music Quarterly, a publishing venture bankrolled by none other than the retired insurance executive and part-time composer Charles Ives.

After that recording, Cowell went on producing new works, and the manuscript of his Woodwind Quintet remained with Barrère, who apparently just filed it away. The music didn’t surface again until 1947, when it was discovered among the late flutist’s collection of scores.

On today’s date in 1948, Cowell’s Woodwind Suite received its first concert performance at Columbia University in New York City and quickly established itself as one of Cowell’s most popular compositions.

Music Played in Today's Program

Henry Cowell (1897-1965): Suite for Woodwind Quintet; Solaris Capstone 8677

On This Day


  • 1801 - Czech composer Johann Wenzel Kalliwoda, in Prague;

  • 1836 - French composer Léo Delibes, in St. Germain du Val, Sarthe;

  • 1844 - French composer and organist Charles Marie Widor, in Lyons;


  • 1996 - American composer and conductor Morton Gould, age 82, in Orlando, Fla.


  • 1727 - Bach: Sacred Cantata No. 52 ("Ich habe genug") performed on the Feast of the Purification as part of Bach's third annual Sacred Cantata cycle in Leipzig (1725/27);

  • 1744 - Handel: oratorio “Semele,” in London (Julian date: Feb. 10);

  • 1749 - Handel: oratorio “Susanna” in London (Julian date: Feb. 10);

  • 1886 - Mussorgsky (arr. Rimsky-Korsakov): opera “Khovanschchina,” posthumously, in St. Petersburg (Julian date: Feb. 9);

  • 1907 - Delius: opera, "A Village Romeo and Juliet," in Berlin;

  • 1909 - Liadov: “Enchanted Lake” for orchestra, in St. Petersburg (Julian date: Feb. 8);

  • 1917 - Rachmaninoff: “Etudes-tableaux,” Op. 39 (Gregorian date: March 6);

  • 1920 - Milhaud: ballet "Le Boeuf sur la toît," in Paris;

  • 1929 - Respighi: orchestral suite, "Roman Festivals," by the New York Philharmonic, Toscanini conducting;

  • 1946 - Roy Harris: "Memories of a Child's Sunday," by the New York Philharmonic with the composer conducting;

  • 1948 - Cowell: Suite for Woodwind Quintet, by an ensemble at the McMillan Theater of Columbia University in New York City; This work was written in 1933 for the French flutist Georges Barrère, but the score and parts remained lost until 1947.

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About Composers Datebook®

Host John Birge presents a daily snapshot of composers past and present, with timely information, intriguing musical events and appropriate, accessible music related to each.

He has been hosting, producing and performing classical music for more than 25 years. Since 1997, he has been hosting on Minnesota Public Radio's Classical Music Service. He played French horn for the Cincinnati Symphony and Pops Orchestra and performed with them on their centennial tour of Europe in 1995. He was trained at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, Eastman School of Music and Interlochen Arts Academy.

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