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Monthly Archives: January 2011

Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) was an influential German composer who explored the fringes of tonality through his music and who was teacher to many a great name in composition.  He grew up and began his career in Germany, but a complicated relationship with the Nazi regime in the 1930s sent him elsewhere.  During that period, he was invited to Turkey, where he helped to reorganize the music education system there.  In 1940, he emigrated to the United States, where he taught primarily at Yale University.  He became an American citizen in 1946, but moved to Zurich in 1953, where he remained for the rest of his life.  He developed his own system of tonality that was not diatonic, but which ranks musical intervals from most-consonant to most-dissonant while still relying on a tonal center.  While this approach sounds purely academic, it resulted in playful, accessible music in Hindemith’s hands.  He was very interested in understanding instrumental technique, to the point that he is said to have learned to play every one of his instrumental sonatas (and there are many, including trumpet, clarinet, trombone, harp, tuba, flute, violin, viola, and bass) on the instrument for which he wrote it.

The Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber came into being in 1943, while Hindemith was living in America.  He was first invited to arrange the music for a ballet on Weber’s themes.  That project fell through when it became clear that he and the choreographer, Leonide Massine, did not see eye to eye.  This left Hindemith free to take Weber’s source material in the direction he pleased.  He used themes from Weber’s little-known piano duets and from his incidental music for the play Turandot, which had also inspired Puccini’s famous opera.  Hindemith casts the Symphonic Metamorphosis in four movements.  The final “March” made its way into the band repertoire in 1950 when the director of bands at Yale, Keith Wilson, completed his arrangement.

The original orchestral version conducted by the composer himself:

And the version we’ll be playing, arranged by former Yale band director Keith Wilson:

Find out more about Hindemith at Wikipedia, the Hindemith Foundation, Schott Publishing, and DSO Kids.

Read up on the Symphonic Metamorphosis at Wikipedia and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

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Dmitri Shostokovich (1906-1975) was one of the great composers of the 20th century, and certainly the greatest to emerge from the Soviet Union.  His relationship with the Soviet government, especially Soviet premier Joseph Stalin, defined nearly every aspect of his life.  He was born in St. Petersburg and grew up in the last years of tsarist rule in Russia.  The Bolshevik revolution of 1917 came when Shostakovich was 11, but its influence stayed with him the rest of his life.  His rise to fame came at the hands of an aid to Leon Trotsky, a father of the revolution.  Shortly thereafter, Trotsky’s exile and the death of Vladimir Lenin left  Stalin in charge, and he ruled with an iron fist and no patience for dissent or criticism of any kind.  The arts were to reflect the official reality of Soviet existence, and thus “Formalist” works (that is, any work that displayed hints of modernism or abstract content) were at least frowned upon, if not banned outright.  Shostakovich made something of a game of pushing as far towards this line as possible, sometimes even drifting past it.  He was officially denounced by the regime twice, only to later rehabilitate his reputation through new, more apparently pro-Soviet works.  At times the regime used him as a mouthpiece, and he seemed only too willing to comply.  Yet his works often show signs of weariness or outright contempt for his government.  His controversial memoir, Testimony, seems to confirm the notion that Shostakovich did not wish to support the Soviet regime.  However, the memoir’s emergence 4 years after his death and the murky circumstances of its creation, not to mention its appearance at the height of the Cold War, all call into question its truthfulness.  Still, Shostakovich undeniably made beautiful music, including 15 symphonies, an equal number of string quartets, large quantities of film music, and 2 operas which he held dear for his entire life.

Shostakovich wrote the Symphony no. 5 in 1937.  He was under tremendous, even life-threatening pressure to do so after his previous major work, 1936’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtensk, was decried as Formalist by Soviet authorities.  The Symphony was his attempt to rehabilitate himself in the eyes of the authorities while still speaking to the broader public.  He succeeded mightily in both tasks.  Government officials read the Symphony as the story of a Soviet man struggling within himself, only to see the light and become one with the Party in the end.  Friends of Shostakovich and Western listeners, on the other hand, could hear Shostakovich pulling against the shackles of totalitarianism, especially in the final measures of the finale, with its seemingly false, stale optimism.  The truth is nearly impossible to know, but it seems very likely that he intended to express some degree of discontent.

Interpretations of the tempos Symphony no. 5 vary widely, especially regarding those final measures of the finale.  I present the finale as conducted by Mravinsky, who conducted the premieres of several Shostakovich symphonies, including the 5th.  Given that, and that he conducted this at the Leningrad Conservatory when it was still called that, I can only think of his interpretation as sound and reflective of the time it was composed.

Now that that’s over with, here’s Leonard Bernstein doing the same movement with the New York Philharmonic.  It’s a better performance on every level, although I would quibble the slightest bit with Bernstein’s final tempo – he goes too fast!  But it’s very much worth a watch!

Now here’s the band version, played very cleanly by a Scottish military band (in 2 parts):

Symphony no. 5 on Wikipedia – very informative.

The San Francisco Symphony deconstructs several key moments in the Symphony.

Shostakovich bio on Wikipedia.

The debate about Shostakovich and his allegiances rages on…

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) was an influential British composer and folk-song collector.  His powerful and expressive orchestral music is notable for its very “English” sound.  His early adventures collecting folk songs in the English countryside profoundly influenced his later compositions.  Along with Gustav Holst, his works for wind band form a foundation for the serious literature in that medium.

The English Folk Song Suite is one of those foundational works. It was written in 1923 and premiered at Kneller Hall, home of Britain’s finest military music academy.  It uses as its source material several English folks songs.  It is cast in 3 movements: a “March” subtitled “Seventeen Come Sunday”; an “Intermezzo” on “My Bonny Boy”; and another “March” subtitled “Folk Songs from Somerset”, which incorporates several different tunes.  A good summary of the movements and the folk songs involved in each is available at Wikipedia.  The original composition also included a fourth movement, Sea Songs, which Vaughan Williams later decided to publish separately.  While the English Folk Song Suite is a cornerstone of the wind band repertoire, it is not fully demonstrative of Vaughan Williams’s compositional powers.  Only the “Intermezzo” approaches the harmonic daring and lyricism that mark the rest of his work.  The remainder of the piece is a fairly straightforward, faithful setting of the folk songs.

Program notes on the Suite.

For curiosity’s sake, here’s a Facebook discussion board dedicated to the Suite.

A chapter on British wind band music from an online History of the Wind Band by Dr. Stephen L. Rhodes. Vaughan Williams and the English Folk Song Suite feature prominently.

So now let’s listen to the Eastman Wind Orchestra (one of the best in the world) play these movements:

The Ralph Vaughan Williams Society – the source for anything you might ever possibly want to know about the composer.

Vaughan Williams on Wikipedia.

Aaron Copland (1900-1990) is one of the titans of American art music.  A native New Yorker, he went to France at age 21 and became the first American to study with the legendary Nadia Boulanger.  His Organ Symphony, written for Boulanger, provided his breakthrough into composition stardom.  After experimenting with many different styles, he became best known for his idiomatic treatment of Americana, leaving behind such chestnuts as The Tender Land (1954), Billy The Kid (1938), and Appalachian Spring (1944).  This last piece won Copland the Pulitzer Prize in Music in 1945.  He was also an acclaimed conductor and writer.

Down a Country Lane was originally a piano piece.  Copland wrote it in 1962 on a commission from Life magazine, which published it in hopes of providing quality music to the common piano student.  It has been transcribed for both orchestra and band.

It turns out I’m not the first to put together a resource site for this piece.  Check out this existing information site – it looks very old by internet standards!  But very useful all the same.

More about the piece at the Classical Archives.

Down a Country Lane page at the Wind Repertory Project.

Here is a band performance of Down a Country Lane:

And the original piano version (quite a bit faster than it ought to be!):

Copland has a huge presence on the internet, thus this site will feature only the main portals into his work.  Please click far beyond the sites listed here for a complete idea of Copland’s footprint on the web.

Fanfare for Aaron Copland – a blog with information on the composer, extraordinarily useful links, and some downloadable versions of old LP recordings.  This is the place to explore the several links beyond the main site.

Aaron Copland Wikipedia Biography.

Quotes from Aaron Copland on Wikiquote.

New York Times archive of Copland-related material. Includes reviews of his music and books as well as several fascinating articles that he wrote.

Down a Country Lane is a 2011 Senior Choice for multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Jager, who will conduct the piece in our April concert.

Alfred Reed (1921-2005) was born in New York City.  He studied composition at the Juilliard School with Vittorio Giannini after a tour in the US Air Force during World War II.  He was later a staff arranger for NBC in the 1950s and a professor of music at Miami University from 1966 to 1993.  He is remembered today as a distinguished educator, conductor, and composer.  His impact was the greatest in the wind band world, where he left behind more than 100 frequently performed works.  He was particularly popular in Japan, where he developed a close relationship with the Tokyo Kosei Wind Orchestra, and where many of his works are required literature for all bands.

Alfred Reed biography at C. L. Barnhouse music publishing.

The Hounds of Spring was inspired by the poem Atlanta in Calydon by Algernon Charles Swinburne.  Reed quotes it and describes the inspiration it gave him in his own program notes on the piece:

When the hounds of spring are on winter’s traces,
The mother of months in meadow or plain
Fills the shadows and windy places
With lisp of leaves and ripple of rain

And soft as lips that laugh and hide
The laughing leaves of the trees divide,
And screen from seeing and leave in sight
The god pursuing, the maiden hid.

Algernon Charles Swinburne
Atlanta in Calydon

Program Notes

When the hounds of spring are on winter’s traces,” a magical picture of young love in springtime, forms the basis for the present purely musical setting, in traditional three-part overture form, of this lovely paean… an attempt to capture the twin elements of the poem, exuberant youthful gaiety and the sweetness of tender love, in an appropriate musical texture.
The poem, a recreation in modern English of an ancient Greek tragedy, appeared in print in 1865, when the poet was 28 years old.  It made Algernon Swinburne literally an overnight success.
The Hounds of Spring was commissioned by, and is dedicated to, the John L. Forster Secondary School Symphonic Band of Windsor, Ontario, and its director, Gerald A.N. Brown.  The first performance took place in Windsor on May 8th, 1980, by the aforementioned group, under the direction of the composer.

The full text of Atlanta in Calydon.

An anonymous band plays The Hounds of Spring on Youtube:

This piece is a senior selection for trumpeter and scholar Aaron Liskov.