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Monthly Archives: May 2013

Conductor Leonard Slatkin described Ron Nelson (b. 1929) thusly:  “Nelson is the quintessential American composer.  He has the ability to move between conservative and newer styles with ease.  The fact that he’s a little hard to categorize is what makes him interesting.”  This quality has helped Nelson gain wide recognition as a composer.  Nowhere are his works embraced more than in the band world, where he won the “triple crown” of composition prizes in 1993 for his Passacaglia (Homage on B-A-C-H).  An Illinois native, Nelson received his composition training at the Eastman School of Music and went on to a distinguished career on the faculty of Brown University.

Nelson wrote Courtly Airs and Dances in 1995 on commission from the Hill Country Middle School Band in Austin, Texas, and their director Cheryl Floyd.  It is dedicated to that same group.  About the piece, Nelson writes:

Courtly Airs and Dances is a suite of Renaissance dances which were characteristic to five European countries during the 1500s. Three of the dances (Basse Dance, Pavane, and Allemande) are meant to emulate the music of Claude Gervaise by drawing on the style of his music as well as the characteristics of other compositions from that period. The festival opens with a fanfare-like Intrada followed by the Basse Danse (France), Pavane (England), Saltarello (Italy), Sarabande (Spain), and Allemande (Germany).

Ron Nelson’s website.

Ron Nelson on Wikipedia.

There are some great, free educational resources on Courtly Airs and Dances, including this article and analysis, this vocabulary sheet, and this quiz.  It is also featured on the Wind Repertory Project.

The San Francisco School of the Arts Wind Ensemble in a live performance:

Nelson uses a different Renaissance style for each movement.  The Intrada is entrance music, designed to begin a suite of music or serve for an entry procession.  This performance of an Intrada by German composer Christoph Demantius captures that spirit:

Nelson based his Intrada on Claude Gervaise’s Fanfare allemande (more on that later).

In general, a basse danse is in a slow and elegant 6/4 or 3/2, allowing for the use of hemiola.  Here is a reasonably authentic example of an early basse danse:

Nelson took his Basse Danse almost verbatim from Gervaise.  Here is another arrangement of it by the Belgium Brass:

The pavane is similar to a basse danse, being a slow and stately dance, but in duple meter and often faster.  Again, Nelson borrowed fairly directly from Gervaise:

The dance would have looked something like this:

The saltarello was a lively jumping dance whose specific steps have been lost.  Nelson wrote an original melody for his Saltarello, not relying on Gervaise.  Here is what a Renaissance saltarello may have sounded like:

The sarabande appears to have originated in the Spanish colonies in Central America before returning to Spain itself.  It was declared obscene and banned there in 1583.  It was in 3/4 time with the second and third beats often tied together, giving the rhythm a step-drag feel.  Nelson’s Sarabande relies on original material.  This sarabande example comes from the Baroque era, but it still demonstrates the rhythmic characteristics of the dance:

The allemande was a dance named in France for its supposed origin in Germany (the name means “German” in French).  It was a moderately fast duple meter dance that may have looked something like this:

Nelson again borrowed from Gervaise for this movement.  Here is a children’s flute choir version of Gervaise’s original:

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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.

Reed wrote Imperatrix as a middle school band piece in 1972.  While it isn’t a specifically programmatic piece, the title (it’s the Latin word for empress) suggests something elegant, epic, and ancient.  Says Reed about Imperatrix:

Imperatrix, A Concert Overture for Band, was commissioned by, and is dedicated to, the G. P. Babb Junior High School Band of Forest Park, Georgia, and its director, Donald E. Wilkes.  The work was written early in 1972, and the first performance took place on April 7th, 1972, when the Babb Junior High School Symphonic Band appeared at a concert given for the Georgia Music Educators Association All-State Junior High School Band and Orchestra meeting, with Mr. Wilkes conducting.

The music is in sectional form, opening with a broad introduction that states all of the thematic material from which the work will be built.  This is followed by a brilliant Allegro, commencing with a fanfare-like figure in the Brass and proceeding through a hard-driving development in non-traditional harmonic structures that finally dies away as the third section begins.  This contrasting episode is built up from a long, lyrical line sung by all of the Flutes in unison over a rich, warm and quiet background in the Clarinets, Baritones and Tuba.  The closing cadence of this section, like that of the first, leads back to the Allegro once again, which this time drives on into the Coda where all of the themes are restated in the brightest colors of the Band.  The work ends with a joyous and triumphant conclusion.

Imperatrix on Youtube:

Michael Colgrass (b. 1932) has distinguished himself as an innovative composer and a dedicated teacher of the creative process of composition.  He started his career as a jazz drummer in Chicago and New York, studying composition all along.  That is where he has made his mark, with commissions from prestigious ensembles all over the English-speaking world and a Pulitzer Prize among many other awards under his belt.  He currently lives in Toronto when he is not touring the world teaching middle- and high-school teachers and their students how to compose.  To see deeper into Colgrass’s fascinating life, check out the blog related to his autobiography, or visit his website, or watch the Emmy-winning documentary that his son made about his music.  Or, for extra kicks, see his Wikipedia biography.

Colgrass wrote Old Churches in 2000 on a commission from the American Composer’s Forum.  From the score:

According to composer Michael Colgrass, Old Churches is one of the most challenging pieces he can remember writing. His goal was to create music that was interesting, expressive and challenging, yet playable by students in the early stages of performing on their instruments and who are also unfamiliar with modern music techniques.

His solution was to write a work based on Gregorian vocal chant with unison melodies. Playing in unison helps student musicians feel more confident, and allowed Colgrass to copiously double the melodic lines. The tempo is slow; the phrases are all in quarter and eighth notes, and the harmonies are simple. Some easy graphic notation and chance techniques are employed, such as pitches played without rhythm, and a murmuring effect that simulates the idea of voices echoing in monastic churches. Colgrass hopes that Old Churches is a piece that conveys emotion at the same time it makes young bands sound good.

Old Churches uses Gregorian chant to create a slightly mysterious monastery scene filled with the prayers and chanting of monks in an old church. Gregorian chant is ancient church music and that has been in existence for over 1500 years. The chant unfolds through call and response patterns. One monk intones a musical idea, then the rest of the monks respond by singing back. This musical conversation continues throughout the piece, with the exception of a few brief interruptions. Perhaps they are the quiet comments church visitors make to one another.

Old Churches as performed live by the Detroit School of the Arts Wind Symphony:

What does Colgrass mean by Gregorian chant?  Here is a shining example, complete with pictures of an old church, sung by a soloist:

So many avenues are available to explore Old Churches: GIA publishes a downloadable study guide for the piece.  Colgrass featured it front and center in his 2004 Midwest Clinic presentation  about middle school bands: the handout is here.  Old Churches has dedicated write-ups at the Wind Repertory Project, the American Composer’s Forum, and Hal Leonard.  It was also featured in a master’s thesis (pdf download) at Kansas State University.