Skip navigation

Monthly Archives: October 2013

Richard Wagner (1813-1883) is undoubtedly one of Western music’s most controversial figures.  His operas (he called them music-dramas) redefined the genre and pushed it to its limits.  His epic Ring cycle spans four operas and about 16 hours of music.   For this, invented the leitmotif, a recognizable melodic theme connected to certain characters, places, events, or moods in his operas.  He also invented new instruments (e.g. the Wagner tuba) and had his own opera house built (at Bayreuth) in order to get exactly the sound that he wanted.  He pushed harmonic boundaries ever further, eventually eschewing any tonal resolution in the opera Tristan und Isolde (which is often regarded as the first modern opera).  For all of these operas, he assumed near total control, writing the librettos and designing the sets himself.  He was also a writer whose opinions on many things, especially Judaism, have remained a stain on his character.  In short, he was a large, uncompromising personality whose effects are still strongly felt in music and beyond.

One of Wagner’s earliest musical heroes was Carl Maria von Weber, another German composer of famous operas.  This composer was Wagner’s direct inspiration for Trauersinfonie.  Richard Franko Goldman elaborates in the program notes from his band‘s edition of the score:

Eighteen years after the death in London of Carl Maria von Weber, a patriotic movement in Germany resulted in the transference of his remains to his native land.  In December of that year (1844) an impressive ceremony took place in Dresden, in which Wagner took a leading part.  Besides reading the solemn oration, Wagner composed the march for the torchlight procession.  This march, scored by Wagner for large wind band, was based on two themes from Weber’s opera “Euryanthe“, and thus represented a musical homage to the earlier composer.  The score remained unpublished until 1926, and the work has remained among the least known of all Wagner’s compositions.

The Funeral Music was performed in a revised “concert” version by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra under Mengelberg in 1927.  On that occasion, Herbert Peyser wrote in the New York Evening Telegram: “This extraordinary piece–only 80 bars in length, but so profoundly moving, so filled with spacious and majestic solemnity…invites a prohibitive amount of history.  The melodic materials collated by Wagner are only the eerie pianissimo theme from the ‘Euryanthe’ Overture, associated with the vision of Emma’s spirit, and the sorrowful cavatina ‘Hier, dicht am Quell’, the first closing the composition in the transfigured form it assumes in the last act of the opera…

“The effect of this music, magnificent and heart-shaking as it was…must have been overwhelming amid the solemnity of that nocturnal torch-light procession in the Dresden of 1844…For if the themes are Weber’s, the creative imagination embodied in their sequence, their scoring, their exalted lament, is powerfully Wagner’s…”

Wagner’s scoring was for large, but conventional military band, similar to the bands of today except for the absence of saxophones.  The composition as played by the Goldman Band is in faithful accordance with the original score except for very minor revisions, made by Erik Leidzen, which were necessitated by the changes in wind instruments and usage since Wagner’s early years.

There also exists a later edition of the score, edited by Michael Votta and John Boyd, which goes further towards identifying Wagner’s original instrumentation and source material (and calls the piece Trauermusik).  Like the Leidzen edition, though, it does include parts for saxophones, which had only just been invented and were not in wide usage at the time of Trauersinfonie‘s composition.

An excellent high school band plays the Boyd/Votta Trauermusik.  They do some wonderful musical things, but I would quibble with some of the rubato, given that this piece was written as a processional.  Still, it is an excellent performance all around, certainly the best on YouTube at the moment:

Read more about Trauersinfonie at windbandlit’s blog and the Wind Repertory Project, or check out Michael Votta’s research on the piece (also try here).  Arne Dich put together a woodwind quintet version of the piece, which you can download for free.  As for Wagner himself, here is just a small sampling of what the Internet has to say about him: Wikipedia, Biography.com (video), the Jewish Virtual Library, WagnerOpera.net, ipl2, and PBS Great Performances.

For a taste of the original material from Euryanthe that Wagner used, listen to the overture, especially around 4:40:

Here also is the cavatina “Hier dicht am quell”:

Advertisements

Gustav Holst (1874-1934) was a British composer and teacher.  After studying composition at London’s Royal College of Music, he spent the early part of his career playing trombone in an opera orchestra.  It was not until the early 1900s that his career as a composer began to take off.  Around this same time he acquired positions at both St. Paul’s Girls’ School and Morley College that he would hold until retirement, despite his rising star as a composer.  His music was influenced by his interest in English folk songs and Hindu mysticism, late-Romantic era composers like Strauss and Delius, and avante-garde composers of his time like Stravinsky and Schoenberg.  He is perhaps best known for composing The Planets, a massive orchestral suite that depicts the astrological character of each known planet.  His works for wind band (two suites and a tone poem, Hammersmith) are foundational to the modern wind literature.

Hammersmith, op. 52, is Holst’s only late-period work for wind band, and the only one intended for professional musicians.  Although it was commissioned by the BBC military band in 1930, it received its premiere on April 17, 1932 by the United States Marine Band, conducted by Captain Taylor Branson, at the American Bandmasters Association convention in Washington, D.C.  This performance was not repeated, and the piece was forgotten for two decades, to the extent that Boosey & Hawkes, which published Holst’s 1931 orchestral transcription, had no record of the band version at all.  It remained unknown until 1954 , when Richard Cantrick, the band director at the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University), unearthed the band version, which existed only as a manuscript in the possession of Holst’s daughter (also his biographer), Imogen.  He conducted the second performance with their Kiltie Band on April 12 of that year, after which Boosey & Hawkes finally published the piece.  Imogen Holst provides program notes in the score:

Hammersmith is a Prelude and Scherzo which was commissioned by the BBC military band in 1930.  Holst afterwards rewrote it for full orchestra.

Those who knew nothing of this forty-year-old affection for the Hammersmith district of London were puzzled at the title.  The work is not program music.  Its mood is the outcome of long years of familiarity with the changing crowds and the changing river [Thames]: those Saturday night crowds, who were always good-natured even when they were being pushed of the pavement into the middle of the traffic, and the stall-holders in that narrow lane behind the Broadway, with their unexpected assortment of goods lit up by brilliant flares, and the large woman at the fruit shop who always called him “dearie” when he bought oranges for his Sunday picnics.  As for the river, he had known it since he was a student, when he paced up and down outside William Morris‘s house, discussing Ibsen with earnest young socialists.  During all the years since then, his favorite London walk had been along the river-path to Chiswick.

In Hammersmith the river is the background to the crowd: it is a river that goes on its way unnoticed and unconcerned.

from Gustav Holst, A Biography by Imogen Holst

A wind group from the Royal Scottish National Orchestra plays the original (band) version of Hammersmith:

Hammersmith has generated a lot of scholarship and general chatter.  Will Rapp includes a chapter on it in his book The Wind Masterworks of Holst, Vaughan Williams, and Grainger  (click for a Google Books preview of the Hammersmith chapter).  It figures prominently in this internet biography of Holst and his final years.  It shows up on the Wind Repertory Project, which includes a useful errata list.  You can read Robert Cantrick’s fascinating account of re-discovering the piece on JSTOR (or at least a preview of it if you do not have access through a school or otherwise).  Understand that he wrote it believing that his performance was the actual premiere, demonstrating the extent to which the US Marine Band performance was forgotten.  Finally, visit Gustavholst.info, a major web resource for information on the composer.

Brian Balmages (b. 1975) is a young, prolific American composer with several new works making their way into the repertoire at all levels, from elementary school bands to professional orchestras.  His music has been performed all over the country, including at Carnegie Hall.  He wrote Pele in 2004.  It is a horn feature, originally written for and commissioned by Jerry Peel, the professor of horn at the University of Miami (now at Rutgers University).  Balmages’s publisher, FJH, provides a program note:

Pele was inspired by the Hawaiian Goddess of Fire (or Volcano Goddess) by the same name. She was passionate, volatile, and capricious. This lyrical work is an emotional rollercoaster in which we experience a glimpse of her personality — from her quiet moments to her most volatile.

Brian Balmages’s website, including bio and extensive works list with many recordings.

Brian Balmages profile at James Madison University, his alma mater (class of 1998).

A moving Baltimore Sun piece on a middle school concert in which Balmages was commissioned to write a piece in memory of slain band members.

See Pele live:

Finally, please visit FJH Music (the special Canzonique section) and Brian Balmages’s compositions page, both of which have the official University of Miami recording of Pele with Professor Peel as soloist.

The thoroughly original, largely self-taught composer Warren Benson (1924-2005) began his musical life as a percussionist.  He was playing professionally by age 14, and became the timpanist with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra by age 22.  With his performance career well underway, he studied music theory at the University of Michigan (BM 1949, MM 1950).  Upon graduating, he received two successive Fulbright grants (two more would come later) to teach in Salonika, Greece, where he set up a co-ed choir at Anatolia College (the first of its kind the country) and developed a bi-lingual music curriculum.  Upon his return to the US, in 1953, he accepted a post as composer-in-residence and professor of music at Ithaca College, where he stayed for 14 years.  He spent the remainder of his career (1967-1993) as a professor of composition at the Eastman School of Music, where he received numerous awards for his music and his teaching.  He had a pioneer spirit in many respects: not only did he start the first co-ed college choir in Greece, he also started the first touring percussion ensemble in the US the moment he started at Ithaca.  He later was one of the founding members of the World Association of Symphonic Band and Ensembles (WASBE), an international advocacy group for wind bands.  He is particularly remembered for his song cycles and his distinctly original contributions to the wind band literature, including The Leaves Are Falling (1964-5), The Solitary Dancer (1966), The Passing Bell (1974) and Symphony II-Lost Songs (1983).

The Leaves Are Falling is a statement of grief following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.  For Benson, his feelings on the matter were encapsulated by Rainer Maria Rilke‘s poem Herbst (Autumn):

Autumn

The leaves are falling, falling as from way off,
as though far gardens withered in the skies;
they are falling with denying gestures.

And in the nights the heavy earth is falling
from all the stars down into loneliness.

We all are falling. This hand falls.
And look at others: it is in them all.

And yet there is one who holds this falling
endlessly gently in his hands.

He thus borrowed the first line of the poem as the title of the piece.  It opens with distantly tolling chimes, followed by a long line in the low flute that introduces the melodic material for much of the piece.  In the second half, Benson begins using the hymn Ein Feste Burg while restating the first melody, working the two melodies ever closer together to a climax.  All the while, the chimes continue to toll.  The Leaves Are Falling is an especially demanding piece in many respects.  At 11 and a half minutes, with the half note marked at 32-34 bpm, it demands intense concentration of the ensemble, and masterly pacing by the conductor.  The amount of exposed playing by every section and the level of musicianship demanded of each player also contribute to its difficulty.  Yet a thoughtfully-paced performance (as below) can be a transcendent experience.

Everyone who plans to conduct The Leaves Are Falling MUST read this 1983 article in which Donald Hunsberger interviews Benson about the piece and does a thorough analysis of it.  You can read up further on Benson and his music at Wikipedia and his extensive, up-to-date website.

The Norwegian Windband plays The Leaves Are Falling:

The quoted hymn, Ein Feste Burg:

Today, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) is revered as one of the greatest composers of all time whose multitudinous compositions, with their combination of  intellectual rigor and transcendent beauty, are among the foundational documents of Western art music.  In his day, J.S. Bach was seen as a church musician who dazzled his contemporaries with his organ playing and churned out new compositions with almost alarming speed and frequency.  Though he was well-known and widely respected, he was not revered as he is now.  His reputation received a facelift in the early 19th century (long after his death) with the publication of a biography in 1802, the revival of his Saint Matthew’s Passion by the composer Felix Mendelssohn in 1829, and ultimately the creation of the Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis (Bach Works Catalog) in 1850.  Since then, Bach’s legacy has only grown.  Among his famous compositions are the Brandenburg Concertos, the Cello Suites, the Well-Tempered Clavier, the Art of Fugue, hundreds of cantatas and oratorios, and dozens of short chorales.  And that is but the tip of the iceberg.  Bach has over 1000 known compositions, and perhaps as many that have been lost forever.

Other interesting Bach facts:

  • He was a genuine patriarch, fathering 20 children (10 of whom survived to adulthood) with 2 successive wives.  See the family tree.
  • Several of his children became famous composers in their own right, most notably Johann Christian Bach and Carl Philip Emanuel Bach.
  • There are streets all over Germany named for Bach, although he never left the country and never lived more than 250 miles from his birthplace in Eisenach.  See the map.
  • He was once put in prison by an employer who didn’t want to let him move jobs.
  • He wrote a cantata about coffee addiction.  Read about it here.
  • Finally, Anthony Tommasini recently named Bach the greatest composer of all time.

Carter Pann is a celebrated composer in his own right who has written music from solo works to large orchestra and wind ensemble pieces.  He is on the faculty of the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he continues to write distinctly original music.  He is also a practiced arranger.  He assembled the 18 transcriptions that form the Bach Buch in 2010 for a unique ensemble: it is essentially a harmoniemusik ensemble with saxophones instead of horns.  He describes the collection in its score:

The music of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) is a gift.  Nearly every piece that poured out of this man is as inspired and perfected as the next.  His body of work has cut a deep incision in the recorded history of music and set a benchmark to which all the contrapuntal masters who followed have aspired to meet.

The transcriptions found within this volume add to the thousands upon thousands of versions of his music already re-worked for different groups and media.  The music here does not, however, embellish Bach’s own scores (save but for a couple of instances in which it was felt necessary to add an inner voice to serve the expansive range of the ten woodwinds).  The selections are ordered (loosely) to assume a smooth, inclined trajectory of both difficulty and musical breadth.  The first piece is a small and simple minuet, the last is a long interior movement of one of the most beloved and advanced violin concertos in the whole repertoire.

As a keyboard player I grew up learning and falling in love with much of Bach’s music at the piano.  For this very reason, much of this volume consists of the composer’s keyboard works.  One cannot, however, deny many of the most cherished works from Bach’s oeuvre when compiling a set of transcriptions, and many of those “hits” are included here as well.

Departing from the traditional harmoniemusik ensemble, I have replaced the horns here with saxophones.  There are two reasons: 1) the nature of much of this music requires instruments with an ease of agility not executable so readily on the horn; and 2) the opportunity for saxophone players to be included in such an ensemble was very attractive, pedagogically.

I hope you enjoy these gems from such a great genius.

With the full collection clocking in at 48 minutes, the set is ideal for excerpting.  Below, I will present brief descriptions of each piece along with one representative video of the original version.  Since this collection is relatively new, no recordings of it have made their way onto the internet just yet.  Perhaps that will eventually change.  For now, you can view the entire score here.

1. The set opens with Menuet II from keyboard Partita no. 1 (BWV 825).  This was part of a suite for harpsichord written around 1725.  Here it is on the (upright!) harpsichord.  Skip to about the 15 minute marker for Menuet II:

2. The second piece is one of the two-part inventions, the sixth of the set, written between 1717 and 1723.  Originally in E major, Pann transposed it to F major.  Here is Glenn Gould playing it on the piano:

3. Prelude no. 9 from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1 (BWV 854), written in 1722.  Several of the other movements come from either of the two WTC books as well.  Again, Pann transposes this one from E major into E-flat major.

4. The fourth miniature uses the second prelude from WTC, Book 2 (BWV 871), written in 1742.  It is in C minor.  Here it is, with a little history lesson in front:

5. Prelude no. 18 from WTC, Book 1 (BWV 863), transposed from G-sharp minor to G minor:

6. Praeludium from Keyboard Partita no. 1 (BWV 825):

7. Prelude no. 12 in F minor from WTC, Book 2 (BWV 881):

8. Prelude no. 22 in B-flat minor from WTC, Book 1 (BWV 867):

9. Fugue no. 7 in E-flat major from WTC, Book 2 (BWV 876).  The video in no way uses authentic Bach-era instruments, but it does powerfully and clearly demonstrate the line of each voice in the fugue:

10. Fugue no. 21 in B-flat major from WTC, Book 1 (BWV 866).  This video follows Bach’s original manuscript as the fugue unfolds:

11. Variation 18 (Canon at the Sixth) from the Goldberg Variations (BWV 988), written in 1741.  The video has six different performances of the same variation (plus some very worthwhile “bonus tracks” at the end), all with different interpretive decisions:

12. Sarabande from Overture in the French Manner (BWV 831), written in 1735.  There are many different ideas about the tempo for this one, so please do not accept the following video as the one and only solution:

13. Badinerie (which, like Scherzo, translates as “jesting”) from Orchestral Suite no. 2 (BWV 1067), written from 1738-9.  This piece has been a central part of the flute repertoire for centuries.  As the title makes clear, it was originally written for orchestra.  Here is a performance on period instruments:

14. Chorale: “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” from Cantata (BWV 147), written in 1723.  In German, the title is “Jesus, bleibet meine Freude”, which translates less poetically as “Jesus remains my joy.”  The video features a fairly authentic sounding orchestra with a large chorus singing in German:

15. Chorale Prelude: “Nun fruet euch, lieben Christen g’mein” (BWV 734), originally written for organ in 1708:

16. Air (on the G String) from Orchestral Suite no. 3 (BWV 1068), from 1730:

17. Chorale: “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme” from Cantata (BWV 140), also known as “Sleepers Wake”, from 1731.  This is a “gap chorale”, with the actual chorale melody interrupted separated by other material, which dominates the work:

18. Concerto for Two Violins, II. Largo ma non tanto (BWV 1043), written sometime between 1717 and 1723:

If you made it this far, you deserve some Bach bonus links.  Here he is on wikipedia, his own home page, Dave’s J. S. Bach page, and Facebook.  And that just barely scratches the surface!

John Mackey (b. 1973) once famously compared the band and the orchestra to the kind of girl a composer might meet at a party. The orchestra seems like she ought to be your ideal woman, but she clearly feels superior to you and talks a lot about her exes (like Dvorak and Beethoven). The band, meanwhile, is loud and brash, but loves everything you do and can’t wait to play your stuff, the newer, the better! (I’ve rather poorly paraphrased Mackey – it’s best understood in his original blog post on the subject).

With this attitude and his prodigious talent, John Mackey has become a superstar composer among band directors. He has even eclipsed his former teacher, John Corigliano, by putting out more than a dozen new band works, including a symphony in the works, since 2005. All are challenging, and all are innovative. Mackey’s works for wind ensemble and orchestra have been performed around the world, and have won numerous composition prizes. His Redline Tango, originally for orchestra and then transcribed by the composer for band, won him the American Bandmasters Assocation/Ostwald Award in 2005, making him, then 32, the youngest composer ever to recieve that prize.  He won again in 2009 with Aurora Awakes – more to come on that.  His compositional style is fresh and original. I once heard him state that he counted the band Tool among his musical influences.

John Mackey publishes his own music through Osti Music.  The website for this company doubles as his personal website and his blog, which is very informative for anyone looking for a composer’s perspective on new music. He is featured on wikipedia and the Wind Repertory Project.  He is also on Twitter 20 or so times a day.  And he has a Facebook composer page.

Mackey wrote Aurora Awakes in 2009 on a commission from the Stuart High School Wind Ensemble and their director, Doug Martin.  It soon received great acclaim, in the form of both the ABA/Ostwald Award and the National Band Association Revelli Award for composition in the same year, a rare honor for a new band work.  Jake Wallace provides the official program notes:

Aurora now had left her saffron bed,
And beams of early light the heav’ns o’erspread,
When, from a tow’r, the queen, with wakeful eyes,
Saw day point upward from the rosy skies.

Virgil, The Aeneid, Book IV, Lines 584-587

Aurora – the Roman goddess of the dawn – is a mythological figure frequently associated with beauty and light. Also known as Eos (her Greek analogue), Aurora would rise each morning and stream across the sky, heralding the coming of her brother Sol, the sun. Though she is herself among the lesser deities of Roman and Greek mythologies, her cultural influence has persevered, most notably in the naming of the vibrant flashes of light that occur in Arctic and Antarctic regions – the Aurora Borealis and Aurora Australis.

John Mackey’s Aurora Awakes is, thus, a piece about the heralding of the coming of light. Built in two substantial sections, the piece moves over the course of eleven minutes from a place of remarkable stillness to an unbridled explosion of energy – from darkness to light, placid grey to startling rainbows of color. The work is almost entirely in the key of E-flat major (a choice made to create a unique effect at the work’s conclusion, as mentioned below), although it journeys through G-flat and F as the work progresses. Despite the harmonic shifts, however, the piece always maintains a – pun intended – bright optimism.

Though Mackey is known to use stylistic imitation, it is less common for him to utilize outright quotation. As such, the presence of two more-or-less direct quotations of other musical compositions is particularly noteworthy in Aurora Awakes. The first, which appears at the beginning of the second section, is an ostinato based on the familiar guitar introduction to U2’s “Where The Streets Have No Name.” Though the strains of The Edge’s guitar have been metamorphosed into the insistent repetitions of keyboard percussion, the aesthetic is similar – a distant proclamation that grows steadily in fervor. The difference between U2’s presentation and Mackey’s, however, is that the guitar riff disappears for the majority of the song, while in Aurora Awakes, the motive persists for nearly the entirety of the remainder of the piece:

“When I heard that song on the radio last winter, I thought it was kind of a shame that he only uses that little motive almost as a throwaway bookend.  That’s my favorite part of the song, so why not try to write an entire piece that uses that little hint of minimalism as its basis?”

The other quotation is a sly reference to Gustav Holst’s First Suite in E-flat for Military Band. The brilliant E-flat chord that closes the Chaconne of that work is orchestrated (nearly) identically as the final sonority of Aurora Awakes – producing an unmistakably vibrant timbre that won’t be missed by aficionados of the repertoire. This same effect was, somewhat ironically, suggested by Mackey for the ending of composer Jonathan Newman’s My Hands Are a City. Mackey adds an even brighter element, however, by including instruments not in Holst’s original:

“That has always been one of my favorite chords because it’s just so damn bright.  In a piece that’s about the awaking of the goddess of dawn, you need a damn bright ending — and there was no topping Holst.  Well… except to add crotales.”

You can look at the score and hear a recording of the piece at Mackey’s website.  You can also read about the piece at the Wind Repertory Project.  Mackey also talks in some detail about the piece on his very candid blog, about the recording and winning the awards, as well as the program notes and the premiere.

Those too lazy to click a link can hear Aurora Awakes via YouTube here (it’s the same recording as above):

Here is U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name”, which Mackey quotes in the final section of Aurora Awakes.  This video documents an iconic live performance that was nearly shut down.

Finally, here is Holst’s “Chaconne” from the First Suite, whose last chord Mackey borrows: