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Category Archives: Freedom Concert

Suite Française is a true classic of the wind band repertoire and a personal favorite of mine that I have been studying on and off for years and have conducted twice in concert.  It hasn’t appeared on this blog until now only because I have known that it would take a tremendous effort to really do this piece justice, even in my relatively un-scholarly format, as evidenced by the three days it has taken me to put this post together.  I hope that what follows proves enlightening for the uninitiated.

Darius Milhaud (1892-1974) was a prolific French composer and teacher and a member of Les Six early in his career.  He was born to Jewish parents and grew up in Aix-en-Provence, France.  He studied at the Paris Conservatoire, graduating in 1915.  His composition career took off from there.  He traveled to Brazil (Rio) and the United States (Harlem), where he heard the uniquely New World sounds of Brazilian music and American jazz, both of which would influence his compositional style.  The Harlem experience inspired him to write the jazz-tinged ballet La creation du Monde in 1922, before even American composers were making serious efforts to blend jazz with concert music.  The Nazi occupation of France put Milhaud in serious danger: not only was he a prominent Jewish figure, he also was often confined to a wheelchair due to severe rheumatoid arthritis.  He fled for the United States 1940.  While there, he secured a teaching position at Mills College in Oakland, California, where his notable students included Burt Bacharach, William Bolcom, Peter Schickele, and Dave Brubeck.  Once France was liberated, he resumed his career there, alternating years at Mills College and the Paris Conservatoire from 1947-1971.  His music further distinguished itself through its unique and unabashed use of polytonality.  Milhaud wrote two autobiographies.  The first (1953)was called Notes Without Music.  Despite having dodged Nazi persecution and spent years in pain confined to a wheelchair, Milhaud titled the second (1972) Ma vie heureuse (My Happy Life).  He died in Geneva at age 81.

There are several internet biographies of Milhaud.  See Wikipedia, Naxos, Universal Edition, the Milken Archive of Jewish Music, the Music Academy Online, and American National Biography Online.  Also, Milhaud’s former student Dave Brubeck offers reflections on his beloved teacher in this movie clip and this very moving audio excerpt (the Milhaud section starts around 14 minutes in).

Milhaud wrote Suite Française in 1944 on a commission from Leeds Music, which published the piece in 1945.  They were looking for a piece fit for high school bands, and Milhaud delivered beautifully.  It was premiered by the Goldman Band in New York City on June 13, 1945.  Milhaud also created versions for orchestra and for 4-hands piano, although the wind band version came first.  Says Milhaud of the piece (from the band score):

For a long time I have had the idea of writing a composition fit for high school purposes and this was the result. In the bands, orchestras, and choirs of American high schools, colleges and universities where the youth of the nation be found, it is obvious that they need music of their time, not too difficult to perform, but, nevertheless keeping the characteristic idiom of the composer. The five parts of this Suite are named after French Provinces, the very ones in which the American and Allied armies fought together with the French underground of the liberation of my country: Normandy, Brittany, Ile-de-France (of which Paris is the center), Alsace-Lorraine, and Provence (my birthplace). I used some folk tunes of these provinces. I wanted the young American to hear the popular melodies of those parts of France where their fathers and brothers fought to defeat the German invaders, who in less than seventy years have brought war, destruction, cruelty, torture, and murder, three times, to the peaceful and democratic people of France.

In addition to the folk tunes (which I will discuss below), Milhaud provided some melodies of his own.  Each movement is uniquely of its place, as you will see in the videos below.  “Normandie” uses two lively Norman folk songs: “Germaine”, about a warrior coming home through the eyes of a young woman; and “The French Shepherdess and the King of England“, about a comic meeting between the two title characters.  Milhaud added some original material to help him depict the region where so many American servicemen landed in France during World War II:

A fog-horn announces the beginning of “Bretagne“, a province with deep ties to the sea. The movement uses the sea shanties “La Paimpolaise” and “Les marins de Groix“, as well as “La chanson des metamorphoses“, a song that imagines the singer’s lover transformed:

Ile-de-France” depicts the bustle of Paris with lively, largely carefree folk material.  It begins with “A ma main droite j’ai un rosier” (I tend a rosebush with my right hand), a children’s round that alternates bars of 3 and 2, and which Milhaud sets in 4 while still retaining the accents of the original.  The lyrical melody that soon crops up is “Voici la Saint-Jean“, a summer festival song.  “La belle au rosier blanc” (The Fair Maid of the White-Rose Tree) also make an appearance:

Alsace-Lorraine” takes a more melancholy turn, suggesting distant artillery fire around a solemn funeral procession, fitting for a region that borders Germany and was taken over during the war.  Still, the movement’s ending suggests hope and triumph to come.  The main melody is apparently a Milhaud original.  The primary countermelody that sounds so distant desolate at first is “Voici le moi de Mai” (Here is the month of May), a spritely tra-la-la of a tune.  The clarinet interlude in the middle comes from “Le mois de Mai”, a different but still spritely festival tune:

Provence“, Milhaud’s childhood home, is joyous and innocent and uses the most original material of any movement.  The only folk song is “Magali“, another story of a lover transformed:

I owe a large debt to Robert Garofalo’s fantastic study guide on this piece, without which I would not have been able to even begin identifying the folk material in the suite.  His book goes much farther than this page in giving background information and context.  Here is a look at some of the folk songs that he names:

I. NORMANDIE – Sadly, none of these songs seem to be recorded in internet form.

II. BRETAGNE

“La Paimpolaise”, of which Milhaud only uses the major-key refrain (presented first in this performance):

“Les marins de Groix”, which Milhaud slows down dramatically.  If you listen carefully, you’ll recognize the tune once the tempo picks up:

III. ILE DE FRANCE

“A ma main droite j’ai un rosier”:

“Voici la Saint Jean” seems to be one set of lyrics with several different tunes attached.  Here is one that closely resembles that which Milhaud used.  Listen carefully to the top vocal and you’ll hear it:

IV. ALSACE-LORRAINE

Listen to a recording of “Voici le mois de Mai” in English.

V. PROVENCE

“Magali” orchestrated:

Additional material on Suite Française can be found at the Wind Repertory Project, this program notes wiki, and the University of Maryland Wind Orchestra Blog.  In addition, Tim Reynish has a nice page with interpretive notes on the piece, and David Whitwell wrote a paper on it.  Finally, see the full score of the orchestral version with Leonard Bernstein’s markings at the New York Philharmonic Archive.

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Clifton Williams (1923-1976) was born in Arkansas and attended high school in Little Rock, where he became an accomplished french horn player. He studied composition at Lousiana State University and the Eastman School of Music. He taught composition for 17 years at the University of Texas at Austin before becoming chair of the composition and theory department at the University of Miami in 1966.  He held this post until his untimely death.  His first compositions were written for orchestra.  His career as a wind band composer took off in 1956 when Fanfare and Allegro, his first composition for band, won the inaugural Ostwald Award given by the American Bandmasters’ Association.  His Symphonic Suite won him the award again the following year.  He went on to write over 3 dozen works for band, many of which are considered essential repertoire.

No one describes Symphonic Dance no. 3: Fiesta better or more succinctly than the Foothill Symphonic Winds:

Fiesta was originally one of Clifton Williams’ five Symphonic Dances, commissioned by the San Antonio Symphony Orchestra to celebrate their 25th anniversary in 1964. In the original suite, each of the five dances represented the spirit of a different time and place relative to the background of San Antonio, Texas. Fiesta is an evocation of the excitement and color of the city’s numerous Mexican celebrations. The modal characteristics, rhythms, and finely woven melodies depict what Williams called “the pageantry of Latin-American celebration – street bands, bull fights, bright costumes, the colorful legacy of a proud people.” The introduction features a brass fanfare that generates a dark, yet majestic atmosphere that is filled with the tension of the upcoming events. The soft tolling of bells herald an approaching festival with syncopated dance rhythms. Solo trumpet phrases and light flirtatious woodwind parts provide a side interest as the festival grows in force as it approaches the arena. The brass herald the arrival of the matador to the bullring and the ultimate, solemn moment of truth. The finale provides a joyous climax to the festivities.

Fiesta will be the sole piece played by the Columbia Festival Band , which will open the 4th annual Columbia Festival of Winds on 3/4/2012.  Dr. Christian Wilhjelm of the Ridgewood Concert Band will conduct this band, which will be made up of members from each of the bands participating in the Festival.  We also played it in Columbia Wind Ensemble in 2003.

Since I won’t be conducting it this time around and don’t know exactly how Dr. Wilhjelm will like it, here are several version of Fiesta for your listening (and hopefully practicing!) pleasure:

First, a studio recording by an anonymous band:

A live performance by a Japanese high school band:

Finally, here’s a slightly different live interpretation by a Texas honor band:

Clifton Williams bio at Wikipedia.

Clifton Williams on the Ostwald Award site.

Clifton Williams at the Wind Repertory Project.

Vittorio Giannini (1903-1966) was an Italian-American composer and teacher.  He wrote operas, songs, symphonies, and a handful of wind band works.  His Symphony no. 3 is one of the staple long-form works in the wind band repertoire.  For most of his career he taught in New York at the Juilliard School and the Manhattan School of Music.  He also taught at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute and founded the North Carolina School for the Arts.

Fantasia for Band was written in 1963 on a commission from the Northern Westchester and Putnam County Music Teachers Association.  The piece unfolds in Giannini’s typical neoromantic style, with fluid melodic motion amidst sometimes aggressive dissonance.

Vittorio Giannini on Wikipedia

Short bio on Giannini from Voices In the Wilderness by Walter Simmons, a book about neo-romantic American composers.

There is a CD of Giannini’s complete band works available at Naxos and at emusic.  Both sites allow you to play short clips of the tracks, and Naxos MAY even allow folks on college campuses to listen to full tracks by logging in.  For some more information on him, read the reviews of the CD on the Naxos site.

A high school band plays Fantasia for Band: