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Category Archives: Party Music Concert

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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Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) was a nationalist Russian composer and master orchestrator famous for symphonic works like Scheherazade and Capriccio Espagnol.  He was born into a family with a history of military service in which he eventually followed.  He started piano lessons at age 6 and composition at 10. Around the time of his graduation from military school, he met Mily Balakirev, who introduced him to fellow young composers César Cui and Modest Mussorgsky, heightening Rimsky-Korsakov’s interest in a composition career.  Eventually, with the addition of Alexander Borodin, these composers would call themselves The Five and advocate for a specifically Russian approach to composition.  Later in his career, Rimsky-Korsakov became the Inspector of Bands for the Russian Navy as well as a professor at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, which now bears his name.

Procession of the Nobles (Cortége) was written in 1889 as part of the opera-ballet Mlada.  Although it was originally begun in 1872 as a collaborative effort with three other composers, the initial project fell through.  Rimsky-Korsakov completed it himself  nearly 20 years later.  I defer now to Eric Bromberger’s excellent program note for the Los Angeles Philharmonic:

Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mlada, first produced in 1892, almost defies the effort to describe it. In form it is half-opera and half-ballet, and its libretto is unbelievably complex, even by the standards of opera librettos. Set a thousand years ago in an imaginary kingdom called Retra on the shores of the Baltic, Mlada tries to fuse Wagnerian opera with ancient Russian legend, and the result is an absolutely fantastic story. Princess Mlada, a role that is danced rather than sung, has been murdered by her rival Voyslava, who sets out to secure the love of Yaromir, Mlada’s lover. The story involves magic, evil spirits, and trips into the underworld, and at the climax an entire village is submerged by an overflowing lake and Yaromir and Mlada are seen ascending on a rainbow.

Mlada has not held the stage, and the only familiar music from it is the Procession of the Nobles, the orchestral introduction to Act II, which begins with a festival of tradespeople. The music bursts to life with a rousing brass flourish, soon followed by the processional music, a noble tune for strings in E-flat major. This is music of color and energy, and in the opera it is punctuated by shouts from the crowd at the festival. A central section just as vigorous as the opening leads to a return of the march tune and a rousing close.

Rimsky-Korsakov made an orchestral suite from the opera, of which Procession of the Nobles is the final movement.  You can see the full score here.  Also, there is another great program note from the University of Wisconsin bands.

Here is the standard band transcription, arranged by Erik Leidzen:

And now the original orchestral version:

There is also a very nice version for young band arranged by Jay Bocook:

Want to read a biography of Rimsky-Korsakov on the Internet?  You have a lot of options!  Try Wikipedia, allmusic, ClassicalNet, and Encyclopedia Britannica.  Also check out his collected works on IMSLP.

I conducted this at my very first concert with the Columbia University Wind Ensemble in 2002.  It was then conducted by Ena Shin at our joint concerts with the Yale Concert Band in 2007.  This summer (2013) Bill Tonissen will conduct it with the Columbia Summer Winds.

Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, Eric Ewazen (b. 1954) is a composer and teacher at the Juilliard School in New York City, where he has been on the faculty since 1980.  He studied at Juilliard and the Eastman School of Music with Samuel Adler, Milton Babbitt, Joseph Schwantner, Gunther Schuller, and Warren Benson.  His works, which have won him many awards, have been performed and recorded by prestigious ensembles and artists all over the world.

Celtic Hymns and Dances was one of the very first pieces I conducted with the Columbia Wind Ensemble, and for that reason it holds a special place in my heart.  It is an entirely original work, not based on any specific Celtic folk tunes, but rather on a generally Celtic feel.  Says Ewazen in the score:

Celtic Hymns and Dances was commissioned by and is dedicated to James Fudale and the Berea (Ohio) High School Symphonic Winds who premiered the work in March 1990. The one movement work draws its inspiration from medieval and renaissance music. Although the melodies and themes are original creations, the modal harmony, the characteristically energetic rhythms and the use of colorful wind orchestration calls to mind music of ancient times. Within the piece one finds pastoral ballads, heroic fanfares and joyful dances culminating in a lively sonorous finale.

The recording that Ewazen’s publisher uses to promote the piece:

Eric Ewazen has a Wikipedia page and his own web site.  He is also featured in interviews with the Juilliard Journal and Bruce Duffie, and on the Luncheon Project.  There is a great entry on Celtic Hymns and Dances on the Wind Repertory Project.  It also features prominently in this extensive paper by Darren Brooks (scroll down to page 63 for the Celtic Hymns section).

If you do one thing while looking at this post, you MUST watch the first video posted below!  It really puts the whole piece in perspective.

Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921) was the French composer of such famous works as Carnival of the Animals, the opera Samson et Delila, Danse Macabre, and the Organ Symphony.  He was a child prodigy who became France’s most renowned composer.  Late in life, he traveled to all corners of the world.

Bacchanale comes from his 1877 opera Samson et Delila, which is based on the Biblical story of those 2 characters.  In both the opera and the Bible, Samson is a leader of the Israelites, who are in the midst of a revolt against their malevolent rulers, the Philistines.  The Philistines want to bring him down, so they send one of their own, a woman named Delila, to seduce him and discover the source of his extreme physical strength. It turns out that secret is his long hair, which binds him in a vow to God. But Samson does not let that secret slip easily: he misleads Delila several times before finally revealing the true secret.  Yet when that is done, Delila shaves his hair while he sleeps, allowing the Philistines to capture and blind him.  After years of forced labor at their hands, Samson winds up in the temple of Dagon, one of the Philistine deities, in Gaza.  There, he prays to God to restore his strength, and he pulls down the central columns of the temple, killing himself and all of the Philistines inside.  Each version of the story has its nuances (e.g., the Bible says Samson killed 1000 Philistines with the jawbone of an ass!) so it’s worth your time to investigate both.  The Bacchanale occurs in Act III of the opera, just before Samson is led into the temple of Dagon.  It is a depraved dance performed by the priests of Dagon.  Saint-Saens loved “exotic” sounds, so he used an exceptionally exotic sounding scale for a good chunk of the piece: it contains two one-and-a-half step gaps (from the 2nd to 3rd steps and the 6th to 7th steps).  While that does heighten the exoticness of the piece, it is not authentic to any world musical tradition.

Here it is in the actual opera.  They’re almost naked!

For something a little different, Gustavo Dudamel leads the Berlin Philharmonic in Bacchanale.  He plays a little fast and loose with tempo, but it’s really a thrilling version!

Here’s the band version done by a Japanese middle school.  As I’ve come to expect from young Japanese bands, they knock it out of the park: this is the only band version on YouTube that’s any good at all, and I looked at a couple dozen!

Saint-Saens bio at the Classical Archives.

Saint-Saens on Wikipedia.

Another Saint-Saens bio on thinkquest.

Some extra program notes on Bacchanale from the Immaculata Symphony

Did you know that the Bible is fully online?  Here’s the Samson and Delilah story in full, from the Book of Judges.