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Category Archives: War and Peace 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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Percy Grainger (1882-1961) was a piano prodigy turned composer who was known for his strange personal habits, his colorful prose, and his equally unusual music – his many admirers today still recognize that he possessed “the supreme virtue of never being dull.”  Born in Australia, he began studying piano at an early age.  He came to the U. S. at the outbreak of World War I and enlisted as an Army bandsman, becoming an American citizen in 1918.  He went on to explore the frontiers of music with his idiosyncratic folk song settings, his lifelong advocacy for the saxophone, and his Free Music machines which predated electronic synthesizers.  His many masterworks for winds include Lincolnshire Posy, Irish Tune from County Derry, and Molly on the Shore.

Grainger made several different settings of Shepherd’s Hey, which is based on a folk tune collected by the British folk song expert Cecil Sharp.  The first setting, for “room-music 12-some” (Grainger’s “blue-eyed English” phrase for chamber ensemble) first appeared in 1909.  The band version came in 1918.  This coincides with the end of Grainger’s stint in the US military, which appears to have been instrumental (no pun intended) in sparking his interest in band music.  The tune itself is a Morris dance, a centuries-old tradition of fluid, group dancing from England.  Still, Grainger insists on his 1913 piano solo score that “This setting is not suitable to dance Morris dances to.”  Ever the contrarian, Grainger also said that “where other composers would have been jolly setting such dance tunes I have been sad or furious. My dance settings are energetic rather than gay.”

Read more about Shepherd’s Hey at the Percy Grainger Society, the University of Maryland Wind Orchestra, and the University of Wisconsin Music Department.  Also look at this extensive analysis of the piece at band-chat.net, and check out the solo piano score for free at Project Gutenberg.

The Cleveland Symphonic Winds play Shepherd’s Hey:

Among the many versions of this piece that exist, this pianola one is a highlight:

Here’s an actual Morris dancing troop dancing to the tune of Shepherd’s Hey.  The words: “I can whistle, I can sing, I can do most anything”:

Percygrainger.com – much general information on the composer with a focus on his wind band works.

International Percy Grainger Society – Based in White Plains, NY, they take care of the Grainger house there as well as the archives that remain there.  They also like to support concerts in our area that feature Grainger’s music.

Grainger Museum – in his hometown of Melbourne, Australia, at the University there.

Grainger’s works and performances available at Naxos.com

As I’m going through my score collection and writing about every piece that I haven’t yet, it just so happens that Copland’s A Lincoln Portrait comes right on the heels of the party conventions in the 2012 election.  This seems like as good a time as any to pay some attention to one of America’s greatest orators and most revered presidents.

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.

Copland wrote A Lincoln Portrait in 1942 on a commission from the conductor Andre Kostelanetz.  The attack on Pearl Harbor was fresh, having taken place on December 7, 1941.  The United States was mobilizing for entry into World War II.  Kostelanetz was looking for orchestral music that would celebrate the spirit of the American people (morale-boosting propaganda music, in other words).  Copland was among three composers (the others were Jerome Kern and Virgil Thomson) that Kostelanetz commissioned to create orchestral portraits of famous Americans.  Copland’s first choice was Walt Whitman, but since Kern had already chosen Mark Twain as his subject, Kostelanetz encouraged Copland to select a politician.  Lincoln seemed a natural choice, and given his powerful oratory relating to war and freedom, Copland chose to include a narration with the piece.  The piece begins with a solemn instrumental introduction based on the folk song “Springfield Mountain”.  A much brighter section portrays Lincoln’s exuberant youth, set to the tune of Stephen Foster’s “Camptown Races”.  The “Springfield Mountain” theme gradually returns, calming the mood of the piece. Finally, at the 7 minute mark, the narrator enters, and the orchestra takes on an accompanying role.  The text is cobbled together from several writings and speeches of Lincoln’s, including his famous Gettysburg Address, and connected by original text that Copland wrote as commentary for the narrator.  Together, narrator and orchestra proceed through moods that are at times dark, challenging, pensive, hopeful, and at last triumphant.

I tried, and failed, to find a complete recording of the band version (transcribed by Walter Beeler) of A Lincoln Portrait on Youtube.  The half dozen or so performances that are on there suffer from poor recording quality, inaccurate tempos, unfriendly intonation, or any of several other unfortunately common amateur music maladies.  But this NPR story features a full recording of the US Marine Band with Fred Childs narrating.  The story opens with Childs interviewing Copland about the piece.  The interview happened in 1980, when Copland was 80 years old, and still of sound mind.

Copland himself conducts the London Symphony Orchestra with Henry Fonda narrating:

The folk song “Springfield Mountain” forms the basis of the first theme:

Stephen Foster‘s “Camptown Races” dominates the fast, youthful section of the piece.  Listen to Johnny Cash sing it:

A Lincoln Portrait has its own Wikipedia entry.  It’s also featured at an NPR blog, the American Public Media website, an “Insider’s Perspective” from musicologist Elizabeth Bergman, public television station WGBH, and the Kennedy Center.  Also, this Education Through Music lesson plan for fifth graders contains the full text of the narration.

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.

Copland Centennial (from 2000) on NPR.

The Columbia Wind Ensemble performed A Lincoln Portrait in 2006 with Prof. Eric Foner, Columbia’s resident Lincoln expert, narrating.

Dutch composer Johan de Meij (b. 1953) studied trombone and conducting at the Royal Conservatory of Music in The Hague.  He now resides in suburban New Jersey. He rose to international fame as a composer with his Symphony no. 1 “The Lord of the Rings”.  Written between 1984 and 1987, it was premiered in Brussels, Belgium in 1988.  It went on to win first prize in the Sudler International Wind Band Composition Competition in 1989, and a Dutch Composers Fund award in 1990, and has since become a cornerstone of the repertoire for high-level bands worldwide.

The Symphony is based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy of fantasy novels by the same name, which has recently also been immortalized in director Peter Jackson’s film trilogy.  Each of the symphony’s five movements illustrates an important character or event from the Lord of the Rings story: “Gandalf”, the wizard; “Lothlorien”, home of the Elves; “Gollum”, the pitiful former keeper of the ring; “Journey in the Dark”, a chronicle of an expedition through abandoned Dwarf mines; and “Hobbits”.  Says De Meij of each movement:

I) GANDALF (The Wizard)

The first movement is a musical portrait of the wizard Gandalf, one of the principal characters of the trilogy. His wise and noble personality is expressed by a stately motif which is used in different forms in movements IV and V. The sudden opening of the Allegro vivace is indicative of the unpredictability of the grey wizard, followed by a wild ride on his beautiful horse “Shadowfax”.

II) LOTHLORIEN (The Elvenwood)

The second movement is an impression of Lothlorien, the elvenwood with its beautiful trees, plants, exotic birds, expressed through woodwind solos. The meeting of the Hobbit Frodo with the Lady Galadriel is embodied in a charming Allegretto; in the Mirror of Galadriel, a silver basin in the wood, Frodo glimpses three visions, the last of which, a large ominous Eye, greatly upsets him.

III) GOLLUM (Smeagol)

The third movement describes the monstrous creature Gollum, a slimy, shy being represented by the soprano saxophone. It mumbles and talks to itself, hisses and lisps, whines and snickers, is alternately pitiful and malicious, is continually fleeing and looking for his cherished treasure, the Ring.

IV) JOURNEY IN THE DARK

The fourth movement describes the laborious journey of the Fellowship of the Ring, headed by the wizard Gandalf, through the dark tunnels of the Mines of Moria. The slow walking cadenza and the fear are clearly audible in the monotonous rhythm of the low brass, piano and percussion. After a wild pursuit by hostile creatures, the Orks, Gandalf is engaged in a battle with a horrible monster, the Balrog, and crashes from the subterranean bridge of Khazad-Dum in a fathomless abyss.

V) HOBBITS
The fifth movement expresses the carefree and optimistic character of the Hobbits in a happy folk dance; the hymn that follows emanates the determination and noblesse of the hobbit folk.  The symphony does not end on an exuberant note, but is concluded peacefully and resigned, in keeping with the symbolic mood of the last chapter “The Grey Havens” in which Frodo and Gandalf sail away in a white ship and disappear slowly beyond the horizon.
The symphony in its entirety is quite substantial, so the movements are often performed individually.  “Gandalf” and “Hobbits” are the most frequently performed movements.

Website for Johan de Meij and his publishing company. Includes an extensive bio and works list, as well as a link to program notes of the symphony.

Review of a CD containing the symphony and de Meij’s trombone concerto.

One more program note on Symphony no. 1, from everything2.com.

Now some videos.  Notice, it’s largely different bands for each movement.  They’re not easy!

Gandalf, by the Amsterdam Winds.  I’m pretty sure they used cellos to beef up the low brass/bassoon solos that pepper the movement.

Lothlorien, by the TMK Bad Wimsbach Neydharting:

Gollum LIVE.  Watch this monstrous soprano sax player!

Journey in the Dark by a nameless ensemble (orchestra version).

Finally, Hobbits by an accomplished Dutch band.

Now some Lord of the Rings background for the uninitiated.  The various internet sources below can tell its story much more succinctly and completely than I can.  Suffice it to say that The Lord of the Rings laid the foundation for modern fantasy writing and has inspired countless tributes and adaptations to other media, including notably Peter Jackson’s film trilogy.

Lord of the Rings on wikipedia.

The official movie trilogy site.

Lord of the Rings Fanatics site, for true fans only.

National Geographic’s Beyond the Movie feature on Lord of the Rings.

J. R. R. Tolkien on wikipedia.

Video of the opening scenes of the movie (complete with Chinese subtitles).  Pretty much gives the context for the whole story.

This is just the tip of the iceberg.  Please go forth and find more on your own!

Percy Grainger (1882-1961) was a piano prodigy turned composer who was known for his strange personal habits, his colorful prose, and his equally unusual music – his many admirers today still recognize that he possessed “the supreme virtue of never being dull.”  Born in Australia, he began studying piano at an early age.  He came to the U. S. at the outbreak of World War I and enlisted as an Army bandsman, becoming an American citizen in 1918.  He went on to explore the frontiers of music with his idiosyncratic folk song settings, his lifelong advocacy for the saxophone, and his Free Music machines which predated electronic synthesizers.  His many masterworks for winds include Lincolnshire PosyHandel in the Strand, and Molly on the Shore.

Irish Tune from County Derry is a setting of a now-famous tune from the Irish county of Derry in the north (also sometimes called Londonderry).  This classic arrangement features beautiful, delicate part-writing for both woodwinds and brass, highlighting each family in turn.  The Columbia Summer Winds performances of this piece in summer 2009 are dedicated to the memory of our departed friend, Daniel Tedlie.

References on various version of Irish Tune at percygrainger.com.

While this tune is widely associated with the lyrics “Danny Boy”, it in fact has rich history of lyric settings of which “Danny Boy” is a relative latecomer.  For one version of the full history, see wikipedia’s article on “Londonderry Air”, an alternate title for the tune.  The full lyrics of “Danny Boy”, which helped inspire the choice of dedication for this summer, are below:

Oh Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling
From glen to glen, and down the mountain side
The summer’s gone, and all the roses falling
‘Tis you, ’tis you must go and I must bide.
But come ye back when summer’s in the meadow
Or when the valley’s hushed and white with snow
‘Tis I’ll be here in sunshine or in shadow
Oh Danny boy, oh Danny boy, I love you so.

And if you come, when all the flowers are dying
And I am dead, as dead I well may be
You’ll come and find the place where I am lying
And kneel and say an “Ave” there for me.
And I shall hear, tho’ soft you tread above me
And all my dreams will warm and sweeter be
If you’ll not fail to tell me that you love me
I’ll simply sleep in peace until you come to me.

Grainger’s setting may or may not have had any particular set of lyrics in mind.  Grainger’s first settings were published in 1918, whereas various lyrics date back to 1855 or earlier.  “Danny Boy” did not appear in print until 1913.  Even in vocal arrangements, Grainger used no particular lyrics – see below for the proof!

There is naturally much media available on this tune.  Here is just a tiny sampling:

A beautiful recording by the Cambridge Singers of Grainger’s (wisely) wordless vocal arrangement:

From YouTube, an unnamed band performs to images of Irish pride and patriotism:

Now your bonus video: The Muppet Show‘s three most articulate singers take on “Danny Boy”: