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Category Archives: Sing Me a Song Concert

Kansas City native Robert Russell Bennett (1894-1981) was Broadway’s pre-eminent arranger and orchestrator for most of his career.  His ease with instruments enlivened the scores of George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, and many others.  He was composer in his own right, having studied with the renowned Parisian teacher Nadia Boulanger.  He wrote nearly 200 original pieces for several media, including two dozen works for wind band.  The best known of these are his Suite of Old American Dances and the Symphonic Songs for Band.

Bennett wrote Symphonic Songs for Band 1957 on a commission from the National Intercollegiate Band, which premiered the piece at Salt Lake City’s Tabernacle.  Subsequent early performances by the Goldman Band and the University of Michigan Symphony Band featured Bennett as guest conductor.  According to George Ferencz, Bennett scholar and editor of the latest full-score edition of the piece, Bennett provided the following note for the piece’s performance with the Goldman Band:

Symphonic Songs are as much as suite of dances or scenes as songs, deriving their name from the tendency of the principal parts to sing out a fairly diatonic tune against whatever rhythm develops in the middle instruments.  The Serenade has the feeling of strumming, from which the title is obtained, otherwise it bears little resemblance to the serenades of Mozart.  The Spiritual may possibly strike the listener as being unsophisticated enough to justify its title, but in performance this movement sounds far simpler than it really is.  The Celebration recalls an old-time country fair; with cheering throngs (in the woodwinds), a circus act or two, and the inevitable mule race.

More info:

Robert Russell Bennett on wikipedia.

Symphonic Songs sheet music for sale on the Canadian Brass website.  Includes a nice bit of history on the piece.

Robert Russell Bennett on IMDB.

Bennett bio on Naxos.com.

Broadway.com tribute to Bennett on the eve of the 2008 Tony Awards.

Google books preview of “The Broadway Sound”, Bennett’s autobiography and selected essays, edited by George Ferencz.

Now for a performance.  It’s the Tokyo Kosei!  And they are very fine indeed, but they miss some of the spirit of the piece.  For instance, I think the first movement needs to be a little faster and a bit looser and more heartfelt in the lyricism.  Then they breeze a little too easily through most of the Spiritual.  Their energy at the beginning of the Celebration is perfect, but then they use the wrong kind of whistle in the middle.  So use this recording only as a reference:

William Bolcom (b. 1938) is a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and a recently-retired professor at the University of Michigan.  His compositions span many genres, from the wind band to piano works to opera.  He performs alongside his wife, mezzo-soprano Joan Morris, as part of the cabaret duo Bolcom and Morris.  Recently, the University of Michigan Symphony Band premiered his First Symphony for Band.  He also recently (in 2005) won four Grammy Awards for a recording of his setting of Williams Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience on the Naxos label.

William Bolcom’s official website, with many many links, easily the best portal to understanding him on the web.  I’ll append some highlights below:

Interviews and speeches

Biography

Complete works list

Bolcom & Morris

And some other stuff:

Printed interview with Bolcom

A podcast interview with some music on naxos.com

Bolcom’s page on NPR.com

Bolcom wrote Song (for Band) in 2001 for the retirement of longtime University of Michigan band director H. Robert Reynolds.  The dedication of the piece reads: “In honor of the retirement of H. Robert Reynolds from the directorship of the University of Michigan band, this song is a present for Bob.”

A short sample recording of it is available here by clicking on the speaker icon on the left side.

Here the FSU band performs it (rather slowly in my opinion):

Finally, a response to a comment on the score: “Bandstration realized by MANLY ROMERO”.  The term “bandstration” is often used as a derogatory term for turning other pieces of classical music, most often large orchestral scores, into pieces for band.  So, for example, a version of Puccini’s Nessun Dorma for band would be a bandstration.  I suppose it is starting to have some non-derogatory usage, but to me it still reads like a dig at the supposed inferiority of the wind band medium to that of the symphony orchestra.  My feeling is that the term “orchestration” works just as well for band, since someone who arranges for band is arranging a large number of instrumental parts in a (hopefully) colorful and interesting manner, just as one would if arranging for orchestra.  So here is a history of wind band instrumentation for the intrepid reader, to help you understand where the conventions of wind band instrumentation have come from.  If you’ve ever wondered what a contrabass sarrusophone looked like, here is your answer!

Charles Ives (1874-1954) was a composer and businessman from Danbury, Connecticut. He never made his living from his compositions, instead making a fortune in life insurance.  The unusual nature of this dual life paralleled his music, which not only defied but brazenly toppled the conventions of his era.  For instance, it is at times bitonal, often disjointed, and occassionally reflects the sound of two musical ensembles playing at the same time at a distance from each other. Ives’s music was largely ignored by all but a precious few fans during his lifetime.  However, his receipt of the Pulitzer Prize in 1947 for his Symphony no. 3 made the music world begin to take him seriously.  He has posthumously attained a reputation as among the finest of all American composers of all time.

Ives scholar Jan Swafford summarizes Ives’s influence and importance thusly:

For all his singularity, the Yankee maverick Charles Ives is among the most representative of American artists. Optimistic, idealistic, fiercely democratic, he unified the voice of the American people with the forms and traditions of European classical music. The result, in his most far-reaching work, is like nothing ever imagined before him: music at once unique and as familiar as a tune whistled in childhood, music that can conjure up the pandemonium of a small-town Fourth of July or the quiet of a New England church, music of visionary spirituality built from the humblest materials–an old gospel hymn, a patriotic tune, a sentimental parlor song. The way in which Ives pursued his goal of a democratic art, and his career of creating at the highest level of ambition while making a fortune in the life insurance business, perhaps could only have happened in the United States. And perhaps only there could such an isolated, paradoxical figure make himself into a major artist.

This is just the beginning of Swafford’s fabulous short biographical essay on Ives, which can be found here.

Swafford’s essay is just a taste of the treasure trove of information available at the Charles Ives Society website.

More on Ives from Wikipedia.

Biography with a link to an essay about the influence of Ives’s father, George, a local bandmaster.

One more biographical essay from essentialsofmusic.com

Ives wrote Variations on America at age 17 when he was the organist for a local church.  Despite its early origin, it still contains many characteristics of the Ives sound: unapologetic bitonality, themes of patriotism, some sense of playfulness and optimism.  American composer and Lincoln Center president William Schuman transcribed the original organ work for orchestra in 1962, after which it was transcribed for band in short order by William Rhoads.

A concise program note on the orchestral version.

The University of Michigan Concert Band plays Variations on America.

The original organ version performed by flamboyant organ virtuoso Virgil Fox:

Vincent Persichetti was a piano and organ prodigy who was supporting himself with his musical talents by age 11.  A lifelong Philadelphia resident, he took full advantage of that city’s music institutions.  At age 20, he was simultaneously the head of the music department at Combs College, a conducting major with Fritz Reiner at the Curtis Institute, and a piano and composition student at the Philadelphia Conservatory.  His distinctly original compositions began to be recognized internationally before he was 30.  His skyrocketing reputation led to his appointment at the Juilliard School, where he became the chair of the composition department at age 47.  He died in 1987, leaving behind a unique body of work in almost every musical medium, including a number of masterpieces for the wind band.

Several different program notes on Psalm construct a full picture of the piece and its place in the repertoire.  The US Air Force Band gives us some basic facts about the piece:

Psalm for Band was comissioned by the Alpha Chapter of Pi Kappa Omicron Nation Band Fraternity at the University of Louisville, and was premiered in 1952 by the University of Lousiville Concert Band with the composer conducting.  In the title, Persichetti refers to a poem of worship that was, in ancient times, sung or accompanied by harp.  Using a single musical idea as a foundation for the entire piece, Persicheti explores different facets of the psaml–worship, reflection and celebration.

CD review by Steve Schwartz on classical.net gives further description and context:

Persichetti is a major player in contributing to the modern repertoire for wind band, as opposed to the occasional dabbler, with several large works, including at least one symphony, for this ensemble. The Psalm appeared a year after Mennin’s Canzona. Why Persichetti called it a “psalm” I have no idea. It certainly doesn’t use the conventional idioms of religious music, and it doesn’t call to mind any particular psalm. The solemn opening Persichetti calls a “chorale,” but it’s definitely a chorale filtered through Stravinsky. Persichetti lays out the work in three large sections, each in a noticeably faster tempo, culminating in a brilliant, electrifying allegro molto, which at the very end recapitulates themes from throughout the work. It clocks in at a hefty 8 minutes, but it also takes you on a thrill ride. Like a really good roller coaster, it makes you want to ride again as soon as it’s over.

According the Oklahoma City University Program Note Resource for Band Directors, the composer himself had something to say about the piece:

The composer supplied the following note on the score:  “Psalm for Band is a piece constructed from a single germinating harmonic idea.  There are three distinct sections — a sustained chordal mood, a forward-moving chorale, followed by a Paean culmination of the materials.  Extensive use is made of separate choirs of instruments supported by thematic rhythms in the tenor and bass drums.”

More on Persichetti’s life and works are available at Wikipedia, Theodore Presser, and Naxos.  There is also a Vincent Persichetti Society with a web presence.

Onto a performance: this YouTube video shows a Catholic high school undertaking an excellent performance of Psalm.  The audio quality is not the best, and that is reflected in the relatively limited dynamic range of the video – one can only guess that the live performance was even more thrilling!

Educated at the University of Michigan, composer Frank Ticheli (b. 1958) has become one of the biggest names in new wind band repertoire.  Since 1991 he has been a Professor of Composition USC-Thornton and, until 1998, Composer in Residence of the Pacific Symphony.  The recipient of many awards, he was most recently winner of the 2006 NBA/William D. Revelli Memorial Band Composition Contest for his Symphony No. 2.

Ticheli’s own program note best encapsulates the impetus for his version of Amazing Grace:

I wanted my setting of AMAZING GRACE to reflect the powerful simplicity of the words and melody – to be sincere, to be direct, to be honest – and not through the use of novel harmonies and clever tricks, but by traveling traditional paths in search of truth and authenticity.

I believe that music has the power to take us to a place that words alone cannot. And so my own feelings about “Amazing Grace” reside in this setting itself. The harmony, texture, orchestration, and form are inseparable, intertwined so as to be perceived as a single expressive entity.

The spiritual, “Amazing Grace,” was written by John Newton (1725-1807), a slaveship captain who, after years of transporting slaves across the Atlantic Ocean to the New World, suddenly saw through divine grace the evilness of his acts. First published in 1835 by William Walker in The Southern Harmony, “Amazing Grace” has since grown to become one of the most beloved of all American spirituals.

The Manhattan Beach Music recording of AMAZING GRACE is performed by the California State University at Fullerton Wind Ensemble, Mitchell Fennell, conductor, Frank Ticheli, guest conductor. AMAZING GRACE was commissioned by John Whitwell in loving memory of his father, John Harvey Whitwell. It was first performed on February 10, 1994 by the Michigan State University Wind Symphony, John Whitwell conductor.

Frank Ticheli
Pasadena, California
May 11, 1994

More info on Ticheli’s version of Amazing Grace can be found here, at his publisher’s website.  This site is also home to a complete, downloadable set of mp3s of the vast majority of his large ensemble music – quite a find!

Frank Ticheli’s personal website, Frankticheli.com.

Ticheli bio on wikipedia.

Frank Ticheli’s Facebook fanclub.

A video interview with Ticheli in which he talks about composing.

An anonymous band plays Amazing Grace:

There is also a version of Amazing Grace arranged by William Himes:

Info about the original song Amazing Grace on wikipedia.

Finally, the lyrics to the original tune of Amazing Grace, by John Newton (1725-1807).

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

T’was Grace that taught my heart to fear.
And Grace, my fears relieved.
How precious did that Grace appear
The hour I first believed.

Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come;
‘Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far
and Grace will lead me home.

The Lord has promised good to me.
His word my hope secures.
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.

Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

When we’ve been here ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun.
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’ve first begun.

Morton Gould (1913-1996) was an American conductor, composer, and pianist.  He was recognized as a child prodigy very early in his life, and as a result he published his first composition before his seventh birthday.  His talents led him to become the staff pianist for Radio City Music Hall when it opened in 1932.  He went on to compose movie soundtracks, Broadway musicals, and instrumental pieces for orchestra and band while also cultivating an international career as a conductor.  Among the honors he received were the 1995 Pulitzer Prize, the 1994 Kennedy Center Honor, a 1983 Gold Baton Award, and a 1966 Grammy Award.  By the time of his death in 1996 he was widely revered as an icon of American classical music.

There are several short biographies of Gould on the Internet.  Each one is more glowing than the next:

Wikipedia – concise biography and list of works.

G. Schirmer – Gould’s publisher gives a much more eloquent account of the composer’s life (which wikipedia seems to have stolen and mangled).

Kennedy Center – Heaps yet more praise on the composer.

There is even an entire book dedicated to the biography of Morton Gould, by Peter W. Goodman.  Like the piece we are playing, it is called American Salute.

Google books preview of the book here.

Review of said book here.

American Salute the piece is based on the patriotic tune “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again”.  Written in 1943, one can only guess that it was meant as a morale booster during the uncertainty of World War II.

Here is a sampling of three program notes on American Salute: the first is short and straightforward; the second is a bit more extensive; and the third is colorful, comes from a blog, and includes a recording of the orchestral version.

Now onto a video of a performance by the University of Alabama Honor Band 2010.  If they can do it, so can we!

Finally, some info on the source tune, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again”.  You may, of course, recognize the tune as “The Ants Go Marching”.  Well “Johnny” came first, thanks to composer and bandleader Patrick Gilmore.  More info, including the lyrics, can be found here on wikipedia.