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Tag Archives: British Composer

In a new feature for this blog, I’ll occasionally review new recordings of wind band music.  The first, Twisted Skyscape, spotlights the woodwinds.

The producers of Twisted Skyscape are direct about the purpose of their project: it is an advocacy album for both the woodwind orchestra and British composers. The British composers certainly represent themselves well, with a varied program of contemporary music ranging from dance-like to ethereal. And the woodwind orchestra, for the most part, serves as a successful and colorful vehicle for this music.

This album claims to be the first of its kind. This is mostly true, since an orchestra of mixed woodwinds only is a relatively new phenomenon. This woodwind orchestra uses specifically the woodwinds of the wind band (flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, and saxophones, often in several sizes). However, while the creators of Twisted Skyscape can point to a number of standing woodwind orchestras within their musical circles, and even non-British composers like American Carter Pann have written for woodwind-only ensembles, groups like this don’t really exist as a common cultural phenomenon, at least not in the way that string orchestras, brass bands, and even percussion ensembles do. So in that way, this does indeed mark the coming-out of a new type of ensemble. And yet, the art music world has maintained something like a woodwind orchestra for more than two centuries in the form of Harmoniemusik. This ensemble, which peaked in popularity just before 1800, uses pairs of oboes, clarinets, and bassoons from the woodwind family, with French horns rounding out the middle voices. You might also see basset horns and a string bass, as in Mozart’s legendary Gran Partita. Ensembles derived from this mostly-woodwind makeup have a rich and fascinating repertoire with contributions from Mozart, Beethoven, Dvorak, Gounod, Richard Strauss, Willem van Otterloo, Jonathan Dove, and Lior Navok, to name but a few. The woodwind orchestra would thus expand its repertoire instantly by admitting French horns into its fold.

The woodwind soloists of the Czech Philharmonic make for a world-class woodwind ensemble. Their playing under Shea Lolin’s leadership is mostly flawless and quite musically compelling, with only the occasional lapse in ensemble blend, mostly due to consistently over-present low saxophones. On every track, the potential of the woodwind ensemble as an artistic medium is clear.

Philip Sparke’s Overture for Woodwinds provides a wonderful introduction to the sound world and color possibilities of this ensemble. Its stately opening showcases the full sound potential of the collected woodwinds. Gary Carpenter’s Pantomime began its life with Gran Partita instrumentation before being re-orchestrated by the composer for this recording. Perhaps because of this, there are times when the piece does not feel native to the genre, particularly in the fourth movement. This dance suite was derived from Carpenter’s musical Aladdin, and as such it has some dramatic and introspective moments among its relatively straightforward and melodic dance movements. These are often reminiscent of the wind band dance treatments of Robert Russell Bennett. Adam Gorb’s Battle Symphony successfully combines a medieval sound foundation with contemporary harmonic and timbral touches, much like Dello Joio’s Scenes from the Louvre or Poulenc’s Suite Francaise before it. The standout pieces on this album belong to Christopher Hussey, who was also a producer on the project. His two pieces, Dreamtide and the titular Twisted Skyscape, both extend the mood and color palette of the ensemble in exciting ways, especially on the more lyrical and ethereal end. They use the ensemble so well that the listener never once longs for any other instrument. This is especially remarkable in the case of Dreamtide, which was originally a choral piece. What unifies the five very different pieces on the album is their shared accessibility. Each one is immediately appealing and begs a second listen.

Twisted Skyscape the album represents a very promising start (if we accept that it is truly something new) for the woodwind orchestra. But what is the future of the genre, especially outside of Britain? The music presented here may already be able to find a place in school and university wind band programs in the USA, which are often hungry for good literature to work on in sectionals. But it will be just one option among many (including arrangements and existing Harmoniemusik), and is unlikely to lead to the establishment of dedicated woodwind orchestras. It will take a great deal more music like this and more full-throated advocacy by people like Shea Lolin and Christopher Hussey in order for the woodwind orchestra to spread as a distinct idea separate from its cousins the wind band, the orchestra, and Harmonie. For now, this repertoire can add some welcome variety to any group that would try it. And they should: it would be a thrill to hear this music live.

Twisted Skyscape is available for pre-order from www.twistedskyscape.com. It will be released worldwide on July 17, 2015.

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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.

Leland Forsblad (1920-2006) was a music educator in Fresno, California.  He honed his composition skills as Prisoner of War during World War II, when he wrote for the ensembles at his POW camp.  Back in the US, he had hundreds of works published for band, orchestra, and chorus.  See more on him here and here.

According to the score of the piece, Forsblad arranged Baroque Celebration in 1985 “in honor of the 300th anniversary of the birth of J.S. Bach and G.F. Handel”.  He went on: “Honoring two truly great men of music, BAROQUE CELEBRATION captures the essence of BACH along with the artistry of HANDEL.  The melodic Sarabande coupled with the spirited Little Fugue present a fitting testimonial to these two musical giants.”  Sadly, Baroque Celebration has since gone out of print, but Forsblad did an admirable job making these two short pieces work for band, so I am very glad to have the chance to revive it with the Arizona State University Concert Band.

This arrangement is not available on YouTube, but the source material is.  The “Sarabande” comes from Bach’s French Suite no. 1, the first of a set of six suites for clavier (pre-piano keyboard instrument) that he wrote around 1722, probably as a gift for his second wife, Anna Magdalena.  They only came to be called the “French” Suites by accident, and not with the blessing of the composer.  The “Sarabande”, based on a Spanish dance form, displays Bach’s full expressive powers.  Here it is in a piano version, featuring the legendary Glenn Gould:

And again on the perhaps-more-authentic harpsichord:

About the composer: 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.

The second movement of Baroque Celebration is a treatment of Handel’s Little Fugue, about which I can find little information.  Here it is on harpsichord, with some characteristically Baroque liberties of tempo:

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) was a German (born in Halle) who became an Englishman, making his life and career mostly in London.  He wrote operas, instrumental music, and oratorios, including the Messiah, which includes the famous “Hallelujah” chorus.  Along with Bach, he is a towering figure of Baroque music, especially in his adopted homeland of England.

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) was an influential British composer and folk-song collector.  His powerful and expressive orchestral music is notable for its very “English” sound.  His early adventures collecting folk songs in the English countryside profoundly influenced his later compositions.  Along with Gustav Holst, his works for wind band form a foundation for the serious literature in that medium.

Vaughan Williams wrote Flourish for Wind Band in 1939 as the opening to the pageant Music and the People in the Royal Albert Hall in London.  It was subsequently lost, only to be rediscovered and finally published in 1971.  Arranger Roy Douglas created versions of the piece for brass band and for symphony orchestra, but it has become part of the basic literature of the wind band for which it was created.  It opens with a simple brass fanfare.  This gives way to a lyrical melody before the fanfare returns to end the piece.   At just under 2 minutes long, Flourish for Wind Band is a concise gem of Vaughan Williams’s output.  I like to pair it with his Toccata Marziale, with which it shares the key of B-flat and some motivic material, in a prelude and fugue sort of arrangement.

Flourish for Wind Band at the Wind Repertory Project, Answers.com, and (not for the faint of heart) a detailed music analysis of the piece in the form of a master’s thesis.

A chapter on British wind band music from an online History of the Wind Band by Dr. Stephen L. Rhodes. Vaughan Williams features prominently.

Flourish played by the University of North Texas.  I prefer it a tiny bit slower, but they’re REALLY good!

The Ralph Vaughan Williams Society – the source for anything you might ever possibly want to know about the composer.

Vaughan Williams on Wikipedia.

The William Byrd Suite is remarkable for showcasing the talents of 2 composers: the titular William Byrd (1540-1623), an English Renaissance composer and a founder of the English Madrigal School; and Gordon Jacob (1895-1984), a 20th century British composer who, along with Holst and Vaughan Williams, is known as an early champion of the wind band and a skilled composer in the medium.  Jacob assembled the suite in 1923, most likely as part of the festivities for the tercentenary of Byrd’s death.  He “freely transcribed” it from six pieces of Byrd’s keyboard work that appeared in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, a contemporary collection of almost 300 pieces written between about 1562 and 1612.  This collection contained keyboard works of more than a dozen composers.  While the collection had the virginal – a keyboard instrument that is essentially a portable harpsichord – in mind as its medium, the compositions inside could have been played on any contemporary keyboard instrument.

The virginal lacked any means of dynamic or timbral contrast: every note sounded the same and was just as loud as any other.  So composers for the instrument had to find other ways to make their music interesting.  Thus, the pieces in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book are full of melodic variation and rhythmic invention.  While Mr. Jacob preserved all of this in his suite, he also artfully added the dynamic shadings and instrumental color that the wind band is known for.

The William Byrd Suite has 6 movements.  At 18 minutes, it’s a rather large undertaking to play all 6 movements.  So, as is common practice, we will play a selection of the movements: the first 2 and the last 2.  I present here videos of every movement, not necessarily in order.  Enjoy!

First, a very accomplished high school band plays “No. 1: The Earle of Oxford’s Marche”, “No. 3: Jhon come kisse me now” (at 3:10), and “No. 6: The Bells” (at 5:20).  I have 2 beefs with this performance: the end of the 1st movement needs much more drama, and I think the percussion got lost at the end of the 6th – you should hear crazy ringing bells all the way to the end!

Now, another high school age group tackles a different set of movements.  “No. 1: The Earle of Oxford’s Marche”, “No. 2: Pavana” (at 3:20), “No. 3: Jhon come kisse me now” (at 6:10), and “No. 5: Wolsey’s Wilde” (at 8:04).

The UCLA wind ensemble in 1983 doing “No. 4: The Mayden’s Song”.

Finally, here’s what “The Bells” sounds like in its original form: played on a virginal (ok, it’s actually a harpsichord, but that’s still in the ballpark) from Byrd’s manuscript.

Now some links:

Gordon Jacob on Wikipedia – note the middle names!

GordonJacob.org – a website run by the Jacob family promoting Gordon’s life and music

Fantastic program note and resource (particularly the errata) on the William Byrd Suite at windrep.org.

William Byrd on Wikipedia and Naxos classical.

Philip Sparke (b. 1951) is a prolific British composer, primarily of works for wind band and brass band.  He studied at London’s Royal College of Music, where he played in the wind orchestra and started a student brass band.  He has been commissioned by top world bands, including the Tokyo Kosei Wind Orchestra and the US Air Force Band, and his compositions have won many awards, including the Sudler Prize (Dance Movements, 1997) and the NBA Revelli  Composition Contest (Music of the Spheres, 2005).

Sparke describes the impetus for The Sun Will Rise Again in his own program notes:

On March 11th 2011 a massive 9.0- magnitude earthquake occurred off the coast of north-eastern Japan.

I’m writing these programme notes barely a week later and the death toll caused by the quake and resulting tsunami already exceeds 6000, with thousands of people still unaccounted for.

I have many friends associated with many bands throughout Japan and one of these, Yutaka Nishida, suggested I write a piece to raise money to help those affected by the disaster. I was immediately attracted by the idea and have arranged Cantilena (a brass band piece recently commissioned by the Grenland International Brass Festival, Norway) for wind band, giving it a new title to honour my friends in the Land of the Rising Sun.

I will be donating royalties from this piece to the Japanese Red Cross Society Emergency Relief Fund and am delighted to say that my distributors, De Haske, who will generously also donate all net profits from sales of this piece, have pledged a substantial advance payment to the Red Cross so that what little help this project generates can be immediate.

It is my sincere wish that this ‘Band Aid’ project will allow wind bands around the world support the people of Japan, where bands are a way of life for many, in this difficult time”.

Here’s the band version:

You can also read about (but not listen to) the original brass band version here.

Philip Sparke has an extensive website that is worth a look.

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.

The Second Suite in F was written in 1911, but not performed until 1922.  Each of its four movements uses one or more folk songs as its melodic material.

An unnamed band performs each movement of the suite, each in separate videos.  First, the “March”:

“Song without Words”:

The devilish “Song of the Blacksmith”:

Finally, “Fantasia on the Dargason” at a good, healthy tempo (I like this one fast!):

Holst largely repeated this movement in his St. Paul’s Suite for orchestra:

Holst also wrote a chorale version of the “Song of the Blacksmith”:

There is also a choral version of “Song without Words”, titled “I Love My Love”:

Great program note on Second Suite from the University of Maryland Wind Orchestra.

Second Suite on wikipedia (a rather poorly-researched article, I’m afraid!)

For those interested in singing along with some Holst, many of the folk songs used in the Second Suite have their lyrics published on the internet:

From the “March”: “Morris Dance” is an instrumental dance; “Swansea Town” starts with the euphonium solo; “Claudy Banks” is the 6/8 section. That link leaves out the chorus, which you can find in Bob Garofalo’s great resource book, Folk Songs and Dances in Second Suite.

“Song without Words” is actually “I Love My Love”

“Song of the Blacksmith”

“Fantasia on the Dargason”: The Dargason itself is an instrumental dance tune, related to popular melodies like “The Irish Washerwoman”.  This movement also includes “Greensleeves”, usually a sad-sounding song, as a rather joyous interlude and a powerful climax.

Gustavholst.info – a major web resource for information on the composer.

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) was an influential British composer and folk-song collector.  His powerful and expressive orchestral music is notable for its very “English” sound.  His early adventures collecting folk songs in the English countryside profoundly influenced his later compositions.  Along with Gustav Holst, his works for wind band form a foundation for the serious literature in that medium.

The English Folk Song Suite is one of those foundational works. It was written in 1923 and premiered at Kneller Hall, home of Britain’s finest military music academy.  It uses as its source material several English folks songs.  It is cast in 3 movements: a “March” subtitled “Seventeen Come Sunday”; an “Intermezzo” on “My Bonny Boy”; and another “March” subtitled “Folk Songs from Somerset”, which incorporates several different tunes.  A good summary of the movements and the folk songs involved in each is available at Wikipedia.  The original composition also included a fourth movement, Sea Songs, which Vaughan Williams later decided to publish separately.  While the English Folk Song Suite is a cornerstone of the wind band repertoire, it is not fully demonstrative of Vaughan Williams’s compositional powers.  Only the “Intermezzo” approaches the harmonic daring and lyricism that mark the rest of his work.  The remainder of the piece is a fairly straightforward, faithful setting of the folk songs.

Program notes on the Suite.

For curiosity’s sake, here’s a Facebook discussion board dedicated to the Suite.

A chapter on British wind band music from an online History of the Wind Band by Dr. Stephen L. Rhodes. Vaughan Williams and the English Folk Song Suite feature prominently.

So now let’s listen to the Eastman Wind Orchestra (one of the best in the world) play these movements:

The Ralph Vaughan Williams Society – the source for anything you might ever possibly want to know about the composer.

Vaughan Williams on Wikipedia.

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.

The First Suite is particularly important to the later development of artistic music for wind band.  Holst wrote it in 1909 for an ensemble that came to define the instrumentation that bands would use for at least the next century and beyond.  Oddly, it was not performed until 1920, and published a year later.  Since then, the First Suite has left an indelible mark on band musicians and audiences around the world.  Its appeal is in its simplicity and its artistry.  While there are difficult passages and exposed solo work in many instruments, it places few extreme demands on the players, and it uses a straightforward and easily-identifiable theme throughout its 3 movements.  Yet this theme is turned and pulled into many different forms, and put on an emotional roller-coaster of doubts, sweet reveries, ecstatic joy, and triumph.  Truly, the impact that the First Suite still makes on those who hear it is impossible to put into words.  It is a classic piece of art music that has helped to define the development of a century of wind band music.

The US Marine Band performing the complete Suite on Youtube.  Not much to look at, but GREAT listening!

Detailed historical discussion of First Suite on Earfloss.com.

First Suite on Wikipedia.

First Suite program notes on philharmonicwinds.org (Singapore).

Gustavholst.info – a major web resource for information on the composer.

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.

Holst wrote A Moorside Suite for a brass band competition in 1927. Fellow British composer Gordon Jacob arranged the suite for orchestra in 1952 and wind band in 1960.  Of the 3 original movements, the March continues to receive the most attention.

An anonymous band plays Moorside March:

Now the original brass band version:

Gustav Holst’s family website – a major source of information on the composer’s life and works.

Gustav Holst on Wikipedia.

Program note on the Moorside Suite.

Ron Nahass will conduct this piece at the 2011 Columbia Festival of Winds.  I have also conducted it with Columbia Summer Winds in 2008.