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Tag Archives: German Composer

German composer Richard Strauss (1864-1949) was a true Wunderkind, with over 100 compositions to his name by the age of 18.  The vast majority of these were juvenilia, but some them, like his Serenade for Winds, written when he was 17 and given opus 7, sound like mature pieces and remain in the repertoire.  Strauss’s early career was distinguished by his tone poems, including Don JuanDon QuixoteSinfonia DomesticaEin HeldenlebenTill Eulenspiegel, and others.  Through his deft handling of the orchestra in works like these, Strauss is alleged to have claimed that he could depict a knife and fork (and other such mundane objects) through music.  His later career involved writing some of the most shockingly modern of early 20th century operas, including Salome and Elektra, a later gradual return to a more conservative, tonal style, a brief period of questionable association with the Nazi party (from which he was later absolved), and a final distinguished resurgence.  He was writing up to his death: some of his last compositions are marked as “opus posthumous,” despite being premiered during his lifetime.

Strauss’s contributions to the wind band are substantial, beginning with the aforementioned Serenade and extending to the two multi-movement sonatinas written in the last years of his life, with some fanfares and a Suite in between.  The Happy Workshop is one of the two sonatinas from the 1940s (written in 1944-1945, to be precise).  Its original title was Sontatina no. 2 “Fröhliche Werkstatt”.  This was changed to Symphonie für Bläser “Fröhliche Werkstatt”  by Strauss’s publisher, Boosey & Hawkes, and that title has stuck.  B&H had their reasons for the change: the work is in four movements in a traditional symphonic plan, and it is nearly 50 minutes long in total.  It was premiered in 1946 in Switzerland with the very living Strauss in attendance, and yet it still contains the designation “opus posthumous,” as noted above.

This is not a piece to be trifled with.  Aside from its length and the concentration required to stay engaged for so long, it is technically challenging for each player and full of ensemble traps.  (To put it in the words of one of Arizona State’s wind faculty, who played on a recent performance of this, “pick a key and stick to it for more than a bar!!”)  Also, it requires some unusual instruments.  There are parts for clarinet in C and basset horn, as well as a bass clarinet part written in bass clef!  I made alternative versions of some of these while doing TA work at ASU:

Here it is, played by the Netherland Wind Ensemble (unfortunately in four chunks):

For more on Strauss (and this just scratches the surface), see his Wikipedia bio, his Encyclopedia Brittanica entry, this profile on mfiles, this profile on a website about music and the Holocaust, an essay about him in the New York Review of Books, and the official website dedicated to him and run by his family.

The Happy Workshop is no stranger to recording or writing.  Find out more about it at Presto Classical, Philly.com, and this blog.  It is also on IMSLP, though it is not in the public domain in the US just yet.

Richard Wagner (1813-1883) is undoubtedly one of Western music’s most controversial figures.  His operas (he called them music-dramas) redefined the genre and pushed it to its limits.  His epic Ring cycle spans four operas and about 16 hours of music.   For this, he invented the leitmotif, a recognizable melodic theme connected to certain characters, places, events, or moods in his operas.  He also invented new instruments (e.g. the Wagner tuba) and had his own opera house built (at Bayreuth) in order to get exactly the sound that he wanted.  He pushed harmonic boundaries ever further, eventually eschewing any tonal resolution in the opera Tristan und Isolde (which is often regarded as the first modern opera).  For all of these operas, he assumed near total control, writing the librettos and designing the sets himself.  He was also a writer whose opinions on many things,especially Judaism, have remained a stain on his character.  In short, he was a large, uncompromising personality whose effects are still strongly felt in music and beyond.

Wagner finished the opera Lohengrin in 1848.  It tells the story of Elsa, a princess in Brabant (what we now call Antwerp), who is rescued and wedded a by a knight in shining armor who insists on remaining nameless.  Drama and tragedy ensue, ending with the death of several characters in typical Wagnerian fashion. Elsa’s Procession to the Cathedral comes at the end of Act II, when Elsa is on her way to be married to the knight, who we later learn is Lohengrin, knight of the Holy Grail.  Even in its original form, this section is almost a band piece, dominated by winds and percussion.  It has become a staple of the band repertoire as a standalone piece.

The Baylor University Wind Ensemble performs the classic band arrangement of Elsa, created by Lucien Cailliet in 1938:

Here is the version from the original opera, in a production at La Scala in Milan in 2012:

You can read more about Lohengrin on Wikipedia and at the Met Opera website.  As for Wagner himself, here is just a small sampling of what the Internet has to say about him: Wikipedia, Biography.com (video), the Jewish Virtual Library,WagnerOpera.net, ipl2, and PBS Great Performances.

Hamburg native Walter Ingolf Marcus became Ingolf Dahl (1912-1970) upon emigrating from Switzerland to the United States in 1939.  He ended up in southern California, where he joined a large community of European expatriate composers.  In 1945 he began teaching at the University of Southern California.  He remained there for the rest of his career.  His compositions include a Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Wind Ensemble, the Sinfonietta, and many orchestral works.  He is considered one of the most important American composers for the saxophone.  He was also involved in the broader entertainment industry, creating arrangements for Tommy Dorsey and Victor Borge, and touring with Edgar Bergen and Gracie Fields.  Work with Igor Stravinsky and his music was a strong influence on Dahl’s composition.

Dahl wrote the Sinfonietta in 1961 on a commission from the College Band Directors National Association Western and Northwestern Division.  It received its premiere in 1962 from the University of Southern California Wind Ensemble under William Schaefer.  Dahl said of the piece:

First of all, I wanted it to be a piece that was full of size, a long piece, a substantial piece–a piece that, without apologies for its medium, would take its place alonside symphonic works of any other kind. But in addition, I hoped to make it a “light” piece. Something in the Serenade style, serenade “tone,” and perhaps even form.

Arthur Honneger once was commissioned to write an oratorio (King David) for chorus and an ill-assorted group of wind instruments. He asked Stravinsky, “What should I do? I have never before heard of this odd combination of winds.” Stravinsky replied, “That is very simple. You must approach this task as if it had always been your greatest wish to write for these instruments, and as if a work for just such a group were the same one that you had wanted to write all of your life.” This is good advice and I tried to follow it. Only in my case it was not only before but after the work was done and the Sinfonietta was finished that it turned out to be indeed the piece that I had wanted to write all my life.

(from the CBDNA website)

The form of the piece is a broad arch spread over its three movements.  Says Dahl:

The sections of the first movement correspond, in reverse order and even in some details, to the sections of the last…The middle movement itself is shaped like an arch…the center of the middle movement which the center of the whole work–a gavotte-like section, and the lightest music of the entire Sinfonietta–is the “keystone” of the arch.

Dahl further says that the “tonal idiom” of the work is based on overtones, and thus he uses more consonant intervals than he might have otherwise.  The outer movements are based on a six-note set: A-flat, E-flat, C, G, D, and A.  These are most obvious as the opening of the third movement, though they form the basis for a whole host of melodic and harmonic features of both that and the first.  The second movement uses lighter scoring and a different pitch basis (E-flat, F, G-flat, A-flat), setting it apart from the outer movements.  The entire piece is something of a concerto for band, with extended solos for clarinet, alto clarinet, saxophone, trumpet trio, bassoon, English horn, oboe, e-flat clarinet, and no shortage of demanding section solis.

Movement 1 – Introduction and Rondo:

Movement 2 – Pastoral Nocturne:

Movement 3 – Dance Variations:

Read up on Dahl at Wikipedia, this doctoral dissertation, or in his biography, The Lives of Ingolf Dahl.  See more about Sinfonietta at the Wind Repertory Project, Koops Conducting, this blog, and CBDNA.

Richard Wagner (1813-1883) is undoubtedly one of Western music’s most controversial figures.  His operas (he called them music-dramas) redefined the genre and pushed it to its limits.  His epic Ring cycle spans four operas and about 16 hours of music.   For this, invented the leitmotif, a recognizable melodic theme connected to certain characters, places, events, or moods in his operas.  He also invented new instruments (e.g. the Wagner tuba) and had his own opera house built (at Bayreuth) in order to get exactly the sound that he wanted.  He pushed harmonic boundaries ever further, eventually eschewing any tonal resolution in the opera Tristan und Isolde (which is often regarded as the first modern opera).  For all of these operas, he assumed near total control, writing the librettos and designing the sets himself.  He was also a writer whose opinions on many things, especially Judaism, have remained a stain on his character.  In short, he was a large, uncompromising personality whose effects are still strongly felt in music and beyond.

One of Wagner’s earliest musical heroes was Carl Maria von Weber, another German composer of famous operas.  This composer was Wagner’s direct inspiration for Trauersinfonie.  Richard Franko Goldman elaborates in the program notes from his band‘s edition of the score:

Eighteen years after the death in London of Carl Maria von Weber, a patriotic movement in Germany resulted in the transference of his remains to his native land.  In December of that year (1844) an impressive ceremony took place in Dresden, in which Wagner took a leading part.  Besides reading the solemn oration, Wagner composed the march for the torchlight procession.  This march, scored by Wagner for large wind band, was based on two themes from Weber’s opera “Euryanthe“, and thus represented a musical homage to the earlier composer.  The score remained unpublished until 1926, and the work has remained among the least known of all Wagner’s compositions.

The Funeral Music was performed in a revised “concert” version by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra under Mengelberg in 1927.  On that occasion, Herbert Peyser wrote in the New York Evening Telegram: “This extraordinary piece–only 80 bars in length, but so profoundly moving, so filled with spacious and majestic solemnity…invites a prohibitive amount of history.  The melodic materials collated by Wagner are only the eerie pianissimo theme from the ‘Euryanthe’ Overture, associated with the vision of Emma’s spirit, and the sorrowful cavatina ‘Hier, dicht am Quell’, the first closing the composition in the transfigured form it assumes in the last act of the opera…

“The effect of this music, magnificent and heart-shaking as it was…must have been overwhelming amid the solemnity of that nocturnal torch-light procession in the Dresden of 1844…For if the themes are Weber’s, the creative imagination embodied in their sequence, their scoring, their exalted lament, is powerfully Wagner’s…”

Wagner’s scoring was for large, but conventional military band, similar to the bands of today except for the absence of saxophones.  The composition as played by the Goldman Band is in faithful accordance with the original score except for very minor revisions, made by Erik Leidzen, which were necessitated by the changes in wind instruments and usage since Wagner’s early years.

There also exists a later edition of the score, edited by Michael Votta and John Boyd, which goes further towards identifying Wagner’s original instrumentation and source material (and calls the piece Trauermusik).  Like the Leidzen edition, though, it does include parts for saxophones, which had only just been invented and were not in wide usage at the time of Trauersinfonie‘s composition.

An excellent high school band plays the Boyd/Votta Trauermusik.  They do some wonderful musical things, but I would quibble with some of the rubato, given that this piece was written as a processional.  Still, it is an excellent performance all around, certainly the best on YouTube at the moment:

Read more about Trauersinfonie at windbandlit’s blog and the Wind Repertory Project, or check out Michael Votta’s research on the piece (also try here).  Arne Dich put together a woodwind quintet version of the piece, which you can download for free.  As for Wagner himself, here is just a small sampling of what the Internet has to say about him: Wikipedia, Biography.com (video), the Jewish Virtual Library, WagnerOpera.net, ipl2, and PBS Great Performances.

For a taste of the original material from Euryanthe that Wagner used, listen to the overture, especially around 4:40:

Here also is the cavatina “Hier dicht am quell”:

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.

Carter Pann is a celebrated composer in his own right who has written music from solo works to large orchestra and wind ensemble pieces.  He is on the faculty of the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he continues to write distinctly original music.  He is also a practiced arranger.  He assembled the 18 transcriptions that form the Bach Buch in 2010 for a unique ensemble: it is essentially a harmoniemusik ensemble with saxophones instead of horns.  He describes the collection in its score:

The music of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) is a gift.  Nearly every piece that poured out of this man is as inspired and perfected as the next.  His body of work has cut a deep incision in the recorded history of music and set a benchmark to which all the contrapuntal masters who followed have aspired to meet.

The transcriptions found within this volume add to the thousands upon thousands of versions of his music already re-worked for different groups and media.  The music here does not, however, embellish Bach’s own scores (save but for a couple of instances in which it was felt necessary to add an inner voice to serve the expansive range of the ten woodwinds).  The selections are ordered (loosely) to assume a smooth, inclined trajectory of both difficulty and musical breadth.  The first piece is a small and simple minuet, the last is a long interior movement of one of the most beloved and advanced violin concertos in the whole repertoire.

As a keyboard player I grew up learning and falling in love with much of Bach’s music at the piano.  For this very reason, much of this volume consists of the composer’s keyboard works.  One cannot, however, deny many of the most cherished works from Bach’s oeuvre when compiling a set of transcriptions, and many of those “hits” are included here as well.

Departing from the traditional harmoniemusik ensemble, I have replaced the horns here with saxophones.  There are two reasons: 1) the nature of much of this music requires instruments with an ease of agility not executable so readily on the horn; and 2) the opportunity for saxophone players to be included in such an ensemble was very attractive, pedagogically.

I hope you enjoy these gems from such a great genius.

With the full collection clocking in at 48 minutes, the set is ideal for excerpting.  Below, I will present brief descriptions of each piece along with one representative video of the original version.  Since this collection is relatively new, no recordings of it have made their way onto the internet just yet.  Perhaps that will eventually change.  For now, you can view the entire score here.

1. The set opens with Menuet II from keyboard Partita no. 1 (BWV 825).  This was part of a suite for harpsichord written around 1725.  Here it is on the (upright!) harpsichord.  Skip to about the 15 minute marker for Menuet II:

2. The second piece is one of the two-part inventions, the sixth of the set, written between 1717 and 1723.  Originally in E major, Pann transposed it to F major.  Here is Glenn Gould playing it on the piano:

3. Prelude no. 9 from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1 (BWV 854), written in 1722.  Several of the other movements come from either of the two WTC books as well.  Again, Pann transposes this one from E major into E-flat major.

4. The fourth miniature uses the second prelude from WTC, Book 2 (BWV 871), written in 1742.  It is in C minor.  Here it is, with a little history lesson in front:

5. Prelude no. 18 from WTC, Book 1 (BWV 863), transposed from G-sharp minor to G minor:

6. Praeludium from Keyboard Partita no. 1 (BWV 825):

7. Prelude no. 12 in F minor from WTC, Book 2 (BWV 881):

8. Prelude no. 22 in B-flat minor from WTC, Book 1 (BWV 867):

9. Fugue no. 7 in E-flat major from WTC, Book 2 (BWV 876).  The video in no way uses authentic Bach-era instruments, but it does powerfully and clearly demonstrate the line of each voice in the fugue:

10. Fugue no. 21 in B-flat major from WTC, Book 1 (BWV 866).  This video follows Bach’s original manuscript as the fugue unfolds:

11. Variation 18 (Canon at the Sixth) from the Goldberg Variations (BWV 988), written in 1741.  The video has six different performances of the same variation (plus some very worthwhile “bonus tracks” at the end), all with different interpretive decisions:

12. Sarabande from Overture in the French Manner (BWV 831), written in 1735.  There are many different ideas about the tempo for this one, so please do not accept the following video as the one and only solution:

13. Badinerie (which, like Scherzo, translates as “jesting”) from Orchestral Suite no. 2 (BWV 1067), written from 1738-9.  This piece has been a central part of the flute repertoire for centuries.  As the title makes clear, it was originally written for orchestra.  Here is a performance on period instruments:

14. Chorale: “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” from Cantata (BWV 147), written in 1723.  In German, the title is “Jesus, bleibet meine Freude”, which translates less poetically as “Jesus remains my joy.”  The video features a fairly authentic sounding orchestra with a large chorus singing in German:

15. Chorale Prelude: “Nun fruet euch, lieben Christen g’mein” (BWV 734), originally written for organ in 1708:

16. Air (on the G String) from Orchestral Suite no. 3 (BWV 1068), from 1730:

17. Chorale: “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme” from Cantata (BWV 140), also known as “Sleepers Wake”, from 1731.  This is a “gap chorale”, with the actual chorale melody interrupted separated by other material, which dominates the work:

18. Concerto for Two Violins, II. Largo ma non tanto (BWV 1043), written sometime between 1717 and 1723:

If you made it this far, you deserve some Bach bonus links.  Here he is on wikipedia, his own home page, Dave’s J. S. Bach page, and Facebook.  And that just barely scratches the surface!

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.

Carmina Burana is the iconic secular work for chorus and orchestra.  It’s opening and closing moments have been used in countless films and commercials – they make any situation sound epic.  The texts come from a collection of 12th- and 13th-century poems of the same name.  Although they were found in a Benedictine monastery at Beuern, Bavaria (the title translates as “Songs of Beuern”), they deal exclusively with secular subjects, from the unpredictability of fortune to the moral failings of the Catholic Church of the time to a catalog of all the people who drink (hint: everyone).  They were written by the Goliards, a group of vagrant students, clergy, and poets who satirized the church through their writings.  German composer Carl Orff (1895-1982) discovered the poems for himself in 1934 and spent the next two years setting 24 of them to music.  The result was so successful that Orff wrote to his publisher: “Everything I have written to date, and which you have, unfortunately, printed, can be destroyed. With Carmina Burana, my collected works begin.”

Seiji Ozawa conducts the Berlin Philharmonic in a 1989 performance:

So, what business does this piece have being in a wind band blog?  In 1967, John Krance took the choral/orchestral work and, with the composer’s enthusiastic blessing, transcribed a big chunk of it (12 movements) for band, incorporating the vocal parts into the instrumentation.  It works spectacularly well, as proven by this performance of Jerry Junkin conducting the 2011 California All-State band:

The wind ensemble version allows for movements to be selected out for a shorter program.  This year in the Columbia Wind Ensemble (at the request of senior trumpeter and Festival guru Thomas Callander ’13), we are doing the following:

1. O Fortuna (just the famous intro)

2. Fortune plango vulnera:

6. Were diu werlt alle min

10. In trutina
13. Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi

Carl Orff is famous in the world of music education as well, where his Orff Schulwerk method of teaching children music remains hugely influential.  Read more about him at his own very informative and up to date website, Wikipedia, Naxos, and, for something slightly more probing and political, look at this article about music and the Holocaust as it relates to him.

There is no shortage of Internet material about Carmina Burana.  Read on Wikipedia about the texts and the music.  NPR has a piece from 2006 about why it’s still so popular.  This article has links to the texts of all of the poems that Orff used.  Dr. John Magnum wrote extensive program notes on the piece for the Hollywood Bowl.  Similar to the piece listed above, WQXR classical radio did a piece about Carmina Burana‘s connection to Nazi GermanyThis article deals exclusively with the text and its origins.  There are many different ballet versions of the piece.  There is an entire Wikiepdia article just about the opening movement, “O Fortuna”, in popular culture.  One of my favorites:

Finally, if you’ve read this far, you might as well hear my favorite Carmina Burana joke (although you may not like it):

(sung to the tune of Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off):
I say Carmina, you say Carmana,
I say Burina, you say Burana,
Carmina, Carmana, Burina, Burana,
Let’s Carl the whole thing Orff.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.  And I can’t take full credit for this one: I first heard it from my Dartmouth classmate, now an operatic soprano, Laura Choi Stuart.

Kurt Weill (1900-1950) was a German composer whose musical theatre works have come to exemplify the Weimar Republic period in Germany.  He was born in Dessau to Jewish parents.  By World War I, when he was a teenager, he was a professional theatre accompanist.  He studied composition in Berlin, composing standard instrumental fare like tone poems and an orchestral suite.  In the 1920s, he began to make his mark on German music with theatrical pieces that played with American dance rhythms.  In many of these works he collaborated with the writer and political activist Bertolt Brecht.  His fortunes turned sour in the early 1930s, as the new Nazi regime ramped up a propaganda campaign against his popular, politically subversive works.  He fled first to Paris in 1933, then to the United States in 1935.  In America, he continued his successful career as a music theatre composer, collaborating with Ira Gershwin and Langston Hughes, among others.  He was still active on the Broadway scene when he died of a heart attack at age 50.

One of Weill’s most famous pieces was Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera).  He wrote the music in 1928 to words by Bertolt Brecht, based on The Beggar’s Opera by John Gay.  It tells the story of Macheath (Mack the Knife), a murderer in Victorian London.  In the spirit of the Weimar Republic, it also lampooned German society and capitalism.  It was one of the most popular works of the period: within five years, it had been translated into 18 languages and performed more than 10,000 times in Europe.  It had also attracted the attention of the serious music establishment in Germany.  Just four months after its premiere, conductor Otto Klemperer commissioned Weill to create a concert suite from the opera in the tradition of opera suites for winds from Mozart’s day.  Titled Little Threepenny Music (Kleine Dreigroschenmusik), Weill’s suite retains all of the unique character of the opera, with instrumentation that includes saxophones, a rudimentary drum set, and combination of guitar, banjo, and bandoneon among the more traditional wind instruments.  He even added some musical material, presumably because the original opera was written for actors who happened to sing rather than trained singers.  The suite comes in 8 movements:

I. Overture
II. The Moritat of Mack the Knife
III. The Instead-of Song
IV. The Ballad of the Easy Life
V. Polly’s Song
Va. Tango
VI. Cannon Song
VII. Threepenny Finale

The Ball State University Wind Ensemble plays the whole suite, bandoneon and all:

The number “Mack the Knife” took on a life of its own as a jazz standard and pop song with worldwide popularity that persists today.  Louis Armstrong is among the many renowned musicians to have recorded a version of the song:

I have to admit, when I think of Kleine Dreigroschenmusik, I can’t help but think of this:

And this:

both of which were certainly influenced by Weill’s work.

Read up on Kurt Weill on Wikipedia and the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music.  More info on The Threepenny Opera can be found at Wikipedia and its own website, run by the same Kurt Weill Foundation.  There is also a great entry on Little Threepenny Music at the Wind Repertory Project.

Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) was an influential German composer who explored the fringes of tonality through his music and who was teacher to many a great name in composition.  He grew up and began his career in Germany, but a complicated relationship with the Nazi regime in the 1930s sent him elsewhere.  During that period, he was invited to Turkey, where he helped to reorganize the music education system there.  In 1940, he emigrated to the United States, where he taught primarily at Yale University.  He became an American citizen in 1946, but moved to Zurich in 1953, where he remained for the rest of his life.  He developed his own system of tonality that was not diatonic, but which ranks musical intervals from most-consonant to most-dissonant while still relying on a tonal center.  While this approach sounds purely academic, it resulted in playful, accessible music in Hindemith’s hands.  He was very interested in understanding instrumental technique, to the point that he is said to have learned to play every one of his instrumental sonatas (and there are many, including trumpet, clarinet, trombone, harp, tuba, flute, violin, viola, and bass) on the instrument for which he wrote it.

The Symphony in B-flat is a cornerstone of the wind band repertoire.  Hindemith wrote it in 1951 on a commission from “Pershing’s Own” United States Army Band.  Its three movements use classical and baroque approaches to form and thematic development in Hindemith’s unique harmonic idiom.  Below, I’ll include my thumbnail analysis of each movement above separate videos of each, all by the extremely capable North Texas Wind Symphony.

The Symphony’s first movement, marked, “Moderately fast, with vigor” is in sonata allegro form.  Hindemith introduces two themes immediately.  The first is lyrical and rhythmically intense, spanning 10 bars.  The second, a short burst of five 8th notes, is hidden in the bluster of the first beat of the movement, not emerging fully until the two themes merge.  Another pair of themes is introduced at letter D.  Together, they grow into semi-climax before being interrupted by another dotted-rhythm theme, which dominates the development until the second initial theme returns.  The recapitulation of the first two themes is shrouded by changed textures, but the second pair of themes returns with confidence, ending the movement in a solid B-flat major.

The second movement is broadly in three sections.  It begins with a dolorous duet between alto sax and cornet.  There are hints of Hindemith’s Weimar Republic roots in the melody, which sounds like the lamentation of a tired cabaret singer.  A much more lively middle section features tambourine accompaniment, suggesting some angry dance.  The two contrasting feelings are thrown together in the third section.

The “Fugue” is actually two fugues.  The first begins after a short introduction in which we hear the first fugue subject stated by itself.  The second uses a broader, triplet-based subject.  The two come together late in the movement, only to be joined by the first theme from the first movement as the piece heads to its cacophonous closure.

Find out more about Hindemith at Wikipedia, the Hindemith Foundation, Schott Publishing, and DSO Kids.

Read up on the Symphony in B-flat at Wikipedia, the University of Maryland Wind Orchestra, and the Classical Archives.

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.

“Komm, süsser tod” (Come, Sweet Death) is often counted among the chorales.  But it was originally published for solo voice and basso continuo as a set of 69 songs that Bach contributed to a collection in 1736.  Harmonic shortcuts aside, it follows the basic form of many of the chorales, with several short phrases separated by fermatas, and considerable harmonic rigor: each of the 12 chromatic tones gets intelligently used at some point in the 21-measure song.  Having been written with no particular instrumentation indicated, “Komm, süsser tod” has been performed and arranged in many different guises, including symphony orchestra, voice and organ, mixed choir, concert band, and just about every other imaginable combination.  Here are my favorite 2 performances from YouTube:

Leopold Stokowski’s moving orchestra transcription:

Klaus Martens sings while Ton Koopman plays:

Alas, the wind band recordings of this don’t do it justice.  They all take it way too fast, and aren’t as rigorously attentive to intonation as they need to be.  Perhaps this will change some day.

Finally, for those of you who have gotten this far, there are a whole bunch more links to check out!

“Komm, süsser tod” has its own wikipedia page which includes the original German lyrics and an English translation.  Well worth a look – it’s downright cheery!  Also very worth a look is the original publication of “Komm, süsser tod“.  The vocal line is in soprano clef (C is the bottom line of the staff), and the bass line uses figured bass.  But if you can navigate those, you’ll find it to be a great, authentic resource.

J. S. Bach on wikipedia, his own home page, Dave’s J. S. Bach page, and Facebook.  And that just barely scratches the surface!

Let’s not forget about Alfred Reed, the arranger of the wind band version in question.  Read his bio and more at the page for one of his great compositions, The Hounds of Spring.