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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.

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”:

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now the original orchestral version:

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

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

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

The composer known conventionally as Franz von Suppe (1819-1895) was born to an Italian-Belgian father and a Viennese mother  in Croatia, which was then part of the Kingdom of Dalmatia in the Austro-Hungarian empire.  His full name befits his convoluted nationality: his parents named him Francesco Ezechiele Ermenegildo Cavaliere Suppé Demelli.  His early musical training was in flute and singing.  His parents pushed him to study law, but he continued his musical studies nonetheless.  He eventually moved to Vienna to complete his studies and find work conducting in opera houses.  He went on to compose over 100 works for the stage.

Light Cavalry is a two act operetta written in 1866.  The story revolves around a troop of cavalry men who attempt to unite a young couple through many twists and turns.  The overture has taken on a life of its own, much beyond operetta that spawned it.  It is core repertoire for orchestras and bands everywhere.

Franz von Suppe on wikipedia, naxos.com, and Allmusic.com.

There are all sorts of materials out there on Light Cavalry: a very thin Wikipedia article, program notes from the Amarillo Symphony, more from the Corpus Christi Symphony, a well-written walkthrough of sorts of the piece, and a collection of public domain scores of the piece.

Here’s the overture played by the Indiana University Summer Music Clinic Cream Band conducted by Stephen Pratt:

and now the original orchestral version, conducted by the legendary Herbert von Karajan:

Here’s another great arrangement for horn ensemble:

My first exposure to Light Cavalry came via this amazing Disney cartoon.  Watch all the way to the end for something truly unique.  Warning – you may wince in the meantime!

Giaochino Rossini (1792-1868) was prolific Italian composer best known for his operas, which include William Tell and The Barber of Seville.  He grew up mostly in Bologna in a musical family.  The Rossinis wasted no time starting their son’s musical education: Rossini’s father, a horn player, had his son playing the triangle in his ensembles by the age of 6.  It paid off: Rossini finished his first opera when he was 17.  There followed two decades of continuous composition that would bring Rossini to all of the biggest cities in Italy as well as Paris, and during which time he composed an additional 38 operas, becoming a superstar throughout Europe.  Then, at age 40, he retired from composition almost entirely.  He lived another 36 years writing barely a note.

The Italian Girl in Algiers (L’italiana in Algeri) was Rossini’s fifth opera, written in in 1813 when he was 21 years old.  The mostly comic story revolves around the Bey of Algiers and his desire to add an Italian woman to his harem.  The overture is something of a tribute to Haydn’s Surprise Symphony, with light pizzicato passages interrupted by huge orchestral hits.  It also shows off Rossini’s flair for melodic invention.  It is still frequently performed by orchestras and bands around the world.  The opera itself continues to be performed by major companies everywhere.

An accomplished high school band plays the Lucien Cailliet arrangement:

Georg Solti conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the original version:

Read more about the opera and the overture at Wikipedia, the Metropolitan Opera, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Houston Grand Opera (complete with a slideshow of their productions), a detailed pamphlet from the Pittsburgh Opera, the Seattle Opera, or get a score from IMSLP.   There is a lot of colorful material about Rossini.  He has biographies on PBS and Wikipedia.  The Christian Science Monitor did a great couple of articles on him, covering his sense of humor and his chronic procrastination.  One final fun fact: Rossini had a leap day birthday.  He had a Google Doodle in his honor on February 29, 2012, his 220th (or 55th?) birthday.

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.

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.

The Promise of Living comes from The Tender Land.  It was transcribed for band by Kenneth Singleton, who provides this program note in the score:

Aaron Copland’s only full-length opera (the 90-minute Second Hurricane of 1937 was written for student performance), The Tender Land was begun in 1952 and completed in 1954, with a libretto by Erik Johns (using the pen name Horace Everett).  Although containing some of Copland’s most lyrical and heart-felt music, the opera took time to establish its place in the repertoire.  In 1958 Copland extracted a three-movement orchestral suite, using music from the introduction to Act II and the love duet, the square dance from Act II, and the vocal quintet from the end of Act I.  The composer conducted the first performance of the suite in April, 1959 with Boston Symphony Orchestra, and he later recalled: “the reviews were far better than they had been for the opera.”

The final movement of the suite, The Promise of Living, is based largely on the folk song “Zion’s Walls (the first full appearance is after letter G – in 9/8 time) and epitomizes Copland at his most lyrical and direct.  The entire movement is cast in F major, with no chromatically altered pitches.

Mallory Thompson conducts the Northwestern University Symphonic Wind Ensemble in The Promise of Living.  Alas, the video doesn’t allow embedding, so you’ll have to settle for a link.  Very much worth a click!

promise-living-%E2%80%93-aaron-copland-symphonic-wind-ensemble

Here is the version from the orchestral suite set to a bunch of old movies.  It is, indeed, appropriate nostalgia music:

John Williams arranged The Promise of Living for chorus and orchestra:

Finally, here is a semi-staged presentation of The Promise of Living in its original operatic setting:

Bonus: a choral version of Zion’s Walls, the folk song Copland uses in The Promise of Living.

To see more about The Promise of Living and The Tender Land, check out the LA Phil and US Opera.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saint-Saens bio at the Classical Archives.

Saint-Saens on Wikipedia.

Another Saint-Saens bio on thinkquest.

Some extra program notes on Bacchanale from the Immaculata Symphony

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

The composer known conventionally as Franz von Suppe (1819-1895) was born to an Italian-Belgian father and a Viennese mother  in Croatia, which was then part of the Kingdom of Dalmatia in the Austro-Hungarian empire.  His full name befits his convoluted nationality: his parents named him Francesco Ezechiele Ermenegildo Cavaliere Suppé Demelli.  His early musical training was in flute and singing.  His parents pushed him to study law, but he continued his musical studies nonetheless.  He eventually moved to Vienna to complete his studies and find work conducting in opera houses.  He went on to compose over 100 works for the stage.

The Poet and the Peasant (Dichter und Bauer in the original German) is one of von Suppe’s earlier operettas, written in 1846 when he was 27 years old.  Like most of his work, the operetta itself is rarely performed.  But the overture has become a classic at pops concerts for both bands and orchestras.

Franz von Suppe on wikipedia, naxos.com, and Allmusic.com.

A nice program note on Poet and Peasant.

Here’s the overture played by a very capable concert band:

and now the original orchestral version:

Jaromir Weinberger (1896-1967) was a Czech composer who emigrated to the United States and eventually became a US citizen.  His opera Schwanda the Bagpiper is his most famous contribution to the standard repertoire.  While the opera was wildly popular following its premiere in 1927, today it is all but forgotten, and its concert suite, Polka and Fugue from Schwanda the Bagpiper, is performed much more frequently than the opera itself.

As a side note, this opera has a fantastic German name: Schwanda der Dudelsackpfeifer.

Jaromir Weinberger on wikipedia.

Extensive article on Weinberger at the Orel Foundation, a group dedicated to uncovering neglected works of 20th century composers.

Description and plot synopsis of Schwanda the Bagpiper at boosey.com.

Link to the Naxos CD recording of the opera, as well as a thoughtful article about it and the composer.

Finally, some videos.  First, William D. Revelli and the University of Michigan Symphony Band from 1965:

Then a Cincinnati Pops version under Erich Kunzel.  Be aware that it’s slightly different in form from what we’re playing and is in a different key with one different modulation in the fugue as well.  And of course it’s for orchestra.