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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.

Composer Reynaldo Hahn (1875-1947) came to France from Venezuela with his family at age 3.  By age 10, he was a student at the Paris Conservatoire alongside Maurice Ravel.  He published his first song, a setting of a poem by Victor Hugo, when he was 13.  He was a child prodigy on the piano and a fine singer: even at that young age, he would often accompany himself in performances of his own songs.  At 19, he met the not-yet-famous writer Marcel Proust.  The two were briefly lovers, and remained close friends until Proust’s death in 1922.  In his autobiographical novel Jean Santeuil, Proust described Hahn as an “instrument of genius” who “moves our hearts, moistens our eyes, cures us one after the other in a silent and solemn undulation. Never since Schumann has music painted sorrow, tenderness, the calm induced by nature, with such brush strokes of human truth and absolute beauty.” Hahn remained best known for his songs, and he adhered to a conservative style of composition that prized elegant melodies and an aesthetic of beauty.  He was a constant presence in the high-society salons of Paris, and was known for charm and good looks.

Hahn wrote the ballet Le bal de Beatrice d’Este in 1905.  Music for winds was in vogue in Paris at the time thanks to the success of groups like Paul Taffanel’s Société de Musique de Chambre pour Instruments á Vent (Wind Instrument Chamber Music Society) and Georges Barrére’s Societé Moderne d’Instruments á Vent (Modern Wind Instrument Society), both of which were rediscovering the Harmoniemusik of Mozart and Beethoven while also commissioning new works like Gounod’s Petite Symphonie.  Hahn may have been inspired by their success – he was definitely involved in a concert of the Societé Moderne in 1903.  That group premiered Le bal on March 28, 1905 as part of their tenth anniversary concert.

Le bal presents an imagined evening in the court of Beatrice (1475-1497) of the House Este, a treasured princess of the Italian Renaissance.  She became the Duchess of Milan in 1491 when she married Ludovico Sforza.  Both were known as patrons of the arts and humanities: Leonardo Da Vinci completed his Last Supper under their patronage.  They were also known for hosting fine balls.  Hahn’s composition is in seven movements, scored for 2 flutes, oboe, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, percussion, 2 harps, and piano.  It opens with the fanfare, Entrée pour Ludovic le More, or Ludovico’s entrance music.  Three of the inner movements are Renaissance dances (LesquercadeRomanesque, Courante) interspersed with a portrait of Beatrice’s sister Isabella (Iberienne), and a musical impression of a Da Vinci painting (Léda et l’Oiseau).  The Salut Final au Duc de Milan puts a regal bookend on the piece.

The Orchestre de Paris once performed Le bal de Beatrice d’Este in its entirety on YouTube, but that recording has disappeared.  There is a partial recording of the Idaho Falls Youth Symphony doing some of the movements, but it doesn’t really do the piece justice.  If you want an idea of what each movement sounds like, check out the examples of this Hyperion recording: simply click the music notes before each movement title for a short excerpt.

Now some context.  Those dances in the interior movements are intended to be legitimate Renaissance dance styles.  The Lesquercade as a dance appears to have been lost from our collective memory.  The Romanesque is even harder to find specific information on.  That leaves just the Courante.  Alas, Hahn wrote his Courante in duple meter (cut time), but it was a triple meter dance.  So, instead of getting specific, here is a video with a whole range of Renaissance dances.  It starts with an introduction in Dutch, but the dances really get going around the 1:00 mark:

Bonus: Hahn’s first published song, “Si mes vers avaient des ailes” (If my verses had wings)

Le bal de Beatrice d’Este links: nice program note at the University of Maryland Wind Orchestra, information page related to this doctoral dissertation by Jared Chase, who created new critical edition of the piece.

Reynaldo Hahn links: Wikipedia page, Classical Archives page (click the about/bio tab), Naxos info page, Reynaldo Hahn Society page (in French).

Conductor Leonard Slatkin described Ron Nelson (b. 1929) thusly:  “Nelson is the quintessential American composer.  He has the ability to move between conservative and newer styles with ease.  The fact that he’s a little hard to categorize is what makes him interesting.”  This quality has helped Nelson gain wide recognition as a composer.  Nowhere are his works embraced more than in the band world, where he won the “triple crown” of composition prizes in 1993 for his Passacaglia (Homage on B-A-C-H).  An Illinois native, Nelson received his composition training at the Eastman School of Music and went on to a distinguished career on the faculty of Brown University.

About Lauds (Praise High Day), Nelson writes:

Lauds (Praise High Day) is an exuberant, colorful work intended to express feelings of praise and glorification. Lauds is one of the seven canonical hours that were selected by St. Benedict as the times the monks would observe the daily offices. Three (terce, sext, and none) were the times of the changing of the Roman guards and four (matins, lauds, vespers, and compline) were tied to nature. Lauds, subtitled Praise High Day, honors the sunrise; it is filled with the glory and excitement of a new day.

Lauds received its world premier by the United States Air Force Band under the direction of Lt. Col. Alan L. Bonner at the College Band Directors National Association/National Band Association Conference in Charlotte, North Carolina on January 24, 1992.

Nelson is known for writing challenging parts for clarinet (and every other instrument), and Lauds is no exception.  Clarinetists, check out this forum about tremolo fingerings in the piece.

Lauds program notes at

Ron Nelson’s website.

Ron Nelson on Wikipedia.

The Dallas Wind Symphony knocks it out of the park, as usual:

The thoroughly original, largely self-taught composer Warren Benson (1924-2005) began his musical life as a percussionist.  He was playing professionally by age 14, and became the timpanist with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra by age 22.  With his performance career well underway, he studied music theory at the University of Michigan (BM 1949, MM 1950).  Upon graduating, he received two successive Fulbright grants (two more would come later) to teach in Salonika, Greece, where he set up a co-ed choir at Anatolia College (the first of its kind the country) and developed a bi-lingual music curriculum.  Upon his return to the US, in 1953, he accepted a post as composer-in-residence and professor of music at Ithaca College, where he stayed for 14 years.  He spent the remainder of his career (1967-1993) as a professor of composition at the Eastman School of Music, where he received numerous awards for his music and his teaching.  He had a pioneer spirit in many respects: not only did he start the first co-ed college choir in Greece, he also started the first touring percussion ensemble in the US the moment he started at Ithaca.  He later was one of the founding members of the World Association of Symphonic Band and Ensembles (WASBE), an international advocacy group for wind bands.  He is particularly remembered for his song cycles and his distinctly original contributions to the wind band literature, including The Leaves Are Falling (1964), The Solitary Dancer (1966), The Passing Bell (1974) and Symphony II-Lost Songs (1983).

The Solitary Dancer is six-and-a-half minutes of simmering energy, unlike anything else in the repertoire.  It was commissioned by the Clarence, NY Senior High School Band, directed by Norbert J. Buskey, and contains a dedication to Bill Hug.  The score, in a passage both descriptive and promotional, reads:

The Solitary Dancer deals with quiet, poised energy that one may observe in a dancer in repose, alone with her inner music.  The work is a study in the economy of resources and sensitivity for wind and percussion colors, and subtle development and recession of instrumental and musical frenzy.  It is not surprising to find another perfect jewel for wind from Warren Benson, and this short, succinct work has a quality of understatement that makes it stand apart.

It’s also worth quoting what Carl Fisher, the piece’s publisher, has to say about it (rather than sending you to their poorly-formatted website):

Rarely rising above mezzo piano, even when most of the band is playing, the music of The Solitary Dancer has a unique ability to suggest stillness within purposeful energy. The simple melodic and rhythmic motives from which Benson constructed this amazing and original piece are assembled and re-assembled in a continual tapestry of quiet magic that testifies to the composer’s instrumental mastery. The large percussion functions as a “continuo”, keeping the pace constant (“with quiet excitement throughout”) and adding wonderful touches of light and idiosyncratic color.

When asked to give advice to ambitious young composers, Benson answered:

I tell them to take a look at the repertoire and see what’s not there that is present in life. That thought is one of the reasons why I wrote The Solitary Dancer. There just wasn’t any work that was fast and exciting and quiet. Like when a group of people get together and whisper, there is a lot of intensity and excitement, but it never gets loud. It never goes anywhere in that sense. It may bubble and cook but it never really blows the lid off. There are a lot of situations in life like that—just quiet moments.

That last quote comes from the book Program Notes for Band by Norman Smith.  But I was lucky enough to find on the University of Maryland Wind Orchestra’s Blog.  You can read up further on Benson and his music at Wikipedia and his extensive, up-to-date website.

The Peabody Wind Ensemble plays:

Chinese composer Chen Qian wrote Come, Drink One More Cup in 2007 on a commission from Thomas Verrier and the Vanderbilt Wind Symphony.  It is essentially a fantasy for wind band based on a Chinese folk song.  I first ran across it at the Hartt School of Music Conducting Workshop this summer, where I worked with Michael Haithcock, who had conducted the piece with the University of Michigan Symphony Band on their China tour.  The score comes with the following program note (I’ve added some links here and there):

Inspired by the famous poem by the well-known Tang poet and musician, Wang-Wei, this song has many different versions.  The main theme is from “Parting at the Yang-guan Gate” by Zhang-He of the Qin Dynasty (1867).  Wang-Wei wrote the poem when he said goodbye to his friend to serve in the army at Weicheng, a small town in Yangguan neighboring the border.  The poem expresses sadness, loneliness, and deep sorrow because the may never see each other again.

The morning rain at Weicheng dampens the light dust,
All the houses and willows look fresh after the rain.
Come, drink one more cup of wine before you leave
After you go west to Yangguan, there will be no more friends.

The poem is traditionally sung with music accompaniment played on the guqin (pronounced ku-shin).  The guqin is a plucked seven-string instrument that has been played since ancient times.  Understanding and appreciating the sound of the guqin and the style of guqin music is vital to the correct performance of this piece.

The Vanderbilt Wind Symphony plays Come Drink One More Cup, with all of the composer’s performance notes in mind:

In the interest of both appreciating the guqin and hearing the folk song in its original setting, here’s a video you’ll enjoy:

This site contains extensive analysis of this tune and others, and is especially interesting for its different translation of the Wang-Wei poem.

Chen Qian is mentioned all over the Internet: he has a relationship with the music department at Vanderbilt University, whose wind symphony commissioned this piece; there is a CD of his band music from 2004 (before Come, Drink… was written); but has no website of his own.  In fact a Google search for “Chen Qian Composer” lists this page as the first result!  The composer’s biography reads thusly (from the Kjos website):

Born in Guiyang, China, began violin lessons with his father at the age of three and started playing piano at the age of four. At seventeen, he worked as a pianist for the City Song and Dance Ensemble of Guiyang. In 1981, he was recruited by the composition department of Sichuan Conservatory of Music and became a student of Professor Huwei Huang. Currently, he is resident composer for the Military Band of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. His range of works cover symphonic music, chamber music, music for television and film. He is recognized for the advancement of wind instrument composition, developing new techniques to make wind instruments more expressive. Among his works are Symphonies No. 1, No. 2, No.3, and No. 4 for the wind band; “Fissure” Double Concerto for trumpet and symphony band; “Crazy man” Concerto for Flute and Wood band; “Exploits,” a symphonic overture for the wind band; and a large number of other pieces for the jazz Big Band. His works have been performed in the United States, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Japan, Korea and Hong Kong. In 1997, he was honored with a concert of all wind music at the Beijing Concert Hall, which was the first of its kind in China, He believes that New Concepts and new techniques will lead to the creating of a style that will bring together modern music and the ancient civilization.

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

Colonial Song began life as a piano solo.  Grainger wrote it in 1911 as a gift to his mother, Rose.  It represents a comparatively rare instance of Grainger relying on an original melody rather than extant folk sources.  Grainger created versions of the piece for different ensembles, as small as piano trio and as large as symphony orchestra.  The military band version appeared as a result of Grainger’s time in the US Army bands.  See more about Colonial Song on wikipedia.

But why write about these 2 pieces together?  Grainger neatly sums up the connection between Colonial Song and 1914’s Gumsuckers March, as well as the significance of his original melody, in this tidy program note:

A “Gum-Sucker” is an Australian nick-name for Australians born in Victoria, the home state of the composer. The eucalyptus trees that abound in Victoria are called “gums”, and the young shoots at the bottom of the trunk are called “suckers”; so “gum-sucker” came to mean a young native son of Victoria, just as Ohioans are nick-named “Buck-eyes”. In the march, Grainger used his own “Australian Up-Country-Song” melody, written by him to typify Australia, which melody he also employed in his Colonial Song for two voices and orchestra, or military band.

This note comes from the Wind Repertory Project, and is attributed to Grainger himself.

Here’s Colonial Song in a rendition by the Royal Australian Navy band:

Now the US Coast Guard band plays Gumsuckers.  The Colonial Song theme should pop right out at you!

Born on April 23, 1891 in Sontsovka, Ukraine of the former Russian Empire, Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev is considered one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century. He was also an accomplished pianist and conductor. He attended the St. Petersburg Conservatory from 1904 to 1914, winning the Anton Rubinstein prize for best student pianist when he graduated. Like other great composers he mastered a wide range of musical genres, including symphonies, concerti, film music, operas, ballets, and program pieces [ed: like his most famous work, Peter and the Wolf]. At the time, his works were considered both ultra-modern and innovative. He traveled widely, spending many years in Paris and Ettal in the Bavarian Alps, and toured the United States five times. He gained wide notoriety and his music was both reviled and triumphed by the musical press of the time. He returned to his homeland permanently in 1936. He died on March 5, 1953 in Moscow.

(short biography courtesy

The website listed above is a essentially a fan site that has collected everything there is to know about Prokofiev and has even gotten surviving family involved in its growth and maintainance.  Look around for anything you’d like to know about him.

Much information is also available at The Serge Prokofiev Foundation.

The Summer Day Suite comes out of Music for Children, a set of piano pieces that Prokofiev composed in 1935.  As the original title implies, these were written for younger players.  Yet they retain all the character and sophistication that are the hallmarks of his music.  Movements from the set were transcribed into separate suites for orchestra and woodwind quintet, both titled Summer Day.  The band version was created by Goldman Band arranger Erik Leidzen from a selection of those movements in 1948.

And now the videos, which may in fact be the most precious things you will ever see that don’t have to do with kittens.  Since the Summer Day Suite comes from a piano set for children, there are videos of children playing these tunes all over YouTube.  These three have made my cut of having made very few mistakes in their performances.  Enjoy!

I. Waltz

II. Regrets (begins about 1 minute in)

III. March