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Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) was a Czech composer who was helped to prominence in Europe by such luminaries as Johannes Brahms and the critic Eduard Hanslick.  These two men were among the panelists who awarded Dvořák the Austrian State Prize for Composition in 1874 (and again in 1876 and 1877).  Dvořák wrote music in a nationalistic character for much of his career, mostly focused on his native Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic).  He is also famous for having traveled to America in the 1890s, where he directed the National Conservatory and wrote his most famous work, Symphony no. 9 “From the New World.”  He now has a detailed biography on Wikipedia, an extensive website dedicated to him in both Czech and English, and an ongoing Society in his name that is dedicated to Czech and Slovak classical music.

The Serenade, op. 44, came about in 1878, emerging in a seemingly spontaneous rush during two weeks that January.  It came immediately before the Slavonic Rhapsodies (op. 45) and the first set of Slavonic Dances (op. 46), and as such it reflects some of their style and the direction Dvořák was to take with his music.  It also came immediately after the tragic loss of his three young children, so it likely represents a new beginning in both his life and career.  Its most unusual feature is its instrumentation: 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons (and optional contrabassoon), 3 French horns, cello, and bass.  This very closely resembles the harmonie band that was popular at the end of the 18th century, and may be a nod specifically to Mozart’s most famous serenade, the Gran Partita in B-flat from the early 1780s (a comparison of both pieces’ third movements strengthens this impression).  It was to be the only time that Dvořák used this instrumentation, and only one of two serenades that he would write (the other being for strings).

The instrumentation matches what would have been used in a serenade in the classical era.  Such pieces were intended to be played outdoors, often by musicians on the move, a function to which wind instruments were particularly well-suited.  However, Dvořák uses a more traditional symphonic structure for this work, which ends up in four movements with the middle two flipped from their usual placement.  The first movement is a stately, Baroque-sounding march.  In somewhat of a twist, the second is a triple-meter dance approximating the Czech dance sousedská (despite the title “Minuetto”), with a Furiant thrown in in place of the usual trio.  The third movement is slow, and sounds strongly like Mozart’s “adagio” from the Gran Partita.  The final movement races to its finish, but not before bringing back the entire A section of the first movement in a uniquely 19th-century move.  The whole thing sounds strongly like Dvořák, reflecting both his knack for accessible writing and fervor for his native Czech music.

As much as it pains me to admit this, the best performances of this piece that are on YouTube all come from unconducted ensembles.  Conductors, I challenge you to learn this piece and create compelling performances of it so that we may retain an indispensable role in this piece in the future!  For now, here is a joint British-Russian group delivering quite a performance:

Read more about the Serenade at the Dvořák archive, on this website from 1999, at the University of Maryland Wind Orchestra blog, on Musicweb International, at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, at Chicago Chamber Musicians, and on Wikipedia.  Also, full sheet music for two different public domain editions of this piece is available on IMSLP.

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.

Born in Russia, Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) was on track to become a lawyer until he began composition studies with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.  He started his career in Paris with three ballets written for choreographer Sergei Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes: The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring, the last of which is legendary for causing a riot at its premiere.   The Rite especially was a model of neo-primitivism, in which Stravinsky used very small cells of notes to create orchestral textures that often featured intense, driving rhythms.  In the 1920s he largely abandoned his primitivist tendencies and began writing consciously Neoclassical music, which at first baffled his contemporaries, although not as much as his turn to serialism in the 1950s.  Still, his music remained popular, and he was consistently seen as a bold and hugely influential composer, perhaps one of the most important of the 20th century.  His reputation endures today, with hundreds if not thousands of performances of his works happening every year.  He died an American citizen, having moved to California in 1939.

It was from this perch in sunny Hollywood that Stravinsky wrote his Ebony Concerto in 1945.  In it, he distilled American jazz through his own compositional lens.  The score (untouched since its first edition in 1946) has this to say about its origin and inspiration:

Ebony Concerto was written by Igor Stravinsky for Woody Herman and his Orchestra.  It was introduced by that orchestra in a memorable concerto at Carnegie Hall, New York, on March 25, 1946, to the acclaim of public and critics alike.

Igor Stravinsky is one of the greatest and most representative figures in modern-day music.  His music has shocked, delighted, amazed, and irritated, but never bored people.  Stravinsky’s revolutionary musical precepts, his constant search for the new, for the true mirror of our changing world, find expression in music that is based on sound musicianship and great genius.  That is why his Firebird SuiteRite of Spring, and Petrouchka, to name only a few of his major works, are modern classics.

That is why Stravinsky was so impressed by the Woody Herman Orchestra and by their recordings of Bijou, Goosey Gander, and Caldonia.  His creativeness, invention, and deep sense of the modern, matched the characteristics of the Herman Orchestra.  A few months after Stravinsky had met Woody Herman, he presented the popular bandleader with Ebony Concerto… a composition that marks an epochal collaboration between the “jazz” and the “modern” schools of thought.

In truth, this origin story is somewhat romanticized.  Another account (see the Chicago Tribune link below) has it that a member of Herman’s band boasted of a meeting with Stravinsky which never actually happened, leading their mutual publisher to arrange the commission for the cash-strapped composer.  Regardless, Stravinsky did possess enough affinity for jazz that he did not hesitate in completing the project.

Listen to the original recording, and notice the delicious clash of styles happening:

Now listen to another recording that Stravinsky conducted, this time with Benny Goodman as the soloist:

The astute listener in possession of a score will have noticed that in both recordings, Stravinsky does not take his own printed tempos.  The interpretations on these recordings have now become standard.

The tunes mentioned in the program notes give great context to what inspired Stravinsky.  Here is Bijou:

And here is Caldonia:

For further reading on the Ebony Concerto, visit the Center for Jazz Arts, the Chicago Tribune, New York City Ballet, and Boosey & Hawkes.  Get a partial look at the score here.

Stravinsky has biographies on Wikipedia, IMDb, and Boosey & Hawkes, as well as a Foundation in his name with an Internet presence.  So much has been written about him in print that the Internet hardly does him justice.  But here are some articles from humanitiesweb and Cal Tech (on his religious works), and some quotes from him, just to whet your appetite.

Born in Russia, Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) was on track to become a lawyer until he began composition studies with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.  He started his career in Paris with three ballets written for choreographer Sergei Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes: The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring, the last of which is legendary for causing a riot at its premiere.   The Rite especially was a model of neo-primitivism, in which Stravinsky used very small cells of notes to create orchestral textures that often featured intense, driving rhythms.  In the 1920s he largely abandoned his primitivist tendencies and began writing consciously Neoclassical music, which at first baffled his contemporaries, although not as much as his turn to serialism in the 1950s.  Still, his music remained popular, and he was consistently seen as a bold and hugely influential composer, perhaps one of the most important of the 20th century.  His reputation endures today, with hundreds if not thousands of performances of his works happening every year.  He died an American citizen, having moved to California in 1939.

Shortly after Claude Debussy died in 1918, Stravinsky began sketching a piece in his honor.  He called it Symphonies of Wind Instruments, yet it was not a typical symphony.  Instead, Stravinsky meant the term in the more ancient sense of a group of instruments sounding together.  He thus constructed the piece in one movement as a disjunct procession of these varied instrumental groupings.  It first appeared publicly as a fragment from the end of the piece in piano reduction in the Parisian publication La Revue musicale, part of an issue dedicated to Debussy’s memory, in 1920.  The complete version was premiered under Serge Koussevitzky that same year, but gave Stravinsky little satisfaction in performance: he said that “Koussevitzky executed the work, in firing-squad fashion.”   It lay unpublished and largely unperformed until Stravinsky fled Europe and moved to Hollywood.  There, he substantially revised the piece between 1945 and 1947.  This revised version, which retains the dedication to Debussy’s memory, is the most often performed today.

The defining feature of Symphonies of Wind Instruments is Stravinsky’s use of the various instruments to create distinct symphonies of sound.  These groups often contrast and rarely overlap.  Tempo is another important factor in the piece.  Stravinsky uses three main tempos (essentially quarter note = 72, 108, and 144), always maintaining the eighth-note pulse within each one when using mixed meters.  These often change abruptly, but they are related by the ratio 2:3:4, and so easily performable exactly as Stravinsky asks.  Both the instrumentation blocks and the tempo sections usually end abruptly and without transition, creating a block form that is typical of Stravinsky’s broader output.  The general form of the piece has flummoxed analysts for nearly a century, with no two scholars able to agree on an exact formal plan.  The changes in orchestration and tempo, though, provide clues.  The piece is in two main sections, divided at rehearsal 42 (the first fermata).  Before that, Stravinsky introduces six different musical blocks and three types of transitions that are shuffled around and stated in various orders, never overlapping save for a broader transitional section at rehearsal 11.  After 42, only two of those blocks and a new transition type get any treatment, with the final chorale-like block occupying most of the second half.  Thus, Symphonies of Wind Instruments makes an overall move from activity and variety to stasis and sameness.  In the process, Stravinsky uses at least 37 different combinations of instruments.

The Netherlands Wind Ensemble plays the 1947 revision of the Symphonies in a very well-conceived video presentation.  Like the piece itself, the video focuses only on certain musicians at any given time:

Symphonies of Wind Instruments has inspired much scholarship, but little agreement.  Analyses have been attempted by Edward Cone, Thomas Tyra, Robert Wason, Jonathan Kramer, Jeremy Matthews, Alexander Rehding, and many others.  Less scholarly accounts of the piece can be found at Wikipedia, Boosey & Hawkes, the Kennedy Center (which did not check all of its facts!), the University of Maryland Wind Orchestra, and the LA Philharmonic.  For a conductor’s perspective, read about David Vickerman’s quest to find the perfect tempos on a recording.  These are just a handful of the dozens of internet articles about the piece, so go explore!

Stravinsky has biographies on Wikipedia, IMDb, and Boosey & Hawkes, as well as a Foundation in his name with an Internet presence.  So much has been written about him in print that the Internet hardly does him justice.  But here are some articles from humanitiesweb and Cal Tech (on his religious works), and some quotes from him, just to whet your appetite.