Three Shanties – Malcolm Arnold

And now for something completely different!  I want to introduce you to one of my favorite small ensembles – the woodwind quintet (or, wind quintet).  This chamber ensemble consists of flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and French horn.  Isn’t the French horn a brass instrument, you ask?  It is.  So why is it in a woodwind quintet?  Well, the joke I heard is that one day the horn player took a wrong turn into a woodwind quartet instead of the brass quintet, liked what he heard, and decided to stay a while. But seriously, some of the earliest quintet music is from Anton Reicha in the early 1800s.  

The woodwind quintet (or wind quintet) has a very unique sound.  Brass and strings have a very homogenous sound within their respective sections.  There are certainly tonal differences between a trumpet and tuba, for instance, but but they both undoubtedly belong to the brass family.  However, on the woodwind side, a flute sounds very different from a clarinet, which sounds very different from an oboe, and so forth.  This provides some intriguing tone colors throughout the group.

So, combine an unusual-sounding group with one of my favorite composers, Sir Malcolm Arnold, and you get a crazy fun piece.  Composed in 1943, it consists of three movements, each one paying homage to a different sea shanty.  First up is  “What Should We Do With a Drunken Sailor?”  This is probably the most familiar tune of the three pieces.  The second movement is “Boney Was a Warrior”, followed by “Johnny Come Down to Hilo” for the third movement.

On to the piece!

Movement I – Allegro con brio (“fast, with spirit”, 0:00-2:21)
I think everyone’s heard this tune sometime in their life (everyone sing along with me! ♪♫♪)

What should we do with a drunken sailor
What should we do with a drunken sailor
What should we do with a drunken sailor
Early in the morning

Then the ditty goes on to explain all the things that can be done to this sailor.  Rather entertaining, and I’m willing to bet there have been many… unique… verses added to this throughout the years.

Malcolm Arnold loves to play around with melodies, taking bits and pieces and manipulating them so they’re not always recognizable.  We get a few instances of hearing the complete theme in this movement, such as in the flute at the beginning, but he interjects a lot of other material as well.  Sometimes you hear just the first few repeated notes of the tune (“what should we do with a”, 0:14), sometimes you hear snippets of “early in the morning” (0:58, bassoon, then clarinet).  Now and then it’s just the rhythm of the theme that links it all together (0:32).

He uses a lot of downward arpeggios in the movement as well, which I consider to be a motif in the piece. Arpeggios are basically chords that are played one note at a time, instead of all at once.  The first one happens at 0:18 in the clarinet.  While we’re here, listen to the horn’s accented notes underneath the clarinet arpeggio.  Does it sound a bit different? More nasal?  He’s using a technique called “stopped” horn.  A French hornist plays with his right hand slightly in the instrument’s bell. When he “stops” the horn, he inserts his hand further into the bell, which manipulates the tone quality of the instrument. You can hear more of this around 0:47.

At 0:24, he introduces a new motif, an up and down motion in the flute, clarinet and bassoon.  It sounds a bit like the waves of the sea (or perhaps the the uneasiness of the drunk sailor’s legs?).  He breaks it up with a rhythmic nod to the melody (0:32) and the arpeggio motif (0:35).  The waves get more agitated at 0:48 in the clarinet and bassoon, accompanied by some intentionally nasty sounding notes from the rest of the group.  Things settle down a bit as the piece transitions into new territory.  During this transition, the horn displays another technique: muting.  Muting uses a conical piece of material, usually made out of wood and cardboard, sometimes metal, that gets inserted into the bell.  The result is a less strident tone than is produced from stopping, but it still has an edge to it.  While you’re listening to the horn, try to identify when it plays a bit of the melody at 1:07 and 1:10.  It should sound like the “-en sail-or” part of the tune.

I love the section at 1:15 – to me it sounds very “sailors roughing it on the seas”, though I don’t know that I can explain exactly why that is.  Then there’s the deliciously brash clarinet line at 1:23 that leads into some great dissonance with the flute and oboe, with the horn “falls” answering to that.  Things do quiet down with a few steps leading into…

a tango?  I’m entertained by the thought of a boozy sailor trying to dance with someone.  Or something.  The bassoon plays the familiar tango bass line, with the flute, clarinet and horn playing smooth, repeated notes (the “what shall we do with a” part of the main tune).  The oboe adds some comments, followed by a lyrical flute line.  The tango doesn’t last for long, though, and we’re back to the quick pace of the initial melody.  I love the clash that happens when the tune reaches “morn-ing”!  We finish up the melody with more arpeggios and a closing statement from the group.

Movement II – Allegretto semplice (“moderately fast, simply”, 2:24-3:59)

Boney was a warrior,Way, hay, yah,
Oh Boney was a warrior,
John Francois

This is the most straightforward movement out of the three.  It begins with a lovely muted horn solo, with only long, sustained tones from some of the other instruments as accompaniment.  Listen for the flute melody right after the horn’s line, she’s playing in the lower register of the flute.  We haven’t really heard that yet in any of the pieces I’ve talked about.  I love the sound of those lower notes on flute.  We don’t always get to hear them, but they can be very effective.

Each instrument gets a chance at the melody in this movement.  While the accompaniment is mostly long notes, every now and then there’s some movement.  The bassoon has a nice descending line into its turn at the tune (2:53), and the flute answers with a descending countermelody of her own (2:58).  At 3:10, Arnold changes the character of the descending line a bit with the clarinet and bassoon playing the notes shorter, not as smooth and long as previous iterations.

After a grand pause at 3:36, the piece ends as it started with the muted horn solo.  What’s interesting is he kind of leaves the horn hanging – the other instruments have dropped out at this point.  It’s the sort of ending that makes the audience wonder, “Is there more?”

Movement III – Allegro vivace (“quite fast”, 4:02-6:47)

Never seen the like since I been born
A great big sailor with his sea boots on
Johnny come down to Hilo, poor old man
Wake her, shake her
Wake that gal with the blue dress on
Johnny come down to Hilo, poor old man

Hold on to your hats!  Arnold really plays around with the tune in this one.  He interrupts it frequently, having one instrument start the line with another jumping in to finish.  The most extreme example (and my favorite) begins with the oboe at 4:26 – the melody hits all the instruments just one to three notes at a time.  Played well, and in time, the listener can still hear the line of the melody, despite the difference in instruments.  Timing is crucial for that one!

He goes on to create a neat cascading effect from the flute down to the bassoon starting at 4:33 with each instrument starting the melody, though the flute is the only one to get through a complete phrase.  The music plays around a bit with short, rhythmic chords before the flute, oboe and clarinet unite in the “Johnny come down to Hilo” phrase.  The bassoon and horn lead us downward into the next section.

The bassoon and horn get into a groovy little accompaniment, but settle into a fast waltz with the clarinet as the flute and oboe arrive in a tipsy duet (the songs are about sailors, after all!)  Listen closely starting at 5:14 – after a descending line by the bassoon and horn, they go into a 5/8 pattern (remember 5/8 from Armenian Dances?) It doesn’t last long, but it’s there.  The clarinet and oboe get in on it with some wonderfully clashing notes before we get a clearer shot of the tune starting with flute and clarinet.  That doesn’t last long, either, before we get into another waltzy section.

We get into such a fun part at 5:44!  The bassoon, horn and clarinet set up a great rhythm, then the flute just takes off in a neat reworking of the melody.  There’s a great smear of sound from everyone else as they join in the festivities, with the horn whooping it up throughout.  After the party, the piece settles back into “normal”, though Arnold continues to play around with the tune and rhythms and gives us another cascade at 6:20.  This is followed by a dissonant “horn call” type of line with the clarinet and oboe.  He finally settles us down with a descending line into a hold, then a pause.  We finish with a fun little ending that’s very characteristic of Malcolm Arnold.

Now that we’re back on dry land, I hope you’ve enjoyed this introduction to both the wind quintet and Malcolm Arnold!  I’ll probably be doing a “Bonus Features” post sometime soon, as I came across some fun videos while researching this post.

Bonus Features – Festive Overture

I had a couple more things to talk about with Festive Overture, but the last post was getting a bit long.  So here’s another “bonus features” post.

First off is our piece as played by a concert band.  Bands frequently play pieces that were originally for orchestra.  An arranger takes the parts and rewrites them for the instruments in the band.  So the violin parts get redistributed to flutes, clarinets and oboes; saxes, bassoons and bass clarinets get the viola and cello parts.  The low brass get more of the string bass parts, etc.

So why do all that?  Because we can 🙂  Why should the orchestras have all the fun?  You could liken it to when rock bands do cover songs.  It’s another way of expressing and hearing the music.  Some arrangements try to be as faithful to the original work as possible.  These arrangements are considered to be “transcriptions”.  The arranger doesn’t add his own voice to the piece outside of some decisions as to what instrument plays which part.  Other times, the arranger manipulates the original – he changes the time signature, modifies the melody, stuff like that.

So here’s a transcription for band by Donald Hunsberger.  The key has been moved down a half step from A to A-flat.  There are practical reasons for changing the key in that different instruments have an easier time with certain keys over others.  So the group you’re writing for can influence which key you use.  Sure, we musicians should be able to play in all keys, but I figure why makes things harder than they need to be?

Do you like one version better than the other?  What differences did you hear in the instruments?  Did you notice when one section of the piece was played by a different instrument than in the orchestral version?

I have one more recording to share.  We’re back to the orchestral version, but listen to how fast they go!  Holy cow!  I came across this one while searching for just the right one to use in my discussion post.  While I admire how well they play, I prefer the slower one.  With tempo, there is often some wiggle room for interpretation.  Composers will sometimes specify a metronome marking (which specifies speed as “beats per minute”).   I tend to see more general terms, such as allegro (fast), maestoso (majestically), etc.

Here’s the warp speed version:

And that wraps up our discussion of Shostakovich’s Festive Overture.  I hope you enjoyed it!

Festive Overture – Dmitri Shostakovich

Now we move to a piece by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), a Russian composer who had a strained relationship with Joseph Stalin’s regime in Soviet Russia.  During that time, artists had to be careful what they produced.  There could be terrible consequences if they didn’t properly reflect the state’s approved aesthetic of “socialist realism”.  Despite the lack of artistic freedom, Shostakovich was a prolific composer, writing symphonies, string quartets, ballet and movie music, and much more.

I didn’t know the back story on Festive Overture before now – I just knew I loved the piece and have had a great time rehearsing and performing it.  I hadn’t known that it was composed just three days before its premiere at a concert commemorating the anniversary of the October Revolution.  Wow!

(In researching this post, I stumbled across an archived story about Shostakovich that NPR did a few years back.  They talk a bit more about the political climate Shostakovich faced.  You might also be interested in articles from the LA Philharmonic and California public TV station KCET.)

So let’s hear some music!

Shostakovich creates a bold beginning with a trumpet fanfare, adding in the French horns to help build the chord.  The low voices follow with a statement of their own.  As the high brass repeat the fanfare, the strings and upper woodwinds join in with some shimmer in the high range.  The tension builds through repetition, with the entire orchestra uniting in rhythm and slowing down just a bit to introduce the main theme of the piece.

And then we fly!  The clarinets play the main theme of the piece – it’s just so gleeful and free.  They’re joined by the flutes and piccolo, with the strings as accompaniment. But listen to the strings here – listen to how rhythmic that accompaniment is.  I feel it adds an extra push of excitement to the rollicking already happening in the melody.  Then the violins decide they want the melody, too, and let the horns take over the accompaniment.  Even though it’s not as syncopated as the string accompaniment earlier, it still has an intensity to it that propels the melody forward.

(For the love of Pete – why on earth do the audience members look as if they’re listening to a funeral march?  Maybe I’m more of a nerd than I thought, because it’s hard for me not to break out into a grin when I hear this piece, especially as that clarinet part begins.)

At 2:15, the trumpets enter with a new theme, accented by flourishes from the upper instruments.  It doesn’t last very long and is followed by a conversation of sorts between the strings and brass (2:24).  The woodwinds join in and keep the conversation flowing and building toward the next section.

This time, it’s the middle and low voices who get the primary melody (2:45).  The rest of the ensemble adds flourishes and accents.  Listen closely here – does the melody sound familiar at all? It’s actually the same as the initial clarinet melody, just slower.  Pretty cool, huh?  He changes it just a bit, but it’s clearly based on the main theme.

After the low instruments have their say, they help to usher in the gorgeous “slow” theme (3:04).  I put slow in quotes because the overall tempo of the piece doesn’t change, and you can hear that the accompaniment is still driving along under the lushness of the cellos.  But this melody is not frenzied and exuberant like the first theme.  (I talk about many different themes in this piece, but I consider the first clarinet melody as the main theme and the “slow” melody as the second most important theme).  The melody continues with the violins joining in, then Shostakovich uses repetition and manipulation of a motif at 3:30 to transition into the next section (a motif is the smallest bit of thematic material; think of the da-da-da-dummmm of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony).

This next bit is interesting in that it doesn’t have a melody that announces itself like all the other themes.  At first it sounds like regular oom-pah-ing to usher in the next part, but if you listen closely, it’s quite melodic.  The ensemble helps show the musicality of this part with its subtle crescendo and descrecendo at 3:44-45-ish.  Another reason this section feels different is because the strings are playing pizzicato, which means the players pluck the strings instead of using a bow drawn across them.

After going through this oom-pah melody twice, the high winds join in with some runs which gain in intensity and provide a good compliment to the heavier accented line in the strings.  Shostakovich brings back the trumpet theme we heard back at 2:15, but uses the strings this time.  All through this he builds tension and anticipation, moving us forward, bringing us finally to the primary clarinet theme, this time with the entire orchestra playing.  We get some relief from the tension he’d built leading up to this.

He’s not done with us yet, however.  At 4:29, he takes the melody in a bit of a different direction, teasing us some more by manipulating the runs in the violins, adding some repetition to them, and using a trill at 4:36 to add even more tension, until…

Glorious resolution!  Everything comes together at this point.  We have the gleeful fast melody over the lush slow melody.  There are some slight changes to each, but the effect is amazing.  He lets us on for a bit before calming down a little.  I’ve always loved the descending line/transition at 4:48 that brings us back into the slow theme.  But he doesn’t keep us there for long, as he’s back to manipulating the melody at 4:58, bringing the tension in again, raising the pitch of the melody to add to that tension.  Another transition statement I love is starts with the back and forth at 5:12, which has an ascending brass line to move it forward, and concludes at 5:15 with the entire group playing the same rhythm.  Using the same rhythm is very effective here.

We have one last burst of energy at 5:17, bringing back earlier themes throughout this section.  We noodle around some more, finally slowing down just a tiny bit to usher in a return to the fanfare we heard way back in the beginning of the piece.  Remember that? It was several minutes ago!  This time the entire ensemble is playing and the strings and winds have added various flourishes.  He’s not quite finished with us yet.  We take one last dive into the swift river of sound, joyously building toward the end.

Did you have fun?  I sure did!  It’s difficult not to feel the “festive” part of this overture.  I actually have a couple more tidbits to share, but given the length of this post I think I’ll cover those in a separate entry.  See you next time!

Happy New Year from Tonal Diversions!

I hope everyone had a safe ending to 2012 and that we’ll all have a great start to 2013!  I’m deciding which piece to discuss next here on the blog.  There are so many great pieces to choose from!

So to keep everyone entertained until then, here are some fun YouTube videos I’ve stumbled across:

Silent Monks Singing Alleluia – so clever!

Some more high school kids with the Super Mario Bros. Theme, performed by a clarinet quartet (3 B-flat clarinets, which are the standard instruments found in bands, and one bass clarinet)

And in honor of our Christmas trip to Walt Disney World (which was lots of fun!), here’s one of my favorite Disney medleys as performed by the Breaking Winds Bassoon Quartet.  I love their creativity and humor!  They’ve even tackled Lady Gaga 🙂 Here’s a good chance to see what a bassoon is and hear how it sounds.

(BTW, Aladdin is playing a contra-bassoon.  It’s awesome. Its range is one octave lower than the bassoon.)

I hope you liked these quick treats.  I’ll be back soon to discuss another great piece of music!

Sleigh Ride – Leroy Anderson

Welcome to my favorite holiday song!

It’s hard not to think immediately of snow, Christmas, or just the holiday season in general when hearing the opening bars of Leroy Anderson’s Sleigh Ride.  Anderson uses musical imagery to great effect in his works, and Sleigh Ride is no exception.  And to think he composed this classic winter song during a heat wave in the summer of 1946!

Anderson’s music falls into the category of “light classical”.  If you’ve heard anything by the Boston Pops (notable conductors include Arthur Fiedler, John Williams and Keith Lockhart), you’ve heard light classical.  The lines can be a bit blurry as to what makes something “light” classical versus “serious”, but I think of it like the movies: the “serious” pieces are the heavy-hitting dramas that get nominations for Best Picture at the Oscars; the “light” pieces are your romantic comedies and such.  Or literary fiction compared to a cozy mystery.  I enjoy a variety of music, so I’ll gladly include some lighter pieces on this blog.

The introduction throws us immediately into this winter wonderland, with the jingling sleigh bells and bouncy trumpet call, followed by flute snowflakes.  I like the French horn tension underneath the trumpets at the beginning.

Then we get on our merry way, with the horse trotting through the snow.  The main melody is just so happy and light!  There’s a smooth, longer line in the mid-range instruments that my bassoonist friend likes to say is the road the sleigh is traveling over.  Listen for the reply in the trombones and bass voices after the first statement of the theme (0:20).

The next section adds some temple blocks for the “horse hoof” effect.  Not quite as funny as a pair of coconuts, but it gets the image across just the same.  There’s a nice little countermelody going on in this section.  It sounds like it’s in the violas, but I’m not positive on that as I’ve only performed the band version (do any of my readers know?)  Then we hit a sforzando-piano chord at 0:42 (it’s suddenly accented then immediately softer) in the horns, which grows louder (crescendos) as the xylophone gives us a transition back into the main theme.

This time, the theme is played by the trumpets as the high woodwinds and strings create snow flurries by playing a short trill on each note.  After this time through the melody, we move into a syncopated transition and the ensemble gets quieter for the next part.

Here we get another toy from the percussion – the “whip”.  You might think, “how hard can that be to play?”.  Well, you need to be absolutely on time with those whip cracks!  After a buildup in volume from the rest of the ensemble, there’s one beat where no one else plays – if the whip doesn’t sound there, it’s rather obvious.  After the successful whip crack, Anderson brings us back down to piano (soft) in order to crescendo again into another whip crack.  With the distraction of the whip and the liveliness of the melody, it’s easy to miss some neat chord changes that are happening during this bit after the second whip crack (1:13).

The next transition harkens back to the beginning of the piece, but adds some echoes and uses shorter segments of that trumpet theme (1:33) before restating the “flute snowflake” theme (1:40).  But for the next statement of the main theme, Anderson makes it 20% cooler by jazzing the whole thing up.  The trumpets do their jazzy thing, followed by the trombones’ more bombastic reply (1:47).  Then everyone gets to jump in: the upper voices get a fun doodle and the basses have a great moving line.

After the excitement of the jazz section, the ensemble settles back down for the rest of the ride.  We hear familiar themes and accompaniments as the pieces winds down.  Anderson doesn’t let us get completely comfortable, though, as he interjects a brief call-and-answer between the instruments (2:30). This begins the lead-up to the most famous part of the piece: the horse whinny, courtesy of a solo trumpet player.  We then hear a quick salute to the clip-clop of the horse hooves and one more whip crack before the entire orchestra announces the end.

I’ll close this post with a fun arrangement of Sleigh Ride.  Remember how we had that odd-metered section in Armenian Dances?  The one in 5/8 time?  Well, here’s Sleigh Ride in 7/8.  The seven beats might not be easily heard right away, but the intro has a 1-2-3-4-5-6-7 rhythm, so you’ll hear three long pulses then one short pulse.  This sequence happens four times (four measures’ worth) before the melody starts.  Whether or not you can hear those seven quick notes per measure, you should feel a bit of a lilt to the rhythm.

Happy and safe holidays, everyone!  I’ll see you in 2013!

Bonus Features – Armenian Dances

As I was researching for my previous post, I came across quite a few videos of different versions of the folk songs used in Armenian Dances.  I had fun listening to so many different arrangements, so I thought I’d share some of them with you.  I hope you enjoy them, too!

The Apricot Tree (Tsirani Tsar)
I must say, I had never heard of a duduk until writing about this piece.  Quite a fascinating instrument!  Here’s a version of Tsirani Tsar for duduk, violin, and piano.

And here is an arrangement for soprano voice and piano

The Partridge’s Song (Kagavik)
Here’s one with violin and piano

This is one for string quartet (performed by the Komitas Quartet).  I really like this one!

This one is a bit of a mindbender – he turns it into a rather jazzy version and really plays with the melody.  It’s fun!

Hoy, My Nazan
Here’s a vocal version of the song.  You might notice this one feels more “balanced” than in the band arrangement.  That’s because it’s in 6/8 time instead of 5/8.  So you feel two strong pulses of three quick beats each (1-2-3-4-5-6 instead of the 1-2-3-4-5 that Reed used.)

Back to the Komitas Quartet for their rendition

I like this one, too – it’s for a choir

Here’s a lovely vocal version of Alagyaz

And here’s a rather haunting duduk solo

Go, Go!
Sadly, I couldn’t find anything for this one.  It’s a shame, as I would have loved to hear some other takes on it.  If anyone happens across something, please let me know!

Armenian Dances, Part I – Alfred Reed

Next we’ll move into concert band music.  Band music is for wind instruments and percussion.  No strings (except for string bass at times).  Most people’s experience of band is probably listening to their kids’ beginning attempts in 5th or 6th grade or perhaps hearing the high school marching band.  But many of us wind players continue to study hard after high school.  There are many excellent players in bands, and our music can be just as challenging and exciting as that for orchestra.

Armenian Dances is certainly one of my all-time favorites in the band genre.  We just performed it in community band so it’s fresh on my mind. I find myself drawn to a lot of music that has a basis in folk songs.  I don’t fully know why that is, but it’s definitely a pattern with music I like.  So expect to see more of these pieces to find their way into this blog.

Alfred Reed composed this piece for Dr. Harry Begian (who was of Armenian descent*) and his University of Illinois Symphonic Band in the early 1970s. It has become a staple of wind band repertoire.  Anyone who stays involved in band for any length of time probably knows Armenian Dances.  I first encountered it in college and have played it three or four times now.

“Part I” (yes, there’s a “Part II” as well) consists of five sections, each based on a different Armenian folk song.  Komitas Vardapet’s (or Gomidas Vartabed, depending on translation [1869 – 1935]) collection of tunes provides the sources for these songs. Let’s take a listening tour through the sections:

The Apricot Tree (Tsirani Tsar) (0:00-2:18)
The piece begins with a powerful statement by the brass, which flows into a broad, lush melody by the upper instruments (flute, trumpet, etc.) and a countermelody in the French horns.  Despite the slower tempo of the melody, listen for some faster flourishes from the other instruments throughout this section (starting at 0:26, more noticeably after 0:45).  The music continues with lighter scoring (fewer instruments playing), but it still has some tension from the flourish-filled countermelody.  The tension continues to build, most notably around 1:22, as those flourishes build up with different instruments.  Adding to that, the band as a whole gets louder, reaching a peak as the first theme of the piece is restated.

As with Copland from my previous post, Reed doesn’t simply repeat the first theme note-for-note.  For example, there’s a nice trombone echo at 1:31 that wasn’t there the first time.  He also adds more instruments into the flourishes.  The oboe solo (2:04) then starts the transition into “The Partridge’s Song”.

The Partridge’s Song (Kagavik) (2:19-4:03)
The music makes a fairly quick transition into this next section.  It is a simple yet sweet melody which passes around nimbly through the instruments over a steady bass and French horn accompaniment.  For the most part, the melody stays within the woodwinds – clarinets, flutes, oboes, saxes.  The cornet gets a brief chance at the melody, giving the tune a bit of a tonal “color change” before returning to the woodwinds.

Starting around 3:21, the music begins to transition.  More instruments join in, the ensemble gets louder, and the music modulates into a new key (“home base”).  The sound is nice and big here, with the trumpets and flutes on the main melody and the clarinets playing a countermelody.  Listen to the bass voices here – they also get to move along instead of playing an oom-pah type of part that’s often associated with the bottom notes.  As someone who plays a low instrument (bass clarinet), I truly appreciate it when composers add some interest to the bass line!

After a big, full sound for a few measures, the music quiets down, fewer instruments play, and “The Partridge’s Song” comes to a gentle, peaceful end.

Hoy, My Nazan (4:04-6:45)
Now for my favorite section!  As I describe in my cheat sheet, most music has a rhythmic track that falls into groups of four (i.e. rock and pop) or three (i.e. waltzes).  But there’s something different here – listen to the percussion’s lead-in to this section.  The beats are quick, but how many do you count?  If you guessed five, you’re correct.  If you’re having trouble hearing it, that’s okay; try listening to the bassoons once they come in at 4:07 (right after the sax entrance). They have a constant rhythm that should help you hear the five beats.  Once you hear that, listen for how those beats get stressed.  It should sound like 1-2-3-4-5 or 1-2-3-4-5 (Reed uses both throughout this section).  But watch out!  A few times he sneaks a measure of 6 in there (it sometimes takes the players by surprise as well!)

The melodic theme of this section begins with an alto sax solo and bassoon bass line.  The oboe and English horn join in shortly after that.  Reed continues to mix and match instruments throughout this bit, building up to the trumpet entrance at 4:47.  The brass introduce a new theme here – it’s short, but it’s a theme nonetheless.  There’s a loud, punctuated statement by the brass, followed by some noodling in the woodwinds.  The call-and-answer gets repeated, then the music dives into tension and chaos before returning to more harmonious waters.  I love that bit of tension.  It’s as if we were getting too comfortable with the odd meter of five; after being shaken for a few measures, five almost feels “normal”.

Reed stays firmly in the 1-2-3-4-5 here.  If you listen to the bass line, you’ll hear the pulse of 1 – – 4 -.  The melody passes through the various instruments some more, with some fun little interjections from other instruments throughout.  For my husband’s sake, I need to give a special shout-out to the French horns for their chance to shine at 5:44!  Then at 6:05, there’s another announcement by the trumpets, different than the one at 4:47, but it again goes into tension and chaos before making a final push into the end of this section.

The section ends with a repeated rhythm that travels down the band, followed by a pause to catch our breath.  This transition is a great example of why musicians should be aware of how they end notes, not just how they begin them.  The overall effect of the transition is diminished if any player holds on to his note when everyone else has cut off.  Reed specifically wrote a break right there; I feel it gives a chance for everyone (players and listeners) to regroup after feeling a little lopsided from trying to dance to five beats per measure.

Alagyaz (6:47-8:33)
Our next section presents another full, beautiful melody, this time in a steady three beats per measure.  It’s a section that makes me want to just close my eyes and let the music wash over me. Listen not only to the melody, but also to the countermelodies and bass lines.  While Reed changes the instrumentation now and then, overall this section stays quite full and lush.

The main melody repeats three times, each time with a different instrument taking the lead.  When the trumpets come in at 7:51, it sounds like they’re going to repeat the melody for a fourth time.  But no – they tease us with a shorter theme, then give us just a little bit more (including an extra beat at the pinnacle of the shorter theme at 8:08-09) before closing this section of the piece.  While the clarinets play their theme starting at 8:25, listen to the scrumptious tension that builds in the descending notes of the bass line.  This gives us an indication that something’s about to happen.

Go, Go! (8:34-11:05)
And we’re off!  This section is just fun.  Fun to play, fun to listen to, just plain fun.  The clarinets start us off with some wild runs, followed by the saxes in a happy little ditty.  The band interjects with some longer, accented notes, but the saxes just go back to “dittying”.  My husband will attest that I just love the brief, running bass line at 8:57.  It’s a nice touch of color when Reed could have kept the basses in their oom-pah pattern.  And it gives a feel of, “Hey, we’re here, too!”  They make a bolder statement at 9:08 after another interjection from the band.

This time when the ditty starts, listen for the euphoniums’ slower melodic line underneath.  The tension builds with that line until it breaks at 9:20.  But then we’re right back down again to build more tension until 9:32, after which the oom-pahs barge in with a wonderfully raucous statement.

We revisit the clarinet doodles, this time sounding in a different key, with a powerful French horn countermelody.  (And let me tell you, that set of clarinet doodles is not easy).  Reed then explores some new thematic material for a bit before a big announcement by the brass.  The full band interjects more accented notes and sets up the final, crazy rush of the piece.  All sorts of stuff is happening here, with some great effects at 10:18 and 10:22.  It’s like there’s a bit of suspension in mid-air, like that moment when a trapeze artist flies between the trapeze and her partner’s grasp.  Everything keeps building up and we feel like we’re coming to the end, until…

… we’re back at the ditty.  Reed revisits this theme one last time, though this time it’s shorter and takes us toward the end.  He repeats a small phrase at 10:47 to get us into that last stretch.  The low voices make a statement, followed by the entire band whooping it up.  The low brass have a descending melodic line, then the woodwinds answer by going back up (helped out by a wicked trill in the French horns).  Everyone comes back together for a powerful ending statement.

And there you have it.  I know this was a long one, but I don’t think I could have done this piece justice in a shorter space.  I’ll try to pick a shorter song for my next post!

* In doing research for this post, I discovered that there’s a region in Armenia named “Lori”.  I had no idea!

Fanfare for the Common Man – Aaron Copland

For all the pieces I discuss here on the blog, I’d recommend listening to the piece in its entirety before moving on to my comments.  I’ve also set up a music theory page to use as a cheat sheet for some of the concepts I discuss.

I’d like to begin with a fanfare.  Not just any fanfare:  Aaron Copland’s inimitable “Fanfare for the Common Man”.  Copland composed this work in 1942 for the Cincinnati Symphony to honor the war effort.  He scored the piece for brass and percussion only, not for a full symphony orchestra that would also include strings (violins, cellos, etc.) and woodwinds (flutes, clarinets, etc.).  Aaron Copland has long been one of my favorite composers. I imagine I will talk about several of his pieces here on the blog!  The Library of Congress has a link to view the manuscript of this piece for anyone who would like to see the written music.

I’ll start by walking through the piece with you, pointing out some landmarks along the way.  At the end I’ve added some additional thoughts as to why I love this piece.

Copland immediately grabs your attention with the percussion: timpani, bass drum, and tam-tam (a type of gong).  Once established, the percussion gets softer with each repetition to make way for the trumpets who play the main melodic theme of the piece.  The theme is firmly in the key of B-flat major and sounds very “open”: movement happens by jumps between notes rather than by going up and down a scale.  (Wait, you lost me! What’s a “key”? Think of it as “home base” – the seven main notes the piece is built around).

Once through the melodic theme, the percussion breaks in to repeat its own theme that we heard at the beginning.  The melodic theme returns, this time as a duet between the trumpets and French horns.  The theme begins the same as before, but then Copland takes a slight detour up into a slightly higher range before coming back to continue the original theme.  Even then he doesn’t repeat exactly what he did the first time – he repeats the series of faster notes before slowing down the last three (D -> F -> B-flat).  The percussion presents its theme again to usher in the low brass (tuba and trombones).

The low brass comes in with additional fanfares.  Once the theme arrives in the higher voices it sounds a lot like the trumpet and horn version we heard earlier.  Oh, did you hear that?  Copland introduces a note we have not yet heard in the piece (2:20).  Something should sound just a bit different here, even if you can’t put your finger on it.  He also introduces new chords at 2:34 (E-flat major) and 3:14 (F major).

(Music theory alert! For further analysis of the notes and chords used in this piece, please see the end of this post. Otherwise, read on.)

To finish the piece, Copland takes us in yet another new direction, introducing more notes that are not native to our home key of B-flat major (E-natural and C-sharp).  He repeats the slower fanfare in this new key, ending the piece not back in B-flat major where we would expect, but on a triumphant D major chord (3:27).  A lot of music begins and ends on the same “home base”, so for Copland to successfully end on a home base in a neighboring baseball field is rather impressive.

Certainly, enjoying Copland’s famous fanfare does not require knowing chords and keys or what they mean.  You don’t need to know that the new note he introduces at 2:19 is an A-flat, but something should sound just a bit different there from what we’d heard earlier.   I do hope that talking about some of the theory involved helps to show part of what makes this fanfare so effective and powerful.  Copland alters rhythms and harmonies to great effect in this piece.  He could have easily repeated the same theme in the same way each time, but I believe the piece is much more compelling thanks to his changes.

For me, this piece is also effective because it doesn’t have ruffles and flourishes, or extra trills and frills.  This piece is powerful in its simplicity, and “simplicity” does not equal “boring”.  It truly feels like an homage to the average person who usually goes through life without a lot of bells and whistles.

There are many different recordings of “Fanfare for the Common Man” on YouTube.  Listen to some of the other versions.  What makes them different from one another?  Is there a version you prefer?

I hope you’ve enjoyed our first foray into music appreciation and that you’ll join me for more!

For those who want to delve more into music theory:
At 2:19 he introduces an A-flat into the chord. A-flat is not native to the B-flat major scale. It is, however, in the E-flat major scale; the line travels down from that high A-flat to land eventually on an E-flat major chord (2:33).  Then it’s back into B-flat major until 3:06, where he brings back the A-flat plus the addition of a D-flat – another “new” note.  Like the A-flat, D-flat is not native to the key of B-flat major.  He also lengthens the three-note fanfare so that the first two “quick” notes are not so quick this time.  Then he gives us new harmonies for the next phrases, landing on an F major chord at 3:16.  While this chord is much more at home within the framework of B-flat major, it is not a chord we have heard in the Fanfare so far.

While using D major at the end of the piece is not expected, it is not completely off base.  Its relationship to our original key of B-flat major is called a “chromatic mediant”.  This relationship occurs when the new key is based on the third or fifth of a chord.  A B-flat major chord contains the notes B-flat (root or tonic), D (third), and F (fifth).  Copland makes use of the D, turning that into the new key, albeit for only the last few measures of the piece!  The use of D major means his introduction of the E-natural and C-sharp makes sense, as those notes are native to the key of — ta da! — D major.

So what’s this blog about?

Welcome to “Tonal Diversions”, a classical music appreciation blog.  Through these articles I hope not only to bring your attention to specific musical works, but also to open the door to exploration within the world of classical music.  While I will use music theory terms when talking about a piece, I will try not to overwhelm (or at least I’ll give a warning!).  For those new to music theory, you may find the following sites helpful: Ricci Adams’  and Virginia Tech Multimedia Music Dictionary.  I’ve also added a music theory cheat sheet page.  It’s a permanent link immediately under my header picture.  I’ll also link to it now and then from within posts.

Music appreciation is not limited to those who have formal training in music.  Even classical music, which I think seems intimidating to many people, can be accessible to anyone.  You may not know the technical terms as to why you like something, but that doesn’t negate the fact that you like it.  For me, I feel knowing the technical terms and music theory enhances the reasons I like the piece, though  I would still like the piece even if I didn’t know exactly why!  I loved music long before I had any training in it beyond my childhood piano lessons (which did eventually lead me to a Bachelor of Music degree). And thanks to cartoons such as Bugs Bunny and Disney’s Fantasia, we probably all know more classical music than we realize.

The pieces I discuss will be, simply put, pieces I like.  There are plenty of books and blogs that cover “must-listen” classical pieces, or historically important ones, or pieces that you “should” like as a Proper Classical Music Enthusiast.  I may cover some of those works, but it’s because I enjoy them.  So I suppose I should post a disclaimer that this will skew heavily toward the Romantic era and later (Beethoven and Brahms onward) and that I have a particular fondness for wind music (concert band pieces, works for clarinet, etc.).  But I’m sure some other pieces will sneak their way into the blog!

For some pieces I might highlight themes, moods, and the like**.  Other times I might delve more into the music theory side of things, talking about keys, chords, and more.  I will include time marks now and then to indicate when to listen for something I’ve pointed out (i.e. listen for the main theme beginning at 0:15).

So sit back, grab your speakers or headphones, and enjoy the ride!

**Theme: A melody or rhythmic phrase upon which the piece is built.
Mood: Does the piece sound happy or sad?  Solemn or frantic?
Key: The series of notes (usually a scale) that form the main tonality of the piece.
Chord: Two or more notes played simultaneously.