in: Reviews

December 6, 2008

Celebrating Well: Three Generations of British Composers

by

It has been said that the essential problem of orchestrating for the wind ensemble is the need to remove instrumental color, not to pile it on. It’s the opposite idea of writing for strings, where the uniformity of tone and timbre over the entire range is a great resource by itself, as well as the foundation of the full symphony orchestra. One composer who wrote for the symphony orchestra with consummate mastery, Paul Hindemith, miscalculated when he wrote his Symphony in B-flat Major for Concert Band – there is really too much color within a narrow treble range in which so much counterpoint occurs.  Arnold Schoenberg, in his Variations, op. 43, was more successful with the band.  But neither of these works is performed very often today.

A good wind ensemble, whether of the symphonic type (usually one instrument on a part) or the more conventional wind band (with many parts doubled), is always a pleasure to hear if the repertory is good.  Most colleges and universities that have wind ensembles don’t stick close to the big names like Mozart, Beethoven, Berlioz, or Mendelssohn, because their wind music is generally only a lesser part of their achievement. But there is plenty of good 20th-century and later music for wind ensemble, and it was amply on display at MIT last Saturday night (December 6). The MIT Wind Ensemble – the woodwinds mostly women, the brass and percussion mostly men – are all Techies; some of them may do double majors (I talked to one who is majoring in physics and music), but for nearly all of them, playing their instrument is a serious avocation. One doesn’t expect to find technical skill uniformly on the level of, say, the New England Conservatory, where the instrumental majors are practicing many hours every day; but one heard some really excellent playing and very good ensemble nevertheless in this group, ably directed by Frederick Harris, Jr.

Peter Child, British-born composer who is a professor at MIT, was justifiably confident in the group’s ability to handle his new piece, Triptych, a commission honoring NEC’s retired director Frank Battisti.  This attractive work is a natural for acceptance by other groups. The composer mentioned its three sections roughly equal in length, the first more hard-edged and even threatening with its recurrent loud tritone-based chords and ponderous bass beat (the band tuba, in 18-foot B flat, is a much heavier instrument than the orchestral F tuba, but the ensemble needs it to make up for the absence of low strings). The second section is more playful and with a stronger major-key basis, with good deal of well-highlighted solo writing (including some contrasting snarls in flutter-tongued low trombones – remember no. 1 of Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces, op. 16).  It merges easily into the final section, which features a long treble ostinato of five descending notes (I was reminded of the end of the “Saturn” movement of The Planets by Gustav Holst – more about him in a minute), with some elegant timbral contrasts in harp and glockenspiel, which are left alone at the end.

Other Britons celebrated on this multinational program were Ralph Vaughan Williams, on the semi-centenary of his death, and his friend Holst, both masters of writing for the wind band.  The former was represented by his Sea Songs and the well-known organ prelude on “Rhosymedre.”  Holst’s Hammersmith, composed 1930, is one of the great masterpieces of the band literature, but it is much less often heard than his Suites in E-flat and F.  Hammersmith has some of the melodic flavor of the folksong style of those very popular earlier works, but it is much more austere in harmony and overall sound. One remembers that Hammersmith was written during the darkest years of the Great Depression, whether or not that contributed to the stark severity of the advanced tonal idiom. Hammersmith carries the subtitle “Prelude and Scherzo.” The Prelude begins with a long ostinato bass in tuba octaves, answered by a long contrapuntal line in the horn section; at the very end of the work this bass returns, but the counterpoint is in trumpets and trombones, in single file. In between comes a scherzo that begins like a fugue, somewhat boisterously, followed by a trio section in very spare, expressive dialogue of flute, oboe and clarinet, before the return of the scherzo proper. I remember that it was very likely sheer fate that turned Holst toward the wind ensemble for which he composed so expertly; forced to abandon a career as a pianist because of a neuritis in his hands, he took up a non-digital instrument, the slide trombone, and played it professionally. Knowing works like Hammersmith and the wonderful brass writing in The Planets, we can be grateful.

The program was filled out with a short but effective percussion piece, Gift of the Modupe, by Thomas Brown, based on an African legend; the finale of Charles Gounod’s Petite symphonie pour instruments à vent, a delicious piece for only nine players (double wind quintet minus one flute); two movements from Karel Husa’s Divertimento for brass and percussion; and two other British works.

We count Percy Grainger as British, even though he was born in Australia and died an American citizen, because most of his best music was written while he was resident in England and becoming world-famous as a concert pianist. Many of his best-known pieces started as piano pieces (“dished up” for piano, a note often says in his scores) but were arranged by him for various ensembles – string orchestra, full orchestra, wind band, or ensembles with flexible and ad-libitum instrumentation.  Shepherd’s Hey was featured here; I have heard it as a Morris dance for strings and a few winds – including an accordion (!), but this version for band is a good deal more complex than the piano original. The same is true of Molly on the Shore, a piano piece often heard for strings alone but which Grainger also “dished up” brilliantly for band – maybe, if I throw in this hint, MIT will do it next year. Grainger is a quite wonderful composer, almost a genius even though a major eccentric, and he deserves more of a comeback after so many years obscured by Country Gardens.

The concert concluded with Four Scottish Dances by Malcolm Arnold, a mega-prolific composer best known for his movie scores, although he did once do a concert jointly with Frank Zappa. These dances were lightweight but serious fun, and ended on a bright note in A major – not your usual band key, but who knows?

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, music harmony.

1 Comment

  1. What a wonderful online magazine you have! I wasn’t aware of it but now I’ll be sure to look at it regularly. How wonderful it was to have the incredibly erudite ears of Mark DeVoto even in our audience let alone his gifted writing about the concert. With so many concerts happening in the Boston-area and with true musical criticism such a rarity these days, the Boston Musical Intelligencer —fabulous name by the way — is truly a breath of fresh air for audiences, musicians and anyone who really cares about and loves music. Thank you for helping to fill a much needed void in Boston-area musical life!

    Comment by Fred Harris, Director of Wind & Jazz Ensembles at MIT — December 14, 2008 at 11:53 am

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, this comment forum is now closed.