In Defense of the Wind Ensemble

When “classical music” or “serious music” is mentioned, one might think of the symphony orchestra, a string quartet, an English choir, or maybe even the opera, however debatable that may be. I’d be willing to bet that very few would think of wind ensemble music, and that is unfortunate. The wind ensemble gets lost, perhaps because when most people think of bands, they think of marching bands. They are not the same thing. The one is entertainment; the other, art—at least when there is a competent conductor to choose good repertoire. Confusion is magnified by the many town bands throughout the country who play Sousa marches out on the grass, while the war veterans say, “Thank God we killed all those Germans back in 1945; otherwise they would have taken over the world, and we’d have to listen to a bunch of stuff written by Hindemith.”

I once asked a high school band mother how good their director was. I was looking for musical things. She responded by praising his excellence at picking the right color guard moves and flags—and probably getting high scores at competitions, for all I remember. This is what serious band directors—the ones who care about music—are up against. I decided that, given some of my frank comments in the past about marching bands, it would probably be a good gesture on my part to help undue some of this ignorance, so I have come up with a list of some of my favorite wind band pieces.

I have to confess that I couldn’t take this little trip down Amnesia Lane with a dry eye. I miss a lot of this repertoire, and I miss playing the trumpet, which was one of my happier youthful follies. I can’t listen to the suites of Gustav Holst without feeling sixteen again, and I’m happy to have rediscovered this pleasure. It’s all thanks to my iPod, which has done much to break my musical listening habits—or ruts, if you prefer. In order to complete this list, I also had to rely on some rather amazing feats that Google could perform. Sometimes I could only remember some aspect of the program of a piece of music, and even that would get me the title of the piece and the name of the composer.

The wind band, as far as I can tell, had its genesis in the State, but I’m willing to overlook this since much progress has been made in its artistic development over the years. In fact, much music written more recently has focused on the evils rather than the glories of the government. Ironically, however, even the military pieces are better played by college and other non-military groups. Musicianship seems to be prohibited by the Department of Defense, with a few exceptions such as the U.S. Marine Band. Why am I politicizing this music? Well, I’m not. This music has always been politicized, and I’m just acknowledging that.

Some of those military pieces were written by England’s finest composers. Holst’s First and Second Military Band Suites are classics. The first suite actually went a long way in the early 20th century to convince other composers that serious music could in fact be written for the concert band. After this, it seems as if the floodgates opened.

Another English composer was called upon in 1937 to write a march for the coronation of King Edward VII. William Walton derived his title “Crown Imperial” from a phrase in William Dunbar’s poem “In Honour of the City of London.” It’s all English imperialist nonsense, of course, but it’s an inspiring form of nonsense that neither Ronald Reagan nor William Jennings Bryan could ever compete with. But I digress. As it turns out, Edward abdicated, and so this march was instead premiered as King George VI (the main character in “The King’s Speech”) was crowned. One waits with bated breath for a graduate student in musicology to outline stuttering in Walton’s compositional technique.

One of the virtues of the English march composers is their sense of melody. These pieces are not all just flag-waving; the trio section often features a theme worthy of an art song. Perhaps this is at least in part due to the influence that Johannes Brahms had on late 19th and early 20th century composers of that nation. Walton’s Crown Imperial arguably has one of the most beautiful trio sections of any of these marches, and its triumphant return at the end of the piece is enough to wet the pants even of the descendants of John Calvin.

I like these aforementioned pieces very much, but enough with Statism. The most special place in my heart is for wind band pieces that reflect what the government is really like rather than what it wants us to think. Yasuhide Ito’s symphonic poem, “Gloriosa” is a good place to start. Written in honor of Christians persecuted in Japan, it begins with a chant, which when I played it was one of my first exposures to Gregorian melody. I went to Catholic Mass every Sunday as a child, but I learned the Church’s music from Jewish musicologists and Southern Baptist band directors.

One of the really likable things about Ito’s composition is how the whole first movement grows out of the chant, even with such a violent story to tell. This reveals the fallacy in the belief that all music based on chant has to sound like a distant mooing sound. I’m curious about the particular melody that Ito uses. It’s most likely mode I, and it appears in none of my own chant books, which make use of a completely different mode II melody. Furthermore, Ito uses the older version (pre-1632) of the text of this hymn—O Gloriosa Domina, instead of O Gloriosa Virginum. I’m curious as to why all this is, and if it has anything to do with the particular story of these persecuted Japanese Christians. Granted, during the persecution in the Edo period, the melodies and texts (“Gloriosa” became “Gururiyoza”) of Christian song were being distorted, but this is actually a different problem. Slight melodic variation in chant is actually to be expected. If any chant scholars can chime in, please do.

The second movement of Ito’s piece, which springs from a flute solo, is also based on chant, with references to Dies Irae that are hard to miss. The percussion in particular add elements of the Far East into the mix. The third movement is based on a folk melody but doesn’t fail to embrace material from earlier in the composition. This work is an example of what good “inculturation” is all about. It is a natural comixture of disparate elements with an artistic impulse. Ito has given us a gift here.

In 1968 the Soviet Union and other members of the Communist Bloc invaded Czechoslovakia to put a halt to the liberalizing reforms taking place in that country that was stuck behind the Iron Curtain. Karel Husa, a native of the country in exile for failing to sufficiently suck up to the government, listened from America as the events were broadcast over the radio, and he was inspired to write “Music for Prague, 1968” to commemorate the oppression. This piece, having originally been written for concert band, has also been transcribed for orchestra. (How often does it happen in that sequence?) As Husa asks his forward to the piece to be included in all concert programs when it is performed, it might be best to let his own words suffice:

Three main ideas bind the composition together. The first and most important is an old Hussite war song from the 15th century, ‘Ye Warriors of God and His Law,’ a symbol of resistance and hope for hundreds of years, whenever fate lay heavy on the Czech nation. It has been utilized by many Czech composers, including Smetana in My Country. The beginning of this religious song is announced very softly in the first movement by timpani and concludes in a strong unison Chorale. The song is never used in its entirety. The second idea is the sound of bells throughout; Prague, named also the City of Hundreds of Towers, has used its magnificently sounding church bells as calls of distress as well as of victory. The last idea is a motif of three chords first appearing very softly under the piccolo solo at the beginning of the piece, in flutes, clarinets, and horns. Later it appears at extremely strong dynamic levels, for example in the middle of the Aria movement. Much symbolism also appears: in addition to the distress calls in the first movement (Fanfares), the unbroken hope of the Hussite song, sound of bells, or the tragedy (Aria), there is also a bird call at the beginning (piccolo solo), symbol of the liberty which the city of Prague has seen only for moments during its thousand years of existence.

Husa’s music makes use of ultramodern techniques, and if the story it tells were about anything else, it likely wouldn’t enjoy the popular acceptance that it has. Much as it reminds us of the evils of certain regimes, it’s also very easy to slide into that “Soviet Union bad, Western Democracy good” pigeonhole.

That is decidedly not the case with Daniel Bukvich’s Symphony No. 1 (“In Memoriam, Dresden 1945”).  I first got to know this piece from a college roommate, whose high school had performed it a few years before. Written as a master’s thesis, Bukvich uses, of all things, a favorite chord of Duke Ellington’s—C, D-flat, E, and G. While there is no revolutionary intent in his program, the music depicts the bombing of Dresden in 1945 by Allied forces which killed tens of thousands of German civilians, a consequence of the commodification of entire nation-states into war machines. My roommate told me that emotions ran in every which direction the night his band performed it.

Not to be lost in any conversation about this piece is Bukvich’s gift for melody. Listen to the French Horns about halfway through. The composer also does an excellent job of harmonizing modern compositional techniques with stuff that a lot of people would, I suppose, call “regular music.” The human voice is used in addition to the instruments, percussion recalls the bombs falling, and there are even aleatoric techniques in this piece that transcend gimmickry. After the devastation, a flute completes the piece, sighing onomatopoeically.

Much band music that is not written about the State is written about God. Two pieces come to my mind, Charles Ives’s band setting for From Greenland’s Icy Mountains. I think that’s the title, anyway; I can’t find it anywhere. Ives wrote some good music when he wasn’t distracted by surface impressions.

The other composition is Fisher Tull’s “Introit,” which is based on the famous hymn tune Rendez a Dieu. A straightforward beginning takes a surprising turn into some rather advanced techniques until the fun, if predictable, conclusion. An Introit has a flexible definition I suppose. It is the opening chant of the Catholic Mass; it could also be understood as a call to worship. So Tull’s inclusion of bells, even a reference to the Westminster chimes, is fitting. I’m a sucker for pieces like this. One of my conductors used to call me “Chorale Boy.” It’s no wonder I ended up where I did.

One more piece about God, this one by Alfred Reed. I only have one recording of this work, Russian Christmas Music. It’s a terrible CD, but I can’t stop listening to it because the music itself is so inspiring. Fueled by folksong and the Russian Orthodox Liturgy, Reed composed this work at the last minute for a concert in Denver, CO in 1944 which aimed at improving American-Russian relations. By concert band standards, it’s a humongous work and is perhaps most demanding in what it asks of the ensemble’s musicianship rather than in what it requires as far as virtuosity goes. This is a hallmark of much substantial music.

The poet Dylan Thomas is possibly most famous for his “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” I wonder how many know that Elliot del Borgo has composed a piece based on this poem. As I recall, it was commissioned by a high school in Pennsylvania in memory of a deceased student. Fleeting references to Ein Feste Burg punctuate an indignantly petulant texture that conjures up an unwillingness to surrender to death. Del Borgo uses too much percussion, perhaps, but it is best to keep them occupied lest they be a distraction with their paper airplanes in rehearsal.

I have discussed God and death (which encompasses the State) entirely too much in this entry. Maybe it’s time for a little fun. Everyone loves the Lord of the Rings, and as it turns out Johan de Mei has written a wind symphony on that theme. This is not his only work for band; he also wrote a “Big Apple” Symphony. Use this piece to cleanse your palette from all that heavy stuff that I subjected you to. Unlike “Flight of the Bumblebee,” this music does not suffer artistic damage from its levity. One can indulge with a clear conscience.

There is so much music in the world, and it’s impossible to get to know it all. That’s a mixed blessing, with alternating feelings of discouragement at the largeness of the task, and then delight at the little surprises that are inevitable. There are all kinds of unharvested corners of the music world for all of us. Discovering them is one of the capital joys of my life. I hope you have found  something edifying in this little exploration of wind ensemble music. And best wishes to all the directors out there who have to deal with the color guard moms.

Arnold Schoenberg: Style and Idea

Arnold Schoenberg was a hated man. This is the consequence of being a pioneer, an original thinker, his big mouth notwithstanding. I’m not trying to crown him with infallibility, but only to give credit where it’s due. Our culture loves the yellow journalism technique of painting with broad strokes of sycophancy or character assassination, depending upon the frenzy of the moment. There is little room for careful discussion.

We live by a kind of cult of personality that obsesses on surface details, and I’m not sure it’s anything new. Human history is a monument to the permanence of stupidity, and that’s largely a fact that has to be accepted. With this backdrop, the prophets and the geniuses can look like dreadful fools. I prefer to see them as heroes. It takes great dedication to turn one’s head into the wind in the hopes that a massive effort will yield the tiniest result, the slightest movement of mankind away from absolute buffoonery. Alas, most of us would rather admire a fireman that climbs a tree to rescue the neighbor’s cat.

Style and Idea is a collection of Schoenberg’s essays on a wide range of musical and other topics. The title is well-chosen: His central thought revolves around the essence of the idea. He shuns superficial appearances in fanatical fashion, to the point of overstating his case at times. This is forgivable. After all, what philosopher hasn’t overstated his case? Schoenberg is concerned with what the composer has to say: What is his thematic material? How does he apply it? How does he develop it? To Schoenberg, style grows naturally out of an idea. It is backwards, in his mind, to sit down and say, “I want to write a piece in the style of early 20th century France, or in the style of Anton Heiller.” This leads to hollow music making. I’m reminded of Prokofiev’s “Classical Symphony” or the churchy ear candy of Dom Lorenzo Perosi.

Schoenberg’s obsession with the musical idea itself is refreshing in the age of music that the author himself describes as having limited psychological appeal; music that “goes right to the feet.” There is nothing wrong with vapid music if it is played in the dance club or the gym; the problem is that too much music is vapid. The head of the Second Viennese School, however, runs a bit off course at places, in my opinion, because of this admirable core belief in the idea. For instance, he writes about the “primitive ears” who prefer to relish tone colors over other musical matter. I guess we know what he thought of the music of Olivier Messiaen! Related to this is his strange idea about instrumentation and orchestration. While he doesn’t argue for anything coming close to a total absence of colorful variety, he calls for a slimmed-down orchestra, one that gets rid of “useless” instruments that have a limited scalar, dynamic, or artistic compass. He asks whether the bassoon, for example, has ever been anything but comical. I’m more inclined to agree with Ernest M. Skinner that the bassoon can assume any character. The Berceuse from Stravinsky’s The Firebird comes to mind as an instance in which it is something other than funny.

All the same, Schoenberg claims that the orchestra’s power comes from its variety of tone color, and he cites the pipe organ as an example to prove this. Baroque organs, which were built on largely homogenous choruses, were not powerful, but Romantic organs, which were conceived with solo voices in mind, can knock the walls down. (Organ aficionados will relish the ironical choice of Schoenberg’s words that “loudness is achieved through mixture.”)  This is completely on Cloud Kookooland, and it’s pretty safe to say that Schoenberg was not acquainted with the research of Skinner, who discusses this subject in his book The Composition of the Organ. It was progress in the ability to develop higher wind pressures in organs, and therefore more largely-scaled pipes, that have allowed more modern instruments to blow off the archbishop’s mitre with a middle C. None of this is to say that I find Schoenberg’s streamlined orchestra to be an attractive idea; he simply chose the wrong example in arguing for what he sees as a moderate approach to this reform.

Schoenberg also has a strange approach when it comes to modality. He sees the efforts of late 19th and early 20th century composers to write in modes to be useless, an adoption of an outdated musical technique. To his credit, though, this might be the only point in the book when he caves in to the temptation to Whiggism. Schoenberg thinks this attitude is based on progress, but it really seems like it’s actually based upon a misapprehension of the modes. Implying that the half-step relationships of a scale are the only ones capable of establishing a tonal center in certain stereotypical ways, he says that all the ancient modes can be reduced to two: major and minor. And yet, he forfeits his argument when, in a later essay, he rightly states that the establishment of a key can be a difficult thing that is often only achieved by restating the tonic until it can be perceived as home base. Can’t the same repetition be used in modal constructions? Is E not the final of Pange lingua? Is it really just a melody in C Major that ends on the third? I don’t think so.

Naturally, Schoenberg spills a great deal of ink on the concept of “atonality,” a term which he disliked. He takes issue with those who claim he was a revolutionary; he saw his music, rather, as an outgrowth of everything that came before it. It might seem preposterous to those obsessed with initial impressions, but it makes perfect sense. Think of Hans von Bulow’s reaction to the first movement of Mahler’s Second Symphony: “If that is music, it makes Tristan sound like Haydn.” The assertion that a new piece of music is aural nonsense has been a favorite game of the stodgy for a least five centuries, and it is useless. Moreover, if by “atonality” we mean music that lacks a key, we are describing a lot of music that existed long before Arnold Schoenberg. Tonality, like metrical music, might well prove to be a passing fad in music history, in the long run. Schoenberg cites some examples of dissonance in history—Mozart’s “Dissonance Quartet” and Beethoven’s Great Fugue. I would add certain measures of Frescobaldi’s Fiori musicali to that list, and one could make some very powerful arguments that in Bach’s music tonality was not always front and center. So much for revolution.

Schoenberg takes the time to discuss formal considerations viz. “atonality.” In older music, sections were often demarcated by modulations; in the absence of key centers, other methods of formal articulation are needed. This seems to him to be the primary problem to be solved with the new style of music, and not any notion that dissonance is against the “laws of nature.” Gravity pulls us downward, Schoenberg reminds us, but airplanes carry us upward. Planes are contrary to nature, yet they use the laws of nature. This is in addition to the fact that even the most remote dissonance is somewhere on the overtone series, which is the “law of nature” of harmony. Moreover, in Schoenberg’s music, dissonance is not a thing in itself, not necessarily a manner of poetic expression, but rather a result of the musical ideas. It’s a far cry from Charles Ives going back to his scores and adding crunchy chords in order to make his music sound “modern.”

Schoenberg’s writing comes from the fire in his belly. He might be a logician, but he is not the cold logician that many cartoon writers claim he is. The proof of this is in his rejection of the many efforts of Hauer and other theorists to codify the musical language of the Second Viennese School. Most music majors have had to make at least one matrix in their careers, writing a tone row and sticking to it slavishly. It feels more like calculus than music. This is not Schoenberg, who was more comparable to Palestrina, who never hesitated to change a note to make a passage work. These men are music-makers, not pipe-layers. This truth is not convenient for those who brandish their historicist clubs in the dungeons of what passes for music criticism these days, and many listeners, hungry for an excuse to dislike Schoenberg’s music, are all too quick to latch on to these careless ideas rather than to listen to the music from the inside out, focusing on the ideas rather than the surface impressions.

It is enough to be an innovator in musical language, but as it turns out Schoenberg was even more, as he invented a new system of musical notation which, as far as I know, has not really been adopted. With three broadly-spaced lines, it’s reminiscent of the early efforts at diastematic notation. Exact pitches are notated by placing noteheads directly adjacent to or away from the lines, with the additional help of slashes that further clarify a note’s position. Using this technique allows the composer to notate a much wider range in an equal vertical space, and in many ways it might be superior to the standard five-line staff. But I can’t see it ever being adopted. As it is, string players don’t like to play in flat keys; how will we ever convince everyone to completely learn a new notation system, even just for modern music? Nonetheless, these efforts show the fertility of Schoenberg’s mind; if he were just a rabble-rouser he wouldn’t have bothered with a project such as this.

There are other things to admire about Schoenberg, too. He was certainly an astute observer. His thinking on vibrato reminds me of Lilli Lehmann and Joseph Joachim, both of whom used vibrato as an ornament and did not indulge in the “goat-like bleating” that Schoenberg rails against. He has interesting thoughts on the relationship of the music to the text as well: While one might (might…) be able to accuse Handel of word-painting at a superficial level, Schoenberg is more concerned with more hidden relationships between the music and the text, aspects that might not be apparent at first blush. I’m reminded of the work of certain chant scholars in this regard, who find definite relationships between the text and the music that are missed by those who go at the problem with the Baroque model in mind. Then there is the question of the downbeat. From Bach, Schoenberg says, he learned disregard for the strong beat of the measure. How many performances have been ruined by a continuous assault on the downbeat? Schoenberg offers a remedy for this tendency: aiming for the “center of gravity” of a phrase. There are debates about whether the melody or the rhythm is primary in music; Messiaen, for instance, says that any melody will always have rhythm and therefore that rhythm is primary, but does this mean we should forget the line? Rhythm is a method of organization or articulation and not in all cases the primary thing. Schoenberg asks us to remember the melodic line, and I don’t see how anyone can argue with that. It’s a pretty reasonable response to an argument that is more or less myopic.

As one would expect, Schoenberg takes some time at the end of the book to comment on several composers. He loved Mahler and thought him a saint; hated Stravinsky and regarded him a panderer; offers well-measured praise for George Gershwin. He sees in Brahms not the pure classicist but the progressive who was a master of the irregular phrase. The book wraps up with some comments on social and political matters. At the end of it all, Schoenberg, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Austria, seems to have been in a very healthy, a-political place. Politics, after all, is for lesser men.

On many of the subjects that Schoenberg takes on, one can quibble, or even boldly object, and I in fact don’t find myself in complete agreement with him. In one thing, however, I hope there will be unanimity: Arnold Schoenberg was a true artist. By this I’m not necessarily referring to the way his work turned out, but rather the spirit in which it was created. He was a man who had the need, the urge to create. There was the desire, as he put it, to let off the “internal pressure” of a gestating work. More than that—fundamentally, even—he wanted to say something, to create a thing of beauty: Not just to pander to stylistic expectations, not to sell records, not to get in tight with a conductor or an orchestra manager with an agenda, but to make music. That is, after all, the vocation of the musical artist. We could do far worse in finding a role model.