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.