Birth of the Brass
THE SOUND OF A brass ensemble summons an image of ceremonial splendor. If you see it set within the stratospherically vaulted sanctuary of an ornate cathedral, then you’re enjoying an image that also suits the beginnings of the brass ensemble, which first gained prominence backing Venetian choirs at the turn of the 17th century.
We’re still a couple of centuries shy of the birth of the modern brass ensemble, but Gabrieli’s tone-painting, in combining instrumental and vocal forces – often multiple sets of them – paved the way. Unfortunately, not many instruments were as versatile as the voice back then. Keyboards, of course, and fretless strings, but of the brass family only the trombone could alter its pitch as readily as a singer. Trumpets and other horns were rudimentary, valveless, capable only of natural harmonics.
Still, those brass-enhanced sonorities inspired the Baroque composers who followed. The invention of new instruments offered more tone colors, which in turn spurred the development of more new instruments. Viols gave way to louder violins; lutes lost favor to guitars. Trumpets and trombones remained the brass favorites.
Although there’s a species of trombone that sports valves, its classic form alters the pitch by the use of a slide. It evolved from the Renaissance slide trumpet, nearing its present form in the 16th century, when it was known as the sackbut.
Trumpets, on the other hand, are all over the map – literally. From conch shells to elaborately carved “serpents,” the history includes dozens of lip-vibrated amplification tubes. The trumpeter achieved different notes solely through lip technique, but not enough notes for a chromatic scale, a problem that was solved early in the 19th century by adding three valves. Each valve effectively adds a little extra tubing, lowering the tone accordingly, so judicious combinations of them give the instrument a full couple of octaves’ worth of chromatic range.
Bach effortlessly accommodated the trumpet’s limitations in his Brandenburg Concerto No. 2; ditto Haydn in his well-known concerto. But when those valves started to appear, composers like Berlioz broadened the orchestral canvas – and can you imagine a Mahler symphony without trumpets and the other horns?
The early 19th century also saw the establishment of the brass band, which for a while enjoyed the status of the world’s most popular type of amateur music group. An increase in leisure time allowed more non-professionals the opportunity to play instruments and, in Britain at least, a tradition of brass band contests kept – and still keeps – those players practicing.
As a chamber ensemble, the brass quintet is a 20th-century phenomenon. Repertory specially written for the grouping of two trumpets, french horn, trombone, and tuba date from the 1930s. One of the most influential groups formed to play that repertory was an ensemble founded by London-based trumpeter Philip Jones put together a group with a quintet at its core. The Philip Jones Brass Ensemble ultimately included ten players and gained world renown through its innovative concerts and recordings.
“I grew up listening to those recordings,” says Michael Allen, tuba player and founder of the Boulder Brass. “They’re part of the reason I do what I’m doing. My one criticism of the PJBE is that there wasn’t enough horn – Jones had four trumpets, one horn, four trombones, and one tuba, with one of the trombonists occasionally playing euphonium. I decided to have a second horn in the Boulder Brass, which opened the door for other literature, like double brass quintets.”
Allen is responsible for all of the arrangements on this disc, and he wrote many of the arrangements on the Dorian CD by the Burning River Brass titled “Of Knights and Castles.” He also has adapted many pieces for brass quintet, “and I often feel like I’m compromising in limiting the parts to five players. Of course, after so many years of that, when I started arranging for Boulder Brass I had no idea what to do with all those other people! Now I can’t even think of writing for a quintet again.”
His motivation in starting his own ensemble also had a certain amount of pragmatism behind it: “I’m a tuba player, so I’m always looking for venues in which to play more notes than I usually do. Founding this group was a way for me to have my own little playground. Also, most of my best friends are brass players, so working together in this group is a great social event.”
Paying tribute to music’s Baroque era still meant sifting through a lot of music, but Allen again took a personal approach in coming up with the program. “I picked tunes I really liked, ones that I was excited about arranging for the group.”
Jean Joseph Mouret (1682-1738): Rondeau (from Suites de symphonies)
Now forever linked to television’s Masterpiece Theatre, this stirring fanfare dates from a suite written in 1729 for a small ensemble in which the composer explored the textural contrasts between horns and strings. “It’s a cool, splashy opener,” says Michael Allen. “We wanted something on the brighter side to start off the album, although I can’t tell you how many times I’ve played this for weddings.” Mouret was a successful composer for the French stage, even causing a scandal at the Paris Opera with “The Triumph of Thalia,” in which the muse of comedy trounced the muse of tragedy, horrifying the serious-minded operagoers. Nevertheless, Mouret was for a while the most popular composer in the French Court. As the nobility changed, so did his fortunes, and he spent his final years nearly destitute. What those Masterpiece Theatre royalties could have done!
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750): Fantasia in C Major, BWV 570
It’s an early Bach work for organ, written before 1707 and possibly intended to be followed by the Fugue in C Major, BWV946. This is from a time when Bach was still under the influence of Buxtehude, and was also exploring and absorbing the styles of Italy, France, and south Germany. “I spend more time than I should poring through organ and piano scores,” says Allen. “This one appealed to me because there are four voices throughout, which meant I could toss it from instrument group to instrument group. So there’s a trombone choir section and a trumpet choir section – and a big ending.”
Bach: Contrapunctus IX, from The Art of the Fugue, BWV 1080
There’s no question of Bach’s contrapuntal mastery. Fugues flowed from his pen like water. So it was only natural that, having explored the form in connection with many other works (preludes and fugues, fantasias and fugues), Bach would devote a lengthy work to the fugue itself. He began work on “The Art of the Fugue” in the mid 1740s, and battled failing eyesight to get the material ready for publication at the end of that decade. Although the work may have been complete when Bach died, it’s speculated that some important components are missing. Contrapunctus IX is a double fugue in which we first hear the second subject; the D Minor theme used throughout “The Art” is used as a cantus firmus.
William Byrd (1543-1623): Earle of Oxford’s March • Wolsey's Wilde • Callino Casturame • The Bells
Although William Byrd’s career spanned the reigns of Elizabeth and James and thus crossed distinct lines of English musical stylings, his own style remained very much in the mold of the early Elizabethans. His music is lean, emotionally spare, not given to filigree. He was passionate about form, and his instincts for musical construction would influence several generations of composers. Says Allen, “His music is always fascinating. Two of the pieces (Callino Casturame, Wolsey’s Wilde) are in theme and variations form, which is a challenge to arrange. I like to play with the colors of the brass ensemble in the variations.” The four pieces are drawn from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, a keyboard music collection assembled in 1619 that also features music by Bull, Farnaby, and others. “‘Earle of Oxford’ is a huge-sounding piece, a big blow. I used no trumpets in ‘Wolsey’s Wilde’ – it’s just two horns, trombone, euphonium, and tuba. For ‘Callino,’ I used four trumpets and four trombones to give the piece a splashier cylindrical-instruments sound, and ‘The Bells’ is a great ending to the set: it builds and builds to a big finish.”
Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643): Toccata
So considerable was Frescobaldi’s reputation as a keyboard virtuoso that 30,000 people are said to have turned out to hear his first performance as newly appointed organist at St. Peter’s in Rome in 1608. His compositional legacy also centers around the keyboard, and Bach is known to have copied selections of Frescobaldi’s Fiori musicali (Musical Flowers), a set of organ masses. All of which probably has little bearing on this Toccata, as it is almost certainly not the work of Frescobaldi. The earliest appearance of the piece seems to be a cello solo written in the early 1900s, and it’s rumored to have been written by a cellist and ascribed to Frescobaldi. Which means it’s not the first popular piece with a doubtful pedigree. Albinoni’s celebrated “Adagio” actually was written by an Albinoni biographer, and violinist Fritz Kreisler shocked the musical world in1935 by casually revealing that a number of the shorter works he played, works ascribed to Boccherini, Couperin, Vivaldi, and others, were really written by Kreisler! So it’s best in the case of the Toccata to take the music on its own charming merits. “I’ve hunted high and low for an original version of this piece, and I’m certainly not the only one who’s been looking,” says Allen. “I gave lots of stuff for the trumpet to do, a lot of finger-wiggling.”
Bach: Air from the Orchestral Suite No. 3, BWV 1068
The popularity of Pachelbel’s Canon (see more info below) had a lot to do with the always-in-your-ear assault from radio and movies that went on for a while. Predictably, such hype gives popularity a shortened lifespan, and the Canon mercifully has receded from our radar. Bach’s “Air on the G String,” on the other hand, won its popularity over the long haul. Bach’s four orchestral suites were each originally titled “Ouverture,” and have in common the French-style overture that begins each suite. Otherwise, they’re collections of disparate dance movements. The Suite No. 3, written in Leipzig around 1730, was scored for strings, three trumpets, two oboes, and timpani. The “Air” was not originally intended to be played on the violin’s G string, which is the lowest of the four, and, in fact, was the most avoided string on the Baroque violin.
Bach: Fugue in G minor, BWV 578
Although subtitled the “little fugue,” this is a big favorite, with a profusion of recordings and arrangements. Every organist in the universe seems to have waxed this one, and it also can be heard played on synthesizer, by a saxophone quartet, by a vocal ensemble – even as a banjo solo!
Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706): Ciaccona in F minor
One of Pachelbel’s job requirements, as organist of the Predigerkirche in Erfurt, was an organ recital on the anniversary of his employment. Even more particularly, he was to produce a “delightful and euphonious harmony” on the instrument. During his dozen years there he became known as a top-flight organist, and he was known to be friendly with Johann Ambrosius Bach, father of J.S. – so it’s pleasant to speculate that Pachelbel also knew the younger Bach. Certainly, as organ teacher of Bach’s brother Johann Christoph, Pachelbel’s influence was felt, and the compositional proficiency of Pachelbel’s works for organ prove his qualifications (the complete organ works are available on a series of Dorian CDs). Pachelbel also wrote for harpsichord, chamber groups, and vocal ensembles. This chaconne is one of a set of six written for organ, and displays his skill with the chaconne form, which typically presents a set of variations in three-quarter time over an unchanging bass line. In this chaconne, Pachelbel has some fun with alterations in the bass, and even digresses to the relative major as he incorporates harmonic changes into the variations.
Bach: Jesu, meiner Seelen Wonne (Jesus, Delight of My Soul), from Cantata 147
Some two hundred of Bach’s sacred cantatas and a couple of dozen secular cantatas survive; dozens more are lost. This piece is drawn from a choral movement in the Cantata No. 147, written for an Advent service. So famous is the melody that it may be a surprise to learn that there are words to this piece, but in its instrumental form it has, like the “Air for the G String,” been subjected to all manner of transcription. “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” is the better-known but imperfect translation of the title. A version of Cantata No. 147 was begun at the end of in 1716, while Bach was working for the Duke of Weimar; he revised it in Leipzig in 1723. “There are so many over-orchestrated versions of this,” says Allen, “that I took this back to its basics. I love the sound of the trombone choir in this.”
Bach: Komm süsser Tod, BWV 478
Bill Bell can be called the grandfather of all current tuba players. He played for the New York Philharmonic and for Toscanini’s NBC Symphony Orchestra, “and every tuba player in the country can trace a lineage, through teachers, to Bill,” Allen says. “This was his favorite piece, so, among other things, it’s a tribute to him.” Outside the context of cantatas, Bach wasn’t much of a songwriter. He was capable of such ditties as “Edifying Thoughts of a Tobacco Smoker,” BWV 515a, for which it’s suspected he also wrote the words, and which appears with a few other songs in the Anna Magdalena Notebook. Bach edited or supplied the basso continuo line for a collection of 69 sacred songs published as the Musicalisches Gesang-Buch in Leipzig in 1736; three of the hymns also sport melodies by Bach, and “Komm süsser Tod, komm sel’ge Ruh’” (“Come, Sweet Death, Come, Blessed Repose”) is one of them.
Bach: Passacaglia & Fugue in C minor, BWV 582
“I think this is Bach’s best organ work,” says Allen. “It’s thirteen minutes of intense craftsmanship, and it keeps everyone busy.” Most of Bach’s keyboard works from his early years were passed along only in copies made by his students, so it’s not known when Bach wrote this; the best speculation puts it sometime before 1710. A passacaglia is a dance form like the chaconne, in which an eight-bar phrase (the “ground”) is repeated in the bass while the upper voices change the melody and rhythm. Unlike the chaconne, a passacaglia is allowed to shift the bass to an upper voice when desired. The first ten variations of this passacaglia find the ground in the bass, with ornamentation in the fifth and ninth variations. Variation 11 shoots the ground into the treble while the bass is silent, and it stays there for the next variation when the bass plays a counter-melody. You can play a challenging game of “find the ground” until Variation 16, when it returns to the bass to stay. The first half of that ground gives the subject for the double fugue that brings this piece to a triumphant finish.
– Bolder Baroque, Dorian Recordings DOR-93204, 23 February 2000