Glorious Brass – Program Notes

G. Gabrieli – Canzoni and O Magnum Mysterium

Venice in the sixteenth century was still a politically and commercially powerful force, and its music reflected its grandeur. San Marco (St. Mark’s), the magnificent basilica, had hosted musicians since medieval times, primarily a choir and organists. One of those organists was Andrea Gabrieli, who educated and possibly raised his nephew Giovanni to be his colleague and successor as both organist and composer of ceremonial music at St. Mark’s beginning in 1585. While neither supervised the program as a whole — that was for the maestro di cappella — they were both highly influential in formulating the sound of Catholic masses in the great city.

The elder Gabrieli helped establish an instrumental body at the church in the 1560s after hearing such groups in Munich to the north. At first the instrumentalists mainly doubled the singers, but owing partly to Andrea’s efforts to write original music for them they played independently on major holy occasions. Starting with a handful of salaried musicians, the collective quickly expanded to include some of the local excellent freelancers. Christmas for example would have approximately sixteen players besides the organ and singers. The most typical arrangement, as evidenced by the Gabrielis’ scores, was to divide the instruments into two groups in imitation of choral practice. The acoustics and layout of St. Mark’s made this an impressive spectacle for Venice’s many visiting international dignitaries.

Again because of the vocal origins of this music, the range for each part is often singable or almost so. Giovanni increased the virtuosity of some of the upper parts intended for cornetti, now-obsolete woodwind instruments of varying registers with a rather unearthly sound somewhere between a high voice and gentle trumpet. The lower parts would be trombones of a hollower tone color than today. 

Giovanni Gabrieli’s early Christmas motet (a sacred piece for voices) extols the mystery of the virgin birth. O magnum mysterium is full of subtle harmonies and concludes with a dance-like alleluja. The other three pieces come from his first major solo publication, the Sacrae symphoniae of 1597. They are all canzoni, the most popular generic title for instrumental music at the time, and may have been tried out first in the smaller Venetian churches or religious fraternities. Each gravitates toward one or more modes, as pitches were grouped in the Renaissance. The number of lines (usually 8-12) is divided in two for each group of players with one piece even specifically designated ‘in echo.’ Such antiphonal music, as we call it, from over four hundred years ago remains a cornerstone of brass ensembles today.

Haufrecht – Symphony for Brass and Timpani

Like Percy Grainger on tonight’s concert, Herbert Haufrecht (1909-1998) was a field collector of folk songs. Haufrecht focused on the Catskills region of New York and West Virginia, his source for multiple published volumes.

Thoroughly trained at the Cleveland Institute and Juilliard School, he frequently wrote incidental music as a staff theater composer but also tried his hand at various chamber configurations and had a set of marches premiered by Leopold Stokowski. The 1956 Symphony for Brass and Timpani is in three movements and invokes its title in the most general possible way, since the piece is far shorter than a symphony for full orchestra and has sacred associations (a Dona Nobis Pacem — “Grant us peace” — starts the work).

Grainger- Lincolnshire Posy

In the first decade of the twentieth century Percy Grainger made forays into the English countryside to collect folk songs from singers who mostly had learned them by ear many years earlier. Many major musicians shared that interest at the time, including his friend Vaughan Williams, and enjoyed the new technology of recording to help them transcribe what they heard. Grainger published seventeen such melodies from Lincolnshire in 1908 and developed an elaborate set of best practices for the acquisition process. He praised the authenticity of the untrained singers for capturing sophisticated nuances that can’t be rendered on a page: “… our folksingers were lords of their own domain — were at once performers and creators. For they bent all songs to suit their personal artistic tastes and personal vocal resources…”

During WWI Grainger served in the American military as an oboe and saxophone player and gained a practical knowledge of bands. So when much later in 1937 the American Band Masters’ Association wanted two works for their annual Grand Concert and Convention in Milwaukee, Grainger turned to his early resources to quickly assemble a suite. The result was Lincolnshire Posy, his masterpiece. Like a set of wildflowers, its components intermingle the beautiful and untamed.

Despite a fast turnaround time his treatments of these tunes (or combinations of them) are highly elaborate while giving an impression of artlessness. Grainger showed his love of Bach in the polyphony while attempting to imbue the performers with the freedom he heard from the original singers. In fact, the people themselves affected Grainger even more than the melodies, since he declared the settings to be portraits of the often elderly and frail but spirited figures he met thirty years earlier. Recalling their circumstances, he lamented “the cruel treatment meted out to folksingers as human beings (most of them died in poor-houses or in other disheartening surroundings) and at the thought of how their high gifts oftenest were allowed to perish unheard, unrecorded, and unhonoured.”The Milwaukeeans didn’t help rectify that situation; after rehearsing the new work on his own in New York, Grainger found that the designated ensemble couldn’t manage two of the harder movements of Lincolnshire Posy, being “keener on their beer than on their music,” he reported. The piece was much better realized by others and is one of the immortal works of band literature, capped with a finale (‘The Lost Lady Found’) that is both an adventure-themed song and dance.

Facebook
Twitter
LinkedIn