Windsation! Programme Notes

A veritable pastiche of music showcasing our stellar wind players.

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Chamber Series 4 :: Windsation!

Wind instruments have been an important part of chamber music since the eighteenth century, when Joseph Haydn codified the genre’s formal parameters. Haydn’s younger contemporary, Mozart, experimented with new combinations of instruments, including the newly invented clarinet. In the next generation of composers, Ludwig van Beethoven was influential in elevating chamber music from a genre enjoyed by amateurs in the home or aristocrats in the salon to music worthy of performance at public concerts.

Today chamber music is written for a wide variety of instrumental combinations. Wilke Renwick’s exuberant Dance is one of the most popular pieces written for the ensemble known as the brass quintet, consisting of two trumpets, horn, a euphonium or trombone and a tuba or bass trombone. A hornist, Renwick held the post of Principal Horn in the Denver Symphony Orchestra and performed with that orchestra for over thirty years.

The history of wind instruments begins in prehistoric times. Flutes were some of the earliest wind instruments, the first primitive ones dating back tens of thousands of years. The Western concert flute developed from earlier wooden transverse flutes and reached its modern form in the nineteenth century with the addition of a sophisticated system of keys invented by Theobald Boehm.

La fille aux cheveux de lin is taken from Claude Debussy’s first book of Préludes, written in 1910. The title refers to a poem by Leconte de Lisle, from a collection of Scottish Songs. A simple yet beautiful example of Debussy’s Impressionist style, the prelude uses the pentatonic scale and modal cadences, evoking a folk-like mood. Although originally scored for solo piano, the piece is often heard arranged for flute and piano or flute and orchestra; the flute was often featured in Debussy’s music, sometimes meant to evoke the exotic sound of panpipes, as in his orchestral poem Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune.

Ernö Dohnányi’s Aria, Op. 48, No. 1 was written in 1958, several years after the composer had relocated from his native Hungary to the United States. The composer became interested in American folk music, incorporating folk influences into a style that remained fairly conservative and Romantic. This Aria in particular features a very lyrical, expressive vocal style.

An arrangement of an earlier piece for solo piano, Eldin Burton’s Sonatina for Flute and Piano won first prize in a competition held by the New York Flute Club in 1948. The first movement features a lively, folk-like melody; the second is also folk-influenced, but in a more contemplative mood. The exciting and virtuosic final movement exhibits all the drama and energy of the exotic Spanish dance it emulates, the fandango.

The trombone is the descendant of the renaissance sackbut and a member of the brass family. Brass instruments, traditionally associated with hunting and war, were eventually welcomed into the concert hall. The first composers to use the trombone in their operas were Gluck and Mozart – the instrument adds impressive power and heft to the appearance of the otherworldly statue of the murdered Commendatore in Don Giovanni. Beethoven was one of the first to use the trombone in a symphony; he includes it in his Fifth, as well as later symphonies.

Songs of Travel is a song cycle originally for baritone and piano, setting poetry by Robert Louis Stevenson; tonight selections from the cycle will be heard arranged for bass trombone and piano by Nick Sullivan. In this cycle, the folk-inspired music of English composer <Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) describes the saga of a world-weary traveller, doomed to wander the earth perpetually. The opening song, “The Vagabond,” depicts the wanderer marching through the countryside, the steady chords of the piano accompaniment echoing his heavy tread.

“Let Beauty Awake” is written in a much gentler mood, the arpeggiated accompaniment evoking the Gallic sound of the harp. In “Whither Must I Wander?” the expansive character of the strophic melody evokes the traveller’s longing for the past. “Bright is the Ring of Words,” offers consolation to the weary vagabond; the words of the artist will endure long after he is gone and his journey is over.

American country musicians Carson Robison and Frank Luther first recorded “Barnacle Bill the Sailor” in 1928; it was originally a bawdy American drinking song. Steven Frank’s Variations on Barnacle Bill the Sailor is a charming, often humorous arrangement of the tune. Referencing many different styles, the piece shows off the bass trombone’s range and flexibility. Frank is an American band director and trombonist as well as a composer and arranger.

Developed from an earlier single reed instrument called the chalumeau, the clarinet did not appear until the eighteenth century and did not become widely used until the middle of that century, when advancements in keys, tuning and range allowed for easier playing. The clarinet’s flexibility and warm tone quickly made it a favourite in chamber as well as orchestral music, including as a member of the clarinet trio, an ensemble consisting of clarinet, cello and piano.

Ludwig van Beethoven’s Trio for Clarinet, Cello and Piano, Op. 11 is a relatively early work in the composer’s output. Opening emphatically with a strong unison statement, the first movement continues with a lively but elegant theme, which clearly shows a more classical sensibility than the more strongly Romantic style of the composer’s later works.

The second movement is gentle and peaceful – words not often associated with the music of Beethoven. The piece finishes with nine variations on a melody which was very popular at the time, from a comic opera called L’amor marinaro ossia il corsaro. Beethoven’s variations are sometimes playful, sometimes lyrical, sometimes imitative, and sometimes solemn.

The saxophone belongs to a relatively young family of instruments, invented by Adolphe Sax in 1840. Meant to combine the power of the brass family with the agility of the woodwind family, saxophones quickly became very popular in military bands, and were important in the development of jazz and popular music. Although saxophones are only occasionally featured in orchestral music of the nineteenth century, their popularity rose in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries as composers incorporated their unique sound into a more expansive and varied orchestra.

Written in 1944, Fernande Decruck’s Sonata in C-sharp for Alto Saxophone and Piano was dedicated to saxophonist Marcel Mule. A French composer, Decruck wrote many pieces for the saxophone. Although her style is usually fairly traditional and Romantic, in this Sonata she explores a more Impressionist musical language, using pentatonic and modal scales as well as parallel chords and even polytonality. However, the first movement is written in a traditional sonata form.

The piano opens with a brooding, gloomy introduction. The saxophone enters with an expressive, melancholy theme, but by the end the mood becomes sunnier. Again following the traditional plan of a sonata, the second movement is slow, featuring a charming modal melody. The Fileuse, or spinning song, has the performers in perpetual motion, the whirling motive always sustained either in the saxophone or the piano. The composer calls the rondo-like finale a Nocturne, beginning with a suitably mysterious theme, and ending with a flourish.

Russian composer Victor Ewald (1860-1935) was a respected professor of civil engineering. Also an amateur cellist, Ewald often associated with the composers in the group known as the Mighty Five, including Rimsky-Korsakov and Mussorgsky. This group’s goal was to develop a uniquely Russian style of music, instead of emulating the Western classical tradition.

Ewald’s best-known works are for brass quintet, such as his Brass Quintet No. 2, Op. 6. The first movement is a charming waltz, contrasted in the second movement by a solemn theme, which is varied and set in many different styles and textures. The finale is playful and virtuosic.

Programme Notes by Camille Rogers