Slava! by Leonard Bernstein

With the appearance of “Slava!” on our music stands this semester in community band, I decided now was as good a time as any to chat about this fun piece by Leonard Bernstein. For those of you who have followed the blog since the beginning, you might remember my post from a couple of years ago on Bernstein’s “Overture to Candide.” I’m way past due for talking about another Bernstein piece!

Mstislav "Slava" Rostropovich playing cello.

Mstislav “Slava” Rostropovich playing cello. Photo by music2020; used under CC BY 2.0 license.

Shostakovich composed “Slava! A Political Overture” to honor Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007) in his first season as conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra. He was a prominent cellist in addition to a conductor, and he worked with many composers to bring new cello works to the repertoire. This piece for orchestra is titled after Rostropovich’s nickname, “Slava.”

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I’ve played this piece a few times and have listened to it too many times to count. But it’s always been the band version (transcribed by Clare Grundman). I knew it was originally composed for orchestra in honor of Rostropovich, but didn’t think about it too much beyond that. I learned some things while researching this post! For one, the concert band version has a different subtitle: “a concert overture.” It turns out that it’s more than just a simple subtitle change. The original version (which is what I’ll dissect later) has a section in the middle that’s cut for the band version. This section is a vamp that accompanies a pre-recorded tape of parodied political speeches. I had no idea this part existed until now. If you’d like to read some more of the background of the piece, head over to the Kennedy Center’s website.


Bernstein sure knows how to start with a bang! We start with a rush down through the orchestra that ushers in an accompaniment. The basses aren’t content with their usual “oom” to someone else’s “pah,” so they add in a run of notes every few beats. The lead trombone starts the melody at 0:08, a jaunty tune that slides around a bit. Another brass voice takes over at 0:15, followed by a muted trumpet. The accompaniment punctuates each shift. More voices join the fun at 0:20, continuing the theme through its first half. (Note: Composers are great recyclers. To hear a previous incarnation of this theme, head over to this video around the 4:15 mark to hear “Grand Old Party” from the Broadway flop “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue”). Composers are great recyclers. Click To Tweet

At 0:26, most of the group is in on the action to begin the second half of the theme. It starts out very similar to the first iteration, with different voicing and some other little differences (I love how at 0:31 it sounds like the trombone is laughing). The tune gets passed around some more and we build toward the end of the theme. There’s a great horn line starting at 0:41 that echoes the melody. The final lick (0:44) makes you think it will end on a nice chord, but instead it immediately rushes headlong into a recap of the intro.

However, Bernstein being Bernstein, he doesn’t continue into a repeat of Theme A. He takes through a busy, helter-skelter type of transition to lead us into the next theme.


(“Pooks” was the name of Rostropovich’s beloved dog. This particular outburst is omitted from the band version)

Now we settle into an active, yet constrained, accompaniment (1:05) compared to what was happening during Theme A. We’ve moved into 7/8 time. There are seven eighth notes per measure, but at this speed, we hear it as a lopsided three beats (1-2-3-4-5-6-7). Once the soprano sax solo* begins Theme B (1:11), it’s easier to hear those three larger beats. There’s an undulating accompaniment pattern underneath the soloist. (*Thanks to a keen-eared reader that also heard another instrument playing the theme with the sax. I thought I heard something, but couldn’t quite tell. Based on the instrumentation, I’m wondering if it’s electric guitar. Have any of my reader played this in orchestra to know for sure?)

(Once again, Bernstein pillages material from “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” though I think it’s rather evident that this music was worthy of receiving new life. This time the source song was called “Rehearse.” Check out this video around 8 minutes in for the full song, although it’s also part of the overture)

At 1:36, we modulate abruptly and get the accompaniment in a new key. The melody is now in the upper voices; but as usual, the horns steal the show with their echo starting at 1:40. We continue through the entire theme (because, why wouldn’t we? It’s an awesome theme!). The two lines converge at the end, then the trumpets barge in at 2:03 with a call back to the intro. There’s some back and forth between various instruments, ended by a snare drum hit that comes across as a parental, “Enough!” (2:08). There’s one final burst from the other instruments to finish their thought.We continue through the entire theme (because, why wouldn’t we? It’s an awesome theme!). Click To Tweet

Immediately we jump back to the intro, but with different and reduced instrumentation that leads us to the vampy, political section (2:10). We hear various snippets of fake political speeches, which are appropriately capped off with a blow from a siren whistle (the instrumentation lists I’ve found show slide whistle, but this recording sure sounds to me like a siren whistle is being used).

The full orchestra comes in joyously with Theme B (2:46), including the horns’ echo, though this time there’s more of a balance between the primary line and the echo. At 3:09, we shift immediately into Theme A, with a vastly different group of instruments than what we heard at the beginning of the piece. More folks join in at 3:20, filling out the sound, and pretty much everyone is in by the time we get to the last bit of the first half of the theme (3:26) and the start of the second half.

Bernstein dials it back a little so that we get the same type of interplay between voices at 3:32 as we did the first time through all of this. But the rest of the group isn’t content to remain on the sidelines, and they join the party again at 3:39. They get to the last phrase of the theme, repeat it, but then give us a third time that’s altered just a bit rhythmically. There’s the briefest moment of silence before everyone brilliantly and enthusiastically gives us a final taste of Theme B (3:51). The tune is altered ever so slightly, but to me it’s just enough to give this last bit some extra oomph and sound rather triumphant. We get one last quick change back to a itty bitty part of the intro (3:57), then a sudden, quiet, sustained chord for a few beats until the musicians shout out, “Slava!”, and then the final, quick notes of the piece.

Thanks for joining me for Bernstein’s rousing overture. See you next time!

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Early One Morning by Percy Grainger

Well, I didn’t intend to miss all of July (and most of August…). Sorry about that. Between band and travel, July simply flew by in a flash and August has been time to regroup. But here I am, finally, with a new post!

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I’ve talked about Percy Grainger before, and I think I’ve waited a respectable time before talking about another piece of his. “Early One Morning” is a beautiful little folk song setting. If you’ve ever heard the traditional tune, it’s a fairly cheery-sounding song. Of course, if you know the lyrics, they describe a sorrowful lass mourning the loss of her beau (which is a rather standard subject in old English folk songs).

Dandelions. CC0 Public Domain license.

Dandelions. CC0 Public Domain license.

Early one morning,
Just as the sun was rising,
I heard a young maiden,
In the valley below.

Oh, don’t deceive me,
Oh, never leave me,
How could you use
A poor maiden so?

Remember the vows,
That you made to your Mary,
Remember the bow’r,
Where you vowed to be true,


Oh gay is the garland,
And fresh are the roses,
I’ve culled from the garden,
To place upon thy brow.


Thus sang the poor maiden,
Her sorrows bewailing,
Thus sang the poor maid,
In the valley below.

We begin with a somewhat ominous-sounding chord from the clarinets, bassoons, and a tuba; Grainger lets us know right away that we’re not going to hear the same lilting ditty we’re used to with this tune, at least not right away. The euphonium presents the first, soulful statement of the melody in a deliciously minor key. Given that, overall, the lyrics to this song really aren’t all that cheery, it makes sense that Grainger wouldn’t sound too happy here. The accompaniment has some movement, but it’s more of a low, subtle moaning than any sort of typical accompaniment beat.

The euphonium sings the chorus starting at 0:23 (Oh, don’t deceive me), followed by the bassoon providing the second line at 0:27 (Oh, never leave me). The euphonium takes over to finish the chorus. Listen the accompaniment starting around 0:34 and how it starts to shift away from the dark moodiness we’ve been hearing so far.

At 0:41 we shift slightly into another key. It’s not obvious at first, but then the horns, followed by the trombones, come in with simple (yet very lovely) lines at 0:43.

The flute brings a refreshing bit of happiness in the melody at 0:50. Now we get to hear the tune closer to how it’s normally performed: in a major key. The accompaniment, while still mostly held chords by the trombones and first clarinet, doesn’t sound as dismal as before.

The oboe takes over at 1:05 for the first line of the chorus. Listen to the horns underneath, as they play the three-note motif we heard back at 0:43. The second line is given to the clarinet (1:09), though the horn continues with the idea of the three-note motif. The flute comes back in for the remainder of the chorus, with the clarinet playing a harmonic line underneath (1:12). The horn echoes the last line of the chorus, though a bit modulated. It provides the briefest transition into the new verse.

Now the trumpet solo takes over the verse (1:24). The clarinets and saxes provide a chordal accompaniment that rises steadily upward in pitch. The horn inserts a lovely bit of suspension at 1:38 before the upper winds come in for the chorus. This is the closest we’ve come to having the full ensemble play at once. If you look at the score, you’ll see Grainger isn’t afraid of having people rest for long periods of time. (As a composer/arranger, I have to remind myself that it’s okay to do that.) The trumpet comes back in for the second line of the chorus at 1:44, then the winds play again to finish out the theme.

While the melody folks finish, the accompaniment is simultaneously building up for the final verse and chorus. Some of the winds and trumpets give us the theme and there’s a wonderful, suspended countermelody happening in some of the saxes and other trumpets, among others (1:57). There are some beautiful, squishy chords happening throughout all this in the accompaniment; try to listen beyond the melody to hear what else is going on.

Grainger generally keeps the same instrumentation throughout the chorus, adding a floating trumpet line over the melody that he marks “much to the fore” (2:12). At the end of the second line of the chorus, listen for the quick rhythm in the bass line (2:19), but keep your ears open for the continuation of the trumpet line (especially the reach up to concert A at 2:23) as the entire ensemble hits the apex of the piece. Everyone then comes back down toward finishing the melody.

At 2:29, the maiden apparently can’t handle it any more, and starts bawling. Click To TweetAt 2:29, the maiden apparently can’t handle it any more, and starts bawling. We go back to the not-so-merry version of the chorus at 2:29, this time in the bass voices. The horns get their own “much to the fore” section here as well, quoting the “oh, don’t deceive me” line at a slower pace than what’s happening below. There are some angry-sounding chords in the rest of the ensemble while this is going on. But in time, the anger subsides, and the maiden lets out a couple more sobs that resolve into a final, major chord.

Thank you for joining me, and I hope to send out my next post a bit quicker than this one. If you like my blog, please take a moment to spread the word. The individual posts have “share” buttons that can be used to send content to various social media platforms. Thank you to those who have already shared – it means a lot to me!

See you next time!

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What’s playing at Tonal Diversions – June 2016

It’s the end of June already! How did that happen? Time for another segment of “What’s playing?”

(Time for the disclaimer: I don’t have any affiliation with these artists or authors. I checked the albums and book out from my library and want to chat about them)

“Hamilton” by Lin-Manuel Miranda

It’s the musical everyone’s talking about: “Hamilton.” While I haven’t seen the show, I did check out the cast album. I’m not usually a big fan of hip hop/rap, but it really does work with this show. Unsurprisingly, though, a couple of my favorites on the album were more traditional Broadway-style songs. I listened to this in the car and was essentially flying blind in that I didn’t have a song list, lyrics, or synopsis to prep me for anything. Due to that, “You’ll Be Back” (sung by Jonathan Groff) cracked me up when I realized just what the song was about. At the other end of the emotional scale, “Burn” (sung by Phillipa Soo) broke my heart.

If you haven’t seen James Corden’s “Carpool Karaoke,” I recommend his Broadway version (especially the Les Mis section at the end!)

“Violet” by Jeanine Tesori

I’m a fan of both Jeanine Tesori and Sutton Foster. I first heard mention of the show “Violet” when I got to hear Sutton Foster in concert in Chicago a few years ago. Foster’s album “Wish” has a solo version of the song “On My Way,” which is from “Violet.” That show got a Broadway revival in 2014, and I finally got my hands on the full album. I really enjoyed it. Of course I liked “On My Way,” and I was really impressed with the actress who played young Violet. One of the other standout songs for me is “Luck of the Draw.”

Here’s a clip of the cast singing on the Today show.

“Phone Power” by They Might Be Giants

Ah, TMBG, how fun you are! They’ve still got it. Like with Hamilton, I was flying blind on this one in terms of titles and lyrics. This time it was the song “Shape Shifter” that gave me a good chuckle, especially since I hadn’t known the title beforehand. “I Love You for Psychological Reasons” is catchy and fun. Two songs in particular (“I Am Alone” and “Sold My Mind to the Kremlin”) feel like the embodiment of TMBG.

“Why You Love Music” by John Powell

Now we’ll switch gears to print media. This title came across my desk at work and I knew I had to check it out. I’m about halfway through and have found it very interesting. Powell talks about how music interacts with our brains. Some of this I’ve known (or suspected, even if I couldn’t articulate it) and some took me by surprise (how music can affect how we perceive wine to taste, or even which wine we buy). I’m looking forward to the rest of the book.

Lori with most of her summer band gear

Lori with her usual summer band gear

Part of what caught my attention when I first saw the book was the top lines of the back cover: “Did you know that… carrying a musical instrument makes you more attractive?” I had to laugh, because they must be talking about guitars or something. I’m not sure that being in my summer band polo shirt, hair in a ponytail, with a bass clarinet case strapped to my back and carrying a drum stool and a bag of music really ups my attractiveness level. I have a concert on Sunday– maybe I’ll have someone get a pic of me and let my readers decide 😉

That’s what I’ve been listening to and reading lately. Have a good summer and I’ll see you again soon!

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Pavanne by Morton Gould

It’s summer already – wow! The rest of May was a blur, so I’m much later with this post than I’d planned.

Trumpeter statue

Picture by LucasFZ70 on Pixabay. CC0 Public Domain license.

Ah well, such is life. Since summer band is in full swing, I thought I’d talk about a piece that showed up in my folder recently, “Pavanne” by Morton Gould (1913-1996).

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There’s a good chance you’ve heard something by Gould, even if you don’t know it’s him, specifically “American Salute“. He had a long a fruitful career, including being the staff pianist at the newly-opened Radio City Music Hall and many years of composing and conducting for various ensembles.

“Pavanne” is the second, and most popular, movement of Gould’s American Symphonette No. 2, which was premiered in 1938. It incorporates jazz and swing elements into an orchestral piece.



Gould introduces the piece with a light and bouncy little bass line (which rather reminds me of Grainger’s “Molly on the Shore”). A solo muted trumpet presents our theme (0:08). It’s a fun, jazzy ditty. At 0:19, the clarinets join in the accompaniment with sustained chords, finishing with a bouncy echo. Back to the melodic line, it’s actually a flute who finishes off the theme, taking over from the trumpet (0:28).

At 0:36, the solo trumpet once again spins his melody, this time with the strings hopping along underneath. We don’t hear as much of the theme, as there’s a shift in mood at 0:49. More of the brass enter on a driving, yet single-pitch, line. It adds a certain tension over the plucky accompaniment. The flute counters this line with a smooth motif of its own at 0:55. The brass insist again at 1:01, and the flute calms everyone back down.

There’s a change in orchestration at 1:14 – I do believe I’m hearing saxes on the new accompaniment line. While there’s still a lot of rhythmic activity going on with the accompaniment, it has a heavier feel both in mood and movement. The oboe and bassoon present new melodic material at 1:20. The line is long and smooth. The trumpets take over and raise the pitch at 1:32. Everyone comes in at 1:43 to start closing out the theme and the flute, once again, has the final say (1:50).

We’re ushered into a recap of the first theme, but instead of solo trumpet, we’re treated to some woodwinds playing it (1:59). Notice that while we still get the bouncy bass line, he’s continued the rhythm from the previous section. It has a different chordal structure and is played lightly by the strings, but the rhythm is there.

The trumpet section plays the second part of the main theme. However, this time we don’t get the bouncy echo like the clarinets played earlier. He continues with the current accompaniment rhythm (2:19). Then he gives a quick shoutout to the trombones before the flute (who else?) and others finish the theme.

At 2:27, we’re back to the trumpet ditty, with the bouncy bass and hopping strings. We get a glimpse of the driving line again at 2:40, but he adds a descending harmonic line underneath. There’s an answer of the rhythmic accompaniment figure, then the driving/descending figure again played by the saxes. The muted trumpets take their turn answering in rhythm (2:49) before the final soft, short notes of the piece.

Thanks for joining me on this summer diversion. I hope your June is going well so far and I’ll see you again soon!

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America the Beautiful by Carmen Dragon

I was having a hard time figuring out which piece to discuss next, so I decided to talk about one of Hubby’s favorite pieces: “America the Beautiful” as arranged by Carmen Dragon (1914-1984). I like it, too. I think it’s hands-down the best arrangement of this song.

Pikes Peak

Pikes Peak

“America the Beautiful” began life as a poem by Katherine Lee Bates (1859-1929), written in 1893 after a trip to Pike’s Peak. Samuel Augustus Ward (1847-1903) was a composer and organist. His hymn tune, “Materna,” was first used as a setting for “O Mother Dear Jerusalem.” In 1904, the tune was used for Bates’s poem, and the rest, as they say, is history.

In 1960, Carmen Dragon set the piece for concert band. Dragon had a long a lustrous career. He was especially known for conducting the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and composing quite a few film scores. I know he had some sort of a connection with Ohio State University, but I’m having a hard time finding info on exactly what that connection was. Regardless of the type of connection, Dragon’s arrangement was done for (and premiered by) the university’s concert band. For some neat archive audio (including the premiere performance), click here. [Fun fact: Carmen’s son is none other than Daryl Dragon of Captain and Tennille]


The piece starts with a bang, quite literally, from the timpani. The hit turns into a roll that crescendos, with the other instruments joining in on held notes or runs. It’s a short-but-effective pre-intro to the actual introduction that begins at 0:04. From there, we catch a glimpse of the refrain. Just a glimpse, though, as Dragon takes that little snippet and moves it around, modulating it until we hit the peak of the intro (0:21). Listen especially to the arpeggios moving underneath and the luscious chord progression that happens throughout this section.

The first iteration of the tune (0:30) is rather straightforward (though still quite lovely). We get the melody in the reeds (clarinet, sax, and English horn), with a mid- to low brass chordal accompaniment. It has a reverent feel to it; in fact, the tempo marking is “quasi religioso.” At 1:00, a few more instruments join in and we get a little bit louder, but we come back down at 1:15 as we close out the theme. Listen for that wonderfully placed note of tension in the horn (and other middle voices) at 1:13. Delicious! Then it has a great, small line at 1:17-1:18. At 1:23, the last line of the theme, we start in unison but branch out into harmony right before the interlude.

The entire ensemble joins in quietly at 1:29 (except the poor baritones – not sure why they’re left out in the cold for a couple measures). There’s new melodic content for the interlude, with arpeggios and held chords underneath. There’s a subtle change at 1:35, where the accompaniment has long triplets and the chords get a bit squishier than regular triads. The horns and saxes make a comment at 1:42, and the transition continues to build up tension. We relax just a bit before the next time through the theme.

At 1:51, we start the theme anew. This time, it’s mostly woodwinds who start us off. The melody is straightforward, but the harmony has some crunchy notes added. We change moods at 2:06; most of the upper winds are on the melody, and the horns (and some middle winds) have a slow line upward. [Note: Hubby would like me to point out how that line splits into octaves at 2:10 and really helps build power. I agree it’s quite effective.] The rest of the brass (and some winds) take over that line at 2:13, speeding it up and giving it even more power. There’s also a crescendo happening from the entire group throughout all this.

There’s the briefest slowdown around 2:18 before the apex of the piece hits at 2:19 with a cymbal crash. We have everyone at full bore here, with a nice counter-melodic line from some winds and the horns. We get another well-placed tension note at 2:31, this time from the trombone and baritone. The group quiets down as we reach the last phrases of the hymn. Naturally, there’s a nice descending horn line at 2:35 (they really are good at that sort of thing), and there’s some ebb and flow in the tempo. I like the clusters of chords happening here; it lets you know we’re not quite ready for a final resolution.

At 2:46, we hear the final phrase “from sea to shining sea.” Earlier, this was done in unison. This time, the rhythm is unison, but the notes have harmony. While the chord at 2:53 sounds like it could end the piece, Dragon has the group quickly crescendo into a coda section. We get a powerful triplet motif starting at 2:55, led by the upper winds and brass, a powerful chord coming in on beat two as an echo. This repeats, then at 3:00 there’s a bunch of neat stuff happening: repeated triplets from the brass, triplet runs from the winds, powerful punctuation from the rest of the brass, middle winds, and the chimes. The ensemble unites in slower triplets at 3:05 to reach the final hurrah. They strike a chord, followed by echoes and a grand glissando down to the final, powerful note.

Thank you for joining me in learning about one of Hubby’s favorite pieces. I’ll see you next time!

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