Ouverture by Germaine Tailleferre

Les Six

Les Six

In deciding which piece to tackle next, the fact that March is Women’s History Month meant that it’s a great time to talk about “Ouverture” by Germaine Tailleferre (1892-1983). She was a prolific French composer and member of the famed “Les Six”, a group of composers who included the likes of Francis Poulenc and Darius Milhaud. She showed interest in music from a young age. Her father objected to her chosen career path, but with the support of her mother, she was admitted to the Paris Conservatory. She won several competitions there, and through her studies met other up-and-coming musicians. She spent some time in the U.S. in the 1940s, but returned to France after that. She worked and composed until shortly before her death in 1983. For more biographical information, visit Classicalmusicnow and Sinfini Music.

 

We burst out from the gate – no introduction at all in this piece. Three repeated notes, then off in a flurry of activity. Listen to all the movement happening throughout the opening melody. At 0:14 we get the three-note motif and start to repeat the running line, but she already takes us in a different direction starting around 0:19.

At 0:21, we get a new theme (B). It’s a call-and-answer between various sections of the orchestra. First we get strings vs. winds. At 0:29 we get strings vs. some twinkling in the background then brass vs. strings/winds (0:32). We continue the call-and-answer idea at 0:40, but with a difference. Now we hear the three-note motif from earlier as the call, with horns answering. The conversation gets more fragmented and feels faster.  We hear a roll from the timpani (0:56) then trills that travel up as a transition into the next section of the piece.

Here we have a shift in mood. The flutes introduce a new theme (C) which is lyrical and smooth, but you can still hear the motion underneath. There is no change in tempo, though it feels as if there is. At 1:15, the violins take over the lyrical melody, and the action is brought more to the fore by using brass as accompaniment. Starting around 1:25, the piece grows in volume and more instruments join in. At 1:28, the entire orchestra unites in the same rhythm – quarter note chords.

Then 1:36 brings another big change in mood. I’m pretty sure we change into 6/8 time here, and the gong, brass fanfare, and rolling feel of the rhythm make me think of a soundtrack to an old seafaring movie. Don’t know that that’s what Tailleferre was going for, but it works for me. The oboe has a lovely solo beginning at 1:44, with some of the other woodwind tone colors prominent in the accompaniment. There’s a neat, short interlude of sorts at 1:58 with flute, and perhaps clarinet, before the oboe comes back in for the rest of the solo.

There’s just the briefest slowdown and pause before jumping energetically back to the opening theme at 2:16. The recap is largely like what we heard at the beginning, although with differences in instrumentation. Around 2:48, we venture off into transition territory, and Tailleferre plays around with the call-and-answer idea. She builds on that motif until 3:09, where she nods back to the quarter note chords we’d heard at 1:28.

This time, however, she doesn’t take us into a slower section. There’s a briefly held high note from the trumpet & co. at 3:21, like a roller coaster at the top of the hill. Then we race down the hill in a short fugue until about 3:33. We get back into a bit of a call-and-answer, with a hint of our first theme at 3:42 or so. The orchestra continues to whirl into a frenzy, though unifying a bit in rhythm through 3:54, where it goes down another roller coaster hill. It finds a variation of the opening theme at 3:57, with added glissandi from the strings. We make one last frenzied run, take the briefest of breaths at 4:15, and end with a flourish!

Thank you for celebrating Women’s History Month with me. I’d love to hear who your favorite female composers are!

P.S. I thought you might also enjoy listening to a band transcription of the piece.

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Turandot from Symphonic Metamorphosis by Paul Hindemith

I thought it was time for another movement of Paul Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis, this time the second movement: “Turandot; Scherzo; Moderato.” Just like the other movements, this one was also inspired by the music of Carl Maria von Weber (Turandot).

 

After a note from the chimes, a flute introduces us to the theme. The strings have a pianissimo sustained chord underneath. Another chime, and a clarinet joins with the piccolo to repeat the first phrase, while the flute provides a harmonic line. The strings continue holding. At 0:26, the flute gives us the next part of the theme. While the clarinet joins in again at 0:41, this time both clarinets play (in octaves) and the flute and piccolo have the countermelody. While it repeats a good chunk of what we just heard, this line ends sooner. And the strings continue to hold. This entire introduction, while played at a brisk 128 or so beats per minute, feels unhurried. At 0:47, the percussion start beating out a rhythm as a transition into the bulk of the piece.

Before we dissect the next few minutes’ worth of music, keep Maurice Ravel’s Bolero at the back of your mind. In both pieces, the repeated melody travels throughout the orchestra, as does the accompaniment. The number of instruments playing increases over time, bringing with it a gradual crescendo.

At 0:56, the cellos and basses start off with the melody, alternating with the violas and cellos. Listen for the neat countermelodies first in the oboe and then in the flute. Also notice that the structure of the melody is what we heard from the introduction – the first motif is played twice, followed by the second motif, then the second motif, mostly. Underneath all of this is the humming of trills played by the clarinets and oboes.

At 1:21, we shift our focus to the woodwinds for the melody. The upper strings have some trills, but they’re not quite as persistent as the previous trills in the woodwinds. The lower strings have pizzicato quarter notes keeping time.

The horn takes over the melody at 1:44, and they’re the first brass sounds we’ve heard in this movement. They tag-team with the trumpet and then provide a bit of a countermelody in spots. It’s interesting that Hindemith adds the bass clarinet for one brief moment at 1:58. As a bass clarinet player, I think it’s great, but I’m curious as to why he did it since it doesn’t happen again in this section. Otherwise, the bass clarinet (and the other woodwinds) are back to trilling and some of the strings are doing their pizzicato thing.

Hindemith continues to add more instruments, especially in the brass for the melody. He also adds a new element to the accompaniment: triplet runs that travel up and down the string section (2:08). Continually adding voices results in a natural increase in volume.

We get our next big orchestration change at 2:31. Here, the strings take over the melody, the woodwinds get the triplet runs, the horns have trills, and the low brass have oom-pahs (previously heard as the string pizzicato quarter notes). The group keeps getting bigger and louder. At 3:01, the brass return with the echo of the melody. The brass fully take over at 3:20, leading to the apex of this section of the piece.

At 3:44, we reach the end of the first buildup. There are big trilled chords in the winds, the brass have a kind of a short fanfare, and the strings keep running with the triplets down toward the transition. Listen for the first violins at 3:50, they have a really neat triplet line that connects what we’ve been hearing to the new section of the piece.

The violins overlap just a bit with the new theme (B) introduced by the trombones. It’s a variation on the first theme, and a bit jazzier. Here we let the brass shine. Listen how the motif gets passed around throughout the brass and also for the mini two-note motif that is extracted and repeated. Around 4:47, they reach their largest point, followed by a conversation with the timpani at 4:52. They keep forging ahead, bringing back theme B to keep it in our ears.

Then at 5:05, we have a huge shift in orchestration and mood. The woodwinds take over, softly, as opposed to the fortissimo we’d just heard from the brass. They also pass the melody around, but in their own woodwindy kind of way. They’re not as jazzy or brash, and you really hear the difference in tone between the various instruments. But don’t think of the woodwinds as wimps. At 5:34, listen for the rather heroic-sounding trio of two oboes and the English horn. It’s seriously one of my favorite bits of this piece. The flutes, then the clarinets/bass clarinet get their turn at heroism before finishing their section of the piece.

The percussion make their presence known (albeit softly) at 5:46, signaling the beginning of the end. Listen to the different rhythms being played throughout the percussion instruments. At 6:02, Hindemith gives a nod to the beginning of the piece by having the cellos and basses play a snippet of the original melody. This forms an ostinato foundation that will carry us through the next portion of the movement. Over time, Hindemith layers the other instruments, with a different motif, one section at a time to grow the coda. Around 6:22, the trumpet enters with its own rhythmic motif, followed by the horns then the rest of the brass.

The layers build and build until 6:46, where we hit a big chords and high trills, and we get a sense of reaching the acme of this piece. Hindemith won’t let us stop there, however. At 6:57, we start a downward fall from everything we’ve been building toward. The percussion are back with their various rhythms, and the rest of the ensemble starts wandering away with a series of “doot doot” chords. In contrast to the building up of layers that we’ve been hearing throughout this entire movement, Hindemith dismantles it all, section by section. The brass leave first, followed by the strings. The woodwinds trickle out, finishing with both flutes and piccolo, then one flute and piccolo, then just piccolo. The percussion fade away. They don’t actually slow down; their note values are written to give the effect of a slowdown (eighth notes to quarter notes to half notes). We finish with a soft, sweet chord from the low reeds, horns, and low strings.

If you’d like to hear the next movements, visit the Andantino (movement III) then the March (movement IV).

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Cuernavaca by Joseph Willcox Jenkins

Throughout the course of this blog, I’ve talked a lot about my college music experience. I was recently reminded of something else from that era when I saw the music for “Cuernavaca” by Joseph Willcox Jenkins show up on my music stand at our first band rehearsal this season. Way back in either my freshman or sophomore year, we played this piece in band.

I hated it.

Now that so much time has passed, I honestly couldn’t tell you why I hated this piece so much. I had forgotten that I’d ever played it until I saw the music again. Was it something about the piece itself? Did we play it badly? Did I not like something the conductor was doing? Did we spend a disproportionate amount of time on this piece compared to other things we played that term? Did I simply like other pieces better?

Cuernavaca, Mexico

Cuernavaca, Mexico
(image license: CC0 Public Domain)

I’m sure there are many other questions I could ask about my experience with Cuernavaca, but I don’t know if I would ever really learn the answers. I will say, though, for whatever reason, I rather like the piece now. I couldn’t tell you if it’s because I’ve learned more or my tastes have changed. Perhaps both? But now I can say I’m looking forward to working on the piece over the next semester.

Joseph Wilcox Jenkins had a lengthy career in composition, working as the arranger for the U.S. Army Field Band, the U.S. Army Chorus, and later as a professor of theory and composition at Duquesne University. By and large, his most popular work is American Overture for Band, which I’ve played several times over the years. It’s easy to find recordings and information about that piece. Cuernavaca? Not so much. I took a look at the score (dated 1969), and there’s just this brief note:

“Cuernavaca, a work in Latin-American style, was premiered by the Duquesne University Band in Pittsburgh. The main idea of the work is a fast Rhumba, which evolves into a frantic type of “Mexican Hat” dance in 6/8 meter. The secondary idea is a reposeful Tango. The treatment of the material is in a relatively free Rondo form. The work is included in the Educational Record Reference Library band series.”


The piece begins with a bold statement by the trumpets and percussion, answered by the middle and lower voices of the band. The trumpets restate their theme, almost note for note, with the last bit echoing to lead us into the body of the piece.

At 0:20, the accompaniment sets the tone for the rhumba. The melody enters at 0:26, played by the upper winds. After their first statement, the trumpets answer with a fanfare. We hear another section of melody and fanfare (0:37), then the horns push forward with a syncopated motif (0:45). The upper winds continue with the melodic line, with the horns in an echo (0:55). The melody adds some bounce to it before smoothing back out to end the phrase. A brief, three-note motif is passed around beginning at 1:03 to take us into the next part.

Although the trumpets repeat their initial statement at 1:09, the answer changes moods from what we heard at the beginning. The winds have a bouncy motif at 1:18, then at 1:25 the trumpets take over the transition. There are two bars of syncopated 4/4 time at 1:28, then we transition into 6/8 time and lay the foundation for the dance.

At 1:35, the trumpets and piccolo (flutes, too? It’s hard to hear in this recording) take over the melody. While they essentially repeat the first statement of this theme, it’s been shifted in time just slightly (1:40). At 1:50, the mood changes just a little for the next bit of the theme, and this time there’s more of a melodic echo (1:54). The trumpets enter again at 2:04. Although it feels at first they are starting another new melodic section, they’re actually setting up a transition. Beginning around 2:09, they play a four-note descending motif that is echoed by other instruments, similar to what happened at the piece’s introduction. Listen for all the four-note snippets between here and 2:31. There’s also a gradual slowing down and softening of the ensemble to lead us into the tango.

The bassoons provide us with a tango rhythm at 2:32, then a solo flute and bass clarinet play a snippet from a previous melodic line (2:41; it’s hard to hear the bass in this recording, but it’s there). But this is still introductory material for the tango; the oboe solo enters with the theme at 2:53. The bassoon, and then the clarinets, answer with their own motifs. The oboe plays again at 3:30, but doesn’t finish her theme with a firm ending (3:51). Instead, the clarinets take the last few notes and repeat them, waiting for something to happen…

Which it does at 4:05, when the percussion decides they’ve had enough of the slow tango section and want to pep things up. But the rest of the group isn’t quite as ready yet, compared to what we heard way back at 0:26. This time the theme is played by a flute solo, and instead of accented accompaniment notes, there’s just a sustained chord, which adds a tense feeling to all of it. The trumpets still have their fanfare (apparently they agree with the percussion!), but then it’s right back to the solo flute and the sustained chord (4:27).

Instead of continuing with the rhumba, at 4:34 we switch over to the fast dance theme similar to what we heard at 1:50. The horns get a chance to echo at 5:03 then usher in the four-note descending motif. At 5:10, the trumpets recall the opening melodic line of the piece. When they repeat it, we expect to continue with that we’d heard earlier, but Jenkins isn’t ready to take us there, yet. Instead, he slows it back down again in order to give us one last glimpse of the tango section (5:46). The line passes from flute, to oboe, then to the horn, before making our last transition into the rhuma (6:21).

The trumpets shout out an abbreviated fanfare at 6:27, and we embark on a recap of the first rhumba theme. Jenkins keeps it note-for-note here (Well, except for the power drill at 6:48. That’s new.)

Around 7:19, we shift into the coda section so we can bring the piece to a close. Jenkins bases the ending on the fanfare. I like the excitement at 7:30, especially with the piccolo emphasizing the upward sweep of notes. The piece ends with big, accented chords, with the percussion hammering away. The last chord isn’t a straightforward major triad, which kinda goes along with pieces of this era. It works, though, and it’s what Jenkins gave us.

I’m glad I got a chance to revisit this piece. While I love “American Overture for Band,” it’s nice to hear another work by Joseph Willcox Jenkins and perhaps bring it back into our concert band consciousness. Sadly, the music appears to be out of print, but maybe there’s hope for a resurgence.

In case anyone is interested in how our community band performance went, here’s the audio:

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What’s playing at Tonal Diversions – December 2015

I hope everyone had an enjoyable holiday. I had a wonderful time visiting family in Ohio. The trip felt too short, but it was great to see everyone.

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

“That Would Be Me” by Harry Connick, Jr.


I’ve been a fan of Harry’s for a long time. I’ll admit I haven’t followed his career quite as closely in recent years, but when I found out he had a new album I had to listen to it. I really enjoyed it. It’s not the big band jazz of albums past, but I wouldn’t fully call it pop, either, despite it being classified that way on a few sites. There are elements of funk and jazz, and he makes good use of brass and strings. I think my favorite song of the album is the first one: “(I Like It When You) Smile,” followed by “(I Think I) Love You A Little Bit.” I just realized that Target has an exclusive edition with bonus tracks. Since I wanted to buy the album anyway, I think I’ll just have to mosey on to Target to get my copy.

“Come Fly With Me” by Herb Alpert


I’ll admit, I had no idea Herb was still out and about. I, and probably most people, only remember him from his Tijuana Brass days (“Spanish Flea”, anyone? 😀 ) But the 80-year-old has had a comeback in the last few years – good for him! Overall I liked the new album, though sometimes the accompaniments end up sounding rather like the presets on a keyboard. The strength of this album lies in his re-imagining of tunes we know, such as “Take the A Train” with a Latin beat. I like the cover of the Beatles’ “Something,” and he pairs “Blue Skies” with a style I wasn’t expecting.

“Departures” by the United States Air Force Band


This came across my desk at the library, naturally I had to check it out, being the band geek that I am. It’s a nice mix of classics and newer works. I was happy to see “Danzon No. 2” on here, as I recently played it in community band and loved it. The “Ender’s Game” suite is not the recent movie score, but rather a piece by Christopher Caliendo based on Card’s book, similar to the “Lord of the Rings Symphony” by de Meij that I’ve discussed on the blog. I do recommend this album and I’m looking forward to listening more to the new-to-me pieces on it.

So that’s what I’ve been listening to lately. Happy New Year to all! I do want to say thank you to those who have subscribed to my blog – I truly appreciate it. I hope 2015 closes on a high note for everyone, and I’ll see you in 2016!

Sarabande from “Pour le Piano” by Claude Debussy

It took me a while to figure out which piece to discuss this time. November has been a busy month. It started with a combined student recital and clarinet choir concert that I organized and performed in, followed by a week-long staycation for me where I got a chance to dive back into an arranging and composition project I’ve been neglecting for far too long. I was also busier with teaching private lessons (which is good, but it does add to my schedule). Then there’s the usual work and house stuff, plus Thanksgiving. Before I knew it, it’s the end of the month and I hadn’t picked a piece to talk about.

Claude Debussy

By Donald Sheridan (Donald Sheridan) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

My busy schedule aside, let’s talk about Sarabande, from the suite Pour le Piano, by Claude Debussy (1862-1918). I didn’t appreciate Debussy until I was an adult. For various reasons, I dismissed him when I was younger. I’m sure part of it was his use of “smushy” chords, though I didn’t fully grasp that at the time. Some of it may have been because I couldn’t easily play the pieces I came across in piano compilation books. I seem to remember a friend of mine (who also played piano) didn’t like him, and that influenced me. But later on, after I’d been exposed to more of his music, I realized I do like him after all. He’s mostly known for piano music, but that music also works well when transcribed for other instruments. For today, we’ll stick with a piano performance.

A sarabande is a dance form in triple meter (i.e. 3/4 time). It has origins in Spain, but later became popular in France as a slower, stately dance. Many orchestral and other instrumental suites over the years have had a sarabande as one of the movements. Debussy marks this piece as “avec une élégance grave et lente” (roughly translated to “with a serious and slow elegance”), so pianists’ interpretations vary on exactly how slow to go. Beyond the version I show here, poke around YouTube a bit to listen to other performances.

 

 

The piece begins quietly, both hands moving together in rhythm. We start right in on those squishy chords, don’t we? But the rhythm and shape of the line sets up our primary theme (0:07-1:13, kind of). The themes and motifs in this piece are more nebulous than in other pieces we’ve discussed. so bear with me on this one. And while Debussy uses a lot of complex chords, sometimes he treats us to straight-up major chords (0:39 and 1:09) which let our ears take a break from the more complex harmonies throughout the piece.

At 1:15, Debussy repeats what we heard at the very beginning, note for note. While he keeps the rhythm at 1:32 to match what we heard earlier (0:25), he alters the notes and shape of the line, and adds in chords for a full sound before dropping down to utilize the lower octaves of the piano (1:37). After the fullness of what we’ve heard, it’s unexpected.

The secondary motif begins at 1:50, dark and brooding. Listen for the moving line in the middle of the chords. I hesitate to call this a full theme because it doesn’t really stick around all that long before morphing into a transition. But you’ll hear that initial rhythmic line, and a close relative, several times in this section (1:50-2:51). We keep building upward in pitch, though not always in volume, until 2:52 where the chords cascade down into the recap of the primary theme.

While we’ve been rather quiet and delicate up until this point, Debussy changes moods when he goes back into the main theme. The first statement is marked forte (our first one in the piece), and the chords are bolder and more “normal”-sounding that what we’ve been hearing so far. But quick as that, Debussy switches right back to delicate at 3:22. The notes and rhythms are similar enough to what happened at the beginning of the piece to be recognized as such, it’s just an octave higher.

But at 3:39, he inserts a brand-new motif instead of continuing on with the main theme. Pay attention around 3:54, however, as there’s a tiny rhythmic snippet that will return later. At 3:57, after a build-up in intensity from the previous few measures, we’re treated to another lovely major chord. We continue on with the rhythm from the primary theme, though on different notes, landing on another big major chord at 4:17.

After all that, we quiet down suddenly at 4:22, repeating the primary theme rhythm with the pitches closer to what we heard originally (0:45). It’s a brief quote, though, as we move on toward the closing section of the piece (coda). At 4:36 we hear that small rhythmic snippet from back at 3:54. It echoes at 4:40, with the echo ringing downward in pitch until 4:48, where we hear one last quote from our main theme. Debussy closes the piece with bell-like chords moving up the range of the instrument and some final, quiet notes in the bass.

That wraps up our afternoon with Claude Debussy. I hope you’ll explore more of his music, and feel free to let me know any of your favorite pieces by him so I can listen to them. If you’d like the sheet music for this piece, there’s a public domain version available at IMSLP.org. (Shameless plugs: if you’re a clarinet player, I’ve arranged this for clarinet choir. You can also buy collections of Debussy’s and other composers’ works at Sheet Music Plus and support the blog).

To go along with the above shameless plug, I now have a recording of real people playing my clarinet choir arrangement. Yay!

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