Music Appreciation: Russian Christmas Music by Alfred Reed

So I’m much later than I’d planned for this post, because 1) I’m a musician and it’s

Russian church in the snow

Russian church in the snow. Photo by tpsdave (via pixabay)

December, one of my busiest months, and 2) I couldn’t decide which piece to discuss. Then I realized it would be silly not to talk about Russian Christmas Music by Alfred Reed, one of the staples of band literature.

I’ve talked about Alfred Reed before, but since his works are so embedded in concert bands everywhere (and I’m such a band geek), it’s inevitable that I would feature another piece of his on the blog. Russian Christmas Music was originally composed in 1944; however, it underwent some revisions before arriving at the published work (1968) that’s still played today.

Before getting into the piece, I want to share the carol that provides the thematic basis for the piece (you can find the sheet music at IMSLP):

 

Now, on to the piece!

 

While Russian Christmas Music is performed as one continual piece, there are four distinct sections.

Children’s Carol (beginning-3:04)

We start rather solemnly, with a sustained low note and a slowly repeated chime. It sounds like a call to Mass. Then we hear carol singing from the clarinet section. It is slow and haunting, a beautiful lush sound. We’re joined by other instruments as the song continues into its next part (the lyrics talk about the “shaggy pony, shaggy oxen,” 1:12). There’s some call and answer between woodwind and brass.

We add another layer of voices at 1:36, continuing to build in volume and range, until we hit a beautiful major chord at 1:54. The chime and low drone renew their presence, bringing us back down to our previous somber tone.

The clarinet choir begins its theme again (2:06), but does not play it through entirely. The brass join in at 2:30 with a hymn-like chord progression. The woodwinds answer at 2:47, their line reminiscent of choral amen responses still heard in some churches today.

Antiphonal Chant (3:05-6:46)

The percussion lead us into the next section of the piece with a crescendo. At 3:08, the trombones initiate the chant, with a response from the woodwinds at 3:16. “Antiphonal” traditionally means something is sung (or played, in this case) back and forth between two groups. The trombones again lead the chant at 3:28, but this time the other brass join in for the answer (3:37). The brass continue with some long chords that serve as a transition into the next theme of the chant.

At 3:58, the clarinets play a more upbeat chant, with other instruments adding to it in layers, creating a short fugue as it builds. The brass come in triumphantly at 4:10, starting with the clarinet chant theme, then switching to the trombones’ chant theme (4:16).

The woodwinds come in with the fast chant at 4:30, with the brass punctuating each phrase. There’s a whirlwind of sound, culminating in a tense chord (with a run of woodwinds in the background), a cymbal crash, then a single pitch from the lower brass. The revelry dies down into a more subdued manner, with the clarinets playing a descending line that makes it feel like they’re lowering down piously onto bended knee (4:50).

The English horn enters at 5:05 with a gorgeous solo. Seriously, these are the types of lines this instrument was made for. Listen closely to this melody, as it will come back later in the piece. The English horn finishes its statement, and the flutes and oboes bring back a bit of the liveliness (5:37) without overdoing it. There’s a horn call, and the clarinets come back in with another pious statement (5:44).

At 5:57, the English horn comes back in with another lovely melody. The upper winds again enter with their dance, this time joined by the clarinet line we heard earlier at 4:50. Another horn call finishes the antiphonal chant section and prepares us for the village song.

Village Song (6:47-10:09)

Once again, the clarinets are featured as they provide the initial theme of the Village Song (I swear that’s not the only reason I like this piece!) This time, however, there’s a wonderful string bass pizzicato line underneath the rich, smooth chords of the clarinet choir. This section has a folk song feel to it, though I don’t believe it was taken from an existing melody like the Children’s Carol. This section is in 6/4 (six beats per measure with the quarter note as the beat).

At 7:20, more instruments come in, creating a very organ-like sonority. Notice that despite the added voices, the volume has not increased much. The instrumentation is reduced again at 7:28, but the oboe remains with the clarinet choir and bells take over for the string bass. We have one more round of fuller orchestration (7:37) followed by the oboe and bell feature (7:44).

One small horn call at 7:51 leads into the second verse, so to speak, of the Village Song. Reed continues to alter the orchestration of each phrase. The oboe run at 8:23 signals a turn into new territory. We hear some slight changes to the melody, with some additional ornamentation in the horn at 8:27 and 8:31. We still hear some familiar sounds until 8:42, when he introduces a new note (A♭, when we’ve largely been in the key of G minor here). It’s repeated at 8:46 and 8:50, reinforcing that something is different. The phrase winds down, ending in a lovely major chord (9:01). There’s one more horn call, then the pious clarinet phrase from the antiphonal chant.

We’re treated to another English horn solo at 9:22, though this time it stretches upward more before coming back down. The horns reply, not with the horn call we heard earlier, but more of an “amen” feeling that prepares us for the Cathedral Chorus.

Cathedral Chorus (10:10-end)

A low drone from the bass voices begins this last section. Above that, we start to hear gongs, cymbals, bells, and chimes. The trombones come in with a new motif, which is repeated and extended. It repeats again, this time breaking out into a chord (10:59). More and more layers of brass enter with a repeated small motif; eventually, the middle and upper woodwinds add their voices.

As the texture builds, the rhythm quickens from using half notes in places to using quarter notes. The overall tempo doesn’t increase all that much, but thanks to using shorter notes we feel like the pace is quickening. This builds until 11:32, where most of the ensemble moves as one in quarter notes with the brass sounding their calls between phrases. Notice the pace did get a bit faster and it still feels as if we’re building toward something.

At 11:45, we hear a wonderful wall of sound – most of the ensemble has a long, short, long chord motif, the timpani is wailing away underneath, the high winds are buzzing furiously above, there’s assorted percussion crashing about, and the horns and trombones have an answering call. We still continue to build, pushing everything to the limit, reaching, until we hear four powerful chords at 12:17. The entire ensemble cuts off together, then comes in as one with a mighty statement at 12:23, finally tapering down into quietness. (I’ve talked before about the ends of notes being as important as the beginnings. Here’s another perfect example of that.)

Remember the English horn theme from earlier? The clarinets pick up that theme at 12:36. I love how the oboe subtly joins them at 13:29 – it takes an excellent oboist to blend that entrance so well without sounding like an injured duck. After the oboe’s successful entrance, more instruments start joining in. We start building once again, this time toward the final push of the piece. The horns give an extra nudge at 13:46, encouraging us onward.

The trumpets and horns explode in a powerful rendition of the English horn theme at 13:53, with a glorious cacophony happening in the other instruments between phrases – low brass thundering, high winds twinkling, chimes ringing joyfully. The woodwinds take over the melody at 14:10 so that the high brass can play a fanfare (14:16). They return to the melody for the next phrase, but the horns join the woodwind line at 14:23 and completely own it.

As we go into the next phrase, we expect to keep building toward the finish, but Reed surprises us by bringing down the volume at 14:42. It’s brief – we immediately begin to crescendo again – but he gets our attention. We build again until we reach a strong chord at 14:49, bringing in more joyous cacophony. The chimes are ringing throughout the land and you can hear the high winds swirling fervently in the atmosphere. The brass are bold and strong, bringing back the trombone’s theme we heard earlier, with cymbals crashing, timpani pounding, and horns calling. I love the bit at 15:20, where the brass unite in a slightly accelerated rhythm, the cymbals crashing purposefully (and perfectly) in each of the brass’ rests. The horns continue their calls, with the rest of the ensemble providing a mass of sound, finally holding on to a solid chord as we finish the piece with a final punch.

Such a powerful piece! If you don’t feel some sort of emotion during the Cathedral Chorus section, you obviously don’t have a soul.
If you don't feel any emotion during the Cathedral Chorus section, you obviously don't have a soul. Click To Tweet

So that wraps up my final post for 2014. Merry Christmas to those of you who celebrate, and I wish all of my readers a lovely holiday season. I’ll see you in January!

 

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Music Appreciation: Armenian Dances, Part I by Alfred Reed

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Armenian landscape

Armenian landscape

Next in our music appreciation series we’ll move into concert band music via Alfred Reed’s Armenian Dances.  Band music is for wind instruments and percussion.  No strings (except for string bass at times).  Most people’s experience of band is probably listening to their kids’ beginning attempts in 5th or 6th grade or perhaps hearing the high school marching band.  But many of us wind players continue to study hard after high school.  There are many excellent players in bands, and our music can be just as challenging and exciting as that for orchestra.

Armenian Dances is certainly one of my all-time favorites in the band genre.  We just performed it in community band so it’s fresh on my mind. I find myself drawn to a lot of music that has a basis in folk songs.  I don’t fully know why that is, but it’s definitely a pattern with music I like.  So expect to see more of these pieces to find their way into this blog.

Alfred Reed composed this piece for Dr. Harry Begian (who was of Armenian descent*) and his University of Illinois Symphonic Band in the early 1970s. It has become a staple of wind band repertoire.  Anyone who stays involved in band for any length of time probably knows Armenian Dances.  I first encountered it in college and have played it three or four times now.

“Part I” (yes, there’s a “Part II” as well) consists of five sections, each based on a different Armenian folk song.  Komitas Vardapet’s (or Gomidas Vartabed, depending on translation [1869 – 1935]) collection of tunes provides the sources for these songs. Let’s take a listening tour through the sections:

The Apricot Tree (Tsirani Tsar) (0:00-2:18)

The piece begins with a powerful statement by the brass, which flows into a broad, lush melody by the upper instruments (flute, trumpet, etc.) and a countermelody in the horns.  Despite the slower tempo of the melody, listen for some faster flourishes from the other instruments throughout this section (starting at 0:26, more noticeably after 0:45).  The music continues with lighter scoring (fewer instruments playing), but it still has some tension from the flourish-filled countermelody.  The tension continues to build, most notably around 1:22, as those flourishes build up with different instruments.  Adding to that, the band as a whole gets louder, reaching a peak as the first theme of the piece is restated.

As with Copland from my previous post, Reed doesn’t simply repeat the first theme note-for-note.  For example, there’s a nice trombone echo at 1:31 that wasn’t there the first time.  He also adds more instruments into the flourishes.  The oboe solo (2:04) then starts the transition into “The Partridge’s Song”.

The Partridge’s Song (Kagavik) (2:19-4:03)

The music makes a fairly quick transition into this next section.  It is a simple yet sweet melody which passes around nimbly through the instruments over a steady bass and horn accompaniment.  For the most part, the melody stays within the woodwinds – clarinets, flutes, oboes, saxes.  The cornet gets a brief chance at the melody, giving the tune a bit of a tonal “color change” before returning to the woodwinds.

Starting around 3:21, the music begins to transition.  More instruments join in, the ensemble gets louder, and the music modulates into a new key (“home base”).  The sound is nice and big here, with the trumpets and flutes on the main melody and the clarinets playing a countermelody.  Listen to the bass voices here – they also get to move along instead of playing an oom-pah type of part that’s often associated with the bottom notes.  As someone who plays a low instrument (bass clarinet), I truly appreciate it when composers add some interest to the bass line!

After a big, full sound for a few measures, the music quiets down, fewer instruments play, and “The Partridge’s Song” comes to a gentle, peaceful end.

Hoy, My Nazan (4:04-6:45)

Now for my favorite section!  As I describe in my cheat sheet, most music has a rhythmic track that falls into groups of four (i.e. rock and pop) or three (i.e. waltzes).  But there’s something different here – listen to the percussion’s lead-in to this section.  The beats are quick, but how many do you count?  If you guessed five, you’re correct.  If you’re having trouble hearing it, that’s okay; try listening to the bassoons once they come in at 4:07 (right after the sax entrance). They have a constant rhythm that should help you hear the five beats.  Once you hear that, listen for how those beats get stressed.  It should sound like 1-2-3-4-5 or 1-2-3-4-5 (Reed uses both throughout this section).  But watch out!  A few times he sneaks a measure of 6 in there (it sometimes takes the players by surprise as well!)

The melodic theme of this section begins with an alto sax solo and bassoon bass line.  The oboe and English horn join in shortly after that.  Reed continues to mix and match instruments throughout this bit, building up to the trumpet entrance at 4:47.  The brass introduce a new theme here – it’s short, but it’s a theme nonetheless.  There’s a loud, punctuated statement by the brass, followed by some noodling in the woodwinds.  The call-and-answer gets repeated, then the music dives into tension and chaos before returning to more harmonious waters.  I love that bit of tension.  It’s as if we were getting too comfortable with the odd meter of five; after being shaken for a few measures, five almost feels “normal”.

 

Reed stays firmly in the 1-2-3-4-5 here.  If you listen to the bass line, you’ll hear the pulse of 1 – – 4 -.  The melody passes through the various instruments some more, with some fun little interjections from other instruments throughout.  For my husband’s sake, I need to give a special shout-out to the horns for their chance to shine at 5:44!  Then at 6:05, there’s another announcement by the trumpets, different than the one at 4:47, but it again goes into tension and chaos before making a final push into the end of this section.

The section ends with a repeated rhythm that travels down the band, followed by a pause to catch our breath.  This transition is a great example of why musicians should be aware of how they end notes, not just how they begin them.  The overall effect of the transition is diminished if any player holds on to his note when everyone else has cut off.  Reed specifically wrote a break right there; I feel it gives a chance for everyone (players and listeners) to regroup after feeling a little lopsided from trying to dance to five beats per measure.

Alagyaz (6:47-8:33)

Our next section presents another full, beautiful melody, this time in a steady three beats per measure.  It’s a section that makes me want to just close my eyes and let the music wash over me. Listen not only to the melody, but also to the countermelodies and bass lines.  While Reed changes the instrumentation now and then, overall this section stays quite full and lush.

The main melody repeats three times, each time with a different instrument taking the lead.  When the trumpets come in at 7:51, it sounds like they’re going to repeat the melody for a fourth time.  But no – they tease us with a shorter theme, then give us just a little bit more (including an extra beat at the pinnacle of the shorter theme at 8:08-09) before closing this section of the piece.  While the clarinets play their theme starting at 8:25, listen to the scrumptious tension that builds in the descending notes of the bass line.  This gives us an indication that something’s about to happen.

Go, Go! (8:34-11:05)

And we’re off!  This section is just fun.  Fun to play, fun to listen to, just plain fun.  The clarinets start us off with some wild runs, followed by the saxes in a happy little ditty.  The band interjects with some longer, accented notes, but the saxes just go back to “dittying”.  My husband will attest that I just love the brief, running bass line at 8:57.  It’s a nice touch of color when Reed could have kept the basses in their oom-pah pattern.  And it gives a feel of, “Hey, we’re here, too!”  They make a bolder statement at 9:08 after another interjection from the band.

This time when the ditty starts, listen for the euphoniums’ slower melodic line underneath.  The tension builds with that line until it breaks at 9:20.  But then we’re right back down again to build more tension until 9:32, after which the oom-pahs barge in with a wonderfully raucous statement.

We revisit the clarinet doodles, this time sounding in a different key, with a powerful horn countermelody.  (And let me tell you, that set of clarinet doodles is not easy).  Reed then explores some new thematic material for a bit before a big announcement by the brass.  The full band interjects more accented notes and sets up the final, crazy rush of the piece.  All sorts of stuff is happening here, with some great effects at 10:18 and 10:22.  It’s like there’s a bit of suspension in mid-air, like that moment when a trapeze artist flies between the trapeze and her partner’s grasp.  Everything keeps building up and we feel like we’re coming to the end, until…

… we’re back at the ditty.  Reed revisits this theme one last time, though this time it’s shorter and takes us toward the end.  He repeats a small phrase at 10:47 to get us into that last stretch.  The low voices make a statement, followed by the entire band whooping it up.  The low brass have a descending melodic line, then the woodwinds answer by going back up (helped out by a wicked trill in the horns).  Everyone comes back together for a powerful ending statement.

And there you have it.  I know this was a long one, but I don’t think I could have done this piece justice in a shorter space.  I’ll try to pick a shorter song for my next post! In the meantime, check out my bonus features post for some more info!

* In doing research for this post, I discovered that there’s a region in Armenia named “Lori”.  I had no idea!

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