Bonus Features: March from Symphonic Metamorphosis

I still have the Hindemith piece on my mind, so I thought I’d share a little bit more.

I’d mentioned in my previous post that Hindemith based much of Symphonic Metamorphosis on piano duets by Carl Maria von Weber. The march for Hindemith’s fourth movement comes from 8 Pieces (Op. 60, No. 7). You can find the sheet music over at the IMSLP/Petrucci Music Library.

While I couldn’t locate a piano duet on YouTube, I did find one recording of a double woodwind quintet playing a transcription of the piano piece. If you remember my post about Malcom Arnold’s Three Shanties, you’ll know that a woodwind quintet consists of flute, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon. A double woodwind quintet has two of each of those instruments.

And here’s a recording of the concert band transcription:

If you liked this piece, I highly encourage you to listen to all four movements. Preferably more than once, as there’s a lot to absorb. While I hope to talk about the other three movements eventually here on the blog, if you want to get a head start, here’s a full recording:

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Music Appreciation: March (Symphonic Metamorphosis) by Paul Hindemith

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And now we move to a completely different style of march – the fourth movement of Paul Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Carl Maria von Weber (sometimes seen as “Symphonic Metamorphoses”). The piece has four movements, and while I’d love to talk about all four, today I’ll concentrate on just the march. I may eventually talk about the others because there’s a ton of incredible music in there, but the march is the most well-known.

Paul Hindemith, 1945

Paul Hindemith, 1945

Symphonic Metamorphosis was inspired by some piano duets and other music composed more than a century earlier by Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826). While Hindemith retains much of Weber’s melodies, he puts his own distinctive spin on them. Hindemith composed the work in the early 1940s. It was originally intended to be used as ballet music, but he and his collaborator, Léonide Massine, parted ways. Not letting good music go to waste, Hindemith re-imagined the work into an orchestral suite. The suite remains popular with both orchestras and wind bands thanks to a transcription by Keith Wilson, Hindemith’s fellow Yale professor.



(the original video I linked to got deleted, so let’s try this one instead 9/26/13)

There are three words that come to mind when I hear (or play) this piece. Two of them are “intensity” and “activity”, which I think you’ll notice early on in the piece. I’ll fill you in on the third word later.

We begin with a short brass fanfare that’s powerful, yet at the same time, subdued. The trumpets and trombones announce themselves then quickly retreat, leaving us to hear a muted chord in the horns. This happens a second time (with a different melodic progression) before going into the main theme of the piece.

The main theme begins in the oboe, English horn, and bass clarinet (0:09), with a bouncy accompaniment in the strings. Bouncy, but not necessarily cheerful sounding. To me, this first section sounds rather eerie. The flutes and clarinets join in with the melody at 0:16 and we continue on, building a bit in volume. We taper as we reach the end of the theme, culminating in another muted horn chord at 0:33. There’s some back-and-forth between the clarinets, bassoons and oboes, then the trumpets and trombones interject their two cents, leading us back into a repeat of the main theme (0:42).

This time through, we continue the back-and-forth, bickering on louder and louder until 1:18, where we get a recap of the opening fanfare. However, instead of a muted horn chord, the woodwinds add a statement of their own, borrowing the fanfare’s rhythm. The brass make one more statement, then the strings give us a flurry of activity that leads us what sounds like the main theme (1:25). Here, the strings have the melody, the woodwinds have the bouncy accompaniment, and the low brass adds some rhythmic chords to support it all. But we don’t get the full theme. We only get a few seconds of it before Hindemith takes us off into a new direction. And while we hear a soft chord again, this time it’s the flutes and clarinets – not the horns (1:36). There’s some back-and-forth between the drums and woodwinds, then the strings give us a neat phrase that leads us to our next section.

Here, we start to hear some happiness poke through (1:46). We have the woodwinds fluttering around above with triplets – they’re very busy up there. But they’re just the accompaniment. The melody lies below in the horns. They play through their theme once, then it’s repeated with accents from the trumpets and additional accompaniment from the strings. A cool, two-note phrase in the low brass at 2:10 helps get us into the development section of the piece.

At 2:11, Hindemith plays around with the horn theme. The upper woodwinds take over, but you’ll hear that it’s not the same melody that the horns were playing. The rhythm is similar, and the melody sounds kind of the same at first, but it quickly morphs into other melodic content. Meanwhile, the strings are sawing away below in triplets. This builds up to 2:21, when the strings take over the melodic line and the woodwinds and brass do a lot more triplet-ing. The horns come blazing in at 2:27, continuing to build until…

We repeat back to the quieter bit that we were hearing at 2:11 (but now we’re at 2:31). We go through this section again, and the horns again take over and build us up…

But Hindemith knocks us back down to piano with a haunting, sustained phrase in the woodwinds at 2:52. That sounds an awful lot like a slower version of the opening fanfare, doesn’t it? While the winds move on to the second part of the fanfare theme, the low strings enter with a haunting line of their own. At 2:55, try to listen for the lowest note. Waaaay down there. Lower. Hear it? That’s a contrabassoon. It’s awesome.

We return to the first theme, this time with trombones (3:04). The strings are plucking away at the bouncy accompaniment, and the clarinets and bass clarinet comment in triplets. We feel a bit eerie again. But Hindemith hasn’t forgotten the happier sound from 1:46. The trombones start the second phrase of the theme, but instead of staying in unison, they break out into a beautiful major chord (3:18). It doesn’t last long, but I love that part.

The theme continues, but doesn’t get to finish. Hindemith stalls by repeating an idea: from 3:23 to 3:26, he essentially repeats that idea (with different notes) three times. By the way, listen for the oboe at 3:24 – you’ll hear the fanfare again! Then he moves forward at 3:33-ish, but he doesn’t rush to a resolution. He continues to build and grow, then places a very effective rest (silence) that leaves you holding your breath in anticipation for the next note. (See, kids, once again it’s just as important to end your notes with purpose as begin them!)

Triumphant. That’s my third word.

Man, this last section never fails to get my emotions stirring. It’s so bold, so triumphant and heroic; it’s an amazing bit of music. Here we have full brass on the main melodic material, with the woodwinds and strings flying around in triplets. The horns are playing their hearts out, adding some neat flourishes to the theme (specifically 3:43-44 and 3:46-48). Then they get one of the best lines ever written for horn – a basic, yet extremely effective, chromatic scale that builds from 3:52-57.

We get one last run through the horn theme, still on full power, but it doesn’t immediately finish up. The first part of the fanfare theme comes back again at 4:12 as a call-and-response between the horns and trumpets, with some flourishes in the woodwinds and strings. We hear it twice, then Hindemith takes us through one final buildup to the end, giving us a last bit of fanfare (4:24). The brass hold on to that fanfare while the strings and winds flurry up to the final, decisive statements of the piece.

What a ride!

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Music Appreciation: The Fairest of the Fair by John Philip Sousa

Summer band concert season is in full swing this week, so what better time to talk about a piece by the “March King” himself? While John Philip Sousa (1854-1932) wrote an incredible number of marches, the one I love is The Fairest of the Fair. He wrote it in 1908 – the only work he composed that year. He wrote this for the Boston Food Fair, and the story goes that he was inspired by a lovely lass he saw, but never met.

Many (most?) of Sousa’s marches follow a specific formula. The Fairest of the Fair is no exception. This form contains several sections which should be fairly easy to tell apart. See if you can figure out where each section starts. I’ll give you the time marks as I walk through the piece and you can see if you got them right. (Or you can just keep reading without guessing. But where’s the fun in that?)

  1. Introduction
  2. First strain (repeated)
  3. Second strain (repeated)
  4. Trio
  5. Break strain (or Dogfight)
  6. Trio (modified; repeat sections 5 and 6)
  7. Stinger

The intro and first two strains are in one key – in this case, E♭ major. We begin with a happy little tune in the first strain, supported with a traditional march oom-pah from the lower voices (tubas as the “oom” on the beat, horns as the “pah” playing the off-beats). We take the repeat of the first strain, then move on to the second strain (0:37).

The second strain introduces a new theme. The theme occurs in the upper voices with a countermelody happening in the middle voices. Partway through this strain, we get a reprise of the theme from the first strain. We repeat the entire second strain.

Next up is the trio (1:27). As is usually the case in American marches of this form, we change keys here. The pattern is to add a flat to the key signature – this takes us to A♭ major, which has four flats compared to our previous key of E♭ major, which has three. (This takes us one move counter-clockwise around the circle of fifths. The circle of fifths shows how keys are related to each other.) Not only do we change keys in the trio, but we change moods as well. The theme here is smoother and a bit more reserved than the previous themes. We play this section only once.

So why is it called a trio? Back in the day, as in the 1600s, there were a lot of instrumental dance forms. One of those was called a minuet. Eventually, the minuet evolved into a longer form – basically adding a new section in the middle. So you had an ABA form to the music. That B section was called the trio, as it often utilized just three instruments. “A Guide to the Minuet and Trio Form” by John Mello has more information.

Then we reach the break strain at 2:02. The break strain truly creates a break in the piece. We go from a lovely trio melody to a loud, rhythmic burst from the band. I’d always heard the term “break strain” as interchangeable with “dogfight”, but I noticed that the Virginia Tech music theory page lists a dogfight as a specific type of break strain. At 2:19, I like how Sousa inserts a quote of the first theme in only the upper voices, which then leads us into the restatement of the trio melody.

One thing I find a bit different about The Fairest of the Fair is that Sousa doesn’t add any type of countermelody or obbligato when restating the trio theme (2:23), which is often what happens during this section of a march. An obbligato is a specific countermelody, often played in an upper voice, that is yet considered part of the accompaniment. Probably the most famous one, at least to Americans, is the piccolo line that happens during The Stars and Stripes Forever.

We repeat the break strain and trio theme to bring us to the end of our march. But before we sign off for good, we end with the typical march “stinger” – one last, short chord from the entire band. The vast majority of American marches end with a stinger. There’s a notable exception in Sousa’s Riders for the Flag march – no stinger! It can be difficult to fight the natural tendency to add one when playing that piece!

I hope you enjoyed our visit to a genre that’s very familiar to community bands and their audiences all across the country. It wouldn’t be a summer band concert without a march (or three), with at least one of them coming from Sousa!

Shamless plug: I’ve arranged this piece for clarinet choir; it is available at You can also find the original band parts at IMSLP.

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Marches Madness: Off With His Head! : Deceptive Cadence : NPR

I hadn’t planned on posting again so soon, but NPR gave me a reason:

Marches Madness: Off With His Head! : Deceptive Cadence : NPR.

I love how they annotated the actual video.  They talk about some of the same things I do: theme, which instruments are highlighted, etc.

So enjoy a different sort of “bonus feature” than what I usually post.  I love Symphonie Fantastique – there are some wicked clarinet parts in the last movement 🙂  I know somewhere I have a funny quote copied down about this piece, but darned if I know where it is (and Google hasn’t helped).  If I find it, I’ll make sure to update this post.