Music Appreciation: Pastoral by Vincent Persichetti

In mid-January, my thoughts inevitably turn to spring. I don’t mind winter to some extent (and this year has been so much better than last year’s Big Bucket of Suck), but spring is my favorite season. Everything is new again, the flowers are blooming, and we don’t need twelve extra layers of clothing in order to go outside.

Photo of a lovely spring landscape

Lovely spring landscape by stux (via Pixabay)

This March (2015) I’m looking forward to performing with the Winds Off the Lake woodwind quintet as substitute clarinet. Rehearsing with them has reminded me of my love of quintet music, and I’ve had a great time filling in. It’s been a while since I talked about woodwind quintets, so I thought this would be a nice time to listen to Pastoral by Vincent Persichetti.

Persichetti (1915-1987) produced an enormous amount of work over his lifetime, providing music for a wide variety of musicians. He wrote everything from symphonies to cantatas, chamber music to pieces for concert band. Pastoral is one of two pieces he composed for woodwind quintet. The term “pastoral” (var. pastorale) is much used in art and music to portray country life.

The flute and clarinet lead off with a lovely little duet, painting a bucolic image of green grass, some trees along a fence line, perhaps a bubbling brook running through the field. The bit at 0:32 reminds me of little birds fluttering about, or butterflies. The oboe enters at 0:46, adding a different tone color into the mix. The three instruments finish up as the bassoon emerges (0:56).

The bassoon’s short phrase begins to take us toward new ideas. At 1:00, the flute, oboe, and clarinet come in together on a chord, the first time we’ve heard a “vertical” chord as opposed to one that occurs when various melodic lines happen to come together. Immediately after this the horn finally appears, playing a manipulated version of the flute’s melody from the beginning of the piece (theme A). The bassoon answers with an echo (1:10).

At 1:14, we think we’re going back to the opening melody, this time with oboe, but we learn quickly that Persichetti is starting to explore the countryside. We hear snippets of the first few notes of the original theme, though they’re not always exactly the same. Notice that there’s a lot more motion here. Perhaps we’ve encountered some small animals, like squirrels and bunnies and chipmunks. Listen to the clarinet at 1:19 – you will hear echoes of that throughout this section played by different instruments. The flute and oboe hint at a new motif at 1:29, but don’t explore it further.

We continue to rustle and flutter about, passing themes between instruments, having the flute and clarinet united at 1:37, followed by the horn and bassoon. The flute starts to remind us of another bit of theme A, but goes off on a tangent (1:42, probably following a butterfly). We’ve had some buildup of volume here, the loudest we’ve heard so far (the score is marked forte). The horn and bassoon enter firmly at 1:47, with the upper winds answering. There’s a bit more conversation, then the flute and clarinet call our attention (though softly) to something new in our scene.

Persichetti introduces new thematic material at 1:55. To me it’s a scene change as well – I imagine we’ve moved through the grass and trees and come upon a hamlet. I can see a farmer with his horse-drawn cart, a woman hanging laundry out to dry, other odds and ends of country life. There’s more and more activity starting around 2:10; it reaches its climax at 2:20 with everyone hitting a chord together. Things quiet down quickly, though, with the bassoon singing a line followed by a neat-sounding bit at 2:28 (perhaps a sigh of relief?). The flute, clarinet, horn and bassoon strike a quieter chord to prepare us for the next section.

The oboe introduces us to our next theme at 2:33 (theme B). Remember earlier when I said the flute and oboe hinted at a theme? Here it is. We hear it on its own, with the other instruments on sustained chords. But at 2:41, the other instruments decide to liven it up, with the bassoon and horn providing a jaunty accompaniment vamp that alternates between 3/8 and 2/4 time. They settle into steady 2/4 when the flute and clarinet pick up the melody. Persichetti ends the theme a bit differently this time compared to when the oboe played it earlier, followed by a fun bounce around the group at 2:52 (Malcolm Arnold uses a similar trick in his own woodwind quintet Three Shanties).

For the second time through the theme, the flute and oboe have the melody, and the bassoon is droning at the bottom with the clarinet playing a line that’s not quite a countermelody, but it’s not a typical accompaniment pattern, either. On top of all that, the horn has a true countermelody. If you listen closely, you’ll hear that it’s very much based on theme A. I would gladly listen to more of this, but Persichetti cuts us off with a bouncy statement from the flute and clarinet (3:02). The group (minus flute) answers with a unified statement (in rhythm, not in pitch). While that sounds somewhat solemn, we’re back with our 3/8 and 2/4 right away at 3:07.

At first, we think we’re just going to repeat what we heard earlier, but Persichetti plays with our expectations. He turns part of the accompaniment into its own melody. Listen to the horn here – isn’t that fun? The clarinet answers at 3:14, beginning our transition into the next section. The flute then enters with a line that harkens back to an earlier mood, closing with a slower version of theme B, while the bassoon and clarinet drone underneath.

Slow chords lead us into a more solemn, hymn-like section, the flute playing a melody that has elements of theme A. The other instruments have long, beautifully squishy chords underneath. The bassoon gives a sort of “amen” after the flute finishes its hymn, then both of them jump to life. The flute starts a recap of theme B (4:10) then flies away, the oboe and clarinet hopping along afterward. The flute-as-bird returns briefly with the bassoon trotting underneath. Then we hear statements from the clarinet and oboe; things are getting more cacophonous when the horn has its say (4:23).

At 4:27, we hear what I feel is the most unusual part of this piece, as it’s just different from anything we’ve really heard so far. For some reason, what comes to mind for me here is an odd game of “ring around the rosie.” The game is over quickly, however, and we start to calm down. At 4:33, I get the impression of chimes, first from the oboe and clarinet, immediately followed by the horn and bassoon. They settle into slow-moving chords as the flute still dances about, but then the oboe takes over the melody, slowing things down even more. The horn makes a statement that’s similar to what the bassoon has done before to lead us into the final section of the piece.

Here we come full circle. The flute and clarinet reprise the duet that we’d heard at the beginning (4:55), this time with the horn and bassoon playing sustained tones underneath. We don’t get a full repeat; the duet slows and quiets down, the day fading away. We hear one last word from the oboe, a breath, then a gentle, quiet major chord.

Did you enjoy your trip through the idyllic countryside? Can you feel spring approaching? Stay warm through this last bit of winter, the flowers will be here before we know it.

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Music Appreciation: Three Shanties by Malcolm Arnold

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And now for something completely different!  I want to introduce you to one of my favorite small ensembles – the woodwind quintet (or, wind quintet).  This chamber ensemble consists of flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and horn.  Isn’t the horn a brass instrument, you ask?  It is.  So why is it in a woodwind quintet?  Well, the joke I heard is that one day the horn player took a wrong turn into a woodwind quartet instead of the brass quintet, liked what he heard, and decided to stay a while. But seriously, some of the earliest quintet music is from Anton Reicha in the early 1800s.  

"Duke of Lancaster" and "Royal Saxon" off Cape Town by Samuel Walters

“Duke of Lancaster” and “Royal Saxon” off Cape Town by Samuel Walters

The woodwind quintet (or wind quintet) has a very unique sound.  Brass and strings have a very homogenous sound within their respective sections.  There are certainly tonal differences between a trumpet and tuba, for instance, but they both undoubtedly belong to the brass family.  However, on the woodwind side, a flute sounds very different from a clarinet, which sounds very different from an oboe, and so forth.  This provides some intriguing tone colors throughout the group.

So, combine an unusual-sounding group with one of my favorite composers, Sir Malcolm Arnold, and you get a crazy fun piece.  Composed in 1943, Three Shanties consists of three movements, each one paying homage to a different sea shanty.  First up is  “What Should We Do With a Drunken Sailor?”  This is probably the most familiar tune of the three pieces.  The second movement is “Boney Was a Warrior”, followed by “Johnny Come Down to Hilo” for the third movement.

On to the piece!

Movement I – Allegro con brio (0:00-2:21)

I think everyone’s heard this tune sometime in their life (everyone sing along with me! ♪♫♪)

What should we do with a drunken sailor
What should we do with a drunken sailor
What should we do with a drunken sailor
Early in the morning

Then the ditty goes on to explain all the things that can be done to this sailor.  Rather entertaining, and I’m willing to bet there have been many… unique… verses added to this throughout the years.

Malcolm Arnold loves to play around with melodies, taking bits and pieces and manipulating them so they’re not always recognizable.  We get a few instances of hearing the complete theme in this movement, such as in the flute at the beginning, but he interjects a lot of other material as well.  Sometimes you hear just the first few repeated notes of the tune (“what should we do with a”, 0:14), sometimes you hear snippets of “early in the morning” (0:58, bassoon, then clarinet).  Now and then it’s just the rhythm of the theme that links it all together (0:32).

He uses a lot of downward arpeggios in the movement as well, which I consider to be a motif in the piece. Arpeggios are basically chords that are played one note at a time, instead of all at once.  The first one happens at 0:18 in the clarinet.  While we’re here, listen to the horn’s accented notes underneath the clarinet arpeggio.  Does it sound a bit different? More nasal?  He’s using a technique called “stopped” horn.  A hornist plays with his right hand slightly in the instrument’s bell. When he “stops” the horn, he inserts his hand further into the bell, which manipulates the tone quality of the instrument. You can hear more of this around 0:47.

At 0:24, he introduces a new motif, an up and down motion in the flute, clarinet and bassoon.  It sounds a bit like the waves of the sea (or perhaps the the uneasiness of the drunk sailor’s legs?).  He breaks it up with a rhythmic nod to the melody (0:32) and the arpeggio motif (0:35).  The waves get more agitated at 0:48 in the clarinet and bassoon, accompanied by some intentionally nasty sounding notes from the rest of the group.  Things settle down a bit as the piece transitions into new territory.  During this transition, the horn displays another technique: muting.  Muting uses a conical piece of material, usually made out of wood and cardboard, sometimes metal, that gets inserted into the bell.  The result is a less strident tone than is produced from stopping, but it still has an edge to it.  While you’re listening to the horn, try to identify when it plays a bit of the melody at 1:07 and 1:10.  It should sound like the “-en sail-or” part of the tune.

I love the section at 1:15 – to me it sounds very “sailors roughing it on the seas”, though I don’t know that I can explain exactly why that is.  Then there’s the deliciously brash clarinet line at 1:23 that leads into some great dissonance with the flute and oboe, with the horn “falls” answering to that.  Things do quiet down with a few steps leading into…

a tango?  I’m entertained by the thought of a boozy sailor trying to dance with someone.  Or something.  The bassoon plays the familiar tango bass line, with the flute, clarinet and horn playing smooth, repeated notes (the “what shall we do with a” part of the main tune).  The oboe adds some comments, followed by a lyrical flute line.  The tango doesn’t last for long, though, and we’re back to the quick pace of the initial melody.  I love the clash that happens when the tune reaches “morn-ing”!  We finish up the melody with more arpeggios and a closing statement from the group.

Movement II – Allegretto semplice (2:24-3:59)

Boney was a warrior,Way, hay, yah,
Oh Boney was a warrior,
John Francois

This is the most straightforward movement out of the three.  It begins with a lovely muted horn solo, with only long, sustained tones from some of the other instruments as accompaniment.  Listen for the flute melody right after the horn’s line, she’s playing in the lower register of the flute.  We haven’t really heard that yet in any of the pieces I’ve talked about.  I love the sound of those lower notes on flute.  We don’t always get to hear them, but they can be very effective.

Each instrument gets a chance at the melody in this movement.  While the accompaniment is mostly long notes, every now and then there’s some movement.  The bassoon has a nice descending line into its turn at the tune (2:53), and the flute answers with a descending countermelody of her own (2:58).  At 3:10, Arnold changes the character of the descending line a bit with the clarinet and bassoon playing the notes shorter, not as smooth and long as previous iterations.

After a grand pause at 3:36, the piece ends as it started with the muted horn solo.  What’s interesting is he kind of leaves the horn hanging – the other instruments have dropped out at this point.  It’s the sort of ending that makes the audience wonder, “Is there more?”

Movement III – Allegro vivace (4:02-6:47)

Never seen the like since I been born
A great big sailor with his sea boots on
Johnny come down to Hilo, poor old man
Wake her, shake her
Wake that gal with the blue dress on
Johnny come down to Hilo, poor old man

Hold on to your hats!  Arnold really plays around with the tune in this one.  He interrupts it frequently, having one instrument start the line with another jumping in to finish.  The most extreme example (and my favorite) begins with the oboe at 4:26 – the melody hits all the instruments just one to three notes at a time.  Played well, and in time, the listener can still hear the line of the melody, despite the difference in instruments.  Timing is crucial for that one!

He goes on to create a neat cascading effect from the flute down to the bassoon starting at 4:33 with each instrument starting the melody, though the flute is the only one to get through a complete phrase.  The music plays around a bit with short, rhythmic chords before the flute, oboe and clarinet unite in the “Johnny come down to Hilo” phrase.  The bassoon and horn lead us downward into the next section.

The bassoon and horn get into a groovy little accompaniment, but settle into a fast waltz with the clarinet as the flute and oboe arrive in a tipsy duet (the songs are about sailors, after all!)  Listen closely starting at 5:14 – after a descending line by the bassoon and horn, they go into a 5/8 pattern (remember 5/8 from Armenian Dances?) It doesn’t last long, but it’s there.  The clarinet and oboe get in on it with some wonderfully clashing notes before we get a clearer shot of the tune starting with flute and clarinet.  That doesn’t last long, either, before we get into another waltzy section.

We get into such a fun part at 5:44!  The bassoon, horn and clarinet set up a great rhythm, then the flute just takes off in a neat reworking of the melody.  There’s a great smear of sound from everyone else as they join in the festivities, with the horn whooping it up throughout.  After the party, the piece settles back into “normal”, though Arnold continues to play around with the tune and rhythms and gives us another cascade at 6:20.  This is followed by a dissonant “horn call” type of line with the clarinet and oboe.  He finally settles us down with a descending line into a hold, then a pause.  We finish with a fun little ending that’s very characteristic of Malcolm Arnold.

Now that we’re back on dry land, I hope you’ve enjoyed this introduction to both the wind quintet and Malcolm Arnold!  I’ll probably be doing a bonus features post sometime soon, as I came across some fun videos while researching this post.

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