Let’s return to the band world and talk about one of the staples of the repertoire, “Variations on a Korean Folk Song” by John Barnes Chance. I’ve had the opportunity to play this several times over the years – it’s such a great piece.
Chance (1932-1972) pursued bachelors and masters degrees from the University of Texas and served in the military as part of a military band. While stationed in South Korea, he was introduced to the folk song “Arrirang.” The tune stuck with him and he eventually used it as the basis for “Variations on a Korean Folk Song.”
Before we dig in to the piece, I’d like to talk about the pentatonic scale. So far, most everything I’ve discussed here on the blog has been based on major or minor scales. Those are the ones most familiar to us from piano lessons, band, and choir. But I’d wager you know the pentatonic scale even if you don’t think you do – just play the black keys on the piano. Everyone’s done that, right? If you want to construct the scale in a different key, use the pattern W-3H-W-W-3H (i.e. C-D-F-G-A-C). “Arrirang” is based on the pentatonic scale.
I selected the reference video because 1) the excellent musicianship and 2) Frederick Fennell was the conductor. Fennell was (and still is, actually) an icon in the band world.
The piece begins with the melody on its own, played by the clarinet section in its lowest register, which is called the “chalumeau” (referring to the instrument from which the clarinet descended). At 1:27, other woodwinds join in to finish the first time through the theme.
The theme repeats at 1:44, this time with saxes and baritone. One thing to observe is that it starts on the same note as the previous section ended (A♭), effectively changing the key for this part. We’re used to melodies starting and ending on the same note; that doesn’t happen here. The piece began on E♭ and ended on A♭. Now we’re starting on A♭ and will end on D♭. Anyway, the saxes and baritone have taken over the melody, with sustained chords from most of the rest of the band. Midway through, the clarinets and horns have the melody, with half of the horns breaking into harmony on the downward phrase (2:03). The parts come back together to finish out the theme, then repeat the last motif several times as the sustained chords modulate (2:18), leading us into the first variation. The trumpets, who have managed to stay silent so far, decide they can’t wait any longer and join in with the high winds in an echo of part of the melody (2:27).
Variation I (2:38)
With just a small hit from the gong, we’re off into our first variation. Some of the winds and the temple blocks dash off into a whirlwind of activity beginning on beat three. Try to listen how the up and down of the melody corresponds to the theme we heard at the beginning. At 2:45, there’s another gong hit and the other woodwinds start the variation melody on beat two, echoed by the original group of woodwinds (plus a few more) on beat three. The flurry intensifies, leading up to the trumpets coming in boldly with a phrase from second half of the theme (2:52). Another flurry finishes out this part.
At 2:58, we start the variation over, this time with the flutes, piccolo, and low clarinets (unfortunately, it’s hard to hear those low clarinets in this particular video. But if you stick with me, I’ll make it up to you at the end of the post). Another difference is that the percussion is getting a bit more active, especially during the second half. The oboes and trumpets come in with the statement at 3:05, with the original group of flutes and low clarinets continuing on beat three. The clarinets, horns, and baritone take their turn at the bold motif (3:11) while the others scurry about.
The bass line jumps in with the variation melody at 3:17, but Chance changes it up a bit: he has them playing right on beat one. There are now two echoes that come in on beats two and three. But then the first echo (trumpets) essentially skip a beat and come in on beat one (3:20) with the second echo (high winds) on beat two, forcing the original line (low instruments) to wait until beat three. I can tell you from experience that the bass line doesn’t like to have to wait! In every group I’ve played this with, the bass line always tries to jump in a beat or two early. It’s a band fact of life. We just hope we finally get it right during the concert.
Anyway, there’s a cacophonous rush to 3:25, a catch of breath, and then the band presents a final flourish as one to end the variation.
The clarinets, low reeds, and horns play a slow accompaniment to bring in the next variation (3:33). Chance highlights the oboe here with a beautiful solo. This whole section is sumptuous. And while it’s easy to get lost in the lush music, listen to the line of the melody. It’s an inversion of the theme, meaning that its ups and downs are flip-flopped from what we heard before. I feel it works particularly well here and is just as good a melody as the original tune. The clarinets and flutes (playing in a low register) take over for a few measures at 4:00, but everyone really just wants to hear the oboe again. We’re given that at 4:08.
Similar to what happened in the theme, this variation repeats itself using the last note of the melody as the new beginning note (4:20). The flutes, alto sax, and first horn lead the way; the clarinets, low reeds and brass, and the rest of the horns have a similar but slightly different accompaniment. The end of the melody gets repeated a few times in preparation for the ending of this variation.
A trumpet solo soars over the low accompaniment, the melody back to its right-side-up form. He plays just the first half of the theme, sustaining his final note as transition into the next variation.
A quick “fweep” from the group, and we’re off into a brisk march tempo (5:03), the horns, baritone, tuba, and timpani forging ahead toward a new variation. Now we’re in 6/8 time, and the trumpets take the lead on the melody, a rollicking line that plays with the timing of the original theme. The woodwinds continue to “fweep” here and there, adding punctuation to what the trumpets are saying.
The woodwinds take over at 5:22, the trombone accompaniment more sustained (but not slower) than the previous group’s accompaniment. It’s not a long statement, as the middle voices come in at 5:28 with just a brief quote. Then we’re back into the fray – the trumpets playing their melody, the woodwinds swirling about in the stratosphere, and the lower voices stomping out an accompanying rhythm.
At 5:42, the horns repeat their brief quote, with the winds cascading down to a single sustained note in the lowest clarinets, saxes, and brass. The snare drum’s rhythm provides the intro for the new melody.
The band moves together in rhythm here, the theme stripped down to its bare bones. You can hear the upper voices playing the normal line and the lower voices playing the inverted version. Only the percussion give us any reference to the sprightly section we just heard. There’s a sweep up to the second half of the melody (6:11). The flute and piccolo sustain a high trill while the rest of the group finishes the tune. This is the shortest variation, and there’s only a slight pause on a sustained chord before leaping into Variation V (6:27).
We haven’t heard much from the percussion since Variation I, but that changes right here. Holy cow, what a great group of players! The dude on the temple blocks is freaking amazing (6:38), and all the other parts are spot-on. The vibraphone comes in with a motif at 6:42, with the flutes echoing at 6:44 and the E♭ and first clarinets following at 6:47. Not content with that, Chance adds one more layer in the second and third clarinets and alto and tenor saxes at 6:50.
Amidst all that chaos, the brass arrive triumphantly with the melody at 6:53. It’s a bit more ornamented than in the previous variation, but still slightly simplified from the original statement way back at the beginning of the piece. To pack an extra punch, the bass voices don’t enter until 6:57. We hear a glorious combination of steady vs. frantic, with almost everyone coming together at 7:09 (the percussion are too caught up in the frenzy to realize something different is happening). The majority of players have sustained melody and accompanying chords, with several flourishes from the reeds. At 7:18, the trumpets and a few other voices play the motif that we heard at the end of the theme, then the percussion dance through one last brief moment before the final flourish of the piece.
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