Music Appreciation: Armenian Dances, Part I by Alfred Reed

Armenian landscape
Armenian landscape

Most people’s experience of concert 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. ( Band music is for wind instruments and percussion. No strings (except for string bass at times)).

Journey with me as we listen to a concert band staple: Alfred Reed’s Armenian Dances.

Armenian Dances Part 1 ~アルメニアン・ダンスパートⅠ~

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 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/pop) or three (i.e. waltzes). But something’s 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”.

Keeping it in five

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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Lori Archer Sutherland

Lori Archer Sutherland earned a Bachelor of Music in Theory and Composition degree from the Ohio State University and a Master of Library and Information Science degree from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She composes, performs, and teaches clarinet. She plays bass clarinet with the Crystal Lake Community Band and the Woodstock City Band, clarinet with Winds Off the Lake Woodwind Quintet, and is the founder and organizer of the Knock on Wood Clarinet Choir, where she plays an even bigger clarinet. Check out her site and podcast at tonaldiversions.com

1 Response

  1. August 27, 2017

    […] I was researching for my previous post, I came across quite a few videos of different versions of the Armenian folk songs used in Alfred […]