This week on the show, we’re saluting some horns-a-plenty. It’s a show about the trumpet, the trombone, and the tuba, a show we’re calling “All About That Brass!”
Let’s get down to some brass tax with our very brassy playlist below:
- Richard Wagner (1813–1883), Die Walküre: Ride of the Valkyries – Before Wagner’s time, brass instruments were generally associated with the military and the hunt, and composers used them in their instrumental works when they wanted to evoke those images. Wagner changed all that with the brass parts in his epic operas, elevating the instruments to represent much more primal forces, such as fate, doom, victory and reverence. Many of Wagner’s most recognizable leitmotifs are played by brass instruments, like in this moment from Die Walküre where the ride of the Valkyries is introduced by the trombones. Wagner even invented a brass instrument, the Wagner Tuba. It’s a hybrid instrument that uses a horn mouthpiece and acts as a timbral bridge between the horns and the trombones. Though it is not known for certain who manufactured the first Wagner tubas, it is thought to have been the Berlin firm of C.W. Moritz. Though Wagner tubas are not commonly used today, they were incorporated into works of Brucker, Stravinsky, and Richard Strauss.
- Jeremiah Clarke (c. 1647–1707), The Prince of Denmark’s March (Trumpet Voluntary) – This short trumpet piece “The Prince of Denmark’s March” is very popular today as a wedding piece—it was played, for instance, at the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana. But its popularity had little to do with its composer, Jeremiah Clarke. Clarke was not an especially popular composer. He was a church organist in London, and although we do know that he committed suicide in 1707, no one knows when he was born. “The Prince of Denmark’s March” is really only popular today because for a long time, it was mis-attributed to the very popular 17th-century English composer Henry Purcell under the title “Trumpet Voluntary.” Composer Sir Henry Wood even arranged the “Trumpet Voluntary” for orchestra, continuing the Purcell mis-attribution. The melody came from Clarke’s semi-opera The Island Princess, which he co-wrote with Henry Purcell’s brother Daniel Purcell. That was likely the cause of the original confusion.
- Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1759–1791), Horn Concerto No. 4 in E-flat major, K. 495: III. Rondo: Allegro vivace – Horns are ancient instruments. People buzzed their lips to produce sounds through actual animal horns for millennia before they created horns out of brass. But even the modern horn took a while to catch on as a true musical instrument. Horns were mostly used as a noise-making novelty during the hunt, whereas predecessors to the trumpet and trombone were used to make music. It wasn’t until the 18th-century, when French instrument makers began to tweak the design, that the horn began to truly be used musically. This famous horn concerto by Mozart is one of the earliest solo showcases for horn, and the music alludes to the instrument’s hunting past. The opening of this Rondo finale is made to sound like a hunting horn call. All of Mozart’s horn concertos were written for his good friend, horn player Joseph Leutgeb. Mozart even left friendly insults and gibes to Leutgeb in the manuscript score!
- Hector Berlioz (1803–1869), Requiem (Grande Messe des morts): Dies Irae (Tuba Mirum) – In 1830, Berlioz won the Prix de Rome, a composition prize that allowed him to travel to Italy. While in Italy, Berlioz was amazed at the expansive grandeur of its cathedrals, but disappointed in the relative feebleness of the music being performed there. So Berlioz decided he wanted to write music that was as grand and awesome as that architecture. He finally got the chance with a commission to write a Requiem mass, which he called his Grande Messe des Morts. In this work, the massive orchestration includes a few dozen winds (including 20 brass instruments), a battery of percussion, over 100 strings, and a chorus of up to 800 voices. The “Tuba Mirum” section of the Dies Irae is about a trumpet sound so grand it summons all people before the throne of God. To capture that massive sound, Berlioz included 40 additional brass players performing in four off-stage brass bands in the four corners of the hall.
- Franz von Suppé (1819–1895), Light Cavalry Overture – Although Franz von Suppé wrote dozens of operettas, he is perhaps best known for his overtures. Suppé wrote a number of musical farces for the Viennese stage, and his works today are favorites mostly of pops orchestras. Composed in 1866, the Light Cavalry Overture comes from Suppé’s two-act comic operetta with a libretto by Karl Costa. The operetta is set in the 18th century amid the court intrigues of a Baron and his Hungarian Countess lover, whose ballet company is referred to as the ‘light cavalry’. Von Suppé plays up this nickname even further by kicking off the overture with a bugle call known in the 18th century as “the charge.” When heard from a military bugler, it would have signaled the light cavalry to charge into battle. Von Suppé treats the bugle call as a theme, using the rest of the overture to develop the simple melody into more complicated musical ideas.
- Gunther Schuller (1925–2015), Symphony for Brass and Percussion, op. 16 – Gunther Schuller is someone who wore an overwhelming amount of musical hats in his career. Most prominently, he was a composer of both classical and jazz works, winning him the Pulitzer Prize and several other prestigious awards. In the 1950s and 60s, Schuller advocated a school of composition he referred to as third stream jazz. This influential idea freely drew from both jazz and classical vocabularies with neither subsuming the other. Schuller was also a conductor and educator, serving in director roles at Tanglewood, the New England Conservatory, and the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra. He was also a prominent scholar and historian, writing some of the first serious musicological studies of jazz. And finally, Schuller was also a notable horn player. He not only played with the American Ballet and Metropolitan Opera, but his horn playing can also be heard on the classic Miles Davis jazz album Birth of the Cool.
- Eric Ewazen (b. 1954), Fantasia for Seven Trumpets – Composer Eric Ewazen is known today primarily for writing music that elevates the instruments of the brass section. His brass music has been performed by brass players from all the major American orchestras. In fact, if you’ve ever listened to election night coverage on NPR, you’ve heard Ewazen’s brass music: a movement from his Symphony In Brass is used as NPR’s election night fanfare. Born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1954, Ewazen studied trombone, music theory and composition at Eastman and Juilliard under such noted composers as Samuel Adler, Milton Babbitt, and Gunther Schuller. Ewazen has been on faculty at Juilliard since 1982. This Fantasia for Seven Trumpets was written for a chamber ensemble based out of Juilliard called the Metropolitan Trumpet Ensemble. But it took a brass expert like Ewazen to find the variety in tone color out of only one kind of brass instrument.
- Piffaro, the Renaissance Band and their sackbuts and cornettos – By the 16th century, the Renaissance trombone precursor, called the sackbut, became one of the standard instruments for town bands. Like viols, shawms and recorders, sackbuts came in many sizes, from alto to double bass, so that a choir of them could perform together as an ensemble. Civic authorities at the time employed these ensembles at municipal functions, as well as to herald specific times of day. Another instrument heard on this recording is the cornetto, which often takes the treble line in a sackbut ensemble. Thought it sounds like a trumpet, the cornetto is actually made from wood, wrapped tightly in leather. The secret to the cornetto’s virtuosic sound comes from its mouthpiece, which is shaped like a trumpet mouthpiece, although carved from bone. And although it’s not technically made of brass, a cornetto is still considered to be in the brass family. Brass instruments are unified by how they’re played (buzzing your lips into a mouthpiece), not by what they’re made of, despite the name!
- The Beatles, “Penny Lane” (Lennon/McCartney) – The Beatles’ “Penny Lane” was written in 1966 alongside “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “When I’m Sixty-Four” for a proposed album that never quite materialized all about the Fab Four’s youth in Liverpool. In this song, Paul McCartney paints a bubbly picture of idyllic British suburbia, complete with nurses, a barber, a banker, and a fireman. It even mentions actual locales from Liverpool, like the titular “Penny Lane,” a shopping district the Beatles would frequent in their younger days. To help create the nostalgic sound, the Beatles included a Baroque trumpet, an instrument frequently used by Johann Sebastian Bach. In fact, McCartney had heard trumpeter David Mason perform Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 with the baroque trumpet on television in 1966. This inspired him to write this similar-sounding baroque trumpet part for “Penny Lane.” In the “Penny Lane” recording session, he even got David Mason to perform it!