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Don't Frighten The Horses - Quality Literature For Wind Ensemble

Tim Reynish raids the archives for comments on contemporary music and the role of wind music in the 21st Century, with contributions from Lady Astor, Mrs Pat Campbell and Sir Simon Rattle, Frank Battisti, Warren Benson, Philip Kennicott, Richard Franko Goldman, Percy Grainger, Michael Haithcock, Geoffrey Norris, Gunther Schuller, Leonard Slatkin, John Phillip Sousa and Sir Michael Tippett

Wind Ensemble Music In The 21st Century

Composer Work Publisher
Bazelon, Irwin Midnight Music Novello
Bennett, Richard Rodney Morning Music Novello
Bennett, Richard Rodney Four Seasons Novello
Bennett, Richard Rodney Trumpet Concerto Novello
Bingham, Judith Three American Icons Maecenas
Casken, John Distant Variations Schott
Clarke, Nigel Samurai Maecenas
Gilbert, Anthony Dream Carousels Schotts
Gorb, Adam Elements (Percussion) Maecenas
Gorb, Adam Dances from Crete Maecenas
Gorb, Adam Farewell Maecenas
Gregson, Edward Missa Brevis Pacem Novello
Hesketh, Kenneth Diaghilev Dances Faber
Holloway, Robin Entrance; Carousing; Embarcation Boosey & Hawkes
Horne, David Waves and Refrains Boosey & Hawkes
MacMillan, James Sowetan Spring Boosey & Hawkes
Maconchy, Elizabeth Music for Wind & Brass Chester
Maw, Nicholas American Games Faber
Marshall, Christopher L'Homme Armé Maecenas
Marshall, Christopher Resonance Maecenas
McNeff, Stephen An Image in Stone Maecenas
McNeff, Stephen Wasteland Wind Music Maecenas
Musgrave, Thea Journey through a Japanese Landscape Chester
Roxburgh, Edwin An Elegy for Ur Maecenas
Sallinen, Aulis The Palace Rhapsody Novello
Tippett, Michael Triumph Schott
Wengler, Marcel Versuche über einen Marsch Maecenas
Wilby, Philip A Passion for our Time Maecenas
Wilby, Philip Firestar Chester/Music Sales
Wilby, Philip Sinfonia Sacra Chester/Music Sales

It seems to be a toss-up whether Lady Nancy Astor or Mrs. Patrick Campbell first used the phrase ...don't frighten the horses....(I don't mind where people make love, so long as they don't do it in the street and frighten the horses) It was certainly the President of BASBWE, Sir Simon Rattle, who used it in an interview before a performance of Magnus Lindberg's Gran Duo. when he said that there are wonderful composers who... often end up writing simple pieces - "don't frighten the horses too much",- 15 minutes, beginning of the concert, lots of percussion, not too much rehearsal.

Some of the above thirty selected works might cause a nervous horse to shy, but while they are all couched in a more or less contemporary language, they are all more or less approachable, and I believe that they offer a major contribution not only to the genre of wind music, but also to the wider international field of ensemble music in general. On the whole, these works need either professional players, or a fine conservatoire, university or honours band to do them justice. I have left out a number of excellent pieces which might be programmed "for fun", and everyone will have their own favourite works which I have omitted, but here is, in my biased view, a representative selection of "quality literature" for wind ensemble published in the United Kingdom.

New England Symposium 2001

The New England Conservatory Symposium, the first Symposium on Wind Music of the New Millennium, was crucial to our musical development. It gave us a chance to take stock of the past, not just of the fifty years of development since Frederick Fennell founded the Eastman Wind Ensemble, but also of the nooks and crannies of the repertoire perhaps still unexplored.

I was invited to write an article for the programme; Frank Battisti as usual stated my task boldly and succinctly:" What I would like to have you write for the NEC Wind Symposium Program is an essay on Wind Band/Ensemble development and creation of quality literature by composers from countries throughout the world (excluding the USA) since the International Conference for Conductors, Composers and Publishers in 1981 "

However, I am always mindful of the exhortation of Warren Benson at the 1987 WASBE Conference when he said:

I don't want WASBE to turn into a dispensary where people come every two years to get lists that they can go home and file and forget about and do the same old stuff they've been doing before....I want WASBE to be a place where people come to turn on, to get on fire, to talk to people who have just found something out.

Back in 1981 Gunther Schuller told the CBDNA You are strong, you have the leadership and a great deal of artistic integrity, and you are historically at a juncture where standing still will be tantamount to going backward..

1981 The Birth Of Wasbe

Within five months, the CBDNA led by Frank Battisti, had founded WASBE at the first Manchester Conference in 1981; the potential for breaking out of the goldfish bowl of academia was there, and now, twenty years on at the start of the millennium, the time is ripe to see how far we have travelled, and to take up the challenge of these two great composers. Frank faced the challenge in the late seventies when he put together the Manchester 1981 Conference. In 1982 at the first BASBWE Conference, he articulated the aims quite clearly:

  1. 1. We need to develop the concept of the wind band/ensemble as an international music medium
  2. 2. The commissioning of pieces for the wind band/ensemble to be written by important world composers by WASBE and other international associations and organisations
  3. 3. The projection of the wind band/ensemble into the professional musical arena through the establishment of professional wind bands/ensembles and commercial recordings of the literature for our medium.
  4. 4. The establishment of effective relationships with music publishing companies so co-operatively, we can insure the publication of important literature for the wind band/ensemble medium.

Our challenge is to lead our "world" profession and to create great music. We owe this to our diligent predecessors and to future wind/band ensemble conductors, composers and performers. If we can pursue and achieve some of the goals illuminated above, it is conceivable that this era will be viewed in the future as a period when the wind band/ ensemble, under creative and dedicated musical leadership, became established in the main stream of world musical activity. Frank Battisti - Oxford Sept. 1982

How far have we succeeded ? I believe that great things have been achieved. In March 2000 I was present at one of the first performances of Magnus Lindberg's Gran Duo, a work for orchestral wind, and Sir Simon Rattle told me

I have programmed this in the first weeks in Berlin and also we have commissioned a wonderful young German composer, Heiner Goebbels, a great composer, who is almost the equivalent of their Mark-Anthony Turnage so I've commissioned from him a piece without strings, so there will be two of these in the first season. I think its good news. I was rather inspired by you commissioning that fantastic concerto from Richard Bennett that has to be done sometime, you've done it plenty of times, but it's a wonderful thing.

Sir Michael Tippett

Although there is now a vast library of good, often great, wind music published and recorded, it rarely finds its way into programmes, where the tried and tested hold sway. Sir Michael Tippett was well aware of the dangers of routine taste when he wrote:

We all know that the big public is extremely conservative and is willing to ring the changes on a few beloved works till the end of time, and that our concert life, through the taste of this public, suffers from a kind of inertia of sensibility, that seems to want no musical experience whatever beyond what it already knows.....Surely the matter is that the very big public masses together in a kind of dead passion of mediocrity, and that this blanket of mediocrity is deeply offended by any living passion of the unusual, the rare, the rich, the exuberant, the heroic and the aristocratic in art.

The "few beloved works" syndrome is omnipresent in our concert halls and on the air. There are more than 25 recordings of the Haydn Trumpet Concerto in the catalogue today, yet how many of the world's leading trumpeters, let alone their audience or indeed their students, know of the Trumpet Concerto of Richard Rodney Bennett of which Paul Driver wrote when he inhabits this sort of crossover territory, Bennett really has something to say. This is one of three works by Bennett, written for the Royal Northern College of Music; brilliant scoring with novel combinations of colours make these and other wind commissions by composers such as Bazelon, Casken, MacMillan, Musgrave and Sallinen, a natural bridge between the so-called "serious" composer and the public.

Rattle echoed Tippett when he spoke of the dilemma of "safety" in the orchestral world: The problem is that contemporary composers often now have had to write now for the possibility of limited rehearsal so they tend to write pieces where all the wind parts are very virtuosic and the string parts can be put together in not too much rehearsal time... wonderful composers in the States often end up writing simple pieces for the American orchestral subscription series - "don't frighten the horses too much",- 15 minutes, beginning of the concert, lots of percussion, not too much rehearsal, and the point about a wind ensembles is that very often there is more time by the very nature of the fact that the players are quicker.

Philip Kennicott

Now one of our problems in the "wind band world" is that like our orchestral colleagues we are too often scared to "frighten the horses". This dilemma of "safe" music was put a little more emphatically by Philip Kennicott, Music Critic of the Washington Post, who wrote of the world première of Michael Kamen's The New Moon in the Old Moon's Arms, conducted by Leonard Slatkin:

His music is serviceable in the sense that it fills time with consonant noises and a loose sense of emotional direction. But it is utterly forgettable, entirely dependent on cliché, scored in the usual sodden and overripe Hollywood manner, and absolutely lacking in content. We tend to think of this kind of tonal tripe as an act of generosity to the listener: see, nothing that bites, nothing too astringent, nothing but nice thoughts and nice melodies and nice swells and climaxes. But if you had to have an extended conversation with someone who spoke entirely in clichés and repeated the same old stories, would you consider him generous for not taxing your concentration, or a horrible bore? Kamen is a bore.

How much of our wind repertoire is a bore? How much of it is little more than academic note-spinning, its use limited to the rehearsal room, and in fact how many of the significant works of the wind music canon, works which we hold dear, are actually useful "wind pieces" but not great music? How many works for wind can hold their own in contemporary music circles?

And how many of us are prepared to stick our necks over the parapet and state unequivocally "This is dross". In fact, as Frank Battisti has often pointed out, because most of our music-making is done in academe or in the military concert series, we rarely attract serious critical comment. There is critical life out there. Recently on the totally addictive "Bandchat", someone asked about a work by Hidas. The surprising response was trenchant:

The Hungarian composer Frigyes Hidas has written many fine compositions for solo instruments and wind band. Unfortunately, the Save The Sea symphony is not one of them (IMHO). The 5 movements "Waves of the Sea", "Song of the Sea", "Threatening Sea" "Game of the Corals" and "Hymne of the Sea" would appear on the surface to hold great promise , but the symphony fails to deliver any substance. Composed in 1997 for the 1998 "International Conference for Saving the Seas of the World " held in Portugal, the music plays more like the sound track to a grade "B" Hollywood love story interpreted by a Mantovani orchestra. With the exception of perhaps the 3rd. mov't, the symphony doesn't begin to capture the power and majesty of the worlds vast oceans. If you are looking for a piece to better express the beauty of the sea, the brilliant sparkling images of the sun dancing over the waves in David Bedford's The Sun Paints Rainbows On The Vast Waves is much more evocative of the ocean.

It is impossible to be objective about repertoire; love of a work must be a matter of taste, however much we try to quantify the elements of a great work, but we should ask ourselves whether we would choose this work for a solo recital on our instrument. I believe that if you had the chops for it, the Bennett Trumpet Concerto could replace the Haydn or Hummel. But how many works can hold their own against works for orchestra, quartet, voices, whatever other medium? It is intriguing that three major contemporary music festivals in the last few years have featured wind orchestral music. In 1999 the ISCM, the International Society for Contemporary Music held its Music Days in Manchester, and the Royal Northern College of Music Wind Ensemble was invited to give two concerts:

Iscm Programmes At Manchester 1999

  • Dream CarouselsAnthony Gilbert (UK)
  • Distant Variations John Casken (UK)
  • Alembic Raymond Deane (Ireland)
  • Versuche über einen MarschMarcel Wengler (Luxembourg)
  • Marimba SpiritualMinru Miki (Japan)
  • Concertino for XylophoneIstvan Lang (Czech)
  • Zildjian Concerto Mladen Tarbuk (Croatia)

Later that same year the College was invited to the Warsaw Autumn, where the organisers were amazed at the potential of the wind orchestra and its colours. The programme was Anglo-Polish, based around the Distant Variations, a Concerto for Four Saxophones and Wind Orchestra by John Casken, who had studied in Warsaw, ending with Morning Music which was premiered in Boston in 1987.

Warsaw Festival 1999

  • Dream CarouselsAnthony Gilbert (UK)
  • Leggiero e MobileKrystyna Moszumanska-Nazar (Poland)
  • Distant VariationsCasken, John (UK)
  • Cassazione per NataleZbigniew Bujarski, (Poland)
  • Morning MusicRichard Rodney Bennett (UK)

Iscm Programmes 2000 Luxembourg

A year later, in Luxembourg, The Grande Orchestre d'Harmonie des Guides, conducted by Norbert Nozy, presented a concert for the ISCM in Luxembourg

  • MasadaBoris Pigovat (Israel)
  • Symphonic Band & PercussionGuttorm Kittelsen (Norway)
  • MinimoKresimir Seletkovic (Croatia)
  • PhantasmagoriaRegis Campo (France)
  • Danse FunambulesqueJules Strens (Belgium)

Here were four "serious" concerts of wind music, music set alongside major concerts by the great European contemporary groups, works escaping from the wind band closet, the university, military and amateur ghetto, and this is the path struck by Simon Rattle and his commissions of wind works for the City of Birmingham and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestras... and not one work from the United States!

Leonard Slatkin

In a recent interview Leonard Slatkin articulated the growing excitement about the new repertoire: What I think you are finding is that more composers are using the orchestral venue to experiment and use different frameworks. So, some of the works that are emerging for wind ensemble are designed not only for use with band but for use within an orchestral concert where you might not require the strings.

At the "serious" end of the market, conductors are gradually beginning to realise the potential of this very new medium. Slatkin himself conducted Nicholas Maw's American Games with the US Marines, Michael Tilson Thomas has recorded the Dahl Saxophone Concerto with John Harle, and commissioned Colin Matthews' "heavy metal" Quatrain to tour with the LSO, while Rozhdestvensky has recorded a disc of Russian wind music, and Rattle has recorded Percy Grainger's Lincolnshire Posy with the CBSO. For his last concerts as Musical Director of the New York Philharmonic in May 2002, Kurt Masur programmed a special commission for wind, brass and percussion, Hemispheres, by Joseph Turrin.

In UK recently (2008) we had the rare chance to hear Stockhausen's monumental Lucifer's Dance written for performance in Milan by the Wind Orchestra of University of Michigan and H Robert Reynolds. In the 2005 CBDNA Conference we heard the New York premiere of John Corigliano's Symphony Circus Maximus.

I believe that one reason why conductors do not programme more wind ensemble music is prejudice against the medium, fuelled by ignorance. Battisti's WASBE in the coming two decades needs to lobby and cajole conductors, agents, orchestral management, radio producers into re-assessing this rich repertoire created in the past sixty years.

Goldman On Schoenberg & Hindemith

In Musical Quarterly in 1958, a review of the Fennell recording of the Hindemith, Schoenberg and Stravinsky masterpieces by Richard Franko Goldman reads to us as heresy..

All band people are grateful to Schoenberg and Hindemith ...it is in a sense ungracious...to wish that they had written better ones...the Hindemith, indeed, sounds very much like a poorly done transcription......no amount of special pleading will ever make the Theme and Variations very interesting.

Goldman ends his article full of enthusiasm for the Stravinsky Symphonies of Wind. in contrast to the other two, warm and life-lit, a pleasure to hear, with beautiful ideas and beautiful sounds.

If we jettison these two masterpieces as Emperors without any clothing, what do we put in their place? Donald Hunsberger, who gave us a top twenty list in 1981 which I dutifully programmed over the decade, felt 12 years later, revisiting Manchester, that no new works suitable for inclusion had surfaced. If that is true, we are commissioning the wrong composers...if we commission a "band" composer we will get a "band" piece, if we commission a second rate composer, at best we will get a second rate piece, but if we commission a first-rate composer, we might get a masterpiece.

However, I believe that we are cautious and blinkered. A chance meeting with composer Robin Holloway at a performance of his superb new Concerto for Clarinet and Symphony Orchestra led me back to his work Entrance, Carousing, and Embarcation commissioned by an American consortium - I played it again to my wife, a viola player it must be admitted, and we agreed that it was full of what we miss in much wind music, lyricism, inventive scoring, wit, drama...well yes, beauty. It is finely scored, emotional, inventive, Mahlerian in scope, a sprawling catch-all giant of a piece...

Like the Lindberg Gran Duo everyone thinks it is too difficult. I played in the first performances in the City of Birmingham SO of Mahler 5 and 6 with Dorati in the sixties. For three days of rehearsal we thought they were too difficult, and also mad, trivial, grotesque, too big. then we were captivated, and now Mahler is played by student orchestras and can fill any hall in the world. So taste changes. A lot of the potentially "great" new repertoire of the last decade is challenging, and it is too easy for us to turn to the second-rate, the effective but mediocre, works which have a superficial brilliance, which are written well for the band, which sound good and which "don't frighten the horses".

Michael Haithcock

Michael Haithcock wrote recently of music which he had explored during a sabbatical in Europe:

My first goal was to become better acquainted with wind music written by the most respected composers of Europe. As a result, I am astonished at how few performances Triumph by Michael Tippett and Robin Holloway's, Entrance, Carousing, and Embarcation, have received. While both of these works are difficult, they offer a length, breadth, and depth not found in most band repertoire. Both works also possess an inherent dramatic intensity that I find engaging. I wonder if our profession lacks a communication mechanism sufficiently to promote pieces like these which either fall outside the American mainstream or are not commercially promoted in this country. Are we aware of, or program, Holloway's Divertimento, No. 2 for Wind Nonet, Opus 18, Arvo Paarts' version of Fratres for wind octet and percussion, two pieces available to us from the pen of Einojuhani Rautavaara, Annunciations for Organ, Brass Quintet and Wind Orchestra and Octet for Winds, a work by Sofia Gubaidulina, Hour of the Soul for Mezzo-Soprano and Large Wind Orchestra, Aulis Sallinen's Palace Rhapsody and Double Quartet or the new work Gran Duo by Magnus Linberg commissioned by Sir Simon Rattle? The music of Mark-Anthony Turnage is the rage in much of Europe. Turnage has produced a suite from Blood on the Floor which contains several movements that stand-alone and are scored only for winds.

The American works which I tend to programme are those which accentuate the more lyrical side of the wind ensemble; there is plenty of traditionally aggressive music, with the stress on brass and percussion, but I absolutely love the sound world of the early works of Colgrass, Schwantner and Maslanka, three pieces which would grace any symphony orchestra concert; I once conducted a concert in which the second half was a Mahler Symphony, the first half ...and the Mounbtains Rising Nowhere.

WASBE has over the years provided a platform for some great additions to the repertoire, but works often lost and forgotten. A wonderful piece from the first WASBE Conference in 1981 was Warren Benson's Symphony 11 - Lost Songs surely our equivalent to Das Lied von der Erde with a magical ending of the greatest beauty, whilst in Schladming, Warren again provided a highspot with The Drums of Summer, again a piece imbued with wit, energy, beauty, and without some of the trivial repetition that disfigures so much wind music. And along with Warren amongst WASBE senior composers strides Karel Husa, whose Music for Prague received an epic and emotional performance in Schladming, his Apotheosis in Hamamatsu. My favourite work of his is Les Couleurs Fauves, written for and dedicated to the great John Paynter.

Sir Richard Rodney Bennett

What rings my bell on the symphonic side? I must declare self-interest; I commissioned three works from Richard Rodney Bennett, and I believe that they are major masterpieces. His scoring is delicate, his structures sure, harmonic and melodic procedures are based on a lyrical concept of post-Schoenberg compositional methods, allied to an imagination which runs riot with the colours of Fennell's Wind Ensemble concept.

When I mentioned nooks and crannies, it was in the knowledge that WASBE has inspired us to explore the past a little. I am very pleased to have helped to bring forward into the repertoire, in however a limited way, Elizabeth Maconchy's Music for Wind and Brass, William Alwyn's Concerto for Flute and Eight Wind, Frank Bridge's Pageant of London, Michael Tippett's Mosaic, (the first movement of his Concerto for Orchestra.), while others have given prominence to Irwin Schulhoff's Concerto for String Quartet and Wind, and the Skalkottas Greek Dances.

While thinking about these major additions to the repertoire, we must not forget that in many countries the music of Percy Grainger is virtually unknown and rarely played. Even in the United States, two of his (to my mind} greatest works are neglected, The Power of Rome and the Christian Heart and The Marching Song of Democracy.

Sir Simon Rattle

..the more we encourage composers to use the wind ensemble, the better it's going to be, particularly with the generation of wind players that's out there now

John Philip Sousa

...on the future of American wind music

There is as great a future in America for the wind band as there is for the Symphony Orchestra. The public is here, the love of music is here, and I am confident that out of the talent of our country will come many fine conductors, fine players and magnificent wind bands.

...on playing new music as entertainment

He (Theodore Thomas, conductor of the Chicago Symphony) gave Wagner, Liszt and Tchaikovsky in the belief that he was educating his public. I gave Wagner, Liszt and Tchaikovsky in the hope that I was entertaining my public.

...on artistic snobbery

Artistic snobbery is so ridiculous; my admiration for Wagner and Beethoven is profound.

...on contemporary music

There is a good deal of hypocrisy in the music profession. Wearing long hair, green goggles and an air of mystery is not always an infallible sign of genius

Percy Grainger

I firmly believe that music will someday become a 'universal language'. But it will not become so as long as our musical vision is limited to the output of four European countries between 1700 and 1900. The first step in the right direction is to view the music of all peoples and periods without prejudice of any kind, and strive to put the world's known and available best music into circulation. Only then shall we be justified in calling music a 'universal language.

Possibilities of the Concert Wind Band from the Standpoint of a Modern Composer 1918
No doubt there are many phases of musical emotion that the wind band is not so fitted to portray as is the symphony orchestra, but on the other hand it is quite evident that in certain realms of musical expressiveness the wind band has no rival...