Brass Quintet: Quirky?

As I promised last time, this post will delve into the first variation, which is labelled “Quirky” (which, to be fair, could describe a lot of what I write, and perhaps who I am…).  I knew that I wanted this to be one of the more “fun” variations to balance out the mysterious atmosphere of the beginning.  So I sat and wracked my brains about what’s fun, and went to an old standby – the waltz.  

Why a waltz?  Well, while I can think of a few sad waltzes (mostly by Chopin – and they are all very beautiful), the genre tends to elicit joyful or “fun” memories for me.

So a waltz.  Now, when it comes to waltzes, people usually think of Chopin and Strauss (Johann, not Richard).  When I think of them, I tend to gravitate more towards Satie, and the Gymnopedies in particular.  A nice slow waltz.  A little ethereal.  I used a Satie-like section in my piano piece Frenetic Delicatessens (which may appear on this blog at a later date) – it is definitely my favorite part of that piece.

So, without further ado, I set out to create a quirky, Satie-like waltz (that uses material from Sousa).  If you listen to the MP3 (at the end of the post), you’ll notice that it starts out  more traditionally and gets more “fun” as we go along.  But what is actually going on?

Let’s start with the melody.  It may sound/look familiar, and that’s because it is (if you’ve been reading from the beginning).  It is the horn line from the failed opening that I wrote about early on (reuse and recycle!).

Horn Melody

This is, to begin with, basically the melody from the Sousa without the repeated notes.  When I got to the chromatic middle of the phrase I thought it was time to break off so that a) we didn’t get stuck moving around 3 notes for a long time, and b) I didn’t give away the theme too early.  So you can see the beginnings of the chromatic rising and falling line, but then the horn breaks away with a soaring B-A that serves as the high-point of the phrase.

Meanwhile, the other brass are filling out the harmony.  The first chord (C-E-G-A) is very similar to the first chord of the Sousa, but that quickly gives way to other harmonic material.  This accompaniment thickens as the horn reaches its high note, creating a brief falling texture that is reminiscent of the opening, and then reverting back to the waltz.

Rather than keeping it simple again, I add some chromatic motion into all the voices, which takes us to another high point where the trumpets have a more obvious reference to the Sousa (the second trumpet starts it, then they both have it).  This slight revelation leads to another chromatic collapse into the second part of the waltz.

Trumpets - Sousa Moment

This time, the harmony is more cluster-y (built of seconds), and the link to the Sousa comes from the fact that the 3rd beat is emphasized (in a similar way to the pattern of accents in the theme).  The horn comes back in with a similar melody.  This one, however, has a more traditional shape, and doesn’t hold on to the Sousa source material for so long.  The bass-line that the tuba plays also supports this melody in an almost-tonal way (see Satie!)  By the end of the second page, the tuba holds down the skeleton of a harmony while the other instruments have versions of the melody in a stretto configuration.  In this section, the horn loses the center stage, and I think the audience will notice moments where instruments pop out of the texture or take the lead (the main one being the trombone in 68-72).

By this point, things seem to have settled into a pattern – we have the waltz in the background, a melody based on the Sousa, and the occasional break-away moment followed by a regrouping.  I like it – it keeps things organized.  The problem occurs when I try to get into the next variation.  What can I mess with to cause an irrevocable breakdown?

  • Melody?  Nope – done that.
  • Harmony?  I don’t think that’s been an organizing factor, really.
  • Texture?  That’s the main thing – the build-up and dissolution of texture…it’s what’s been keeping the variation going.  It’s possible that this is the answer, but there is a better way.
  • Rhythm/Tempo!  Yep.  So far, we’ve had the same basic rhythm and no real moments of speeding-up or slowing-down.  It has just been plodding along.

So here’s where I choose to break my waltz.  I start preparing for it in measure 73 by eliminating the overlapping melodies and giving a it a very stable rhythmic profile.  This begins to break down in measure 80, where the waltz, as defined by the tuba, suddenly gets shifted into triplets.  Since we’ve been paying attention to that line from the beginning to define the measures, the lack of a steady beat is disconcerting.  This creates the illusion that we have an accelerando, even though only the tuba and the horn have the triplets.  The texture thickens, and the rising chromatic lines return to give us some tension that explodes into the next variation, labelled “Aggressive.”  I’ll walk through that one next week.

      Brass Quintet Variation 1
 – MP3

Brass Quintet – Variation 1  – PDF

Please comment and let me know what you think or if you have questions or if you want to discuss anything!  Starting next week, I’m going to have a second post that will either deal with what I’m listening to or be a post from a guest composer discussing some aspect of their work.

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