School is back in session, and maybe your student joined the band. You might be thinking 76 Trombones or Stars and Stripes Forever — but let’s go beyond those warhorses and learn about these great works for concert band.
First Suite (Gustav Holst, 1909): Considered one of the foundational masterworks of the concert band repertoire, this piece, which grew out of the military tradition, convinced other composers that important music could be written specifically for band. Holst orchestrated the piece with “ad lib” parts so that bands of any size could play it. Here’s the great bandmaster Frederick Fennell conducting:
Lincolnshire Posy (Percy Grainger, 1937): This work comprises six movements adapted from the British folk songs Grainger so loved; he described each as “a kind of musical portrait of the singer who sang its underlying melody.” The work had its premiere in Milwaukee, played by bands made up of workers from the Pabst and Blatz breweries. A toast!
Divertimento for Band (Vincent Persichetti, 1950): While composing this piece in a remote log cabin, Persichetti had a revelation: “I soon realized strings weren’t going to enter, and my Divertimento began to take shape. … When composers think of the band as a huge, supple ensemble of winds and percussion, the obnoxious fat will drain off and creative ideas will flourish.” His creative idea was to set up a clash between woodwinds and brass, the timpani “arguing” with them, as in this “Prologue”:
Symphony for Band (Paul Hindemith, 1951): Written at the behest of Lt. Col. Hugh Curry, leader of the U.S. Army Band, this complex work was the only piece Hindemith wrote expressly for band. He employed his trademark dissonance and used contrapuntal techniques to highlight individual wind sections, a challenge for even the most accomplished ensembles.
Slava! A Political Overture (Leonard Bernstein, 1977): Bounding out of the gate in the style of a madcap Broadway overture, Bernstein’s tribute to cellist Mstislav (“Slava”) Rostropovich (and his dog!) is playful and almost vaudevillian. Although he wrote it for full orchestra, it is often adapted for wind ensemble. And the “political” part? Bernstein recycled themes from his less-than-successful musical 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, a wicked putdown of Washington goings-on.
Blue Shades (Frank Ticheli, 1996): It’s not literally a blues piece, Ticheli said, pointing out that “there is not a single 12-bar blues progression to be found,” but he acknowledges its debt to the genre. This jazzy work integrates many hallmarks of the Big Band era: Listen for echoes of Benny Goodman’s clarinet and the wailing brass train-whistle effects.
Bells for Stokowski (Michael Daugherty, 2001): The third movement of Daugherty’s symphony Philadelphia Stories, this piece is a tribute to legendary conductor Leopold Stokowski. Daugherty said, “I imagine Stokowski in Philadelphia visiting the Liberty Bell at sunrise, and listening to all the bells of the city resonate.” To honor Stokowski’s legacy of musical interpretation, Daugherty offers a brief snippet of Bach and his own Bach-style theme.
Ballet for Band (Cindy McTee, 2004): Adapted from her symphony Ballet for Orchestra, McTee’s work emerged out of an awareness that “the impulse to compose often begins as a rhythmic stirring and leads to a physical response … quite literally dancing.” This movement, “Waltz: Light Fantastic,” was inspired by another dance, Ravel’s La Valse.
Kingfishers Catch Fire (John Mackey, 2007): Based on an 1877 poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, Mackey’s two movements represent a shy bird emerging from its nest, then soaring into the sunlight. Here’s the lively second movement. (Can you hear the reference to Stravinsky’s The Firebird in the final moments?)
Moth (Viet Cuong, 2013): Imagining the final moments of a moth drawn toward a flame, Cuong created an undulating tapestry with a restless momentum that ends with the inevitable final bang. Cuong said he sought inspiration from “the dualities between light and dark, beautiful and grotesque, reality and fantasy and the ultimate decision to sacrifice sensibility for grace.”
Of Our New Day Begun (Omar Thomas, 2015): Written in response to the 2015 attack on Mother Emmanuel Church in South Carolina, the piece is anchored by John and James Johnson’s anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” That melody, somber rather than stirring, wends through winds and brass, with tolling bells and timpani serving as a heartbeat. Thomas adds clapping, stomping and a hint of tambourine to honor Black church music traditions.
Everything Beautiful (Samuel Hazo, 2015): A requiem for band conductor and educator Charles Campbell Jr., this three-movement piece stemmed from grief: “I immediately went to my piano and began to play. … The notes matched my feelings so perfectly,” Hazo said. The result lives up to its name, delivering both sorrow and hope (with references to Stevie Nicks, Percy Grainger and William Shakespeare).
Brass Ceiling: The Journey of General Ann Dunwoody (Laura Karpman, 2018): Emmy-winning composer Karpman wrote this piece for the U.S. Army Field Band in tribute to America’s first female four-star general. Trace its martial beginnings to gentle winds and harp back to a stirring brass finale, complete with mallets hitting artillery shells.
Associate music directors Jennifer Allen and Robin Gehl contributed to this story.
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