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ClassicsOnline Home » Brass Chamber Music, Vol. 1 - MENDELSSOHN, Felix / SCHUMANN, R. / BRAHMS, J. / BRUCKNER, A. (Septura)
What if four celebrated nineteenth-century composers—Mendelssohn, Schumann, Bruckner and Brahms—had written original works for brass septet? This disc explores that fascinating counterfactual twist, re-imagining choral and organ works by those composers. The arrangements call on the full dynamic and tonal range of the instruments—often extended with a multitude of mutes—to imitate the expressivity of the choir, the power of the organ, and the versatile sonorities of its different registrations and manuals. In dazzling and varied combinations the arrangers and performers together persuade us that this could indeed be original brass chamber music.
Brahms • Bruckner • Mendelssohn • Schumann
Music for Brass Septet
What if Brahms, Bruckner, Mendelssohn and Schumann had written for brass septet? So begins our first step in a counter-factual history of brass chamber music.
The absence of a chamber canon for brass seems perplexing. After all, brass instruments had once flourished in the hands of Gabrieli and Monteverdi, were prominent in Bach and Handel, and had concerto and substantial orchestral solos from notable classical composers such as Haydn and Mozart. Beethoven and Bruckner even wrote some chamber music—funereal works for trombones, known as Aequali. And yet, despite composing a trumpet concerto, whilst Haydn fathered the string quartet he sired no such thing for brass.
In fact, since the invention of the valve (giving all brass instruments a full chromatic range), there has been a sustained body of brass music. But this is not art music: for ceremonial, military and entertainment purposes, brass instruments were hijacked by the band—a fatal wound to their artistic credibility.
Of course, it is easy to see why they were chosen: brass instruments could be heard; a string quartet is not much use on a parade ground, bandstand or in a packed Bierkeller. And this is exactly what makes brass perfect for ‘chamber’ music today, because we have long since abandoned the chamber for the concert hall, and in this space brass instruments are perhaps uniquely able to bring this music to life.
And so this series explores a counter-factual history of brass chamber music, approaching a range of different periods, genres and composers, and asking the question ‘what if these works of art had been written for brass?’.
Where to start? Well, our chosen medium, rather than the ubiquitous quintet, is the brass septet, a pseudonym for the orchestral brass section—three trumpets, three trombones and tuba. And therefore the logical starting point seemed to be the composers of the nineteenth century who created this formation in the first place. Brass instruments are strikingly similar in technique to the voice (for vocal cords simply substitute vibrating lips), and when played well possess a lyrical quality rivalled perhaps only by singers. Yet put them together homophonically and you can create an organ-like sound, as has become the clichéd observation about Bruckner’s orchestration. So for pieces that sounded like they could have been originally written for brass we had to look no further than two genres related by sacred roots: choral and organ music.
The challenge in reimagining these pieces is to rival the natural expressive stresses of the Latin and German texts, and the multitude of timbres afforded to the organist by a bank of stops. The careful arrangement of articulations and phrasing, the judicial use of mutes and octave doublings, and an imaginative and expressive approach to performance has (we hope) created a collection which could, if you didn’t know the actual pieces, be mistaken for original nineteenth-century brass chamber music.
Mendelssohn, whilst chief conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, had promised to write a concerto for the principal trombone; in the end the orchestra’s leader, Ferdinand David, fulfilled the obligation, and trombonists were left to wonder what might have been. The trombone, with its strong historical religious ties, did feature prominently in Mendelssohn’s sacred orchestral output. But we have looked to his works for another instrument with deep sacred roots: the organ. The second of the six organ sonatas (Op. 65) perhaps works most successfully for brass: the six-part homophonic writing of the opening Grave, the interweaving contrapuntal lines of the following Adagio, and the dramatic ending of the fugal finale are a perfect fit, musically and technically, for the natural compass of the septet.
Schumann did in fact write for brass ensemble: his Konzertstück, Op. 86 for four horns and orchestra is a tour de force for the instrument. However, unlike the brass quintet, the septet does not feature the horn and consequently can produce a more homogenous sound. This flourishes with Schumann’s choral style, exemplified in the 1849 Vier Doppelchörige Gesänge, Op. 141 (Four Double Choruses), in which harmony is prioritised over melody. Although all of the movements have a spiritual quality, only the final song, Talismane (Talismans), has an explicitly religious text: a joyous celebration of God’s omnipotence, with every mention of His name heralded by a cascade of bell-like rising fourths through the ensemble; by contrast, man’s fallibility (“my errors bewilder me”) is represented in an intensely chromatic six-note motif, with a legato solo trombone initiating a series of imitative entries. An die Sterne (To the Stars) yearns for the “stars in the distant heavens”, demanding a delicate clarity of articulation. Ungewisses Licht (Uncertain Light) follows an intrepid traveller through the stormy wilderness, the dramatic power of the septet enhanced by antiphonal effects, before an sudden light prompts a lone trombone to ask the question “is it love, is it death?”, the rising fourth anticipating Talismane. The gentle rocking rhythms which permeate Zuversicht (Assurance) are brought out by a careful mirroring of the emphases of the optimistic German text, with the peaceful final harmonies underpinned by a lengthy tuba pedal.
Although Brahms had at one point explored the possibility of a career as an organist, he ultimately wrote little for the instrument, choosing to focus for the most part on vocal, chamber and symphonic music. However, possibly sensing his own imminent death, he did return to the instrument in 1896 for his final work: the Eleven Chorale Preludes, Op. 122, of which five are recorded here. Several of the preludes appear to represent a farewell of sorts, not least Herzlich tut mich verlangen (I sincerely wish for a happy end) and O Welt, ich muß dich lassen (O world, I must leave you). All of them are contrapuntal throughout, allowing a more soloistic style of playing. The first three make extensive use of different mutes (straight and cup), and different combinations of muted and open instruments within the group, in order to reflect the different registrations and simultaneous use of different manuals in the organ. The final two remain unmuted, providing a warmer sound in the penultimate prelude, and the full power of the septet in the triumphant finale.
Meeting Schumann in 1853 instigated Brahms’ interest in historicism, and in particular the intense study of counterpoint. Brahms grew close to Schumann’s wife Clara, and composed the Geistliches Lied, his earliest accompanied choral work, in 1856 as Schumann was on the brink of death in an asylum. So it seems likely that Clara was the intended recipient: the text, a call to trust in the will of God in the face of grief, is set as a double canon. It is this technical mastery, along with the clear ternary (ABA) structure, that makes the piece work in a purely instrumental context: cup mutes are used to recreate the organ accompaniment, and paired trumpets and trombones play the choral canons. And of course the strict counterpoint doesn’t preclude heartfelt emotion—nowhere more evident than in the soaring lines of the ‘Amen’ coda, in which the order of the canons is reversed.
Beethoven wrote three Equali for four trombones, which were played at his own funeral in 1827. Following this tradition, Bruckner composed two for trombone trio, and although still funereal, they mirror the Geistliches Lied in expressing hope and comfort in grief: though both are in C minor, large portions are in the major mode, and almost all the phrases have major cadences.
From the starting point of these two short original works we explore subdivisions within the septet through Bruckner ’s choral music, products of his resolute Catholic faith. In the four-part Locus iste (a Deo factus est) (This place is made by God), written in 1869 for the dedication of the votive chapel of Linz Cathedral, the trombone trio is joined by the tuba. Like Brahms, Bruckner undertook extensive study of counterpoint, and the ternary structure of this piece contrasts the homophonic blend of low brass in the outer sections with an imitative central section.
More substantial is Christus factus est (pro nobis obediens usque ad mortem) (Christ was made for us obedient even unto death), transcribed here for two trumpets and three trombones. With more complex text setting, the mature style of Bruckner’s symphonies is evident here, both in the harmonic language, a full textural range, and the use of sudden dramatic silences. The scope of the piece requires a multitude of colours from this smaller ensemble, from the mournful darkness of the opening (Christ’s death on the cross), to the exultant brightness of the central section (“Therefore God exalted him”), and the gnomic quality needed for the strangely subdued final phrases (“[his name] is above all names”).
Bruckner embraced Wagner’s augmented brass section as the bedrock of his symphonic sonority, and this sound is explored in the final two motets, which return to the complete septet. The first is a mainstay of the Catholic tradition, the Ave Maria (gratia plenum) (Hail Mary full of grace). Bruckner alternates passages for high and low voices in the opening bars, and our alternation of trumpets and trombones adds an antiphonal aspect. The two groups come together to unleash the full power of the septet for the ecstatic pronouncement of the name “Jesus”. The closing section (“pray for us sinners”) again uses the full group, but in quiet dynamics, creating a rich, blended warmth.
Os justi meditabitur sapientiam (The mouth of the just shall meditate wisdom) provides a fitting conclusion to this cross section of nineteenth-century church music, scaling the whole dynamic and tonal range of the group. The entire septet soars through the massive span of Bruckner’s melismatic musical lines, before being pared down to the ultimate simplicity in the culmination of the piece, a unison plainchant Alleluia.
Matthew Knight / Simon Cox
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