Con mortuis in lingua mortua

Finding solid musical solutions isn’t always about being clever. It’s usually about consistently making good common sense choices – sometimes there are more than one.

Pictures at an Exhibition was first composed by Mussorgsky as a piano piece. For a composer, writing for piano comes with its own set of intrinsic compromises. For example, pianos don’t sustain well, and while they can be gentle, the articulation of every note is a percussive event (hammer striking string). Understanding those compromises, as well as the role musical elements play in a score are important to the successful outcome of your orchestration.

After deciding to make my own brass ensemble version of Pictures at an Exhibition, I made an early decision about instrumentation – 444.12 with 2 percussion. At the time, the hope was the arrangement would have some appeal to the Summit Brass (this is their basic instrumentation). But it was also a deliberate decision to cut down the number of trumpet players in the room from the Howarth version (practical consideration – not a political statement).

A quick word about percussion. I love the color certain percussion instruments bring to a brass ensemble, so I’m not bashful about writing percussion parts when the color is wanted or needed. Like the rest of the ensemble, the percussionists should feel vested in the outcome of a performance.

Yesterday, I asserted that Con mortuis in lingua mortua is the 6th promenade of Pictures at and Exhibition. Here are the first couple of phrases from the original piano score.

Like any other family of instruments, there are things that brass do well, and other things…not so much.

This passage presents a couple of obstacles for brass. First and most obvious is the tessitura of the right hand. If you’re writing for orchestra, the violins could tremolo in this register and make just the right kind of sound. The high F#, while possible on a trumpet, perhaps is not going to create the eerie gossamer texture the composer had in mind – even in a mute. Also, notice that the entirety of the right hand always remains above the tessitura of even the treble version of the promenade theme.

Second is the tremolo itself. The tremolo is just a canvas, and making an instrument do something that it is poorly designed to do is likely to serve as a distraction.

I believe the best musical solution for a brass ensemble version is to yield the tremolo to keyboard percussion. The colors selected for this were a xylophone and vibraphone (motor on which produces a kind of vibrato). The xylophone sounds an octave higher than written and the vibraphone sounds as written, so Mussorgsky’s original registration is faithfully accounted for. The other color decision was to indicate the firmness of the mallet.

There is nothing incredibly innovative about this, but that’s kind of the point. I was just trying to allow the music to sing, and believe this was the best solution. The tremolo effect shouldn’t distract from the main melodic idea, so I didn’t even try to make it work for a trumpet.

The other elements of these first two phrases were also somewhat obvious choices, though there are certainly several other possibilities. One to highlight is the use of tubas in octaves for the answer phrase. I could have used euphonium or bass trombone for the top voice, or two bass trombones in octaves (that would have been cool too, especially if the 4th player had a contrabass). But there is something ominous and subterranean about this tuba sound that you don’t get with other combinations.

Next problem – this is the beginning of the central section of Baba Yaga:

Again, Mussorgsky is creating a texture in the right hand to serve as background for the melodic material in the left hand. Trumpets or horns are quite capable of playing this triplet figure, but the listener should only be aware of this in the background – the tune is in the bass voice. This time, I used a marimba and vibraphone (motor on) both with soft yarn mallets. Both instruments sound as written so they will be playing in the same octave with each bringing its own quiet bubbly color to the texture.

Again, there were many possible choices for the bass voice in octaves but, as many understand from popular culture (thank you John Wick), baba yaga means boogeyman. Whether you think this movement refers to the boogeyman, or the more traditional view of a witch, trombones in straight mute, provide just the right kind of sinister sound.

Towards the end of this statement, Mussorgsky changes the texture a little bit with downward harmonic movement of the triplet (not always chromatic and not always a minor third).

Because the music is changing and there is an additional warranted texture change in a few measures, the color was changed here by dropping the vibraphone out of the texture and adding muted horns on the downward harmonic movement.

Horns 1 & 2 hand off to Horns 3 & 4 in the second measure for two reasons – 1) Horn 1 & 2 will enter as a fresh voice a few bars later; and 2) while possible, it’s not practical to expect a single player to play the entire 4 measure scale, slow tempo, in mute, moving into the low register on a single breath, and I wanted seamless sound. So I ‘composed’ the decision, rather than leaving it to chance or the vital capacity of unknown horn players. Notice that the hand off occurs on a weak beat and while the listener’s attention is likely on the trumpet answer (this is piccolo and b flat trumpet in mute playing in octaves). Other solutions are possible, of course.

One other subtle point to make – percussionists playing instruments that continue to vibrate after they are struck tend to dampen the sound according to the printed rhythm unless otherwise instructed. Where the vibraphone stops playing, I put a small indication in the score for the player to allow the sound to continue to vibrate so the exit of the vibraphone would not cause undue distraction.

More soon.

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