Recording by the Burning River Brass – Of Knights and Castles (this page is about 29 seconds into the recording)
Brass ensemble arrangement available by clicking here
Renaissance keyboard music is really fun to arrange. The simplicity of the music (well, at least some of it) lends itself to crafty solutions to make the music, dare I say it, more interesting than its original form.
I’ve orchestrated quite a few of these pieces now for our instrumentation – music by William Byrd, Giles Farnaby, and Sir John Bull. These composers all shared at least one thing in common; they were court composers to Queen Elizabeth. It was considered a great honor to be included in the Chapel Royal and there is a long rich history of great English composers who, at one time or another during their career, performed service to the Chapel. Later, composers such as Henry Purcell and Jeremiah Clarke were appointed to the Chapel. John Stafford Smith, who is credited with writing the tune that later became the Star Spangled Banner, was a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal beginning in 1784.
Back to the music – like many of us, my first introduction to the music of William Byrd was from Gordon Jacob’s famous suite for wind band. This suite and the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble 1980 recording of La Battaglia would serve as inspiration to write a suite for quintet and, later, to expand those arrangements; first for the Denver Brass (for 423.02) in 1989 and a few years later (1998) for the Boulder Brass’ first recording Bolder Baroque – that version was for 424.01. Once we (the Boulder Brass) finally settled on 423.11, I rescored the earlier versions for that instrumentation and have since added 5 or 6 more Byrd pieces.
My friend Ryan Anthony who played with the Canadian Brass from 2000 – 2003 and then later in their trumpet ‘dream team’ rotation from 2006 – 2010 asked me to write double quintet versions of the Earle of Oxford’s March and The Bells for the Canadian Brass 2008 recording Legends (which, of course, was a dream come true).
Sidebar – during William Byrd’s lifetime, Edward de Vere was the 17th Earle of Oxford who, according to the Oxfordian theory, may have written the plays and sonnets attributed to William Shakespeare. Nevertheless, Byrd likely wrote his Earle of Oxford’s March for de Vere, the Elizabethan courtier, just as he wrote pieces such as Walsingham, and Wolsey’s Wilde to honor (or perhaps caricature?) notable Elizabethan court personalities.
Renaissance purists will perhaps look disparagingly on modern brass treatments of this music – I think they can sound great on brass and I have enjoyed working on these pieces very much (clearly – I’ve done no less than 7 versions of the Earle of Oxford). And I’m always looking for more of them to arrange.
Crafting this music for brass requires some careful attention from the arranger. In the original music, the texture can vary greatly from one beat to the next. If one faithfully just writes only the notes from the original, you’ll have brass players drifting in and out of the texture in odd places. You must fill in some of the gaps to make certain you’re following good voice leading protocols.
You’ll also need to be on the look out for musica ficta – there are performance practice assumptions and even some mistakes (or at least notes that just don’t sound right). MIDI is your friend here.
You’ll need to figure out how to deal with the ornamentation. You should probably start with some careful study of how the various shakes, trills and tremolos are supposed to be interpreted, and then disregard at least some of them. Using all of these ornaments is just going to sound silly on brass, and will only serve as a distraction to other more important things going on.
Due in part to the limited dynamic range of the keyboard instrument for which they are written, this music has no dynamic indications. Dynamics also weren’t commonly notated in music until a little bit later. You’ll have to invent. I’ll listen to several interpretations by good practitioners of the music and then borrow some nuance from their performance practice. By the way – Glenn Gould recorded some of the music from the Fitzwilliam Virginal book on piano. We’ve already discussed the doctrine of intent, and Gould was a disciple.
The piece above is Corranto Battle by Dr. John Bull. I’m not certain of the provenance of this piece – Burning River Brass sent me the keyboard music and I arranged it for their recording Of Knights and Castles. It is not from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book or Parthenia (the 2 main volumes from that time to which Bull contributed his music).
I decided to make it a call and response chart alternating between the cylindrical and conical consorts within the ensemble. It could be done antiphonally I suppose, but that was not the intent. For their excellent recording, BRB decided to use trombone instead of euphonium and it works well, though I think the use of euphonium would add some roundness to the conical choir.