My best chord

There’s nothing quite like a well voiced, well spaced, well balanced chord written for brass when played in tune. Great brass players produce a resonant sound that is full of fundamental and overtones. When all of that lines up, giddy audience satisfaction is guaranteed.

This is the original organ introduction to Henry Purcell’s choral anthem on “Rejoice in the Lord, Always” also known as the Bell Symphony.

I used this as a contrasting movement in a suite of music by Purcell and Jeremiah Clarke called Music from Chapel Royal which includes 3 famous trumpet voluntaries, a short fanfare (Intrada from the Indian Queen), and Purcell’s Rondeau from Abdelezar (that Britten made famous as the theme for his Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra).

When scoring this, I envisioned a 16 measure crescendo, so I started simply by just scoring almost exactly what Purcell wrote (4 voices – flugelhorn and horns playing the chord and trombone 2 starting the repeating descending C major scale). The only thing I changed was adding a root to the chord (Purcell would not have done this in a keyboard version because he would want the middle C to sound as a fresh voice in the scale, and also to avoid finger entanglements). I gradually thickened up the texture by either doubling a voice at the unison (sometimes for balance and sometimes for color) or at the octave. Except for octave doublings, I tried to write each line as its own independent phrase so the effect would be 11 different “bell” voices making their own music.

I’m happy with the chord at the end. Purcell’s voicing is interesting – 3 roots, a fifth and a third. That means in my 11 voice brass ensemble I need to come up with 6 chord slots to place voices. If I stay close to Purcell’s voice distribution, that would mean 6 roots, 2 fifths and 2 thirds. I like a little more 5th.

First, because I was going for a big ending (the end of this movement marks the halfway spot in my suite), I wrote the tuba on a pedal CC. I like for chords to line up roughly on the overtone series, so bass trombone is also on its pedal C (octave higher than the tuba). The next position in the overtone series is a perfect 5th higher (2nd trombone). But I also like to write trombones in the lower register in an open chord position, so even though the next open position in the overtone series is the C a perfect 4th higher than the 2nd trombone, I skipped over this root and put the 1st trombone on the 3rd, a sixth higher than 2nd trombone. This chordal foundation (tuba and bass trombone in octaves, open voicing in the trombones on the fifth and the third respectively) will NEVER let you down.

You can write a closed position chord in the trumpets and also not go wrong. I wanted a little more ‘air and space’ at the top, so Trumpet 1 (E flat) was given the main melodic line putting it on the root, and since 2nd trumpet is piccolo I wrote a little descant an octave higher. The 3rd trumpet and flugehorn are on the 5th and 3rd respectively. I just worked down from there putting horn 1 on the root and horn 2 on the fifth – in this register, that fifth is enough to be felt, but isn’t really going to cut through the chord.

Finally, I brought the euphonium in to double the melodic line for the last 2 bars and octave below the E flat trumpet – euphonium is doubling horn 1 on the root in the middle of the chord, but arrives there melodically. Final tally – 6 roots (one is doubled in the middle of the chord), 3 fifths each an octave apart, and 2 thirds, also an octave apart. There are 3 missing chord positions -2nd space C in the bass clef (this would have made the chord too dense at the bottom in my estimation) and the 3rd and 5th between the top 2 trumpets.

This certainly wasn’t the only way to write this chord, but it worked out really well. It’s resonant, easy to tune, and balanced (balance and intonation are closely related subjects as we will discuss later).

Maybe not my best chord, but it’s pretty damn good.

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