“…round perdition’s flames”

I’m about to publish an arrangement that I’ve worked on for 30 years – Percy Grainger’s Hill Song No. 2. I’ve been in love with this music since I first played it in the Lamont Wind Ensemble at DU in the 80’s.

30 years

There are some pieces that are so perfectly conceived in their original form, that I just don’t dare to transcribe, arrange, or orchestrate them. Others might try with varying degrees of success, but in my opinion, some music is just better left alone. You probably have a list like that too, and so it’s just a matter of where one draws the line.

For me, Hill Song is right on the line. The wind band version is just great music when it’s played well. If it were not for the fact that Grainger himself arranged alternate versions, my arrangement for brass would be destined for the back of the proverbial file cabinet. Juicy rationalization.

Nevertheless, I’m about to take the leap. I did an early version by hand in 1987 from the band score and later committed it to Finale. When I learned later that there was a 2 piano version published in 1922, I scoured libraries for it.  It has gone through several major revisions since then. The most significant thing I did was to completely let go the version for wind band and use only the piano duet version for my source material.

When we recorded Landscapes and Portraits 15 years ago, we kicked around the idea of including this piece on the program. But since that was our first serious foray into working without a conductor, it was a bit more than we wanted to take on at the time. And the queue was full anyway.

So here we are. It’s not destined to be a best seller in the Boulder Brass catalog; it’s a challenging arrangement of difficult music with possibly limited audience appeal. It requires patience from all stakeholders, as well as a willing suspension of disbelief from the audience – a willingness to immerse oneself in Grainger’s musical landscape without hope of receiving any definitive answers. The piece ends enigmatically.

How’s that for a sterling recommendation?

The Music

Grainger began working on Hillsong as early as 1901; it was his goal to craft music that evoked his own feelings for rustic, rural land that he loved, and the music he imagined coming from it. Grainger writes ‘My Hill Songs arose out of a longing for the wildness, freshness, and purity of hill-countries, hill-folk and hill-musics (Scotland, the Himalayas…)” Grainger spent a life time writing music free of conventional restraint. It’s why he was attracted to folk music and particularly how authentic folk singers sang their own music. He spent countless hours faithfully transcribing the rhythmic and melodic idiosyncrasies of traditional folksingers making their craft.

About the arrangement

Perhaps the biggest arranging obstacle aside from the overall range of the piece is the density of ideas. Grainger had no shortage of them and often crammed several important ideas simultaneously into his score. So the task was sorting these ideas out, making sure there was a fresh voice to introduce them, and balance the ensemble so the ideas were not lost in the texture.

In other words, there are so many notes and musical ideas to expose that once space was created for those ideas to sing, there wasn’t much opportunity for color choices.

I’m even limited in the use of mutes.

Once a decision is made to use a mute for color purposes, you have to balance the ensemble so the color doesn’t get lost. This becomes even more critical with softer mutes (cup, bucket, harmon). Trombones need time to both put in and take out any mutes, but the softer mutes require even more time than a straight mute. This is especially true if your group stands for performances. As much as you want to color a sound with a mute, sometimes it is just not a practical consideration. I’m working on a post devoted to mutes – more soon.

There is also a temptation to emulate the bagpipe as Grainger did in his wind band scores through the use of mutes. I eschewed that temptation.

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