When a chart goes off the rails

I finished this Brahms Intermezzo (Opus 117, Number 3) yesterday, though I tweaked a few things this morning as I was getting this post organized.

It was no surprise that when I got to page 3 of the piano part (above) – the big ‘B’ section – there was going to be some major problem solving to make it playable for brass. This section comprises five 5-measure phrases (ten if you count the repeats). They are all similar rhythmically, and also in the way the melodic and harmonic material is organized. So I knew that once I had solved the first 5-measure phrase, I could apply similar problem solving to the rest. This isn’t lazy arranging, but rather a desire to preserve some continuity throughout the section. Using orchestration to reveal form is an important consideration, and I have played plenty of charts where the orchestrator clearly did not understand the form.

Focusing on the first 5 measures only

  • First, the piano writing was distilled into its component parts in the brass score.
  • The instrumental transpositions were nulled out, resulting in a C score
  • This section was transposed to A flat major from the original.
  • As you will see, the only instance of 2 notes on one staff is the very high B flat in the third measure of this excerpt.
  • At this point, no final decisions have been made about where any particular idea is going to be scored; this was done only to organize and more clearly visualize Brahms’ complex writing.

After entering the notes in the score, I listened to my reference recording (early Glenn Gould – awesome!) several times to try and sort out the melodic elements from the purely harmonic elements, as well as making some observations about the rhythmic engine.

About that engine: one of the really crafty things about Bach is that once he gets his rhythmic motor running, it doesn’t stop. If you look closely at any example from the Art of Fugue, once the opening subject becomes counter subject, there is a nearly continuous flow of the smallest rhythmic element; in that case, eighth notes (Contrapunctus V and XIV are exceptions – there may be others, but those are the 2 that occur this morning).

Same thing is true for the entire B section of this Brahms Intermezzo – there is a constant sixteenth note motion throughout the entire section. This will be useful information for the rehearsals of this piece – making everyone aware that every note played is a piece of that sixteenth note engine.

After listening carefully, a couple of initial decisions were made:

  • The bass notes (all A flats) are going to reside in the tuba part. Gould (and other pianists, I expect) makes liberal use of the sustain pedal and so these eighth notes should be notated as augmented values.
  • The high B flat is not going to happen. For the purpose of recording this arrangement, a simple percussion part (glockenspiel) might be added one day. A subject for another day.
  • The alto range eighth note melody in the 5th and 6th measure is going into a Horn part.

Next set of decisions – things learned from listening to the reference recording:

  • The figure that starts in Horn 2 and continues in Trumpet in E flat is pretty understated. Of course, that’s playable on an E flat, but I want to bring the notes down in the tessitura of an instrument, so I decided to use a Piccolo Trumpet in cup mute for this section. I’m also going to put a slur over that line to further understate it. The music notated in the top staff is going to get moved down to Trumpet 2 (that’s the instrument I’m going to change to Piccolo for this section).
  • The sixteenth note figure that first appears above in trombone 1 and 2 in measure 1 and 2 is the main melodic idea – but it doesn’t quite sound like this on the recording.

The system below reflects these two ideas:

  • I’m going to assign this main melodic idea to the Euphonium with the answer in the 3rd measure in the Flugelhorn.
  • I’m going to account for the missing notes in the interpretation of this motif by assigning them to Trombone 1 and 2 with the understanding that the sustain pedal is used on the piano and this is essentially an A flat ‘power chord’ sustained sound. I also want the trombones to attack those notes and come away from them, but not quite sforzando piano. So I’ll add an accent – this is all in a piano context, so I’m not worried about those notes being too “special.”

  • There’s a brief answer to these ideas in measures 4 and 5. I’ll bring the E flat Trumpet in on the high notes and answer with the euphonium in measure 5.
  • The missing notes from these brief answers are going to be assigned to the Trombone.
  • The figure that starts in measure 2, now in Trumpet 2, begins right at the beginning of this section in a lower octave. I’m going to assign that to Horn 2 also in mute and also under a slur.
  • In the original piano part, there are 3 notes in this figure not doubled at the octave the e flat in measure 2, the e flat in measure 3 and the g in measure 4. I believe that Brahms just didn’t have enough fingers, so I’m going to add those octaves, first in Horn 2 and then in Trumpet 3.

There are only 2 remaining missing elements from measures 5 and 6 – the harmonically crunchy C flat and the sixteenth note bass figure.

  • I haven’t used bass trombone yet saving it for that 16th note figure.
  • The octave C flat is a resolution (rhythmically speaking) of the figure started in Horn 2 and continued in Trumpet 2 & 3. But I want it to be a little more prominent. So it will be assigned to the Flugelhorn and, you might think, the Euphonium at the octave. But no. Wishing for the Euphonium to make a fresh entrance on the melodic material for the 2nd phrase (and also informed by how I finally decided to handle measure 5 and 6 in subsequent phrases), that note is going to Trombone 1.

One final tweak to the sixteenth note figure (I decided to break it into a couple of parts to highlight some important harmonic notes – namely the D natural and the F).

And here it is with transpositions and final editing tweaks (dynamics, hairpins, slurs, mute indications and a subtle tweak to the main melodic material so it pops a little bit more in the texture. You’ll also notice how I remained faithful in the second phrase to the decisions made regarding the first phrase).

This is intricate and sophisticated music, but I think with careful rehearsal and mutual understanding by the players, it will work well. Just looking at this page, you will notice that every member of the group is vested in the successful outcome of this section.

I would suggest rehearsing these 5 measures with Tuba, Bass Trombone, Euphonium, Horn 1, Flugelhorn, and E flat trumpet only – with Trombone 1 & 2, Horn 2, and Trumpet 2 & 3 listening carefully to how their parts fit into the engine. It’s also interesting to note that those 5 instruments (the listening group) create a composite steady eighth note rhythm, but offset by a sixteenth note throughout the passage. That can be dangerous information.

I trust that you will also notice that the tuba part is the most bland in this section. But the tuba is the rock on which this particular church is built, and there is plenty for the tuba player to do in the rest of the chart.

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