Third verse of Willow, Willow by Percy Grainger – brass ensemble arrangement available by clicking here
Many years ago, I was walking past Bill Stanley’s trombone studio at CU Boulder and heard a most remarkable thing. I stuck my head in the partially open door and discovered he was listening to a piece from Offroad, a new solo CD by then associate principal trombone of the New York Philharmonic, James Markey. If you have not heard this remarkable recording, it will be a worthwhile addition to your library. Click here (will take you to the Hickey’s Music Store site)
The music was a Grainger song setting of an old English folk tune called Willow, Willow. I’m a little bit of a Grainger nut, but this was a piece with which I was not familiar. The copyright date is 1912, but John Bird’s fantastic biography lists the composition date as 1901 – 1911. This is not uncommon for Grainger; he would often start projects and not complete them until years later. The setting is relatively simple with clean, sparse textures which suggests to me a youthful Grainger. He would have been 19 years old in 1901, so even if completed in 1911 Grainger still would have been a young man.
I was so moved by James Markey’s playing and the Grainger setting itself that I felt compelled to make a version for brass ensemble that featured the trombone as the solo voice throughout – just as James had played it. One of the many impressive aspects in Markey’s recording is his decision to play the third verse of the tune partially in a higher octave with some small and thoughtful melodic liberties. The overall range of the solo voice encompasses 2 octaves – from D3 to D5.
Grainger’s clean accompanimental texture with a minimum of pianistic effects made for a good arranging project. E flat trumpet and B flat piccolo are used, but sparingly and mostly when the trombone is not playing. This was a range consideration but not because the tessitura is high, but rather because I wanted to bring the higher pitches into the meat and potato register of those instruments. Nevertheless, the piccolo does end softly on a C6. In fact, I used one of my favorite techniques for the end of the piece; the entire ensemble playing a soft and loosely spaced chord that ranges from a D1 in the tuba to the aforementioned C6 in the piccolo. Yes, a d minor 7 chord.
Grainger likes to arpeggiate chords in the left hand and this is always an interesting arranging problem to solve. The music is marked Flowingly and wayward in time (Grainger’s way of saying Andante – Rubato) so I was able to employ another favorite technique: “pyramid” chords where each voice enters on a different pitch of the arpeggio. If the chord is voiced properly, and everyone understands their role in the chord and carefully adjusts for balance, this works very well. From a chamber music perspective, this also serves the purpose of keeping everyone invested in the overall forward motion of the piece, even though they are playing sustained pitches.
The only other real arranging problem to solve was making certain the accompanying voices would not overwhelm the solo voice while playing in its medium low register. With piano, this is solved by the natural decay of the sound. But when writing sustained pads, I had to make certain that the voices that were playing in the surrounding texture were subdued enough to allow the trombone to sing naturally and quietly. I could have just assigned the chords to the tuba and trombones, or tuba, euphonium and trombone. But the sound would have been too thick, and there would not have been enough differentiation of tone color with the solo voice, especially at the beginning.
So I assigned the tuba and bass trombone to play the pad always underneath the trombone pitches, and the notes from Grainger’s accompaniment that were inside the trombone register were assigned to horn in a low register. These pitches starting at measure 6 are also the third of the chords which also helps to balance these chords. I did allow the texture to thicken during the second verse – the solo voice is a little more active, and the musical arch of the piece suggests a slightly louder iteration of this verse.
These decisions would have all been a little less critical if this had been a trumpet feature – the tone color difference alone would have allowed the voice to project over the harmonic pad.