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Keeping the trombones out of the pub

I usually carry around a small notebook that has only one purpose - it is used to write down new project ideas when I hear them (or think of them, or when somebody suggests something to me - ask any one of the Boulder Brass what AIYA means).

I've been meaning to work on this project (represented by the featured image above) for a while, and when I heard it on the radio again the other day, I wrote it down in my notebook AGAIN - Johannes Brahms' Intermezzo Opus 117, No 3. This set of Intermezzi was composed late in Brahms life (1893) and the tone is characterized by Brahms' own inscription "cradle songs of my sorrows."

Yesterday, I finally carved out some time for note entry and to make the initial sweep through the chart to work out the bass line. Not quite so straightforward this time. I quickly became overwhelmed by the glorious possibilities. It occurred to me that this might make an interesting blog post on process.

Let's focus in on the main tune in the first five measures (most of the phrases in this piece are five measures). And let's get this out of the way - these examples are all in c minor instead of the original c# minor. I haven't finally decided yet which way to go, but for now, we're working in c minor.

Here's a fairly obvious solution:

Changing the color of the inner voice will lighten this up a little bit - I've also brought Trombone 1 in to complete the harmonization at the end of the phrase:

I've changed the upper voice from flugelhorn to the less obvious (perhaps) horn 1, changed the inner harmonization at the end to horn 2, and changed the middle voice to bass trombone instead of tenor, which will darken sound in the middle a bit.

Here I've doubled up the 2 top voices using different colors for the doublings (flugel & horn / tenor and bass trbn). This accomplishes several things: 1) many voices playing sotto voce piano sounds different than a few voices; 2) it adds more color to the instrumentation; 3) it makes the introduction of the harmony at the end of the phrase less jarring.

I like this one very much - there is a hollow, eerie quality to horns in octaves with the bottom horn voice being in a relatively low register. The harmonization at the end could be in a tenor trombone voice or even euphonium.

This is a slightly brighter solution - 2 cylindrical instruments, though both in the middle low register, and tuba.

So far everything has included tuba as the lowest voice - what about this?

Of course, with every one of these examples, there are many subtle variations possible (without even talking about mutes).

Here's the version that I've settled on for now. This was determined in part by my desire to bring the flugelhorn and euphonium in as a fresh voice in measure 6, but also because it's somewhat rare to have an opportunity to write a melody for trombones in 3 octaves - which I think is a really cool sound.

And it keeps them out of the pub (at least, until after the performance).

This particular Brahms excerpt is right in the wheel house of most of what I've written about so far. To summarize:

  • Be color conscious.

  • Write idiomatically.

  • Make decisions with intent.

  • Not everyone (especially the trumpets) have to play all the time.

  • There is no one correct solution.

Sorry there is no recording - there will be.

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