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Texture 1 - Writing for the whole ensemble

A while back, I wrote an entry called Four Dimensional Texture where I identified 4 basic ways to group instruments in a large ensemble. To review, those are:

  • Writing for the whole group.

  • Writing for a family within the group

  • Writing for a species within the whole group

  • Writing chamber music for any subset of instruments

Today, I'd like to unpack the first one - here is the entire statement:

Writing for the whole group. Finding those moments in your arrangement when you make certain everyone is involved. Many inexperienced arrangers think the entire group must be involved all the time. Sub texture - whole group playing fortissimo vs. whole group playing pianissimo.

I've been working on a project for the Brass of the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra (NedPhO) - they've asked me for a Bach piece (My Spirit Be Joyful from Cantata 146) for large ensemble and organ for their 2018 Christmas concerts at the Concertgebouw (color me thrilled). MANY arrangers (including myself) have done versions for brass quintet, and there are a seemingly endless number of other versions for brass alone and with organ; perhaps most notably two trumpets and organ (by E. Power Biggs), and the quintet and organ version recorded by the Empire Brass Quintet and Douglas Major for Angel Records.

I can't find a version for large ensemble alone or with organ, so I hope my version will be blazing a new trail.

Bach's original version, likely written in 1726 for the third Sunday after Easter in Leipzig, is the penultimate movement of Cantata 146, and placed right before the chorale setting. It is a tenor and bass duet, accompanied by Bach's small orchestra of 2 oboes, 2 violins, viola, and continuo. I've wanted to make a Boulder Brass version (for those just tuning in - 423.11) for many years and have kicked it around some but have never finished it. The request from my friends in Amsterdam was apparently what I needed.

I started right in trying to make the brass and organ version work, but quickly scuttled that idea. Since I have wanted to make a stand alone brass only version and since I want the organ to enhance the brass, I first made a version for brass only. Once I'm finally happy with that (HA!), I'll go back through it and look for opportunities to drop the brass out of the texture and move it into the organ. I'll also end up with 2 functional versions of the piece (always the publisher).


Back to our theme. Bach's music is chamber music and is primarily the vocal duet with continuo. There are 8 staves in his system, and the oboe and violin parts are similar, which means there are really only 6 independent voices. It's in F major (a very brass friendly key) and the range is ideally suited for brass - so much so, that it was tempting just to move Bach's notes right into the appropriate 6 staves of my 11-stave system. The Gesellschaft Edition provides no dynamics and very little indication of style (no articulation, only a few slurs).

I've got to find a few places where I'm going to use all eleven voices (and later also the organ). This is a show opener kind of piece, so I'm certainly going to use everyone during the opening statement and at the very end of the piece. Also, the piece is written in ritornello style - the first 21 measures refrain several times throughout (this refrain accounts for about half of the total 5' 20" duration) - I could recraft it for a couple of those refrains or keep it substantially the same. I lean towards the former for 2 reasons: 1) my intent is always for the composer, his music, and the ensemble to be the stars (not my clever orchestration of it); and 2) for the same reason Bach wrote in ritornello form (or at least one reason) - if you want people to remember your music, repeat it.

I mentioned there are essentially 6 independent voices, but 2 of those are the tenor and bass vocal lines which are not used during the instrumental refrain. So, Bach's big orchestral moments are 4 ideas: soprano and alto lines in Violin/Oboe 1 & Violin/Oboe 2 respectively, a tenor line in the poor outmatched viola, and the basso continuo, which could have been played on as many as 4 instruments (certainly cello and keyboard, possibly bassoon and double bass). Bach's weight and color will be important as I make my decisions.

The structure of the ritornello is really clever and, honestly, I never really noticed it until I started tearing it apart. The first phrase is an eight-measure downward F major scale (with embellishment, of course); the second phrase is the same downward scale harmonized with the third on top compressed to 7 measures, and the cadential phrase is 6 measures which ascend from G to the highest pitch of the piece a C. The outline of the entire refrain is F - A - (g) C - F. That's just brilliant simplicity. And it informed how I would use the ensemble during the first 21 measures.


First phrase - 8 measures - full ensemble, minus 2 trumpets (saved for the second higher phrase). I double a hybrid version of the melody an octave lower in trombone 1 and created a hybrid version of the alto and bass line in trombone 2, 3 and euphonium. The horns are assigned the tenor viola line but broken up a little bit both for interest but also to create a little harmonic pad in the middle. You'll notice that while all of Bach's lines are continuous thoughts, I've invented a lot space between notes in the horns and trombones to keep the interior light - only the line in trumpet 2, flugelhorn, and the tuba are intact.


Second phrase - 7 measures - Bach changes his texture to oboes (in harmony) on the melodic line and the strings playing a little arpeggio flourish. so I changed the texture down to only 5 voices marked mezzo forte. Piccolo trumpet on the highest voice harmonized beneath on a C trumpet. The basso is in the euphonium because it's a little more florid here and I didn't want it to be too heavy by doubling in the tuba an octave lower. The string flourish in the middle lies in the sweet spot for horns and I decided to thicken it up just a tiny bit by harmonizing it. Towards the end of this phrase, the downward scales in the bass get low enough, that it seemed reasonable to hand it back to tuba and then double it in euphonium leading into the final phrase of the refrain and doubling the ensuing pedal point. Here, the first measure is the cadence measure from the previous example to show the transition.


Third phrase - 6 measures - full 11-voice ensemble but marked piano with a crescendo as the line ascends. The soprano and alto line are split up between pairs of trumpets, the horns are playing the viola line here also broken up to highlight the direction and harmony of that line (which I thought for a viola line was pretty damn interesting), Aforementioned tuba and euphonium hold down the pedal, and trombones are adding a little rhythmic punch on the down beats - again plenty of space between notes so it's more about groove and highlighting the harmonic progression than adding weight to the texture. I also didn't want the trombones to be too busy at the end of the ritornello because they are going to be plenty busy during the vocal sections.

Big crescendo to cadence, with octave doubling. After the pedal point is complete, I held the tuba and euphonium out, so they could play the one bar transition flourish to the first vocal section.


The music between the refrains is where the voices take over and the orchestration lightens up - I'll do the same and that is also where I will play with textures and timbres.

A quick word about the continuo - as you may have surmised, I'm not really a "double-the-bass-line-and-call-it-good" kind of arranger. And I've played my own quintet version where the tuba essentially plays the continuo line throughout - I've always wanted three fingers of scotch and a nap afterwards. With a 5 minute piece like this and a very busy bass line, this is an opportunity to spread the love around - see my post about assigning bass lines All About That Bass. This philosophy also begins to answer the question "With just 6 voices in the original, how am I going to vest all 11 players in the outcome?"

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