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Musical thievery and 12 steps

After Bach, the composer I’ve spent the most time with is Claude Debussy. In fact, the first two arrangements I made for large brass ensemble in the 80’s were Fugue in g minor (Bach) and Girl with the Flaxen Hair (Debussy). I’ve revisited the Debussy a number of times, partly to just tweak the instrumentation, but also because I used to be a chronic reviser (thanks, Finale). The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem, right?

Girl with the Flaxen Hair was low hanging fruit as far as the music of Debussy is concerned – there must be several hundred adaptations for various instrumentations. Why not? It’s a gorgeous piece of music.

But I developed an appetite for his music – not just arranging, either. I wore out several LPs of the Nocturnes, La Mer, and Images. It's all just lovely. Those are also pieces that I am reluctant to arrange for brass – perfect the way they are.

So, I’m always looking for ways to adapt Debussy's keyboard music for brass because, for one, it helps me learn his music better, but also because I like to program brass music that tells a story. Sometimes that story is “this great composer spent a portion of their life and creative output to write this great piece for brass” (the brass symphonies written by Jan Koetsier and Gunther Schuller, for example), and sometimes it’s stories told by the music itself (like Anthony DiLorenzo’s fantastic and fun suites for brass). Other times it is music that tells a story, and that was not originally intended for brass.

The London based brass septet, Septura, has programmed a really neat series – I wish I had thought of it – called Kleptomania where each program features music ‘stolen’ from a different source. This group comprises some of London’s top brass musicians and they sound fantastic – you should check them out.

I digress a bit – brass instruments are misunderstood. They are relatively young and perhaps the last family of instruments to develop to maturity among the orchestral instruments. We have no great chamber works by Mozart, Dvorak, or Brahms. There’s lots of great stuff being written now, but there is a huge hole in our repertory. So we borrow and steal music (notice I didn’t identify this as a problem from which I need to recover?).

I particularly like to look for music which is unexpected on brass – that’s why I’ve done so much Brahms and Schumann and Debussy.

Debussy’s Preludes are full of evocative music, perfectly conceived for piano, but so colorful that they almost beg to be orchestrated. Not everything works – I’ve tried. There are probably 10 or so Debussy pieces in my ‘works in progress’ folder. But I’m always happy when one finally locks into place.


The Hills of Anacapri was like that for me – I tried and tried to make it work and had almost given up. Then we decided to record and I programmed a whole bunch of Turina and Debussy. But one of the namesake suites was a little light (the recording is Landscapes and Portraits) and I forced myself to finish it. It’s a difficult piece and we decided we were going to record that CD the way we had intended our group to work – without a conductor – which made putting that one together all the more difficult. Unfamiliar music with tempo changes and difficult rhythmic playing to plug into those changes. Music that is first atmospheric and then boisterous, and then folksong like and then boisterous again.

Debussy wrote a very pianistic ending (see above) which I really couldn’t make work, so I had to invent a slightly alternate ending which I think works pretty well and still sounds like Debussy.

The trumpet players in particular really have to trust one another and each do their own thing in certain parts, but I consider that a successful team building exercise. There is a folksong section in the middle which contrasts nicely with the bright and splashy outer sections and gives the trombones a chance to shine. In fact, I think every instrument in the group has a little slice of the spotlight in this chart.

The opening (see piano score above) was another opportunity to build some pyramid chords with one instrument (flugelhorn) playing the entire melodic fragment at the beginning and other instruments joining on different eighth notes of the meter to sustain the sound – dense and transparent at the same time.

You’ll also notice that there are some necessary compromises. Key is one; register is another – I made a contrast between darker and brighter instruments from measure 2 to 3 and also added some glockenspiel sparkle to the little trumpet flourish to compensate for not having the octave Debussy composed available to me – yes, I know the high G is playable on a piccolo, but I wasn’t ready for the music to squeal like that. Debussy intended that to be light and pretty and to sound distant (shoot…should have found a way to use mutes.).

One of the really interesting things to me about this blogging project – it is forcing me to listen to some of my own stuff and realize I still have much to discover about writing for brass. Just now listening to Anacapri again, I heard a few spots I’d like to revisit.

Back to the first step for me.

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