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Texture 2 - Writing for families

In Four Dimensional Texture, I identified the four basic groupings within a brass ensemble. Today, I'll tackle the second of those - writing for a family within the group (i.e. trumpets, trombones, horns, tubas).

I was recently asked by a friend to write an arrangement for trumpet ensemble. I've only done this two other times - once for the 1993 International Trumpet Festival (Barber of Seville Overture for massed trumpet ensemble), and Gottfried Reiche's Abblasen that I arranged for our trumpet section. Writing for trumpets alone is difficult for me - as a tuba player, the foundation feels like it is missing, and the range and tone colors are obviously more limited than the full brass ensemble. Similarly, I wrote almost exclusively for brass quintet when I first got interested in arranging, but I've drifted away from that for some of the same reasons - too many limitations and compromises.

However, in my brass ensemble writing, I'll write passages for a grouping of trumpets when the music calls for it, and/or as a contrast in color or density in a score. Likewise, a trombone trio or quartet passage embedded within an arrangement can add variety or interest. In the Boulder Brass instrumentation, a horn or tuba ensemble is a small stretch as there are only two of each, but is achievable with a little creativity.

From a marketing perspective, always remember that you are not only trying to do the music justice, but your writing must also appeal to the musicians who decide to buy and program your music. Writing a great excerpt in your arrangement for the trombones or horns (for example) can do a lot to assure customer satisfaction.

Obviously, sometimes the music is written in a high tessitura and it just cries out for trumpets, just as something written in the low range translates naturally to low brass. When looking for music to arrange, I love to find a piece that already has some of these contrasts already in the music.


The music below is an excerpt from A Toye by Giles Farnaby from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book.

This is simple music written generally in SATB registers, which is the perfect vehicle to play with the scoring to provide interest and variety. I've exploited a few different families of instruments for these two passages passage.


The score excerpts below are from my version for brass ensemble from the unceremoniously titled Second Elizabethan Suite.

Some ground rules:

  • Farnaby's keyboard version is in A minor - my version is in C minor.

  • The score below is transposed (E flat trumpet, 2 B flat trumpets, flugelhorn in B flat, and horns in F)

  • As is typical for music from the time, the time signature of the original is cut time, but with 8 quarters per measure. I've used modern notation - still cut time, but with only 4 quarters to the bar.


We'll start with the 8 measures that are the 2nd full phrase of the entire piece (4 bars of the original keyboard music starting at Farnaby's Rehearsal 2).

Here I've written for the trombone trio and then thickened it up with horns for the second 4 measures. Notice that horn 2 is the weak voice and is written below Trombone 1 (who has the interesting rhythmic material) - horn 2 is a third above the bass voice which is in Trombone 2 and doubled an octave lower in trombone 3.

In the 8th measure of this excerpt, I introduced the tuba as a transition to the next phrase - a C major arpeggio that introduces tubas as the bass voice for the next 4 measures under the trumpet quartet.


In the fifth bar of letter C, I compressed Farnaby's original into a single octave and wrote a little high register trumpet quartet (and made it sparkle even a little more with the optional glockenspiel part).

In the 8th measure of this system, I manufactured another transition introducing the horn as the focus. for a repeat of the 8 measures at Farnaby's Rehearsal 2).


At letter D, I wrote an 8 measure conical family feature - 4 measures of horns over euphonium and tuba, and then bringing the flugelhorn in for the second 4 measures as the rhythmic counterpoint.

I manufactured yet another transition to the final phrase of the movement which is 8 measures for the full ensemble.


There are literally scores of ways this music could be arranged. My conscious decisions were to use families of instruments as sub species of the entire ensemble. This provided contrasts that revealed the form of the piece, gave everyone something interesting to play, periodic rests (important in the context of the larger suite), and kept the texture from being too heavy with non essential voice doubling. I think generally the net result is something more interesting than brass instruments just hammering away at renaissance music.

Admittedly, I wasn't really trying to write a faithful period piece, but rather re-imagining Farnaby's music as audience pleasing brass ensemble music.

There's a lot more ground to cover about this including the editing (dynamics, articulations, etc).

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