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Inspiration and Innovation

I just received a request from the New York Philharmonic to perform/record for digital distribution my double quintet arrangement of the Arrival of Queen of Sheba from Handel's Opera Solomon. "Let me think about the request and get back to you."

Full disclosure - this arrangement for double quintet was made about 15 years ago at the request of Ryan Anthony when he was still with the Canadian Brass for a holiday brass program with the principal brass players of the New York Philharmonic. This video was taken during a rehearsal in in 2015.

The NYP has programmed this arrangement several times on their holiday brass program, but the request to do it again (and now for this slightly different purpose) does not get old. The Canadian Brass also recorded this arrangement on their CD Legends.


My first version of this arrangement was made in 1999 after Dorian Records (now Sono Luminus) picked up the license for our first recording "Bolder Baroque." I sent Dorian our 1998 recording and they liked it but asked if we could replace Bach's "Toccata and Fugue" with something "less banal." They also felt the original recording was a little heavy and too Germanic, so they asked for some lighter stuff. So the next summer we recorded "Arrival of the Queen of Sheba" (I know, still German, but it's Handel), "Fanfare for the King's Supper" (Rondeau) by Jean Joseph Mouret, and "Toccata" which was attributed to Girolamo Frescobaldi but actually written by Gaspar Cassadó for cello and piano. The Queen of Sheba didn't make the final cut for the Dorian release. I'm not even sure we finished editing and mastering the recording of it.

The Philip Jones Brass Ensemble more famously recorded Paul Archibald's excellent 413.11 arrangement of the famous sinfonia on their 1981 Handel recording. For me, the two most compelling works on that recording are this piece and Stephen Dodgson's 313.01 arrangement of the "Air and Variations from the Harmonious Blacksmith." The whole album is excellent - I'm just picking favorite kids here.


Enough preamble - on to the topic at hand. As I have written before, Boulder Brass started out as a 424.01 brass ensemble with one of the trombone players often doubling on euphonium. I have also written about why we use two horns (in short, balance). When we founded in 1993, most of the brass ensemble literature was from the PJBE library and our instrumentation afforded us the opportunity to play all of those charts without compromise while building up our own library of arrangements and commissions.

Being a fan, I was inspired by the PJBE charts. There is certainly nothing wrong with Paul's iconic arrangement, and so I used it as a springboard to do something different for our group (that's the aforementioned innvoation).

Handel's sinfonia is typical baroque orchestra instrumentation - oboes, strings, continuo. I dislike the idea of trying to make brass sound like other instruments, but one thing I set out to do was to emulate Handel's efforts to make contrasts. I also wanted to make an arrangement that was not all about the piccolo trumpet. Having said that, my 1999 arrangement is for 423.11 - trumpets are B flat Piccolo, E flat Trumpet, and 2 Flugelhorns.

The tessitura of Handel's original is high but playable on brass, so the temptation is great to keep the notes where they are. I'll tear apart the opening phrases to illustrate my approach, intended to emphasize important material and provide contrast. I see (and hear) string filigree with an oboe flourish in the opening measures.

In most versions (arrangements and recordings) what you primarily hear at the beginning and throughout is the busy violin 1 line, but I think that misses the mark. This is a fanfare signaling the arrival of the queen to court and I believe the fanfare written originally for oboes should dominate. So I transcribed the strings into the horns (down an octave), and the opening flourish for the 2 piccolo trumpets (B flat and E flat).

In Handel's score, the tutti orchestra passages are often followed by soli oboes and continuo in a sort of call and response. Since my opening is still brilliant sounding but differently emphasized, I wanted the oboe soli passages to contrast which I accomplished by writing the opening soli oboe passages for two flugelhorns.

Once I arrived at this basic formula, the chart more or less wrote itself. One new problem it created though was that I had five low brass instruments now relegated to playing viola, bass, and continuo lines if I were to remain consistent with the formula. Since the violins are active throughout and assigning that busy work consistently to the horns would lead to mutiny, that passage work is shared between horns and trombones. This is an admittedly breezy introduction to the arrangement (the whole sinfonia is only 90 measures) and the reasoning behind wanting to reinvent the wheel. I think mine is a successful and novel alternative to Mr. Archibald's version.

Coming full circle, the double quintet version that I wrote for Canadian Brass and the New York Phil principals is a derivative of this version and is available from the Canadian Brass website. Arrival of the Queen of Sheba (Double Quintet)


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