Shut Your Brassy, Magnificent Trap!

Well, Sib1 has been carrying all the weight of our return to the tumultuous, colorful carnival that is classical music blogging – it’s like Burning Man, but doesn’t make you weep for humanity. So it’s high time for Sib2 to step up and do his bit. And what better way to self-importantly announce one’s arrival than with a majestic chorus of brass instruments?

Full disclosure: I am a recovering brass player. I take it one day at a time. My habit of choice was the trumpet, otherwise known as “the gateway instrument.” Oh, they lure you in with phrases like, “This is God’s instrument!” as if God weren’t so obviously playing autoharp. And I’m pretty sure that when trumpets blow in Revelation, stuff gets messed up. But to a young, impressionable kid just wandering the streets of music, the offer seems too good to pass up. And then somehow, years later, you find yourself identifying the first movement of Haydn’s trumpet concerto after hearing just one note. You can – and have – drummed the entire thing, all 3 movements, with your fingertips while reading the newspaper. You know which recording it is by certain key passages even before the cadenza. You move on with your life, but the trumpet is always with you.

Eventually you learn to accept and embrace it. You know in your soul that the highest enjoyment you ever had playing music was Brass Choir, freshman year of college. That was when you first heard and played Bach’s incomparable Die Kunst der Fuge – Contrapunctus I. It moved you then and moves you now when you hear that singular melody shared and echoed among a small group of brass players. You feel uplifted and transformed! The best kind of high, really: an authentic one. I love Glenn Gould, of course, but I cannot truly compare the two:

 

Last night I turned on the radio (yes, it was still 2015) in the kitchen as I did some household chores, already tuned to the local WETA station, when immediately my ears perked up (possibly literally). In my opinion, Giovanni Gabrieli gave brass music the gift of his genius, a significant corpus that has rung (brassily) down the centuries. A Gabrieli “canzon” (it’s like a calzone, but less caloric) greeted me on WETA last night. Here is a video of brass players from the Bayerische Staatsoper playing it, conducted by Zubin Mehta:

 

Clearly I owe Gabrieli more than a mere ‘like’: his work actually pioneered this form and setup of instrumentation and playing. Brass music introduced me to polyphony and antiphony, two forms I’ve  dearly loved ever since. Gabrieli was instrumental (wink) in their development. He was the first composer to include dynamics notations (necessary when you’re blowing God’s wind through God’s chosen mazes of brass pipes, emptying the Lord’s spittle ever and anon). The above calzone, a revolution in Italian fast-casual brass dining, comes from a Sacra Symphonia that remains a landmark of this music.

We bid you a brassy adieu with this video from the Chicago Symphony Brass, which talks a bit about Gabrieli (Gabriel, blow your horn) before giving us a few clips of them playing his music:

 

Our undying thanks, as ever, to Jack McFarland, whose wit contributed our title:

 

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Bach’s Melodious Underpinnings

Once upon a time, there lived a German violinist named August Wilhelm.  In 1871, presumably having some extra time on his dexterous digits, he decided to write a piano and violin arrangement of the second movement of J.S. Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D.  By changing the key to C and transposing the melody down an octave, he was able to play using only one string of his violin.  Snicker, snicker…the G string.  And with that, Herr Wilhelm unleashed into the centuries a much-beloved Air punctuated with unavoidable jokes.  (I, for one, first heard such jokes in my college Music History II class.  We were super sophisticated.)

Bach composed his Orchestral Suite No. 3 around 1731.  In that time, orchestral suites were “easy listening” for parties and other occasions of entertainment.  This was not Bach’s preferred style of composing (remember, this is the man who gave us the Brandenburg Concertos and the St. Matthew Passion); however, he wrote four orchestral suites as acts of good faith to the Leipzig City Council.  Bach had a bit of a temper, and his relationship with the city council was often contentious. By contributing new music, his petitions for better wages and better teaching and conducting opportunities fell on open ears- a savvy move on Johann’s part.  Ah, were that the political climate of today!  Three of Bach’s four “acts of good faith” were written specifically for the Leipzig Collegium Musicum, a group of music students and aficionados who, under Bach’s direction, gathered together at Zimmermann’s Coffee House to crack wise and make music.  Bach devoted his time to this extracurricular activity from 1729 to 1741.

Interestingly, “orchestral” seems to be a misnomer, as the Suites are composed for small instrumental groupings.  The Third Suite is scored for three trumpets, timpani, two oboes, and strings- with the exception of the Air, of course.

What I love about the Air is its dignity.  It’s slow but not stodgy, tender but not cloying.  In this beautiful recording on period instruments, the cello and violone provide this wonderful, velvety foundation and the violins and viola are refined and elegant.  Note the lovely additions of baroque organ and “archlute”.

Another of my favorite recordings is the fantastic duo of Bobby McFerrin (read more about his views on Bach’s “danceability” here) and Yo-Yo Ma.  They lend a unique and utterly gorgeous artistry to a melody that is often overlooked due to its familiarity.

Bach’s Air on the G string:  not just for wedding processionals and “Sounds of the Ocean” recordings!  We here at Sibling Revelry hope you’ll listen and enjoy.