It gives me great pleasure to welcome Stephen Burns and colleagues from Fulcrum Point New Music Project to Tuesday’s Rush Hour. “Fulcrum Point,” as it’s known among musicians in Chicago, has gifted our city with extraordinary concert productions featuring musicians and creators from around the world. Tuesday, we are in for a treat!
A program of brass quintet music brings several things to mind, beginning with a question I was asked in a recent television interview: “What is the difference between orchestral music and chamber music?” It’s a legitimate question, as both belong to the world of classical music. While there are many subtle differences, the principal ones, I think, are ones of “size” and “scope” from both the composer and listener perspective.
Orchestral music is meant to be large – it’s written for a group of people numbering anywhere from around 30 to 100, and sometimes even far beyond that. It is meant for large spaces and large audiences (numbering in the four digits, as opposed to the three digit count). For the most part, when a composer writes an orchestral piece, she or he has proportions in mind similar to a novel or epic in the literary world. Because of the size of an orchestra, one person is needed to organize the sound – all members of the orchestra are required to follow the direction and musical interpretation of the conductor.
Gustav Mahler‘s 8th Symphony received its American premiere in 1916, featuring the Philadelphia Orchestra, choruses, soloists and one fearless conductor Leopold Stokowski – totalling no less than 1,068 performers on stage at the same time. This symphony has since been aptly dubbed “Symphony of a Thousand”.
Chamber music, though its message can often be of epic proportions, is more in the novella or short story genre (check out Beethoven‘s passionate ninth sonata for violin and piano, which Leo Tolstoy uses as a dramatic catalyst in his novella Kreutzer Sonata, or Czech composer Leos Janacek‘s string quartets Kreutzer and Intimate Letters, the first of which was based on Tolstoy’s novella, and second based on episodes from Janacek’s own life).
Written for any combination of two up to about 15,chamber music has no boss, no one person directing the sound and shaping the piece. It is a shared responsibility among all the players, alternating in roles of leadership and support as the music requires. All of the basic decisions in music-making – tempo, shaping of phrases, direction, balance of sound, interpretation of the composer’s score – are made jointly by all members of the ensemble. In the world of professional music, it’s a very big responsibility and a great privilege.
Most people are used to hearing brass players in bands (whether it be the local high school band or the U.S. Marine Corps band) or in large orchestral works (think of the great symphonies of Gustav Mahler or Anton Bruckner and our world-famous Chicago Symphony brass section!). There is, however, a great deal to discover in the world of chamber music involving brass instruments – both in brass quintet and in works of brass and other instruments. I’ll make some suggestions here on the blog later this week of interesting works for those of you who may be interested in exploring this. For those of you who might be experiencing a brass quintet as chamber music for the first time, I invite you to think of its organization along the lines of a string quartet or quintet: the trumpets playing the higher (often “melody-role”) of the violins; the French horn that of the viola; trombone, the cello; and tuba, the double bass.
Brass quintet family photo, dated 1865, from the Henry Meredith Collection.
There’s much more which can be said about the brass quintet genre. One final thing I can say, though, is this: the genre was meant to be heard in a large, generous space… and the combination of brass music and a cathedral is unforgettable. It is the original “surround sound!” We will, collectively, be taken to a different place of pure, sensory pleasure.