Friday, October 31, 2008

The Music I'm Living With From Now Until Tuesday

Next Tuesday, by the way, has nothing to do with election day for me.

So you (of whom there are none yet, I think) can share in my life's journey...

I am taking my trumpet comprehensive exams next week. One of my tasks, for Tuesday, is to write on three of the most important trumpet chamber music works. I might as well work on my young blogging skills while preparing. I wanted to choose something by Heinrich von Biber (1644-1704):

What a fancy chap! Well, Biber is quite known for his violin compositions, which are virtuoso showpieces for performance in the chambers of the courts where he was in residence, but he also wrote quite a bit for trumpet and trumpets. What I like most about his trumpet writing, and why I think it's historically significant, is that it merges the Late Renaissance genre and conventions of trumpet ensemble music with baroque basso continuo techniques. Sure, the music is primitive in its modulatory structure, but it's fascinating to hear these play out.

For the record, traits of late Renaissance trumpet ensemble music in Italy and Germany (the two regions traded trumpeters quite a bit) are:

-5 part texture, divided into
--1. Clarino/soprano
--2. Sonata, quinta, or principale (which, in the renaissance at least, typically played the melody while the clarino improvised a descant)
--3. Alto e basso (which mirrors the sonata part, just lower)
--4. Vulgano (or, "the follower"), and
--5. basso.

Vulgano and basso typically, in the renaissance, drone on a fifth, and you'll hear in the Biber a fifth being sounded down low, but notice what happens at 4:12 in this recording from The Amsterdam Baroque Orquestra of Sonata a 7 for six trumpets and basso continuo, composed in 1668:



The low voices drop out so that the clarino and soprano can break away and follow the basso continuo into a new key on the higher partials. Interesting. By the time Bach would be writing for Gottfried Reiche and other Leipzig trumpet players in the early-to-mid 18th century, the clarino was beginning to reign supreme, and the bottom was (literally) dropping out of the music. It's a truism, and nothing shocking, to say that trumpets can't modulate on the lower partials and cannot play a major scale (although Reiche and others reputedly could "lip" enough notes to make some lower-partial linear passages possible) until the upper partials. That makes clarino playing the ideal--and, indeed, only--choice for a composer who wants a modulating trumpet part. Music in Biber's time was, macroscopically speaking, in the late-to-middle stages of its great modulation from modality (as expressed through Renaissance counterpoint) to chromatic tonality.

Biber is not unique in this mid-baroque tendency to treat the instrument in its strict Renaissance regal usage on the one hand and a melodic solo instrument over basso continuo on the other, but it is interesting to note that this composition, in 1668, was his first work to include trumpets. In fact, most of his compositions were for strings. Biber was a violin virtuoso, and seemingly improvised streams of melodies, often in free fantasia or variation forms, spilled out from his bow and his pen. His writing for trumpets--this, his Sonata for 8 Trumpets in 1673, and (less so) several chamber sonatas using two trumpets--acknowledges both the past, present, and future of the trumpet in his time...Whereas, for instance, the later composer Torelli (1658-1709) treated Bologna's clarinists/trumpeters on par with oboists and violinists, as roughly interchangeable solo voices, only with the trumpet's emphasizing arpeggiation.

But how--and why--did a string player like Biber learn to write for trumpet ensemble?

In 1661, the Bohemian-born Biber met Pavel Josef Vejvanovsky, a Moravian trumpeter who was soon to become a minor but prolific composer, particularly of concerted mass settings and trumpet ensemble music: you see, Vejvanovsky made his career as both a court trumpeter and a choir director. "Court trumpeter" was a term with considerable honor attached to it, and a leading modern scholar of baroque trumpet, a brit named Don Smithers, seems to imply that Vejvanovsky was a bit of a charlatan despite his toughguy trumpet image! Via GroveMusic online for those who have "credentials" (emphasis added):
Throughout his life Vejvanovský used the title of Feldtrompeter, although he was not qualified to do so. He remained at Kroměříž and in 1664 entered the service of the new prince-bishop, Karl Liechtenstein-Castelcorno, as principal trumpeter and as Kapellmeister; his duties also included the copying of music, and many sets of parts in his hand survive...He seems to have been on very close personal terms with his patron and was one of the highest paid court servants


Did Vejvanovsky, a minor composer and trumpet player but first class copyist and music director, influence Biber's ensemble writing? In the words of Sarah Palin, "You betcha!"

Elias Dann writes in Grove's Biber entry:

In 1668 he became a valet de chambre and musician to the Bishop of Olmütz, Karl Liechtenstein-Castelcorno, in Kroměříž, where Pavel Vejvanovský was director of the Kapelle. Biber was popular among the courtiers at Kroměříž, and was highly valued as a violin virtuoso.


So we have a great violinist going to work for a trumpet player, and writing--in the year that he starts under Vejvanovsky--a trumpet ensemble work. Isn't history neat like that? Just a guy trying to please his boss. Vejvanovsky, while not "qualified" to be a feldtrumpeter, Vejvanovsky was nonetheless privy to the tricks o' the trade, and trumpets were a guilded bunch, wary of non-union scabs stepping in and stealing their thunder. (This wariness comes to fruition with the totally awesome royal Mandate Against the Unauthorized Playing of Trumpets and Beating of Military Kettledrums. Dated the 23rd of July in the Year 1711, translated by Ed Tarr in an ITG publication worth perusing.

Biber brought a sense of melodic and textural variation that is, frankly, more nuanced than Vejvanovsky's more blocky works. There is a natural build of drama through the instrumentation, thinking across longer forms than 8 bar structures. It is not difficult to imagine the alto lines sitting quite naturally along a string. The clarino/sonata duet at 2:50 is a moment of grace one might expect from violins in a trio sonata, when, at 3:32, the remainder of the trumpets gleefully crash the party. It is a fusion of Biber's world with Vejvanovsky's. In fact, it's painful to admit it, but trumpets still play at best (er) "second fiddle" to violins in historical assessments of this period. So naturally, Biber enjoys a richer reputation these days than does Vejvanovsky, a fact Smithers points out:

It is difficult to assess Vejvanovský's influence on other composers, but it may be noted that in a number of works Biber employed motifs and harmonic procedures otherwise found only in Vejvanovský's music. Biber's knowledge of it may well account for the borrowing of trumpet motifs in particular for several sonatas that appeared after he had left for Salzburg. A detailed comparison of the two composers' music might well reveal a number of other similarities. Several works by Biber survive only in copies made by Vejvanovský.


Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber eventually, slowly, climbed his ranks into the nobility, and by 1684, he was Kapellmeister of Salzburg. He had the world on a string, and wrote grand church music in the style of the day, occasionally involving trumpets. But this was Vienna, and it was church music, so Biber's brass writing (as part of an orchestral accompaniment) moved on mostly to the trombones. But we'll forgive him.

Welcome to nerdland. More to come, on Saint-Saens' Septet (Septour) for strings, piano, and trumpet and Stravinsky's L'historie du soldat

2 comments:

Graham said...

The above is interesting, especially since I don't know much about early brass music. However it seems like a bit of a cop-out to talk about Stravinsky rather than, of course, Stockhausen.

Peter G said...

Well, the BAMF factor with Stockhausen is high, I'll grant you that... it's really difficult to do it right. He wrote a whole bunch for his son Markus, and there are some albums of it, but to really perform it "correctly," you need to be wearing a certain thing standing on a certain tower at a certain time of the day in a certain Nepalese Hamlet with a trumpet that must be ritualistically created and destroyed within two hours of the performance.

Whereas sometimes people say, "Hey, do you want to play Soldier's Tale?"

If this is the Graham I think it is, you'll appreciate this youtube clip that somehow comes up under "Stockhausen Karlheinz markus trumpet." (Embedding is disabled)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BMXqUq46vWs