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On the Significance of the Title

Contemporary music for concert band

Reprinted from “On the Significance of the Title,” The NBA Journal, Vol. LV, Nr. 2, Winter, 2015.

In April 2015, I will be conducting an all-city honor band in San Diego and have programmed Wagner’s beautiful arrangement of the music of von Weber known today as Trauermusik, a work I like to program to demonstrate to other conductors and students the artistic freedom they are allowed with respect to Time. But as I began to think about these young musicians I would be making music with, I began to wonder if the title itself, Trauermusik, would play an undue influence on their thinking. The word trauer, which does not translate well into English, in German means “mourning” or “grief,” emotions which do not represent well the actual music of von Weber which Wagner selected to arrange for wind band. At this point in the opera, Euryanthe is alone in the forest, meditating on life and death but any sense of grief has more to do with having lost her lover, Adolar.

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Tenuto and Fermata: Rebels Against the Tyranny of Notation

Contemporary music for concert band

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For a million years or more, singers and instrumentalists playing on natural instruments made music freely with the sole goal of expressing their feelings. But once notation appeared the “rules” of music began to be addressed to the eye rather than the ear. The creation of bar lines in the eleventh century created units of time itself which lent to the eye the apparent rule that music must be contained within these units and the freedom of the ancient musicians was now lost for good. The subsequent history of notation was a constant effort to allow an escape from these preset units of time, including such things as colored notation and Proportional notation. By the time of the Baroque composers such as Praetorius and Frescobaldi began to write “just ignore the notation; play faster or slower as you desire.” And by the eighteenth century it is amazing to see the lengths composers such as Haydn went to to write music that fell between those bar lines, but sounded as if it were in an entirely different meter or tempo. By the advent of music schools in the nineteenth century a new rigidity became the rule and as a result today no student believes he is entitled to expand a measure of music in performance solely on the basis of his feelings.

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On the Maxime Principle

Harmoniemusik

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In a communication we recently received from Professor Maxime in Paris, she encouraged all instrumentalists to begin thinking of the Italian piano and forte symbols to mean relative degrees of emotional intensity and not the standard practice of indicating only “soft” and “loud” sound.

This recommendation, that the piano and forte symbols should reflect “emotional intensity,” is perhaps a bit startling for those of us who have been taught that the purpose of these symbols was to reflect only the degrees of loudness or softness of the actual volume of sound itself. For those who believe that the sole purpose of music is the communication of feeling and emotions, Professor Maxime’s principle is a welcome reminder that in earlier times the piano and forte symbols were also associated with feeling and were often the responsibility of the performer, not the composer. But the symbols are introduced to us today as being of an objective character with no discussion of how these symbols are related to feeling. While Professor Maxime speaks of “emotional intensity,” we relegate these symbols to the status of being only “dynamic markings.”

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