Bach to the Future

Firstly, sorry about the terrible musical pun in the title, but sometimes you just can’t help yourself.

I was at a new music reading day at the end of last year where a bunch of music teachers smashed our way through about 30 new concert band pieces. A couple of things struck me about the music we played:

  1. Good pop charts are hard to find. I won’t name and shame, but we played a few truly awful arrangements of some classic rock/pop tunes. Some of which left me mystified as to how you could mess up an arrangement of a piece that had so many great riffs…but that’s a rant for another day.
  2. So many charts sound the same. Even at harder levels, much of what we played just smooched into one inoffensive, well-crafted piece of vanilla. Given the sheer volume of new music produced every year, this is a bit unsurprising. My take away lesson though: as a comparatively unknown writer, in a country half the world struggle to find on map, I figure there is no future in me producing music like this. As a teacher, I don’t want my students to play music like this because there is not much to learn from it: musically, artistically, or technically.

As a result, I’ve been thinking a lot over the Christmas/New Year break about how I can continue to find something original to say as a writer, and to write music that has musical depth, whilst still being accessible for students to play. Enter J.S. Bach and the awful pun.

In 2013, in one of those moments all band directors have where you look through the filing cabinet of charts with a slight air of desperation trying to find something for the band to play, I stumbled across an arrangement of J.S. Bach’s Bist Du Bei Mir by Anne McGinty (published by Queenwood). My band ended up playing this piece as part of our final concert for that year. These holidays I brought the score home to look at the arrangement a bit closer and see what I could learn from it (yes, I know, I should have completed a Ph.D analysing the work before I started rehearsing it with my band, but sometimes you just don’t have the time or energy).

Armed with my new found insights into the oboe, I immediately noticed that the range of the oboe part is from a low D up to Eb (the one an octave above, not the semitone above…otherwise it would be a pretty boring part!). No need for the oboe player to do contortions trying to get up to the F and beyond.

As is common in beginner level pieces, the low brass and woodwind are grouped together on one stave and just play the bass line. But because this is Bach, the bass part is as melodic and demanding as any of the other parts. No 16 bars of nothing but Bb here. I should warn you at this point that I’m about to get on my soapbox. Feel free to skip ahead, I’ll let you know when I’ve climbed down.

I find it extremely frustrating when the lower brass and woodwind players get charts where they basically play Bb, Eb and F the whole time, and barely get out of whole notes. Is it any wonder that players quit and/or in later years seem incapable of playing anything harder? In my experience it’s hard enough as it is getting students onto the larger instruments, without punishing them with boredom for doing so.

Ok, it’s safe to come back, I’m off my soapbox now.

Rhythmically this piece is quite accessible. It’s in 3/4 with an 1/8 note as the smallest rhythmic element – mainly in pairs. There are only two instances of 1/8th notes not in pairs, but each is used multiple times.

BistDuBirMir2

 

There is some nice variation in tonal colour throughout the piece. Most of the time the entire band is playing, but within that tutti instrumentation, there is still good use of tonal variation to create interest for the listener. The melody is played by the following combinations:

  • Flute+Oboe+Trumpet+Bells
  • Flute+Oboe+Clarinets+Alto Sax+Bells
  • Flute+Oboe+Clarinet 1+Bells

Notice that the melody is always strongly supported (always a good thing for beginning ensembles).

The one use of a non-tutti orchestration is when the trumpet 1 has the melody, low brass and wood winds drop out and the accompaniment is played by:

  • Fl/Ob+Cl1+Cl2+AS/TS/FHn.

Whilst providing a nice lighter texture, it also only lasts for 5 beats so the band shouldn’t completely fall apart in that time.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this piece is the use of tonality and harmony. Key wise the piece moves through the following key centres:

  • Bb major
  • F major
  • G minor

Harmonically there is an extensive use of 1st inversion, inverted dominant 7ths, secondary dominantly and even the odd half diminished chord. In other words, quite a sophisticated harmonic vocabulary (Bach seems to know what he was doing!) yet it remains quite accessible for the players.

All in all it makes me reflect on the fact that simple and easy are not the same thing. Beginning bands need repertoire that is ‘easy’ to play, but that doesn’t mean that our writing has to be simple or shallow. I doubt I will ever be considered in even vaguely the same league as Bach, but I wonder whether he provides an example of what I need to aim for in the future.

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