Well you don’t see this everyday when you take beginner band…
It’s slightly tricky to name what these chords are, so I broke the description up across the staves. Essentially there is an augmented triad over an open 5th bass. Ok, well that’s a little unusual for a beginner band. But wait, there’s more! Notice the minor 9th between the A and Bb! The minor 9th is the last great dissonant interval in western music – not what you typically write for beginners. However, Brian has been very sensible in the way he has orchestrated the chord to ensure that it is successful.
- The brass are playing open octaves and 5ths. Easy to pitch, easy to play in tune and they sound great on brass instruments
- The upper woodwinds are playing the augmented triad, which includes the dissonant Bb (minor 9th above the A). However, the flutes and oboes are in 6ths, the clarinets are in 3rds. The alto sax reinforces the flute Bb in the octave below.
Functionally, this opening chord is a dominant chord – setting up the G minor at bar 4. The half step shift up from D to Eb in the bass implies a phrygian imperfect (or half) cadence in G minor.
Just as there is a sophisticated approach to meter in this piece, there is also a sophisticated approach to key centers
This piece changes key 6 times. The breakdown of the key centers is:
- Bar 1 – G minor
- Bar 4 – G minor
- Bar 12 – C minor
- Bar 20 – C minor
- Bar 28 – F minor
- Bar 36 – F minor
- Bar 42 – G minor
- Bar 48 – Db major
- Bar 56 – G minor
The key changes Gm → Cm → Fm simply move around the cycle of 4ths. Not overly surprising harmonically, but a little unusual for a piece at this level.
Bar 36 is the first statement of the B theme. When this theme is repeated at bar 42, the piece modulates up a step, back to the home key of G minor. Although it is a return to the home key, it doesn’t feel like it. Rather it feels fresh and new.
The most dramatic key change happens at bar 48 here we are suddenly thrust into Db major. We change mode and move a tritone away to the opposite side of the cycle (G→ Db). Then Brian makes a clever use of chromatic harmony to get us back to a D chord, the dominant of G minor, for the return of the A section at bar 56.
The final section, as is typical, stays firmly in the home key of G minor. This grounds the piece harmonically and gives it a sense of finality.
Despite the number of key centers, all players have very playable parts. Here are some of the reasons why:
- Except for Db major, all the other key centers are the first keys students play in (concert 2 flats, 3 flats, 4 flats). By the end of most beginner method books, students know all these keys.
- By using the natural minor, the harmonic minor’s raised 7th is largely avoided, thereby avoiding more accidentals.
- The melodic material only uses a few notes, largely the first three notes of the scale. As a result at times when it changes key center, some players are not required to play any accidentals.
- At the most dramatic shift to Db major, most players are playing a rhythmic figure on a single pitch. This makes consolidation of new fingerings easier for players.
Making parts playable is the key at this level. Sophisticated compositional devices must be written in a way that is playable. Brian Balmages certainly succeeds in doing that in this piece.
Next time, I’ll take a closer look at how Brian uses orchestration and tessitura to create interest.