Spirit of the Stallion – part 2
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.
Spirit of the Stallion – part 1
I’m currently working on a fantastic piece with my year 8 band (students who are now in their second year of playing) – Spirit of the Stallion by Brian Balmages. It is a grade 1 piece for concert band. You can find a full score here and a recording here.
This piece is both fun to play and has an amazing level of skill and compositional craft in it. Over the next few posts I’ll be looking at some of the aspects of the piece that have caught my eye, starting this week with meter.
At first glance, there seem to be meter changes everywhere. As a the result, upon handing the piece out, students start curling up in the corner and crying about how inhumane it is. This is understandable, after all there are 27 meter changes in a piece of only 65 bars long. That’s almost a meter change every 2 bars. But if we take a deep breath and look at what is going on, things are not so back.
Firstly, he only uses 2/4, 3/4, and 4/4. The 1/4 note pulse never changes. There are no tempo changes. Phew! Ok, now that your breathing is returning to normal, let’s take a closer look at what is going on…
The form of the piece is:
Intro (3 bars)
The introduction is easy – three bars of 4/4. Then the fun begins…
The A sections all follow the same metrical pattern:
4/4 | 3/4 | 4/4 | 3/4 | then four more bars of 3/4
Musically this equates to a 4 bar phrase that is rhythmically tense, followed by a 4 bar phrase the is rhythmically relaxed.
With the accompaniment strongly emphasising beat 1 of each bar and the melody bouncing off of beat 1, this section is much easier to play that it first looks. Notice also that Brian has limited the musical requirements in terms of rhythm and pitch. This enables students to focus on the meter changes.
This is followed by a relaxed phrase that stays in 3/4 and only has simple rhythms.
Repeating this A section pattern four times is very helpful in giving students time to get used to the metrical pattern and to learn its unique groove.
The B section looks easier – the time signature mainly stays in 2/4, but don’t be fooled. In fact, Brian has layered parts in 2/4 over the top of an accompaniment figure that is really in 3/4. Rhythmically this equates to:
Notice that it is not 3/4 playing in the same time as 2/4. The 1/4 note pulse is the same across both parts.
The C section is just in 3/4, no cross meter parts, just straight, simple 3/4.
Just when you couldn’t get enough of changing meters and layering of meters, the final A section cames along. Now we have both going at once. The same shifts between 4/4 and 3/4 as before, but also another part playing across the barline in 3/4 the whole time. To top it off, the accompaniment has also changed slightly to imply 2/4.
Fortunately, this only lasts for four bars before a more straight ahead coda – although straight ahead in this piece means you only change time signature once or twice!
I’m a big believer that if students understand what is going on, they will play it better. So, we’re doing lots of clapping to try and get our heads around everything that happens in this piece meter-wise. Fun and educational…always a great combination.
P.S. You may be wondering what the car is doing at the top of this post. Well, the car is a Mitsubishi Starion. Mitsubishi has a small car called the Mitsubishi Colt (aka a young horse). Legend has it that when Mitsubishi was naming this larger car it was meant to be called the Mitsubishi Stallion (aka an adult horse). But a bit of mis-communication around a Japanese accent speaking English and it wound up being called the Mitsubishi Starion instead. Who knows if it is true, but it’s a great story…