Getting to know the brass section

Hummel: Trumpet Concerto

A typically ‘Classical’ sounding piece, Hummel composed this concerto in 1803.  It contains quite a few fanfare style phrases, very appropriately as it was written to mark a celebration and first performed on New Year’s Day in 1804.  The associations it creates for me are those of a serious and important occasion.  The first movement contains lots of detached arpeggios and highly articulated phrasing, which the sound of the trumpet seems well suited to as the onset of a tongued note is very clearly audible.  The second, slower movement is in a minor key and is played in a much more fluid, legato style that is less commonly associated with this instrument, but is nevertheless very effective and expressive.  The final movement is probably the most well known: the staccato phrasing and fast repeated notes are evocative of an important announcement being made.

Nino Rota: ‘Love Theme’ from the Godfather

This is a powerful theme tune written for a highly dramatic film, and the trumpet is perfectly suited to it.  The sound made by a trumpet is rich in harmonics, especially when played loudly in its middle register, giving the instrument a unique, full and resonant sound.

Rimsky-Korsakov: Trombone Concerto

As well as being a musician, Rimsky-Korsakov had a career in the Russian military and wrote this celebratory sounding concerto for a fellow officer.  The first movement is very short (only two and a half minutes), playing the role of an announcement: rising arpeggios on the trombone, ending with a drum roll.  The middle movement is marked ‘Andante cantabile’, and the lyrical, legato style does indeed resemble singing.  The accompaniment to this concerto is played by a military band (no strings), so the overall sound is quite bright and resonant.  The second movement leads straight into the finale, which features several trumpets at the start and percussion later on – reminiscent of a marching band.  A solo cadenza part way through the movement has the trombone playing extremely low notes (definitely tuba territory!), much lower than I would have thought possible on this instrument.  It goes on to demonstrate some almost equally impressive high notes, and also features multiphonics.  The cadenza was interesting to listen to from a technical standpoint, but musically I didn’t find the piece as a whole particularly inspiring.

Christian Lindberg: Mandrake in the Corner

This composer was previously unknown to me; he is a Swedish trombonist and his compositions have been mostly focused on this instrument.  This piece is written for trombone and symphony orchestra, in three movements.  The first movement is in a minor key and features off beat rhythms and sudden dynamic changes.  It creates a very dramatic mood, considerably helped by heavy use of the timpani and the strings suddenly cutting in with short phrases.  The mood of the second, slower movement starts off as one of suspense – slow crescendos in the strings and some dissonant harmonies.  It becomes more intense and powerful as it builds up, and the brass section is particularly noticeable in the climaxes.  The final Vivace movement is nothing less than chaotic – very fast articulated notes on the trombone , scalic passages in the accompanying strings and brass.  Lindberg also uses occasional general pauses which create a dramatic effect.  I like the syncopation and cross rhythms, and the piece ends with some characteristic trombone slides.

Project 3

This exercise asks us to familiarise ourselves with the different sections of a symphony orchestra: woodwind, strings, brass and percussion.

As a cellist I already have a fairly good knowledge of string instruments, and have been playing the cello in my local amateur symphony orchestra for about a year now.  I love the rawness and emotional expression that the sound of a solo string instrument can achieve, as well as the intensity of a full string section playing together in a symphony orchestra.  Woodwind is the next most familiar section to me: I learnt the flute for a short while as a child, and have some experience composing for flute, clarinet, oboe and bassoon as part of the Level 1 Composition course I have recently completed.  I also did some research on percussion instruments for this course, so my weak spot is definitely the brass section and I will focus my efforts on that for this project.

To start with, I listened to the suggested pieces for each section of the orchestra and wrote notes in my listening log.  I then moved on to research the brass section in more detail.

Brass Instruments

The name is rather a misnomer, as brass instruments can be made of materials other than brass, and some instruments that are often made of brass (such as the saxophone) are technically classed as woodwind!  The categorisation appears rather to be based on the mechanism of producing sound – via vibrations of the player’s lips.  The technique used to create this effect is known as embouchure – a term also applied to flautists, though in their case the sound is made by directing the lips to cause air to travel over the mouthpiece.

The pitch of the produced sound can be controlled through changing the instrument’s length.  This is achieved in the following ways:

  • Trumpets, horns, tubas and similar instruments use valves operated by the player’s fingers, forcing the air down more or fewer sections of tube
  • Trombones use a slide, moved by the player’s hand

Any given length (valve combination or slide position), has a corresponding fundamental frequency, and players can cause harmonics of this frequency to be sounded by changing their embouchure.

I am always interested in the science behind the sound of different instruments, and found a good page about this for the brass section on the UNSW website.  It was particularly interesting to read about how the timbre of a brass instrument changes when it is played loudly versus softly, due to the different spectrum of harmonics that is produced.  It also explains how the bell of a brass instrument transmits the high harmonics particularly well, which is what creates the characteristic bright sound.  When mutes are used (this is quite common in jazz music), they both alter the harmonic spectrum as well as soften the sound.

Brass instruments are used in many different contexts; here are a few that I can think of:

  • The military, e.g. marching bands
  • Baroque music
  • Classical concertos
  • Jazz
  • Swing music
  • Ceremonial events

The trumpet seems particularly versatile to  me, and it is interesting how it can be equally effective as part of a big band as well as in music for very serious occasions.

Some notes on specific pieces featuring brass instruments that I listened to can be found here.