Whither Music? (A
Brass Band Context)
B/M Robert Getz (R)
As one ages and faces going gaga bit by bit, it is natural to look backwards for the joys of life. This is in part because hindsight is perfect and is improved exponentially in proportion to the amount of time passed. It is also due to the current lack of opportunity afforded to the has-beens of life. We live in a "me & now" age. Regardless, it has become increasingly clear that as performance levels rise, musicality withdraws, and in a proportional relationship. It is the exception that proves the rule. One could die of boredom holding one's breath to wait for a wrong note to be played by Perahia, and one could die of musical euphoria while experiencing the wrong notes of Rubenstein, Horowitz and a few others. While most of the world swooned over "the great Pavarotti", I was generally sickened by his antics. Stravinsky summed his in the final lecture on the "Poetics of Music" at Harvard when he said that these prima donnas force music to serve them rather then them serving music. Of Beethoven's music, Arthur Schnabel said, "It is always better than it can be played!" Often unnecessary "virtuosity" is obstructive to music as an art of direct communication. This is at the root of almost all bad music, certainly most bad performances that are perfectly performed technically. Stravinsky also spoke of the difference between "executants" and interpreters. He stated that all interpreters must be executants but not the reverse. These are two extremely salient observations (among hundreds!) in his lectures (book, published by Harvard). Schnabel resented the idea of "interpretation" as unnecessary in great music, and his playing as a result reflected more of Beethoven than of himself.
These issues came into focus for me a number of years back when I heard a world-renowned Salvation Army band perform, a band by which I had been enchanted and by which I had been inspired for many decades. There was now a new bandmaster, so I was naturally curious to hear what might be different. I was quite taken by the superb baton technique of the bandmaster and the homogenous sound of the band, as well as the accuracy of their execution. However, there was something missing which evaded me for a time. They played the most difficult of pieces with disarming ease (to the point of turning exciting music blase). They were in every obvious way superior to the band I had known and loved a few years earlier. But I couldn't tolerate listening to them. Why? The music was serving the Bandmaster and the band and not the muse, and it was all about them, and not the music. They were mere executants.
It is simple and it is epidemic in the music-making world today, professional and amateur alike. The band had lost sight of the objective, and then redoubled their effort. The predecessor band had as its goal that of using superb musical performance to bring the message of Christ to as many as listened to them play. Music was a strategic tool toward that end. Message first, music but the tool, and the band serving music. They strove mightily, and with redoubtable success, to reach the highest musical performance standard possible, but never at the expense of the message of Christ. Dare I say the message of the music itself? They were executants and interpreters. The conductor and most of the players were basically untrained but musically-intuitive. their successors boasted post-graduate degrees, skill and no musicality.
The latter-day band had obviously torn a page from the English contest band movement (mere executants) and applied it thoughtlessly to Salvation Army music making. In the contest band movement, music is the slave of accuracy and technique. Further, contest bands have no deeper mission as in Salvation Army banding. Some call it "professionalism", but I must remind the reader that being professional has nothing whatever to do with competence, only with receiving pay for an endeavor. The frequently derided word "amateur" comes from the root word amare, meaning, "to love". A strumpet is a professional, a loving wife an amateur. Modern performance standards are decidedly "professional" - more often than not at the expense of music.
As years passed I saw yet another eminent bandmaster take the podium of that august ensemble and still another - each time the level of technical excellence seemed to redouble while the musical excellence and spiritual emphasis faded in direct proportion to the technical advancement. Today it would be hard to imagine any standard that might be higher in technique, or one seemingly lower in elemental focus. And on they go executing music . . . "executing" in a very literal sense.
I have never quite understood the brass band contesting movement as it has always held technique above music. The band that plays the most notes, the fastest/slowest and the loudest/quietest, and the most accurately - becomes champion. While musical excellence eventually does enter the judging process, it is only obliquely after that above-mentioned standard is reached. Music never trumps technique. It was for this reason that at least one superlative man and musician, my late friend Philip B. Catelinet decried the very idea of band contests. This took courage (which Phil never lacked!) for an Englishman making his living as a performer, conductor and composer. The movement's greatest composer, Eric Ball, quietly confessed similar feelings, but had to be cautious to whom he made such condfessions.
I do not for one second believe that any of the bandsmen and leaders alluded to above are less righteous than those of old. In fact one could perhaps postulate the contrary and occasionally be on fairly safe ground. Why then this ill-focused music making? I believe several forces obtain. The word "thoughtlessness" is an ugly word, but I can think of none better. People seldom take the time to think through the important decisions in life. We purchase houses, automobiles and marry based on emotional stimuli and seldom as a result of due diligence of thought. If one ever thought about it, one would never ever purchase a new automobile as the value depreciates by about a third as the key is turned upon leaving the dealership. "I just love that car!!" We marry because we "fall in love" not because of any sensible thinking. We then work at it to make a go of it for the next fifty years or so to the marvel of all concerned. We are drawn by similar forces when we make our music. We barge ahead in the light of the moment and do our best. Our best sometimes gets out of control.
Having said all that, there can be no standard that is too high when making music for The King of Kings. Herein lies the conundrum we face today in both concert music and sacred music . . . specifically herein addressed to Salvation Army band music. There is a further riddle contained in the fact that music itself is often enhanced, or better stated "fulfilled" by a sense of striving or human performance limitation. More on that later.
As a Salvation Army bandmaster for nearly four decades, I always strove for the highest standard possible for the people in my charge. In fact, I have become aware recently that some players/singers from my past hold me accountable for them reaching far higher standards than they felt they were even capable of! However, in all those years I was driven by the influence of such friends as the Army's Central Music Institute's perennial guest Irwin Fischer, and other spiritual/musical giants and friends such as: Eric Ball, Phil Catelinet, Bernard Adams, Emil Soderstrom, (Colonel) Bill Scarlett, Norman Bearcroft, Ray Steadman-Allen, Bernard Smith, Josh Walford, Victor Danielson, Dick Holz, Howard Chesham and Carl Lindstrom to name but a few. These giant Salvation Army music makers (and many others) knew that music was not an end but a tool for the building of God's kingdom. Music has no other raison d'etre in The Salvation Army. I would argue that real music has no value other than pleasing God anywhere, but that's for another discussion. However, it is (or should be) an unimpeachable fact in The Salvation Army (your church name here).
Before going into how to "find" the soul of music, please indulge a few anecdotal illustrations of the problem.
Some time ago I obtained a recording of a solo I love and have longed for a definitive performance of. The soloist recorded is one of irrefutable ability, training, experience and renown. I was in a state of happy anticipation - a state that didn't last any longer than the first few seconds of the recording. That solo which I aspired to play as a youth, listened to on an old 78 r.p.m. recording featuring the composer as accompanist and Will Overton on trumpet, was Eric Ball's The Challenge. I have several recordings of it and have played and conducted it many times with varying degrees of success. My point is that I have studied the piece and sought the mind of the composer in its regard (and discussed it in depth with him often). I was once again disappointed by a performance that sought something, to be sure, just not what the composer intended. It sounded as though the conductor and soloist decided to make The Challenge dainty or elegant or something it is not. Let me explain.
The solo was written in the early part of the twentieth century in a country and within a Salvation Army that celebrated mellow, short-model cornets - never trumpets. However, in this environment which rather strongly eschewed trumpets in favor of their shorter cousins, Eric Ball wrote the solo specifically for "trumpet" and not even trumpet/cornet or some variant of that - "Trumpet Solo" the score reads. The title, "The Challenge", and the instrument designated, "Trumpet", inform of the composer's intent that this be a forcefull and heraldic piece. Just in case that escapes one's attention, there can be no doubt when the trumpet's first statement loudly intones perfect intervals as in a natural trumpet. Eric made it clear that he wanted a "trumpetistic" pronouncement right from the start. Now, there are many places within the solo where subtlety and elegance are called for, but to bathe the entire piece in these colors is to miss the obvious and to betray the composer's intent. From the recording it was made clear that the soloist and/or the conductor (perhaps even the recording engineers!) were seeking something aside from what the composer asked and that they indeed had found it. It simply wasn't music. The technique was there, the notes were there, the tempi and some of the dynamics were appropriate, but it wasn't "The Challenge".
A few years ago I was commissioned to arrange The Challenge for concert band.. In this regard, I consulted the original recording, the manuscript for brass band and the published version, as well as the published version with piano accompaniment. The soloist for whom it was written elected to "edit" my work, and had the temerity to say that he "hoped that I'd find his edits tasteful". No one likes to be edited, but what this lummox did was disgraceful, and all pointed at self-aggrandizement, music and Eric Ball be damned! The introduction had no resemblance to anything Eric (or I!) ever wrote. However, more egregious was the final statement of the opening theme wherein Eric has the cornets in the band doubling the first seven beats of the theme with the soloist emerging from that alone . . . to GREAT musical effect (Eric's rationale is broader and deeper than that, but this must suffice here). This lout insisted on removing the accompaniment trumpet-doublings and doing it alone at great expense to the music . . . "it's ALL about ME!"
Another illustration came just recently when I made a most generous pronouncement on a performance of The Eternal Quest by a young man in a band I had the honor to be bandmaster of some forty years ago - Steve Webb in the Northern Illinois Youth Band in Chicago. To this day I have never heard a performance of that solo of equal musical prowess to that of Steve as a teenager. The musicality of the lad's playing haunts me to this day! I remember Eric Ball recalling the great trumpeter Harry Mortimer saying that, upon hearing Denis Brain play the French horn, he, Mortimer, felt like throwing his trumpet in the river. Steve's playing was just like that, it took your breath away. Now, having said that, I have heard several slightly more accurate performances, but none that would stand next to Steve's musically. I doubt I ever will.
When discussing this with another friend who had played in that same band in that very performance, also on trombone, he challenged me. He had recently heard a performance of the same piece by a top symphony trombonist and pronounced that it was "effortless". I said, "you've made my point. And I'll stick with Steve as your man's performance was boring". He, again, challenged my opinion since I had not even heard his man play. I then explained that the point of the piece is the struggle of one soul in search of, and being sought out by The Lord. If the music is "effortless", where's the struggle? Further, Steve was himself undergoing something of that spiritual struggle as he played it. Steve had to strive for the music and for the Divine relationship it represented - ergo a perfect performance even with a few missed notes. It was MUSIC!
Again, recently, I came to own a recording of yet another stellar player of international renown - again, playing a trombone solo. A solo that I had conducted for a recording with the composer's blessing several decades ago. I and the soloist (today a well-known musician) consulted with each other and with the composer in preparing for the recording. And I, of course, spent many hours studying the score for guidance and inspiration. Our recording was very musical and pleased the composer. The new recording is a tour de force of nothing but speed. The band and soloist play at such a reckless speed as to leave one wondering if they even like music! The pace at which it is performed is not even novel, just asinine! It is tantamount to the playing of Grieg's Homage March at a circus band tempo! Whither music?
Then there was a man named Josh Walford . . . Josh, and older contemporary of mine, played euphonium in The Salvation Army International Staff Band a half century and more ago. He was the most poetic and musical player on any brass instrument that I have ever heard and perhaps the most poetic on any instrument. This was not because he played faster, louder or more accurately than the others, but rather that he found the soul of every phrase of the music and he played that soul through his music. His was not about "euphonium" or brass band . . . but about music. He was not preoccupied with the bore of his instrument or making every note sound the same in all registers (though he could do this better than any I know). Especially when the music called for that velvet touch did Josh leave all the rest wanting and in awe. He was not possessed of boundless technique, though adequate for most things - he was possessed of Music! He knew the old songs and the new and could deliver not only what the composer called for, but the depth of spiritual expression carried by the sacred texts. Yet some mock him because he dared to use vibrato . . . vibrato just like that of a principal violoncello in any fine symphony orchestra! It escapes these critical robots that the euphonium has for a century and more been affectionately called "the iron cello". Vibrato is good enough for arguably the greatest symphony trumpeter in history, Adolph Herseth, with whom the same critics do not find fault! I guess I missed my chance to inform my late friend (Toscanini's and Fritz Reiner's principal cello) Frank Miller, to cut out the vibrato?! The vibrato haters can be on solid ground when listening to some of the most famous latter-day contest band players whom receive no criticism for incessant, out of control and out of context vibrato! They have the idea that every note in every piece of music should be cluttered up with uncontrolled vibrato (if it's good for one note, why not all? Which fits the contesting band mentality.) Josh used his vibrato to express the soul of the music and turned it off when a straight tone was called for. Josh understood music. Even his mistakes were beautiful!
However, this transcends vibrato and all the rest. Music is infinite and people are finite. The "vibrato debate" stemmed from pedagogues that drummed anti-vibrato into generations of brass students simply because they were incapable of inculcating music into them!
A classic example of missing the point can be found in most recordings of Eric Ball's tone poem "Exodus" by the allegedly best brass bands in the world. When the cornet solo-fanfare is heard, clearly intended to invoke a trumpet of war, the cornetists play it with all the sticky-sweet vibrato possible!? It reminds one of an extremely effeminate fellow yelling "hasten to war, boys . . ." in a tentative way with a strongly sibilant "s". Executed perfectly, but wholly missing any sense of what the composer was trying to express.
Yet another manifestation of this missing-the-point-of-music has been the relatively recent "bore war" . . . the manufacture of instruments that are bigger simply for the sake of being bigger. This started when gradually the brass band movement crept closer to the symphonic brass players where there had been a move toward bigger bores (larger diameters of tubing of brass instruments). There seemed no end and certainly no musical sense behind it all. Symphony conductors continued to demand more sound from the brass and bores grew and grew. I recall The late Fritz Reiner saying that the brass were his "only defense against the singers". So instrument manufacturers came out with a line of huge bore instruments and the thoughtless masses within brass banding flocked to "be the first" with one of these trendy new cannons. That they cannot make music on them is obvious to all but the sycophants that rush to join the crowd. The result is that trombones now sound like sick euphoniums and euphoniums sound like weak tubas and tubas sound like I don't know what. Whither music?
How can we fix it? Well, one cannot put the genie back in the bottle, but one can perhaps hope to toss the bottle into a land-fill and trust it is never again found.
We can fix it by looking to the mind of the composer and seeking music rather than auditory calisthenics. If a composer assigns a marking of "allegro", what does it mean? Do you know what allegro means? Contrary to common thought it is not "fast" but "cheerful". Likewise, "andante" does not mean "slow" but "walking". If a composer scores something for baritones when he could have used trombones, what is the message? There is no easy way for a composer to imply the desire for a sense of striving, but there is little question that this is desired at times. Composers know these things and try hard to convey specific feelings that cannot be expressed in any other way, using notes, words and dynamic and tempo markings to guide the performer into the composer's inspiration. Granted, such markings as, say, mezzo-forte are not absolutes but rather relative levels of loudness. However, a metronome marking of 88 quarter notes per minute is an absolute and should not be played at neither 200 quarters per minute nor 66. If we look only to how fast or loud or soft we can play something we miss any chance at experiencing and sharing the inspiration of the composer's art. We must look behind the notes and between the markings to see what the composer has buried there for us. To perform everything with ease often destroys the music itself. It is ego-driven rather than art-driven, and both the audience and art itself become victims.
Why did Ball elect to write The Challenge for trumpet and not cornet? Why did Stravinsky write the opening solo in the Rite of Spring for bassoon when the same notes might be more easily played by an English Horn? Why does Beethoven opt to drive a dynamic climax to an unexpected pianissimo? Why? Why? Why? There are answers to these and the myriad other mysteries of music. But we must seek.
In a marriage one finds peace and joy only when one loves their spouse more than self or life. To make music one must love music more than self or ego. Music is not a carnival stunt like throwing daggers at a woman strapped to a spinning wheel! However, at least THAT is exciting!
I listened recently to several recordings of pianists playing Cesar Franck's demonically demanding Prelude, Chorale and Fugue. The piece was written specifically to counter the trend set by Liszt and others of shallow music exhibiting technique for its own sake. Franck set out to make the same statement with notes that I am herein trying to illustrate with words. He wrote a piece that would confront the Lisztian lust for technical asseverations while at the same time transcending it into truly divine music. The piece is crafted most adroitly with regard to structure, modulation and emotional effect. It is musically/spiritually transcendent and technically of profound difficulty. Of all the recordings, only one leaves me teary-eyed and breathless - Sviatislav Richter's. He produced sparkling clarity throughout, quiet subtleties amidst frightening technique, and power with no limits. When, near the end, the fugue subject comes in superimposed upon the effervescent prelude and chorale themes, it's indescribable! (on both Franck's and Richter's accounts!) Franck was incapable of egotism. Richter was an avowed egotist but still the humble slave of his muse. Richter and Franck had mastered technique rather than having it master them. Having done so liberated the depths of music to them as great artists, rather than mere note-mongers. This is the soul of music. In the Richter performance the music transcends to the point that one loses sight of the demonic virtuosity (totally absent sounding "effortless"!)
Sometimes the reason why music works is inexplicable. I have heard, played and conducted Erik Leidzen's The Cross many times and it always evaded me. Someone gave me a modern recording of a capable band conducted by a significant musician. "At last I would hear The Cross"! I literally fell asleep listening! Crash! Finally I listened to a scratchy, old, imperfect live recording of The International Staff Band under my late friend Bernard Adams during a Scandinavian tour in the early 1960's. The performance would likely be sniggered at by many today (including the abovementioned conductor!) because of the small bore trombones, vibrato and other so-called "period issues". However, Adams captured something I cannot explain, and with all of the band's alleged limitations, I finally heard The Cross and wept at the beauty of it. Perhaps it was because this piece leaves little room for ego or show, but plenty for The Spirit and the muse.
It was long held and often spoken that there was something special about a Salvation Army band, and I believe there was. With a few exceptions, to a large degree we have laid that birthright on the altar of uninhibited superficiality.
During a Sunday service, a most tender invitation for people to explore their lives and see if they should accept the pleading of Christ to be their friend and Savior, the man in the pulpit simply said: "just get out of the way . . ." When making our music, we must get out of the way.
I started this piece with "The Challenge", so I must end with a challenge. Whether making Salvation Army music, concert music or whatever music, ask yourself the question "whither music?" Let the muse drive you rather than harnessing it and snapping the whip.
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