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Elliot Del Borgo (1938-2013)

compiled by editors | August 2013

    Composer Elliot A. Del Borgo passed away on May 30, 2013 at age 74. He wrote more than 600 works for bands, orchestras, and chamber ensembles, plus music for the 1980 Olympic Winter Games in Lake Placid, New York. He was an award-winning member of ASCAP and was elected to the American Bandmasters Association in 1993.
    Born October 27, 1938 in Port Chester, New York, Del Borgo earned degrees from the State University of New York, Temple, and Philadelphia Conservatory of Music, where he studied composition with Vincent Persichetti and trumpet with Gilbert Johnson. He taught instrumental music in Philadelphia public schools from 1961-66 and at the Crane School of Music from 1966-1995. At Crane, he was the first chairman of the department of music theory, history and composition and also directed the Wind Ensemble. He is survived by his wife, fellow Crane graduate Nancy W. Del Borgo, and their two daughters, Anne and Laura.

Elliot Del Borgo appeared in The Instrumentalist occasionally. Here is an article of his that originally appeared in November 1988.

Selecting High-Quality Literature For Bands and Orchestras

    I will begin by clearly stating that I am not a disinterested observer. As a composer for instrumental groups of varying levels of development it has been and is my goal to extend Paul Hindemith’s idea of Gebrauchsmusik – music in contemporary style for use by all musicians – to today’s performers. As a conductor and music teacher my concern is the aesthetic and technical growth of young players, which can be accomplished by performing carefully selected literature that reflects the long line of musical and artistic development representing the best of Western – and now global – artistic thought.
    In choosing literature for performance, the musical quality of the works should be the primary consideration. While style, technical challenge, audience and performer appeal, and educational value are important considerations, none will be well served if the music does not measure up to high standards of quality. Both conductor and performers need to live with a piece for a long time during the intensive preparation period before a performance. If the music is shallow and poorly constructed, the task becomes less interesting and little growth occurs. Conversely, a solidly composed piece allows for new discoveries and challenges as it is rehearsed and analyzed over a lengthy period of time. Fine music seems to become more interesting with greater exposure, no matter what the level of technical difficulty.
    Musical quality is a most difficult factor to quantify. An airtight definition of true and lasting excellence in this area has eluded aestheticians and critics for centuries. Musical taste is one element of musical quality, though taste is a changing and personal factor. Still, it is possible to make some objective judgments, for example, about how the composer manipulates the various musical parameters. Solid craftsmanship usually will be apparent whether a work is to your taste or not.

    Variety is an important aspect of any composition because it keeps students involved. How well a composer balances variety and repetition to bind together the elements of a composition can be a good indicator of quality. Western music has a long tradition of fine composers who have shown their skill through the interesting, clever, and creative manipulation of their basic musical ideas. Look for variety in certain key areas:
    Melodic material. Check to see whether there is variety in the placement of primary melodic material. A piece dominated by flutes may be appealing to the flute section, but the music may not be very interesting for the rest of the band. Melodic material that is shared with the middle and lower voices can increase the impact of the work. Also note whether the piece contains melodies of varied character. Using both instrumental and vocally oriented melodic lines places different demands on performers and increases interest for the listener.
    Diverse timbres. Review the score, looking for a variety of instrumental colors. Bands and orchestras offer a rich palette of timbres. The composer’s use of individual colors and interesting blends is critical to successful orchestration.
    Balanced material. See if you can easily discern and balance background and foreground material. Ask yourself whether the composer has provided interesting and appropriate backgrounds and if they change in a logical manner.
    Interesting textures. There should be a variety of textures in the work. Polyphonic textures are interesting to perform and give a piece a higher level of sophistication, while homophonic textures are somewhat clearer to the audience. Even sections of monophonic texture can be used to excellent effect. The interplay of textural variety is an important musical element and should be a prime factor in determining the suitability of a piece.

    Contrast is a key element of the composer’s craft. Juxtaposing contrasting ideas heightens the effect they would have individually. A solidly written composition will contain contrast, particularly in the following areas:
    Dynamics. Here is one of the oldest and most effective means of creating contrast. When reviewing a score, carefully note indications of dynamic levels and types of change, such as sudden fortissimos, gradual decrescendos, and crescendos created by adding instruments. Consider how the percussion section is used to enhance dynamic contrast within the piece.
    Rhythmic material. A solid and well-crafted piece should contain more than predictable rhythmic patterns. The music should exhibit a lively vitality that gives it an exciting propulsion and sense of momentum. Slow sections should afford the opportunity for careful use of rubato at important points within the phrase and at cadences.
    Tempo. If the length and type of piece allow, contrasts in tempo can provide relief and interest as well as serve as an important structural element. Look to see whether slight gradations of tempo are carefully marked and if they are appropriate to the overall phrasing of the section.
    Instrumentation. Look for contrast in the use of woodwinds versus brass or strings versus winds. Sectional writing provides differing timbres as well as opportunity for players to rest.
    Mode and key. Note the overall harmonic scheme of the piece. Most well-written tonal or neotonal pieces have a definite and logical progression of key centers, somewhat like a progression of chords, which is an important part of musical structure. The change from major to minor in tonal pieces or a striking modulation can give a work a strong individual flavor. Attention to these matters shows the composer’s thought and care in forming the macro-structure of the piece and produces a genuine sense of purpose and direction.

    Musical interest lies in the ear of the beholder, and no two musicians think exactly alike. Because our musical judgments are the product of a great variety of influences, there is room for varied responses to any composition. Nonetheless, it is possible to objectively consider aspects of it, such as:
    Fresh ideas. Ask yourself whether the piece has a unique sound that is reminiscent of other works by the composer. The selection should have a musical personality of its own.
    Harmonic material. Do the harmonies reflect an inventive scheme that uses tension and release with clearly defined cadence points? Given the wide latitude afforded contemporary writers, it is reasonable to expect interesting and varied harmonic material that will enrich and extend students’ concepts of the harmonic element in music.
    Dramatic shape. The overall design of the work should include carefully placed high points and a logical approach to these points. The elements of contrast, discussed earlier, are an integral part of writing a piece that has an effective rise and fall of dramatic line.
    Coherent ideas. A logical unfolding of musical thoughts results when ideas are coherently planned; Aaron Copland calls this unfolding the long line in a work. An important question to consider is whether repeats are essential. For example, does a D.C. or D.S. represent an important balancing of ideas, or does it simply lengthen the composition?
    Natural transitions. Be aware of the use of transitional passages and how they are scored. Specifically note the smoothness and naturalness of these passages as the work moves from section to section.
    It is the combination of all these elements that gives a composition its aesthetic impact, though it is extremely difficult to quantify this aspect of any musical composition. What the band or orchestra director can do is to determine whether the results of the composer’s effort to work with these elements has led to a piece that has a musical meaning to whether the piece is simply an exercise in note-spinning. At the very least, careful attention to the parts will give better insight into the value of the whole.
    When planning a program be sure that the composers represented are a good sampling of the best of the musical art for the type of ensembles. The serious and committed conductor will take the time to make an informed judgment as to the musical value of the works he has selected for performance; he will not play poorly written music. Excellent educational pieces for young musicians lay the groundwork for fine performances of masterworks later on.