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An Analysis of The Beethoven Machine

Michael Mucci | January 2009

The Beethoven Machine by Michael Colgrass is a work for concert band based on a sonatina Bee­thoven wrote as a child. Six minutes in length, the music has the easy ranges and rhythms of grade-two music, but some parts have a certain amount of musical independence that is often seen in grade-three pieces. It was commissioned by The Long­meadow (Massachusetts) Public Schools through a grant from the Longmeadow Educational Excel­lence Foun­dation; the music is published by Carl Fischer.

Colgrass divides the concert band into a Chil­dren’s Orchestra made up of woodwinds, an Adult Orchestra of primarily brass instruments, and a third group of musicians who make up a funny-sounding little machine that cranks out music in the style of Beethoven. The personalities of the three ensembles are inherent in the writing so that there is never a question as to how mechanical and funny the machine should sound or whether the Children’s Orchestra needs to be different from the Adult Orchestra.

These three groups play different versions of Beethoven’s melody with the Children’s Or­chestra and the Adult Orchestra “talking” back and forth throughout the piece. The Children’s Orchestra has light, playful scoring while the Adult Orchestra depicts authority. “As the music develops,” writes Colgrass, “the two orchestras gradually find a common ground and finally play together in one style and finish in harmony – although astute listeners will notice that the Adult Orchestra somehow got maneuvered into playing in the children’s key.”

Rehearsals should include work on the independent entrances scattered throughout the piece, particularly in the Children’s Orchestra. Young students will have to count carefully as well as understand how each part fits into the whole. In addition to regular rehearsals, it may be worthwhile to rehearse the small ensembles separately. The Children’s Orchestra part is the most complex of the three.

A Tinny-Sounding Opening

The Machine opens the piece primarily scored for one player per part, quarter note = 126. Colgrass asks for a tinny sound so conductors should be concerned about distorted tones made by f trills in the woodwinds or the alto saxophone solo labeled honk. Tin cans in the percussion may include large coffee cans placed on cloth and played on their bottoms with drum sticks. The feel at the beginning should be metronomic and certainly not shy.

At measure 6 the Children’s Orchestra, represented by a tutti woodwind choir and glockenspiel, enters playing the first melodic statement in Bb major. The glockenspiel is important because it ties together the melodic fragments played by the woodwinds. The woodwind choir should play with enough volume here to make the decrescendo at measure 13 effective.

The Machine defiantly interrupts the Children’s Orchestra at measure 14 with a brief restatement of the opening two measures, now scored mf. It fades quickly returning to the sonatina played by the woodwinds. Here the saxophone and bassoon accompaniment should not overbalance the melody in the upper woodwinds.

The return of the Children’s Orchestra, again accompanied by an important glockenspiel part, is now twice as long as it was in the opening statement, perhaps showing that the young ensemble is gaining confidence. Even though marked f, the music should feel light and playful. Emphasize to the band the importance of playing clear-sounding eighth notes and sustaining the longer-note values.

Seamless Transitions

During rehearsals directors should focus on making the transitions between the material of the three ensembles seamless and convincing. One of the more enjoyable aspects of this work for audiences is hearing the gradual disappearance of one ensemble while the sound of another group slowly appears. Directors have to decide on the speed and intensity of these scene changes.

The first of these transitions begins at measure 30 with a difficult six-measure transition to the en­trance of the Adult Orchestra at measure 36. The Children’s Orchestra fades out as the Adult Orchestra enters, a few instruments at a time. Ideally there should never be a distinct moment when the Children’s Orchestra stops and the Adult Orchestra begins to play. Instead, the conductor should gradually alter the color of the passage, changing the emphasis from a bright woodwind choir tone to a dark brass timbre.

The ensemble now ritards slightly to accommodate the entrance of the Adult Orchestra at measure 36. The tempo is now quarter note = 116, ten clicks slower than the Children’s Orchestra.

The melody is in a comfortable range for the first trumpets, enabling them to project over the fairly dense chorale accompaniment of the brass and low woodwinds. This section should be played legato and have a sense of maturity. During rehearsals give special attention to those moments (another occurs at measure 76) where the scoring favors the brass choir, because projecting the melody can be difficult, depending on the abilities of the first trumpets.

Second trumpet has three important counter phrases to the melody of the first trumpet in measures 48, 50, and 52. These measures have to sound above the overall texture at those moments.

A Glockenspiel-Triangle Duet

When the Machine reenters at measure 56 at the original tempo, the music should again have a metronomic, mechanical feel. This five-measure interlude fades into a reentrance of the Children’s Orchestra playing the cute eighth-note sonatina. The important glockenspiel part now plays a duet with the triangle, adding a bright sheen to the proceedings as the sonatina melody continues to measure 75. An abrupt halt on a dominant chord suggests that the Adult Orchestra has become impatient with the Child­ren’s Orchestra, quickly hushing them up. After a grand pause the music continues with the next lesson between parent and child at measure 76.

The Adult Orchestra plays another chorale, this time in F minor, the parallel minor of its first statement. Colgrass adds timpani and bassoon to this second statement for more texture. The goal for directors should be to achieve a mature-sounding, flowing line in which the melody projects through the accompaniment. Staggered woodwind en­trances begin to appear as the brass choir fades at measure 89. The writing here is a refreshing example of the composer’s belief that music for young bands does not always have to be tutti and accompanied by a percussion time stream. In this composition young students have to count carefully because of the independent parts.

Saxophones and low brass trade two legato statements written with quarter notes in measure 99. The tubas need to project the F major arpeggio at measure 102 because it functions as the dominant triad in the return to Bb major. This section is an eight-measure transition to the climax of the piece at measure 114. Measures 106-123 should be conducted in two, enabling the music to flow and achieve a majestic, broad sound required for the climax as the Children’s Orchestra joins the Adult Orchestra at measure 114.

Quintessential Colgrass

The end of the work, which begins at measure 124, may be the most challenging section. Directors who are familiar with the music of Michael Colgrass might agree that this is quintessential Colgrass with sparse writing, short snippets of previous musical ideas, and a dark, somber tone. The issues for conductors are how to pace and sustain intensity to a thoughtful end of this wonderful work.

At measure 124 a brief poco allargando conducted in four prepares for the last tutti Bb major chord, essentially beginning the coda. Woodwinds in the Children’s Orchestra start the coda playing fragments of the sona­tina melody, this time with a more mature sound and depth of tone color. The Bb major chord at measure 124 should quickly decay so the woodwind statements can project. Careful counting and independent playing are important here.

The Adult Orchestra reappears with staggered entrances at measure 128, much like the material in measures 30-36. Again, these entrances should gradually fold into the overall texture and not be distinct. The alto saxophone entrance at measure 131 has to be clearly heard because it begins another chain reaction of sonatina fragments.

All of the entrances are for one player per part in measures 128-141, and each player needs to know his function within the phrase: the accompaniment is at a p dynamic, and the melody is mf. The melodic fragments should respond to each other as if they are playing a musical game of catch.

An overlapping modulation from Bb major to Bb minor anticipates the somber arrival of Bb minor at measure 141. This return of the chorale motif should be straightforward in the brass as the woodwinds create intense swells from p to mf and back. Here the brass should take special care to not upset the balance the woodwinds.

The Machine returns briefly for a five-measure phrase at measure 152. It begins softly and moves to mf, only to quickly fade. This unifying idea, played against a backdrop of sustained chords from the brass and low woodwinds, is one of the many wonderful moments in this work. The music has now come full circle.

Another Bb minor chord signals the beginning of the end. Steady tuba, bass clarinet or baritone saxophone (Colgrass asks that either the bass clarinet or baritone saxophone play, but not both) are crucial here. Five Bbs played by the glockenspiel over sustained low woodwinds and brass chords bring the work to a conclusion.

The wind band world is fortunate to have Michael Colgrass and other fine composers now writing for young bands. Pieces such as The Beethoven Machine are technically easier than these composers’ overall output, without being watered down. Each provides students with areas in which to improve their instrumental abilities as they enjoy a life filled with music.