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Emperata Overture Turns 50

Claude T. Smith | November 2014

    For half a century, Emperata Overture has secured its place among the cornerstones of the concert band repertoire. It remains a concert and contest staple, not only across the United States but also throughout the world, being performed regularly by school, military, professional, and community bands. Highlighted by brilliant brass fanfares, colorful textures as well as his trademark odd meter rhythmic figures, it is one of Claude T. Smith’s most recognized works and preserves his legacy as a major figure in concert band repertoire. Smith’s thoughts on the interpretation of Emperata Overture originally ran in the November 1982 issue of The Instrumentalist.

    What makes for great musical interpretation is often elusive. I always like to work for the correct and most musical interpretation. At times I feel I’m very good at it, and at other times I know I have missed completely.
    When I was teaching in high school, I entered a brass choir in the state music festival/contest. We had prepared a work in great detail and were confident of our performance. The day came for us to be judged, so we gave it our best. We felt sure that we had our I, the “Superior” rating. About an hour later, one of the members of the ensemble came flying down the hall with an incredulous look on his face. He said he had seen our rating, a II. I couldn’t believe it, so I went to the festival headquarters to review the rating sheet. For sure, our rating was a II. In reading down the adjudication sheet, I saw that all areas of the performance were graded I, except interpretation. A comment at the bottom of the sheet read: “Fine brass choir and good choice of music, but I didn’t care for your interpretation.” The fact that the judge didn’t like my interpretation was a real shock, for the selection performed was one of my compositions.
    As a composer, I certainly am thrilled to hear one of my works performed, especially when all avenues of musical expression have been exhausted. I admire conductors who are masters in the art of interpretation, for interpretation is the final and most important ingredient towards the successful rendition of any musical composition.
    There will be those times, and they are rare, when the music speaks the exact concept of the composer. At such moments the precise volume is reached; the technique is flawless; and the fermata is held – neither too long, nor too short – but just right. It’s that time when both the harmony coupled with a beautiful melody cause the hair on the back of one’s neck to stand up, and the rhythm is so pulsating that it stirs one’s body to get up and dance. Truly, music should move us to respond emotionally, intellectually, and physically. These three responses ensue when matters concerning interpretation are given maximum consideration.
    Regardless of the apparent quality of any piece of music on paper, each performance determines its ultimate fate; and our judgment of the work is usually based completely on the interpretation it receives. Each individual musician, the conductor, and the composer all share in its destiny. The composer through certain signs, symbols, and words gives those involved with the creation of sound a clear set of instructions concerning tempo, volume, articulation, style, etc. To what degree these instructions are met is out of the composer’s hands once the work is shaped by the musicians and conductor even though they are obligated to honor the creator’s intent.
    Whereas the solo performer has complete control over the interpretation, in ensemble performance the players and conductor share in sensing the composer’s ideas. Because the conductor is the leader, final judgment regarding interpretation rests there. The conductor will feel free to deal with interpretation when the ensemble has complete control of the music’s technical demands. I have never heard a composition performed musically when the group has had trouble with range, technique, key, or rhythm. These considerations, plus tone and physical maturity, have a great effect on the emotional impact of the music. When these considerations are within the players’ grasp, a musical experience is possible. We must also have a meeting of the hearts and minds between the ensemble and the conductor to insure that the ultimate aesthetic experience is achieved. When sound compels us to smile, to cry, to tap our feet, while it simultaneously stimulates the intellect, then our objective has been met. If at least one of these responses is not apparent, then the presentation will have been as inspiring as the bland and sterile sound of Muzak.

The Overture
    These remarks on my work, Emperata Overture, include my views not only as its composer, but also as a teacher and a conductor. Please enter measure numbers on your score.
    The opening tempo is marked Allegro. I have not specified an exact tempo, as I feel there is reasonable latitude regarding choice of tempo. A speed of quarter note = 132 allows the melody to sing and the rhythm to have an energetic pulsation.
    In measure 9 we find the first of several asymmetric measures. The indication e = e is the key to performing these measures successfully. Proper execution is accomplished in measures 8, 9, and 10 with a constant eighth-note feel. When confronted by asymmetric time signatures, indicate the beat pattern to the performers. In the case of this 78 measure, the pattern is 3 + 2 + 2. My more recent compositions indicate all asymmetric measures with the beat pattern on both the score and parts. When this work was composed, asymmetric patterns were uncommon in band music; and I was often called upon to interpret such rhythms by letter, person-to-person contact, and by telephone. I know my wife had to wonder about my sanity upon hearing me sing and articulate these patterns by phone from coast-to-coast.
    Measure 10 begins the first full statement of one of the two principal themes upon which the work is based. Let the melody “sing.” That may seem like an obvious statement, but much of the band music I hear lacks melodic expression. Perform the melody as an eight measure phrase. Be sure the quarter note triplet is played evenly. As you know, this rhythm is sometimes given a tango treatment by being played eq>       e. At slower tempos the figure is usually rushed.
    An unusual asymmetric pattern is found in measure 17. Certainly the common pattern for 98 time is 3 + 3 + 3, but here it is 2 + 3 + 2 + 2.
The first tutti playing is heard in measure 18. At this point the countermelody in the horns needs to be brought out because it is new material. Use the saxophone cue and other cues throughout the piece, if necessary, to establish proper balance. Also, at this point, observe that the percussion are only accompanying and should not overbalance the rest of the ensemble. The percussionists playing tom-toms, bass drum, and timpani should choose mallets that will complement the ensemble. Avoid mallets that are too soft because these parts need to have a clean, well-defined sound.
    The section beginning at measure 26 presents one of two secondary themes. Be careful to balance the timbre of the clarinet and oboe. A slight crescendo in measure 26 and a diminuendo in measure 27 works nicely. Do the same when the figure repeats. Rhythmic instability often occurs in measure 28 because the players listen to each other rather than subdivide the beat and that causes a time delay between entrances. Precision is sometimes a problem in measures 34-37 as the upper woodwinds tend to rush.
    At measure 45 the third trombone needs to be very strong to bring out the pedal sound. Also let the timpani be forceful coming out of the phrase at measure 45. A crescendo by the horns in measure 48 will allow the chord in the next measure to have strength and resonance. The same is true in measures 52 and 53. Bring out the dissonance between clarinet I and II in measure 55. Following the fermata in the next measure, the chords in the lower voices need to be well spaced as indicated by the breath mark. The conductor must be very distinct with subdivision through the ritard because the timpani player often plays either too few or too many notes going into the fermata. Also, firmly conduct the second clarinet in measure 56, as these notes finalize the harmonic direction of the first part of the overture.
    The Andante introduces the second principal theme. At measure 63, I prefer that the tune be played by the solo flute. A flowing, expressive style is achieved through dynamic change and a sensitive vibrato. Furthermore, I always take a slight ritard in measure 66. In measure 70, a tenuto, or even a brief fermata, is acceptable on beat four. The oboe countermelody should highly complement the melody in measures 67-70. Here is how I would edit this phrase:

    The second subordinate theme is introduced in measure 71. This section is best performed in a rubato style. Measure 72 has a good feel with a tenuto on beat four, and I like a slight ritard on beat three in measure 74. Dictate the eighth notes in measure 76, and don’t allow the crescendo to peak too early. A tenuto in measure 80 on beat four gives the horn player the opportunity to execute a firm pickup into the solo. The conductor should allow the horn soloist to have complete freedom during the ritard in measure 86, and it may be necessary for the second horn player to assist the soloist on the final note of the solo.
    Measures 87 and 88 are among the most difficult in the entire work. A subtle clarinet attack is not easy due to the tessitura of the section. I believe the triplet is best executed when the conductor indicates each note. The next measure demands firm chords and a strong dissonance. The relief should be felt when the dissonance resolves to consonance.
    The most emotional moments of the piece occur in measures 93-104. There are several dramatic dissonances as well as dynamic changes that must be played with the proper tension and release that characterize such romantic devices. In measure 94 the ritard must be greater than the earlier statement of this material; it really is molto ritard. The impact of the bass drum and crash cymbals in measure 95 must be realized. A vital measure, one that is rarely played well, is measure 97. Here the trombone crescendo must be forceful, and the F# against the G must cry for resolution. Relief is further provided in the next measure as the tuba states the melody in its inverted contour, and the muted brass provide a subtle accompaniment. The clarinet draws this section to a close with a free variation of the theme that should be played with a relaxed rubato feel.
    The dynamic power igniting the allegro section that follows must be evident. The timpani player must not be timid with the rhythmic motif. At this point the conductor needs to guide the players through several development devices that climax in the final measures. The modulation that takes place during the sequence of chords in measures 115-119 is often played poorly. Check the accidentals closely. The beat pattern is again 3 + 2 + 2 in the 78 measure.
    The fugato, measures 123-154, is edited so the subject is always the strongest voice. In measures 134 and 142, the indication for the trill to continue for two measures is an error. The trill should cease after the first measure. Don’t let the low voices pull the tempo down during the phrase that begins in measure 147.
    At measure 155 the two secondary themes are sounded together. There is usually a tendency for the cornets to lag behind the band. I find in other selections, as well as my own, that those playing legato usually fall behind those players with staccato material when they play simultaneously. The instruments playing fp will want to crescendo through measures 163 and 164, so hold them back. They may also crescendo too quickly in measure 165 and 166.
    Balance is the primary concern from measures 167 through 180. The horns often get covered up; thus the cue again may be useful. The trombones are a vital part of the scoring, because they provide the rhythmic drive that allows the work to finish with energy and vitality. Be certain that measures 167-173 are at a true forte level of volume. The volume change to fortissimo together with the key change, the playing of the two principal themes together, and the rhythmic accompaniment all should combine to create an exciting finale.
    The interpretation given Emperata Overture or any other composition is the lifeline connecting the written page with the true concept of the music. At no time can we be satisfied with a nondescript, lackluster playing of notes and rhythm. My greatest musical thrills have been when every detail of musical expression has been uncovered. What a great opportunity we have as musicians, for we surely can affect the pulse of the human body, the thought processes, and the soul. This surely is an opportunity to savor.

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What’s in a Name
    For many composers, the task of naming a composition may be as difficult as composing the music. Titles are often a problem for me and selecting one for this work was no exception. Originally it was Overture for Winds and Percussion, but that had already been used. After many considerations, Emperata Overture seemed to be the best choice. The word emperata has no specific meaning but it is an intriguing word.


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Emperata Commemorative Edition
    In celebration of the 50th anniversary of Claude T. Smith’s Emperata Overture, Wingert-Jones Publications released a commemorative edition of the masterpiece. For information visit