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Grainger Conducts Grainger

John Knight | October 2013
    Over the past months I revisited a musical favorite of mine, the band classic Irish Tune from County Derry, by listening repeatedly to a rare recording I have of Grainger conducting this piece with the University of Texas Symphonic Band in a 1948 concert at Austin.
    Listening to this tape was like meeting an old friend after many years’ absence and discovering fresh insights into his personality. Percy Grainger had an exceptional musical mind, and his interpretation has unparalleled authority. Listening to Grainger conduct Grainger is a wonderful opportunity to go back to the original source and gain new knowledge about his interpretation, and it inspired me to restudy this magnificent score again with fresh eyes and ears.
    To give a convincing interpretation of this classic, Grainger teaches that the conductor should be an artistic monitor of sound and feeling, not a time beater. To conduct well means going beyond the notes and formulate in his mind, heart, and body appropriate approaches to tempo, balance, rubato, phrasing, dynamic contrasts, polydynamics, articulation, harmonic foundation and movement. Finally, a conductor must possess technique that will communicate these concepts in a clear and musical flow without distorting the musical lines. However, what was most revealing about the Grainger interpretation was that a conductor should also be aware of the beautiful instrumental colors inherent in this score.
    While listening to Grainger’s interpretation of Irish Tune I was fascinated with his ability to mix and match the many colors found in the score. Grainger once stated that he preferred the band’s instrumentation to the orchestra’s because he had more colors from which to choose. Like a great painter, Grainger thought of the band as a palette of colors possessing a variety of timbral considerations, and he had an outstanding imagination, giving us music replete with rich and varied shades of the spectrum. It is the challenge of conductors to bring out each color with vivid textural clarity.
    At the beginning, the melody is in the alto clarinet, baritone saxophone, first and second trombones, and euphonium; a decision must be made about which of these instruments should be prominent. Today, most wind conductors want the euphonium to be dominant. Having the rest of the melodic instruments be shadow tones to the euphonium will produce a dark, mellow timbre that is pleasing to the ear. A good trick to getting the students playing the other melody instruments to blend well is to have them think of putting their sounds inside the bell of the euphonium. However, on this tape, it is obvious that Percy Grainger thought blending to the euphonium would make for a color that is too dark. Instead, he had the melodic instruments blend to the trombones for a lighter color and a bit more projection than the euphonium.
    The difficulty with the beginning of Irish Tune is that Grainger has the melody in the bass clef – one of the earliest examples of band literature with the melody in the bass clef – sandwiched between the brighter cornets and horns and the low woodwinds and tuba so that the melody is too often covered. The volume in the accompanying instruments should be reduced so that the melody stands out as clear and vivid as Mt. Rushmore. Ignoring the softer dynamics, especially pianissimo, leads to a deficiency in color causing these first measures to sound bland and ordinary.
    Remembering Wagner’s quote that “the one and only form of music is melody; no music is conceivable without melody, and both are absolutely inseparable,” it is best to reduce the volume in the accompanying instruments. This is especially true in the first cornet part in measures one through eight. When the cornet timbre was cast aside in the late 1960s for the trumpet color in American bands, a unique color was lost that is perfect for the tonal quality and blending needed for the music of Percy Grainger, and the more brilliant trumpet sound often covers the melody. Grainger uses the cornets exclusively throughout the composition and the mellow timbres blend perfectly with the other instruments. If the trumpet must be used here, have the musician play into the stand and blend with the other voices at the indicated dynamic of pp. Grainger does not let this part come out until the second beat of measure thirteen.
    Another color tint that is often overlooked by conductors but is brought out in Grainger’s conducting occurs in measures six, ten, and twenty-six.
    In measure six this accented half note is in the bass clarinet, tenor sax, and third horn, and it is the horn color that is dominant in the recording. In measures ten and twenty-six this same rhythm occurs only in the second alto sax and second horn. On all three occasions Grainger prefers the horn color over the others.
    These subtle color changes occur throughout the composition, and each time Grainger brings them out for good effect. We hardly ever hear these changes strongly enough, or if we do they are articulated too much with the tongue and the tone is distorted. I teach this accent on the second note of the beat with a fast push of the air and a gentle stroke of the tongue that lifts the note much like a fast down-bow on a string instrument.
    Much of the time Grainger’s crescendos and decrescendos follow the natural rise and fall of the musical phrase but sometimes for a different color effect he has one group crescendo and another group decrescendo at the same time. This Grainger innovation of simultaneous crescendo and decrescendo brings about a color change of going from dark to light and light to dark is one of the early examples of polydynamics in wind literature.
    Measure six contains a good example of polydynamics. The second and third cornets crescendo while the rest of the band decrescendos. This is often overlooked but is heard very clearly on the recording. The reason this color effect is rarely heard is because the rest of the band simply is unaware of it. To remedy this fault in rehearsal have the cornet players slowly rise out of their seats so that the rest of the band can visibly see the crescendo and adjust their volume so that the cornet color can be heard.
    The expansion of musical color through different instrumental combinations also occurs at the cadences. For example, measure 16 ends on a tonic chord with twelve instrumental parts playing F while bass clarinet, tenor saxophone, and fourth horns play the fifth. Only the third horn has the third of the chord. The way to balance the chord is have all those playing the tonic put their sound inside the tuba, then add the fifth, with the bass clarinet the dominant color, and last add the lonely horn on the third. Remind students that the chord is thinly scored, so it is important to listen for the third in the horn.
    In measure 23 Grainger projects the euphonium on the ascending line over the complete band starting on the first beat. This instrument is seldom heard because the cornets and horns cover it up, but by bringing out the euphonium color and keeping the other voices at a lower volume it sounds like a concerto for euphonium with band obbligato. It is a wonderful effect that makes this section sound like an entirely new composition.
    Another color nuance often overlooked occurs on the third beat in measure 28 when the band must do a p < mf > p to lift and taper the end of the phrase.
    The decrescendo is usually done too quickly; it must be a mirror image of the crescendo to give a feeling of completion. One teaching technique that I use in rehearsals is to have the band members rise slowly out of their seats and then sit down again in the same speed to physically feel the rate of the crescendo and decrescendo.
    Measures 33-48 are a masterclass in tone painting. In measure 36 Grainger brings out the oboe color on the C5 with a slight crescendo but inserts a decrescendo in the oboe past measure 37 as the horn and tenor sax come in on the second beat. Measure 38 he brings out the written B5 on the third beat in the first clarinet part. In measure 40 on the second beat the first clarinet has to enter on an E6 above the staff marked pp. The clarinet tone usually explodes here because it is an extremely difficult entrance to control. Grainger brings out the F natural in the oboe to take the edge off the clarinet sound, and it will also help if the clarinetist hears the minor seventh interval from F#5to E6 in that measure. Thinking of “Somewhere” from West Side Story or another song starting on that interval may help stabilize the pitch. Another solution I learned from Robert Marcellus is for the clarinetist to turn the top lip in just a bit to control the tone on high notes and balance with the oboe entrance.
    Conductors should think of each measure from 41-48 becoming darker and have each instrument blend so the wonderful color changes can be heard. For example, in measure 41 the horn entrance is sometimes shaky and nervous. The first horn player may be unaware that his tone should be the most important color and that the same line occurs in the flutes and second alto sax. This knowledge can help the horn pitch, especially on that treacherous written A5, which is usually pinched sharp.
    Another color that Grainger brings out is the cornet solo starting on the second beat in measure 46. This line is usually heard well enough but what is not heard as often is the second cornet solo starting on the third beat of measure 47. The second cornets should crescendo more than the firsts here to bring out the crescendo to the written B natural.
    Also in the F major chord in measure 48 is another good example of polydynamics. The chord is intended to be well supported but not brilliant, as the band plays forte except the cornets, which are only mezzo forte. The third of the chord is hidden away in the third clarinet and second cornet parts and the fifth is only in the first cornet, with all other parts of the band resting on the tonic. On the tape the horns are the dominant color on the tonic.
    From measures 49-52 the first cornet is the dominant color in the melodic line, but in measure 53 Grainger has the first horns and trombones balance to the euphonium on the three accented quarter notes.
In measure 56 the third clarinet, first and second horns, first trombone, and euphonium space and lift the accented quarters with a ^ accent instead of >, with the trombones having the primary color. The third clarinet timbre is usually lost in this section and would benefit from encouragement.
    Also in measure 56 the suspended cymbal makes its initial entrance as a new sound color, starting with dynamic of pp. The cymbal’s crescendo does not reach a climax until beat three of measure 58, at which point it should decrescendo. This is probably the most misplayed cymbal roll in all band literature because percussionists assigned to this part usually crescendo too much too soon and drown out the rest of the band. A good rule to follow is that in a crescendo the cymbal should stay under the band in volume and not reach its climax until the very last second on beat three, and then decrescendo more than the winds. The dominant color in measure 58 should be the horns and second alto saxophone.
    Starting on the fourth beat of measure 59, Grainger brings out the accent on the fourth and second beats above the rest of the band, similar to lifted bell tones. Again, the horns should be the dominant color. In measure 59 the horns have four slurred quarter notes, but on the recording the fourth beat is tongued to match the articulation of the second alto saxophone, third cornet, and euphonium.
    In measure 63, the next to last measure of the composition, the second beat is another example of polydynamics, which is often overlooked by conductors. Here, the first and third horns have a balance problem sustaining a written G5 on the second and third beats; the horns stick out too much here. Grainger solves this problem by having the second alto saxophone and first trombone play stronger here because they also have a concert C. Once the horns are aware of this fact the balance difficulties are usually solved.
    Also in measure 63 there is a wonderful color change that is seldom heard because many bands ignore Grainger’s polydynamics. The first, second, and third cornets must decrescendo as the fourth cornet crescendos from a written A3 over the other cornets to a D5. When this is heard it gives a most poignant and expressive preparation for the final cadence.
    In the last measure the entire band decrescendos to ppp on the fermata except for the first and third horns and first trombones, which sustain the third of the chord at mp.
    By using such varied colors Grainger creates a wonderful tonal palette to reinforce the emotional impact of the Irish Tune from County Derry.  Conductors should always be aware of blending and combining the band’s rich and inherent color spectrum to achieve a more poignant and expressive interpretation according to Grainger’s intent.
Tempo and Rubato in Irish Tune from County Derry

    The first page of the score published by Carl Fisher has Grainger’s tempo marking of quarter note = about 80 and his English directive “flowingly,” which to Grainger meant slowly and wayward (rubato) in time but certainly not dragged. We know this because Grainger wrote on the piano setting of the Irish Tune completed in 1911 “with a tempo span of quarter note = 84-104.” He also wrote the instructions in Italian: Rubato il tempo, e non troppo lento (Tempo rubato and not too slow). Grainger’s choice of tempo is similar to that of Chopin, who defined rubato as “gently blowing against the flame of a candle without putting it out.”
    On the recording, Grainger begins the piece at quarter note = 76 but changes to quarter note = 78 from measures two to five. On the second beat of measure five the tempo is back to quarter note = 76 but goes back to quarter note = 78 in measures six through eight. These opening measures show that it is unnecessary to distort the tempo with an exaggerated rubato to make the music beautiful and are also a stark reminder of a cardinal rule of interpretation: One cannot have rubato until the fundamental pulse has been established, as Grainger did, staying between quarter note = 76-78 for the first eight measures. This should be a warning to conductors who tend to put fermatas on the first three notes; such opening long tones were not Grainger’s intention.
    Tempo fluctuations inserted into a musical phrase depend upon starting from a fundamental pulse and then going away from that pulse without distorting the musical line before returning to the fundamental tempo in a manner that enhances the expressive qualities of the music. The subtle timing needed for a true rubato requires musical maturity and sensitivity on the part of the conductor, but the expressive rewards are great for those who master this art.
    In measure eight, Grainger slackens the tempo to quarter note = 72 to enhance the crescendo and decrescendo but returns to quarter note = 76 in measure nine. The first major tempo fluctuation begins on the fourth beat of measure ten, where the tempo accelerates from quarter note = 78 to quarter note = 90 over the next three measures and remains there through measure 16.
    The first three notes of measure 17 are at quarter note = 72, but  the tempo accelerates to quarter note = 90 and stays there from the fourth beat of measure 18 through the first beat of measure 21. The pattern begins again here, as the three quarter-note pick-ups in this measure are back to quarter note = 72 before returning to quarter note = 90. The same is true for the pick-up notes in measure 25, but after these, Grainger only comes back to the original tempo through the first beat of measure 29. The second beat of measure 29 starts at quarter note = 76 but slows quite a bit; the last two quarter notes in measure 31 are equivalent to the speed of the previous half notes.
    In measure 32 the tempo returns to quarter note = 72, and this is the tempo for the beautiful woodwind entrances at measures 33-36. From measure 37 through the first beat of 49 the tempo accelerates from quarter note = 78 to quarter note = 90. Measures 49-55 follow a similar pattern to measures 17-25, where phrases at measures 49 and 53 start at quarter note = 72 and then accelerate to quarter note = 90.
    At measure 56 Grainger slows slightly, quarter note = 80 at measure 57, quarter note = 76 at the climax in measure 58, and quarter note = 60 in measure 60. The second beat of measure 61 starts at quarter note = 54, with the final tempo at quarter note = 46. Grainger broadens and lifts the two fermatas before the final chord, with the fermata on the fourth beat receiving the longer hold.