Music We Love, Top Composers Reflect on Overlooked Gems

Instrumentalist Editors | September 2011

   With the thousands of band works published over the decades, some terrific works are inevitably overlooked and underplayed. In some cases a piece might have strong initial sales but later fall out of favor. We asked some of the top band composers to help us on a treasure hunt to find these forgotten gems. The ground rules were simple: we asked each composer to identify one piece that deserved wider programming along with a second overlooked piece from their own work. As the responses poured in from around the world, we were surprised by the underlying spirit of generosity as composers saluted works by their colleagues past and present and also shared the stories behind some of their most beloved compositions.

Timothy Broege
   I have always had a place in my heart for the music of Vincent Persichetti, one of the first contemporary composers I was introduced to during my years of piano study. I found his harmonic language engaging and learned a lot about voicing piano chords from his music. His melodic and rhythmic sense was satisfying and although I would not ascribe greatness to Persichetti, a number of his pieces deserve to remain on concert programs. He wrote Pageant, Op. 59 (Grade 4, Carl Fischer, 2001), in 1953 and it sounds as fresh today as it did when I first heard it in the 1960s. The opening chorale is much imitated by other composers and sets the stage effectively for the rhythmically exciting parade section that follows. It is technically within the abilities of most bands and is a worthy composition for band programs.
   Among my own works for band, one of my favorites is Sinfonia XIX (Grade 3, Boosey & Hawkes, 2001), the 19th in my series of 21 large ensemble sinfonias. This composition carries the subtitle “Preludes and Grounds” and each of the four movements is cast in the same form: a harmonically adventurous brief prelude followed by a section based on a typical ground bass repeating melodic/harmonic pattern. Although originally commissioned by a fine middle school band (and scored accordingly), the work has proved satisfying for bands at higher ability levels. I think the music works well and contains enough musical surprises to deserve more performances than it has received.

Jack Stamp
   The music of Fisher Tull is generally neglected these days, largely because he died in 1994 and many of his early works with Boosey & Hawkes are unavailable. That said, Fisher Tull’s band works sound like no other composer’s. One work that encapsulates his style is Introit (Grade 5, Southern, 1983), which can be played by a wide range of ensembles. Tull’s most notable work is probably Sketches on a Tudor Psalm, and he once told me that Introit is was a poor man’s Sketches. The work is based upon a Louis Bourgeois hymn. It goes through variations much like the Tallis hymn does in Sketches. It is an outstanding work.
   Through the years, a composer’s earliers works tend to be neglected unless one was a particular hit for a time (e.g. Zdechlik’s Chorale and Shaker Dance or Reed’s Festival Prelude). Among my works is an early composition written for the Waukesha Area Symphonic Band called The Melting of the Winter’s Snow (Grade 4, C. Alan, 1999). It is probably my favorite neglected work. What might scare some conductors away is the soprano soloist used briefly in two sections. I believe this piece sounds unlike anything I have written and works perfectly to break up a concert program of warhorses and traditional band music. The piece is influenced by the music of Joseph Schwantner but is not terribly difficult, though it helps to have two bassoonists.

John Zdechlik
   Among the forgotten works of others one of my favorites is Sketches on a Tudor Psalm by Fisher Tull (Grade 5, Boosey & Hawkes, 1971). He was a great composer and has many outstanding works out there.
   Regarding my own works the piece I think is not performed much is Prelude and Fugue (Grade 4, Kjos). It begins with a lush prelude and is followed by a fugue that builds to a large climax. The prelude returns to conclude the work. I wrote this piece in 1995 to honor Wayne Timmerman, a prominent Seattle area band director who died shortly after hearing the completed work.

Andrew Boysen
   I have conducted Endurance by Timothy Mahr (Grade 5, Kjos, 1991) many times, and it has always been an enormous success. The piece is inspired by the ill-fated Antarctic expedition of Sir Ernest Shackleton, on which his ship became trapped in the ice and was ultimately crushed. In a truly awe-inspiring example of the human will, all of the men on the expedition survived. The piece is not strictly programmatic. Mahr manages to create a piece that is full of those musical moments that give you the chills. There are moments of dramatic intensity and peaceful beauty; then, at the close of the work. some wonderful material emerges that had been hinted at since the opening bars. The closing section suggests the broader message of the endurance of the human spirit and our ability to persevere despite all odds.
   Among my music I believe Joyride (Grade 5, Kjos, 2003) is not as widely performed as it should be. It represents a different kind of piece for me, and I suppose it might be described as post-minimalist. I am proud of the construction of the piece, as I feel that I did a good job of managing the materials. All of the construction of the work is related to the small three-note set that is stated both harmonically and vertically at the beginning of the piece. Even the key areas of the work are a macro presentation of the original set. I also like the sense of transformation in the piece. Even though material returns exactly, the use of metric modulation and mode changes causes it to sound completely fresh. In addition and most importantly, I think the piece is fun and exciting for the listener.

Robert Sheldon
   I would describe Fantasia on Black is the Color Of My True Love’s Hair by Mark Camphouse (Grade 4, Alfred, 2005), as an extraordinary and deeply moving work. There are so many expressive moments, and many opportunities for soloists to shine. I appreciate the varied styles, colors, and sheer passion of the piece. The use of the two versions of the folk tune is very effective, and the scoring is brilliant. It really touches me in a special way, and I love sharing the piece with others when I have an opportunity to program it.
   Because I so often conduct new pieces, I don’t have as much opportunity to look back to my older titles. Recently, I was invited to conduct a concert of my music in Italy with several bands performing a large number of my pieces, including some of the older compositions. One that struck me in particular was the Moravian Folk Rhapsody (Grade 4, Alfred, 2004). This setting of several Czech folk tunes surprised me by how refreshing it was, probably due to the source material as the phrasing in this genre of music is quite interesting, and the melodies are delightful. I was so pleased to hear the piece as I have not programmed it in quite some time. The reaction of the audience and performers was so positive that I made a note to program this again sometime soon. I enjoy conducting its wide variety of styles.

Frank Ticheli
   Steve Rouse’s Blaze (grade 5, Manhattan Beach Music, 2000) is an exceptional, brilliantly orchestrated 3-1/2 minute ride that shows the composer’s unique gifts for color and harmony. I love the way its metric twists and turns never lead me by the hand, keep me wide awake, ears fully engaged to the end. The harmonic language shares a subtle kinship with Persichetti, but is more free-wheeling, open ended, unpredictable.
   If I had to single out one work of mine that seems to receive less attention than it deserves, it might be Cajun Folk Songs II (Grade 4, Manhattan Beach Music, 1997). Perhaps the title is a problem; it sounds like a sequel. (It’s not!) Perhaps the beautiful english horn solo scares some directors away (even though it is cued in the alto sax, which sounds equally beautiful in its own way). The work has such a huge expressive range and contains gratifying solo passages for just about every section leader in the ensemble, Mostly, I love it for its melodic richness. Irresistible Cajun tunes appear one after another. The work does demand a bit more hands-on attention than the first Cajun set, but the rewards are all the more sweet.

Brian Balmages
   I would recommend Through Darkened Sleepy Hollow by Erik Morales (Grade 3, FJH, 2006) as a piece that deserves to be played more. There is a lack of grade 3 pieces that explore a wide variety of harmonic and textural possibilities, yet also appeal to students. This piece combines a fun programmatic aspect with an incredible harmonic vocabulary, use of contemporary effects, and elaborate textures not often used in grade 3 music. In addition, the form of the work is quite developed and avoid the typical ABA and other cliche conventions. Finally, it offers many opportunities to develop awareness of phrasing, especially toward the end when students are asked to maintain tempo but think in longer phrases.
   From my own pieces, I would go with Reverberations (Grade 3, FJH, 2009). I really like how it is extremely approachable, yet possesses many of the elements of more advanced works. it uses compositional devices that teachers can share with students to expand their understanding of composition in general, but does not use these devices simply to have them in the piece. I really like the form of the work; the music takes its time to develop and evolve over the course of the entire piece. In my mind, it does what any piece should do, especially in works for younger band. It defies the typical expectations of grade 3 music and sounds like it could have been written for bands of any grade level.

David Holsinger
   As a conductor I am a serious believer in historically diverse programming. I asked a 120-member all-state band how many had played the Holst First Suite, and only three students had (all from the same school band). I have become even more concerned with the absence of historic programming by our young conductors and have two suggestions Marching bands need to play many marches by King, Fillmore, and Sousa. After all, marches are the historic backbone of bands. With our propensity toward always new music, I would suggest that Peter Mennin’s Canzona (Grade 5, Carl Fischer, 1951) has moved up on the endangered species list of band music in recent years. It is one of those breakthrough works of the 1950s, a contrapuntal tour de force that calls for a mature understanding of linear transpiration by both the conductor and performers.
   Francis McBeth once told me that To Be Fed by Ravens was one of his personal favorites but didn’t get played very often. I imagine that this is not uncommon among composers. Among my pieces, an underperformed favorite is Battle Music (Grade 6, TRN, 1999). Unlike the majority of my works, it is an overtly angry piece. A famous euphonium soloist once commented that the euphonium part was akin to Frankenstein meets Pineapple Poll. Since I was, no doubt, the very worst baritone horn major in history, I consider that a compliment.

Pierre LaPlante
   Although William P. Latham’s Three Chorale Preludes (Grade 3, Alfred, 1956) appears on several state contest lists, I think many young directors are unfamiliar with this gem. The sections are original settings in a traditional 18th century style and include “Break Forth O Beauteous Heavenly Light,” “O Sacred Head,” and “Now Thank We All Our God.” The musicianship exceeds the technical demands and students will learn much about style, expressive playing, and intonation. The finale does require a B above the staff in the first trumpets. Brief but informative program notes are included in the score.
   It has always been my feeling that directors are looking for music to introduce 6/8 meter to their bands. With this in mind I wrote Come to the Fair! (Grade 2, Daehn, 1995) as a more difficult 6/8 companion to my All Ye Young Sailors Grade 1, Daehn, 1988). Fair consists of two traditional songs, “Oh Dear, What Can The Matter Be” (in 6/8 and “The Animal Fair” (in 3/4). While still omitting 16th notes as was done in the earlier piece, Come to the Fair! requires more careful counting, more independence in various sections, and a brief section that alternates between 6/8 and 3/4 meters
(eighth = eighth).

Patrick Burns
   Pietro Deiro’s Trieste Overture, arranged by Larry Daehn (Daehn, Grade 5, 2008), is wonderful on many levels. One of its virtues is that it is a transcription of a work for solo accordion (not accordion with band accompaniment). It has all the drama, intrigue, romance, and verve of an Italian operatic overture, even though no particular program is attached to this piece. Daehn’s masterful setting is truly a delight for performers and audiences. I have programmed Trieste with community, regional, and all-state bands, and each time the audience leaps from their seats at the end. It is a winner all around, but it is no walk in the park, especially for the woodwind section. The presto section (3/4 of the work) is rife with demanding passages. The brass parts are less extreme, but require good, clean, and expressive articulations for an outstanding performance.
   From my own work, I would choose Hometown (Grade 4, Daehn, 2002). When I go out to guest conduct an honor band, one question that invariably arises is about my favorite band piece that I have written. I am proud of all of them and feel a special connection to several pieces, but I believe that Hometown is the most succinct and earnest expression of a particular sentiment I have ever achieved. Much of my work is based on literature, and Hometown was inspired by a stanza in the Garrison Keillor poem, “One More Spring in Minnesota.”

That yard – the tree you climbed it once with me
And we talked of cities we’d live in someday.
I left, old friend, but now I’m back again
Please say you missed me since I went away.

   The music appears much less difficult than a standard grade 4 but is more demanding than it seems. It is at once bittersweet, reflective, tender, dramatic, pensive, and peaceful. All of these emotions are represented in the music, which is a portrait of two friends meeting again after the passage of many years. I wrote it for the Bel Air Community Band (Maryland) and director, Scott Sharnetzka, as a tribute to the friendship that they and I have developed over the years. They are my band away from home, and my relationship with them has been important personally and professionally. The piece concludes with material from the introduction, which returns in a different orchestration. The final chord provides a clear and definite end to the piece but leaves audiences expecting more. It feels unfinished and unresolved – as is the relationship of the two characters in Keillor’s poem. Although it is a lyric piece, Hometown seems to fit Francis McBeth’s comment, which I will paraphrase as “a grade 3 technically and a grade 17 musically.”

Elliot Del Borgo
   Peter Mennin’s Canzona (Grade 5, Carl Fischer, 1951) is one of my favorites, and I haven’t heard anyone else play it in about 25 years. Peter Mennin taught at the Juilliard School for many years. At first Canzona was played quite a bit, and I believe it is a magnificent piece. It has tons of energy and great melodic lines; my favorite aspect is that it is all contrapuntal. The band gets a chance to dig in on a tough grade 5, but it is not too difficult for many bands to play it. I am always surprised that it hasn’t a standard in the literature the same way that Folk Song Suite by Vaughan Williams or the Holst Suites have. These pieces are performed frequently, and rightly so, but I think Mennin’s Canzona is just a gem of a work. In under six minutes a band has a real chance to show its stuff. The harmonics are skillfully handled with a good 20th-century sound. The instrumental parts lay very well, and the percussion are used nicely. Although it is a grade 5, many school groups can play it. Every time I’ve done it, the audience has loved its energy and drive.
    The other piece that always comes to mind is Howard Hanson’s Chorale and Alleluia (Grade 5, Carl Fischer, 1954). At one time you could hear it every other week on the contest circuit, but these days nobody plays it.
    A piece of mine that is especially pleasing for me is Britannic Variants (Grade 5, Hal Leonard). This is a difficult grade 5, but not too much of a stretch for a good high school or college group. What I liked about the piece while writing it was that I always felt that folk music has a genuine quality to it. When treated symphonically it fits the concert band like a glove. It hardly ever gets played. I’m not sure I’ve ever judged it at a festival.
    When I was young we sat in band and played transcriptions and marches. Whenever a new band piece came out everybody was overjoyed. If Vincent Persichetti, Clare Grundman, or Frank Erickson wrote something, everybody played it. Now there is so much high-quality literature out there, that the old stuff doesn’t get played. I can’’t recall the last time I heard anything by Persichetti; I’ll admit to some bias, since he was an important teacher of mine.

James Swearingen
    I have conducted Coldwater Creek by Robert Sheldon (Grade 2, C.L. Barnhouse, 1996) many times at middle school honors band festivals. If you have an ensemble with limited performing experience, this well crafted piece makes a great opener and the response from the musicians and audience has always been very positive.
    Among my compositions, Follow The River (Grade 3, C.L. Barnhouse, 2004) is played too little in my view. I tried to create an expressive work that would contain many of the magical moments that conductors search for when seeking to unlock the magic of a score. It is based upon a true story about human survival and covers a wide variety of emotions. A personal interpretation by the conductor is vital to its success. I would also encourage more advanced bands to accept the challenge of making this lyrical piece come to life. The interpretive process of conveying the story would remain the same, but making it sound like a grade 6 selection would take it to a new level of musical enjoyment.

James Barnes
    An old favorite of mine is Norman Dello Joio’s Fantasies on a Theme by Haydn (Grade 5, Hal Leonard, 1968), a wonderful piece that is filled to the brim with beautiful colors, strong melodies, and clever counterpoint. It also has the lush but modern harmonies that are a Dello Joio trademark.
    I would also recommend Fisher Tull’s A Passing Fantasy (Grade 4, Southern Music, 1992). I believe Mickey Tull was one of the most original band composers I have ever known. There is a lot more to Tull than Sketches on a Tudor Psalm. If you haven’t explored his music in detail, then you have missed some wonderful music. Mickey had such a keen ear for percussion and wind colors. The best composers sound like themselves, not everyone else, and so it is with Mickey Tull. He possessed such a stunningly original harmonic vocabulary, and his artistic expression, though rather reserved like Tull himself, is remarkably distinctive.
    A Passing Fantasy, a later work by Tull, is not as difficult as Dello Joio’s piece. It is a sensitive, mystical tone poem about near death experiences, a phenomenon documented by people who experience a brilliant white passage when near death after an accident or illness. They have described their soul as being carried along the tunnel before it returns to their bodies as they miraculously recover. Mickey’s description of this out of body experience is truly masterful.
    With my own works I have had my share of ugly ducklings. One piece that I slaved over trying to make the perfect grade 3 piece is Stone Meadows (Southern Music, 1986) It is a lively work in three parts, that begins and ends in quartal harmony. The middle section in more lush with upper-tertian harmony. It’s full of good tunes, interesting counterpoint, a continuous rhythmic pedal point and rich sonorities. At six minutes long it is not difficult to play and is safely scored and carefully cross-cued for smaller bands. Every time I conduct it with an honor band students are delighted, but for some reason it has never caught on.

Mark Camphouse
    One outstanding band work that I feel is neglected is Antithigram by Jack Stamp (Grade 4, Manhattan Beach Music). I rarely hear this fine, 5-minute work performed. It was one of Jack’s first works for band, composed in 1977 but not published until 1988. Antithigram contains many of Jack’s distinct stylistic and sonic fingerprints: taut construction, great energy, skillful counterpoint, excellent harmonic balance between consonance and dissonance, and especially effective percussion scoring. I have programmed this work many times over the years with honor bands, and the piece is always met with great enthusiasm by players and audiences. This 35-year-old piece still sounds fresh and exciting to me.
    One composition of mine that I especially like is In Memoriam (Grade 4, TRN), commissioned by the Revelli Foundation in 2002. This 5-minute, work is based on the well-known communion hymn, Salvation is Created by Russian composer Pavel Chesnokov. Performances of In Memoriam are especially effective when conductors place Bruce Houseknecht’s splendid arrangement of Salvation is Created just prior to it on a concert program, because these contrasting works have a common thematic thread. The concept of putting old wine in new bottles is very much at work here. Con-ductors of high school and college bands have told me that In Memoriam is a good teaching piece that is also aesthetically enriching.

Michael Sweeney
    Folklore for Band (Grade 3, Hal Leonard, 1964) by Jim Andy Caudill has quietly remained part of the catalog and remained in print for 47 years. Caudill was inspired to write this piece after attending a wind ensemble workshop five years earlier at the Eastman School of Music conducted by Frederick Fennell. It has a distinctly British flavor with wonderful melodies and modal harmonies. In 2005 Hal Leonard published a new edition. Caudill has expressed regret over not including program notes that conveyed his gratitude to Frederick Fennell for the workshop that inspired the composition.  I encouraged him to write program notes for this new edition, and these plus a dedication to Fennell are now included in the full score. The piece has truly stood the test of time, and I performed it with honor bands very successfully.
    In the Fall of 2005 my daughter and I drove across the country together as she relocated from Wisconsin to California. Along the way we stopped to visit my elderly uncle. At this same time, with his older sister (my mother) in poor health and another sister in Connecticut ailing. I sadly realized that these three siblings would not see each other again in this lifetime. I felt compelled to express my feelings in Crossings in Time (Grade 2, Hal Leonard), which is very personal music and a favorite piece of mine. Unlike most of my compositions, this piece came easily and was completed in a matter of days.
    Crossings in Time does not contain a traditional melody or form, but is more a study in moods and colors. Because of this I think it is a little harder for young players to understand and perform. However, directors who have programmed have related that it became a favorite of students once they understood the piece. Most of us can relate to having loved ones far away and also the changes in our lives as we grow older.

Jan Van der Roost
    I recommend Symphonic Variations by Paul Gilson (1865-1942), a Belgian composer who had tremendous influence on development of the wind repertoire in my country. It is fairly difficult, very beautiful, and really well written. Some (semi)professional wind orchestras or outstanding amateur bands have played it in Belgium, Holland and other countries but I think it deserves to be performed more often internationally. When I performed it in Japan two years ago both the performers and the audience.
    One of my works that is less frequently played is Et in Terra Pax (Grade 4, De Haske/Hal Leonard), which was written in 1998 for the 80th anniversary of the end of World War I (1914-1918) and is a plea for peace. It contains a few aggressive and warlike passages but is basically contemplative and intense, especially near the end. At several spots, the players have to sing, sometimes in a disorderly way, but it is not truly a choral part. It is less spectacular than many other works, and perhaps this is why it is underperformed. I conducted the first CD recording of the piece and saw some players who were moved to tears.  

Online Extra: Due to space considerations, Robert Rumbelow’s comments were omitted from the print edition.
Robert W. Rumbelow
   I’ve always had a sincere appreciation for Peter Mennin’s Canzona. Many musicians know the work, but it is not performed frequently enough and it is a true compositional jewel.  In fact, the compositional design and basic compositional elements in play make a perfect lesson for students interested in composition.  Composed in 1951, it has all the tenants of mid-century American modernism in a compact 5 minute design.  It’s formal and sonic attractiveness comes from the mind of a gifted composer who composed very well for the wind band and wind instruments.  The beautifully written middle section featuring soloists offers performers musical freedom while demanding very sensitive ensemble connections.  

   If I had to pick a favorite composition of mine, I would probably go back to Night (published by Kjos) inspired by Elie Wiesel’s novel of the same name.  However, this work continues to gain performances in a steady fashion and has become a meaningful experience.  I suppose if I were to select a work that most folks don’t know, it would be my newest publication entitled Face of Honor published by C. Alan. This work is a 10 min. grade 4 work that is linked together with two fanfare motives, call and response style drumming, and a beautifully graceful melody.  The entire work is based on Taps and was commissioned to honor Sgt. Michael C. Hardegree and all of the U.S. soldiers that have given the ultimate gift to their thankful nation.  The military drumming elements are a direct tribute to Sgt. Hardegree (a percussionist in his high school band) and all the rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic ideas in the work come from extrapolations of Taps, although the listener will not likely realize that fact until a partial quote of the tradition bugle call appears near the end.  The musical and extra-musical opportunities for students to "connect" has proven rewarding. The work does take 7 percussionists (6 percussion parts & 1 timpani part), so a good percussion section is necessary to really make this composition everything it can be in performance.