Possibilities of the Concert Wind Band from the Standpoint of a Modern Composer

This is a reprint of an article by Percy Grainger from 1918.  It was originally published in Metronome Orchestra Monthly.  It is perhaps one of the greatest articles ever written on the art of bandestration.  This article is hard to find on the internet, so I have transcribed the whole thing for easier use.

Possibilities of the Concert Wind Band from the Standpoint of a Modern Composer

Percy Grainger


Modern Wind Band a Product of Recent Musical Thought – Reed and Brass Sections as They Should Exist – Finer Possibilities of Arranging for the Modern Wind Band – Adaptability of Classic and Modern Music to the Needs of a Complete Wind Band – Suggestions for Strengthening the Double-reed Sections – The Percussion Section as it Should Be Perfected.

When we consider the latent possibilities of the modern concert wind band it seems almost incomprehensible that the leading composers of our era do not write as extensively for it as they do for the symphony orchestra.  No doubt there are many phases of musical emotion that the wind band is not so fitted to portray as is the symphony orchestra, but on the other hand, it is quite evident that in certain realms of musical expressiveness the wind band (not of course the usual band of small proportions as we most often encounter it, but an ideal band of some fifty pieces or more) has no rival.  It is not so much the wind band as it already is, in the various countries, that should engage the creative attentions of contemporary composers of genius, as the band that should be and will be; for it is in a pliable state as regards its make-up as compared with the more settled form of the sound-ingredients of the symphony orchestra.  Those who are interested in exploring the full latent possibilities of the modern concert wind band should consult Arthur A. Clappé’s The Wind Band and its Instruments, an epoch-making work which is to the band of today what Berlioz’s Treatise on Instrumentation was to the orchestra of his time – a standard work the no composer, musician, bandmaster or bandsman should fail to know and absorb.

On page 46 of Mr. Clappé’s work the reader will find outlined an ideal concert wind band of sixty-four performers, which as a medium expression peculiarly adapted to certain phases of the modern and ultra-modern composer outrivals and symphony orchestra in existence.

Modern Wind Band a Product of Recent Musical Thought

The wind band, as we know it today, is a later growth than the symphony orchestra, and is, therefore, the product of recent musical thought, just as the music of Delius, Richard Strauss, Debussy, Cyril Scott, John Alden Carpenter is the product of of recent musical thought.  It is, therefore, not so surprising that the wind band should prove a more satisfying means of expression to the kinds of music written by geniuses of our own day than it does to the works of older classics, which are naturally more at home in the symphony orchestra which grew out of their activities and was influenced (in its make-up) by their musical viewpoints.

The wind band is peculiarly effective in music of predominantly harmonic nature and, as we know, harmony (rather than melody or rhythm) is the principal means of expression with the most modern composers.  The rich emotional harmonic languages of Delius and Cyril Scott, for instance, would sound magnificent for the wind band, and so would a large proportion of the music of other moderns, particularly if composed directly for the wind band by the composers themselves, and not merely adapted and arranged from their orchestral scores.

Reed and Brass Sections as They Should Exist

It is, of course, the reed sections of the ideal wind band (such as given in Mr. Clappé’s above-mentioned book) that prove so very interesting to the modern composer.  The brass section, lovely, noble and heroic as its sound colors are, has not the great variety and expressibility of a fully-equipped reed section, comprising complete families of each of the following groups: Clarinets, saxophones, oboe-bassoon group and sarrusophones.  It is only when family grouping of reed instruments (a complete oboe-bassoon family consisting of oboes, English horn, bass oboe, bassoons and contrabassoon; a complete clarinet family consisting of E flat and B flat clarinets, alto clarinet, bass clarinet and contrabass clarinet; a complete saxophone quintet; a complete sextet of sarrusophones) is insisted upon by composers and carried out by performers that the present, often monotonous tone color of wind bands will give place to a kaleidoscopic variety of tone colors comparable to those in the orchestration of Wagner, Stravinsky,  or Delius.

Mr. Clappé lays great stress upon these facts in his above-mentioned book, The Wind Band and Its Instruments, and he has furthermore demonstrated in practice and truth and practicability of his theories in the beautifully balanced ‘Institute of Musical Art’ Band that he has built up at the Army Music Training School at Governor’s Island of which he is principal.  When I first heard this band at the Washington Irving High School, with its quintet of saxophones, its quartet of alto and bass clarinets, its quartet of oboes, bass oboe and bassoon, with the tone of well-rounded brass section so proportioned and controlled so as never to (except for quite special intentional effects) obscure or over-blare the more subtly expressive sound colors of its unusually complete woodwind sections, I realized , more than ever before, the truly immense potentialities of the concert wind band as an emotional musical medium.

Finer Possibilities of Arranging for the Modern Wind Band

There is plenty of variety of tone color in ordinary wind bands even as at presently constituted , but this variety is not utilized in the average arrangements for the band because the arranger has to adapt his instrumentation to the haphazard make-up of most of the bands that will perform his adaptations.  Thus there is great tonal contrast between the same note played upon the bassoon, bass clarinet or baritone saxophone.  But the arranger cannot often utilize these contrasts to the full as he cannot be sure that all three instruments will be present in the bands that will play his arrangements. Consequently a great deal of doubling occurs in most publications, as we find parts published for ‘Alto Clarinet or Alto Saxophone’, although the tone quality of the former is strikingly different from the latter.  And the same thing holds true all along the line.  Such delicious contrasts as those between the French horns and E flat altos , between the brass basses and the deep reed basses (contrabassoon, double sarrusophone, contrabass clarinet, bass saxophone) are seldom, if ever heard at present, but we can be sure that they will form part of the normal stock-in-trade of contrast in the scores for wind bands in the near future – when once the band has assumed a definite form through the uncompromising demands of composers (think what has accrued to the richness of symphony orchestras through the insistent demands of such men as Wagner, Richard Strauss and Delius!) and the gradual realization of the utter necessity of providing complete families of each type of instrument , as before alluded to.

Adaptability of Classic and Modern Music to the Needs of a Complete Wind Band

In much of the older music, such as that by Mozart, Beethoven, Rossini,  Weber, etc., the chief expressibility will will frequently lie above middle C (c’) owing to the strong melodic interest of such music and the comparatively weaker interest of its harmonic and polyphonic sides.  It is undoubtedly the influence (direct and indirect) of such music that has developed the higher-voiced reed instruments at the expense of those of lower compass in wind bands; as it is equally obviously the result of the greater harmonic richness (with consequently greater concentrations upon the lower-toned members of reed groups) of such more modern composers as Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Grieg, Dvorak, Puccini, etc., that we have to thank for the gradual (though still irregular and incomplete) appearance of a few of the lower reeds such as the bassoon, baritone saxophone and bass clarinet, in the average band today.

A large part of the expressiveness of the most modern music (say, that of Delius and Cyril Scott) lies below, rather than above, middle C (c’) owing to the fact (before mentioned) that modern music is more harmonic than melodic or rhythmic.  This makes the presence of a variety of deep and moderately deep reed instruments an absolute necessity to the modern composer.  An oboe is of but little use to him unless he can be sure of being able to continue the oboe color downwards by means of the English horn and the bass oboe (the latter peculiarly well-fitted for use in wind bands), just as alto and tenor saxophones do not provide him with a sufficiency of saxophone color unless supplemented by baritone and bass saxophones.  If the necessity of such demands are insisted upon by composers with sufficient tenacity we will soon meet wind bands able to carry out such contrasts of reed family groupings as the four following examples show, and when this happens the wind band will constitute a medium for emotional musical expression second to nothing that has ever existed in musical history.  See musical examples Nos 1, 2, 3 and 4.

Ex. 1

Grainger 1

Ex. 2Grainger 2

Ex. 3Grainger 3

Ex. 4Grainger 4

 Suggestions for Strengthening the Double-reed Sections

A word should be said as to the particular need (from the viewpoint of the ultra modern composer) for strengthening the double-reed sections of the wind band, by providing a complete family of sarrusophones (forming a sextet), as well as adding a bass oboe and English horn to the oboe-bassoon family.  This is particularly desirable as the double-reeds are able to add a quality of ‘fierceness’ and intensity to the band  that no other instruments, reed or brass, can boast.   It is this fierce, primitive, ‘wild man’ note that stirs us in the shrill strident tones of the Scotch or Italian bagpipes and in Egyptian or East Indian double-reed pipes, and which most modern composers (with their tendency to ‘throw-back’ to primitive emotions and impressions-so noticeable in Stravinsky and Delius for instance) keenly desire to incorporate in their instrumentations.  The brass can be heroic and magnificent, the piccolos shrilly whistling, the clarinets brilliant and ‘reedy’, but none of the instruments of the band except the double-reeds can reproduce the snarling, skirling, nasal wildness of the bagpipes and the similar primitive pipes – yet combining this quality with the accuracy of intonation needful of modern music.

The Percussion Section as it Should Be Perfected

The percussion section must be completed in its family groupings if it is to be of real musical value to contemporary composers; that is to say, the xylophone should be extended several octaves downwards by the wooden marimba and the Deagan nabimba (a glorious instrument) and the bells (Glockenspiel) should likewise be completed downwards by steel marimba, reveille tubes, etc., reaching as far as possible in the bass clef.  All that has been said of the modern composer’s need of low and medium low reed instruments applies with equal force to all the lower members of the various metal and wooden bell, bar and tube percussion instruments.  When these instruments are employed in complete families the will form an adjunct as desirable to the full concert wind band as is (in a different way) the reed section or brass section today, and particularly if equipped with a piano keyboard (with octave couplers and an electric tremolo action like Deagan’s ‘Una-fon’) their usefulness will be incalcuable.  But at present a single glockenspiel and a single xylophone is hardly more useful to the modern composer than a single trombone or single trumpet would have been to Wagner.  When we recall the effects produced by Wagner in the ‘Ring’ (in the Valhalla motiv music) by using tubas plenteously in groups, and by his whole system of group orchestration, we can imagine the equally magnificent (though wholly different) gamut of group contrasts that the military band will offer to composers who will possess the insight, enthusiasm and tenacity to bring about the completion in this instrumentation of concert wind bands of those manifold (but as yet mostly fragmentary) elements that even now prove so strangely fascinating and attractive to onward-looking creative musicians.

2 thoughts on “Possibilities of the Concert Wind Band from the Standpoint of a Modern Composer

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