Concerto for Trombone and Tuba

2001 25 minutes
Trombone, Tuba and Orchestra
 Basel, Switzerland

Concerto for Trombone and Tuba

Like all concertos this one is a platform on which the solo instruments show what they can do, not only in the field of virtuosity but also in the variety of sounds and ways of performing that are special to these instruments. This second aspect, the expressive and idiosyncratic possibilities of the Trombone and Tuba are for me much more important than the virtuosity. I have long been fascinated by the sounds and especially the apparent emotional content of whale song and so, due to the range and expressive power of these two brass instruments I was able to quote (and imitate) these songs.
Formally it is built round a series of proportions, which are used for all the larger and smaller sections of the work. These proportions also produced a tone row, which is used more or less strictly in all three movements. To this basic tone material comes the whale-song, which one hears more particularly in the first movement, and a mediaeval Flemish Dance of Death Der Tod reit’t auf einem kohlschwarzen Rappen (Death rides on a coal-black horse), which gives a military character to the second movement and builds its main climax. The whale song (from the Humpback whale) and the Dance of Death are also heard fragmentarily in all movements.
Although the work is in the traditional three-movement form (for a concerto) the tempi are an inversion of the usual: the first is slow and contemplative, the second fast and aggressive and the third slow and slightly depressed. One can perhaps in the first movement “see” a picture of the world as it was, a world not without danger but one in which the balance of nature is still intact. In the second movement one feels the impact of man with his greed for power and his thoughtless destruction. Naturally the third movement can only be depressed after all this, and yet, there is, perhaps, a small ray of hope, but only if we act immediately!
Kit Powell (Program Note)

This was a very big project and it had a long and tortuous journey. It started with a letter to me inviting me to take part in the "Europäischer Musikmonat"(November) in Basel 2001. I would be one of 50 composers chosen to be a “Composer of the Week”, a sort of crescendo starting in January and going on through the whole year as a sort of build-up to the Month itself, when all the big names of European music would be invited to come to Basel (cultural capital of Europe for that year). These included Boulez, who would also be functioning as a conductor. The organisation was led by the Swiss conductor, Matthias Bammert, who delegated most of the work to a Toni Krain, with whom I had most to do, and was very well organised and a pleasure to work with.

I decided after talking to Philip to write a work for him (trombone) and his tuba-friend Marc Unternährer. Through Toni Krain I was put in contact with the conductor, Philipp Wagner, of the Basel amateur orchestra, Philharmonischer Orchesterverein Basel. We met in Würenlos (Autobahn café) to discuss the project and he was full of enthusiasm. We exchanged emails and then early in 2001 I was invited to meet the committee of the orchestra at a home in Basel. Before entering the house I met Philipp Wagner who warned me that some of the committee were rather conservative. I had come armed with extracts from parts of the work I had already completed. I played them this (from a CD) and they followed it on the score. They were a bit concerned that it could be too difficult for some of their members to play but in general they were friendly and interested. The main purpose of the meeting was to talk about the rest of the program but all the suggestions (including mine) were not satisfactory, either because the music was not available or the work had been played too recently, so I left the meeting having achieved very little. The next I heard was a phone call from the president (Peter Heer) to inform me that Philipp Wagner had been replaced and a new conductor, an Englishman, Jonathon Brett Harrison, who would be conducting my work. It seemed that Wagner had offered the services of the orchestra for my piece without the approval of the committee and although they were prepared to continue, they had taken the opportunity to get rid of him (a brass player) and replace him with a string playing conductor. Certainly for my piece it was the string players who would need the most help and so, in the long run it was possibly a good thing. The short run however was not good – Harrison was not inclined to be either communicative nor encouraging with me and several months went by before I managed to talk very constructively with him.

Another problem with the administration of the orchestra was their fear that they were first of all going to have to import lots of additional players (brass, percussion and harp) and in the end (so they thought) no one would really hear those players who had had to work so hard, and as well as this it was going to cost them a lot of money. I tried to console them as well as I could, especially as regards the money, since I knew that these costs would be met by Toni Krain and his organisation. After quite a long time their fears abated, especially when they saw that the music was clearly written and that they each had a practise CD to help them.

By the time we reached the final rehearsals even the conductor was friendly and many of the players were very enthusiastic. Matthias Bammert attended the concert and was very complimentary—he spoke to me always in a very cultured English (he not only conducts the London Mozart players but is also a visiting conductor of the NZSO). He said I should feel free to send him orchestral scores, which I did: Home Thoughts from Abroad but he never acknowledged it. Also there was André Fischer who had seen the score before hand and made some useful comments and who was also delighted with the final result. There were two newspaper critics, one called Michael Kunkel who ironically gave exactly the criticism that the orchestra had worried about before the rehearsals had started: that the orchestra only managed the last movement successfully because of the professional percussionists. This led Peter Heer to burst into print, ostensibly on my behalf although I was quite happy with the criticism!

Concerto for Trombone and Tuba

The basic material for this work is:

1. a tone row which was derived from the proportions of the work (see note on Form)

2. a whale song - a typical one is shown here (from the first movement - bars 64 - 77)

Whale songs, apart from their intrinsic beauty, are for me symbols of “unspoiled” nature. Most are transcriptions of Humpback whale songs.

Important in the performance of these melodies are their dynamics. These are every bit as important as the pitches, the performer can even exaggerate the dynamic range slightly.

Although all instruments play fragments of whale song from time to time, the solo trombone and tuba parts of the first movement are derived entirely from whale song. Therefore I have shown the dynamics in the solo parts (not in the full score) with the envelopes of the original recording from which the transcription was made.

3. An old Flemish Dance of Death

This, like the whale song, appears (often as fragments) in all three movements. Although it is chosen as a contrast, as a symbol of the disturbed world, it is, like death itself, not always negative. Depending on the contexts it can be cheeky, serene, threatening, frightening.

The second movement, with its rather military character is mainly built around this theme.


There are three movements:

1. Andante - ca. 8’ + short cadenza (ca. 1’)

2. Allegro - ca. 8’ + cadenza (ca. 2’)

3. Adagio - ca. 8’

Each of the movements is divided into sections according to my Abelian Form

Movements 1 and 2 use the same diagram. Since the tempo of the second movement is fast it has approximately twice as many bars as the first movement.:

(Numbers refer to proportions)
(Numbers refer to proportions)
The 4 sections (A, B, C, D) of movements 1 and 2 are divided again in the same proportions (19, 11, 11, 7) and rounded off to the nearest whole number
The 4 sections (A, B, C, D) of movements 1 and 2 are divided again in the same proportions (19, 11, 11, 7) and rounded off to the nearest whole number

The third movement is similarly constructed but with just three sections (proportions: 19, 11, 7)

The material of the sections corresponding to the leading diagonal of the Abelian diagram is closely related.
The material of the sections corresponding to the leading diagonal of the Abelian diagram is closely related.