03 November 2019

Huntingtower, Ballad for Band

I have been a band director of one stripe or another for over twenty years, and have been involved with wind bands for over thirty...and still, I have - until now- had very little experience with Ottorino Respighi's one and only work for winds, the Huntingtower, Ballad for Band. I do not believe I ever performed this work throughout high school or college, although it probably made its way to my consciousness as a "one-off" work by a primarily orchestral composer. At some point during my graduate degrees I must have listened to it, since I own no less than three different digital recordings of the work, but...I admit, at the time, it made no lasting impression on me.

I have been spending more time with the work and the score, as I prepare to conduct it for the first time with the Indiana State University Wind Orchestra, and frankly, I am surprised that I did not know it better already, because it is a wonderful work and right up my alley. As I have done in the past, this blog post serves as a "consolidation" of my thoughts and study of the work as I prepare it for performance. I hope it will be useful to you if you are unfamiliar with it, or if you yourself are putting it together for a performance (or thinking about it - it is well worth it!)

Ottorino Respighi was born on 9 July 1879, in Bologna, Italy. He was taught piano and violin in Bologna by his father, later enrolling at the Liceo Musicale in Bologna, where he studied violin and viola with Federico Sarti, composition with Giuseppe Martucci, and historical studies with Luigi Torchi, a scholar of early music.

A year after receiving his diploma in violin in 1899, Respighi went to Russia to be the principal violist in the orchestra of the Russian Imperial Theatre in St. Petersburg during its season of Italian opera. While there, he studied composition for five months with Rimsky-Korsakov. In 1932, Respighi was elected to the Royal Academy of Italy.

Composing numerous chamber, vocal, and orchestral works, as well as operas and ballets, he was an enthusiastic scholar of Italian music of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. Preferring to keep clear of musical traits of the Classical Period, Respighi combined pre-classical melodic styles and musical forms, such as dance suites, with typical late-19th-century romantic harmonies and textures. He is best known for his “Roman Trilogy” of orchestral music: Fountains of Rome (1916), Pines of Rome (1924), and Roman Festivals (1928). Respighi died on 18 April 1936 of blood poisoning resulting from transfusions  administered to combat endocarditis. He was 56 years old.

Huntingtower is the only work Respighi composed specifically for winds. It was commissioned by Edwin Franko Goldman and the American Bandmasters Association for a tribute concert to John Philip Sousa, who had passed away earlier that year. Respighi had recently visited Huntingtower Castle, a 15th – century Scottish castle once known as Ruthven Castle, with a fascinating history of betrayal, kidnapping, treason, and attempted regicide.

Huntingtower was premiered in Washington, D.C., at the same ABA convention where Gustav Holst’s Hammersmith was premiered. The original publication, by G. Ricordi (an Italian publishing house) is unfortunately out of print. Containing numerous errors, there have been several other versions published over the years, including a 1989 arrangement by Franco Cesarini (which takes some creative freedom with the original), an edition by Suzuki which strives to fix many of the original’s errors (but also introduces new ones along the way), and an edition by Malcolm Binney which may be the most faithful reproduction of the original.

Huntingtower is written for:

-Flute I-II
-Oboe I-II
-English Horn
-Bassoon I-II
-E-flat Soprano Clarinet
-B-flat Soprano Clarinet I-II-III
-E-flat Alto Clarinet
-B-flat Bass Clarinet
-B-flat Soprano Saxophone
-E-flat Alto Saxophone
-B-flat Tenor Saxophone
-E-flat Baritone Saxophone
-B-flat Bass Saxophone
-B-flat Cornet I-II
-B-flat Trumpet I-II
-Horn in F I-II-III-IV
-Trombone I-II-III
-Baritone (in treble clef, NOT the same as the euphonium part)
-String Bass
-Percussion (2-3 players, bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, tam tam and triangle)

The following terms are used in this work:
  • A tempo: a directive to return to the original tempo after a deliberate deviation.
  • Allegro: a quick tempo between allegretto and vivace, between 120-156 bpm.
  • Andante: a moderate tempo, between largo and moderato, between 76-108 bpm.
  • Animando: growing more animated, spirited.
  • Crescendo: growing louder.
  • Dolce: sweetly, softly, or with tender emotion.
  • Diminuendo: smoothly decreasing the volume. Same as decrescendo.
  • Espressivo: expressive, with expression.
  • Largamente: broadly, in a broad tempo or manner.
  • Lento: slowly, between 44-60 bpm.
  • Perdendosi: dying away, gradually diminishing to nothing, possibly slowing as well.
  • Piu: “more,” often used in conjunction with other terms ("piu forte," "piu mosso") 
  • Poco a poco: “little by little.” Denotes gradual transformation.
  • Rallentando: gradually slowing.
  • Sempre: Italian term for “always.”
  • Stringendo: pressing forward or accelerating.
  • Tempo I or Tempo Primo: perform in the original tempo, usually after a diversion.

From the outset we are confronted with a daunting key: E-flat minor (6 flats). The tempo, Andante lento, has been interpreted myriad ways by myriad conductors (see Appendix I below). If we take lento to mean 44-60 bpm and Andante to be 76-108 bpm, then naturally we should be in a tempo somewhere between 60 and 76 bpm. It is also important to choose a tempo that will allow the opening statement (A Section) to sound mysterious yet somehow frail and unstable, while allowing for the metrical modulation between measures 52 and 54 to make sense. More on this later.

The music begins with bass instruments (string bass, tuba, bass saxophone, and bassoon) asking a “question”:

Figure 1 - Motive 1
To which the tenor/baritone instruments (baritone, baritone saxophone, bassoons, alto clarinet, clarinet 3) “answer” in kind:

Figure 2 - Motive 2

This first conversation is brief, and ends quickly in the first moment of “impasse,” ending in m. 4 on an A-flat diminished seven chord, with the D-natural serving as the E-double flat.

We try again, with Motive 1 instruments once more intoning a question, but in a slightly different tone of voice (using different pitches). This appears to have a “calming” effect on the response, which has been altered rhythmically and harmonically, ending in a harmonically ambiguous dyad: B-double flat + D-flat. This ambiguity is resolved after a moment of tension, leading us to the trombones and saxophones in a variation of Motive 2. Although this motive travels through some quite interesting key areas, it resolves most harmlessly in that favourite of wind band chords: B-flat major.

Figure 3 - Harmonic transformation of Motive 2

This resolution is short lived, as almost immediately, the tuba and string bass present a slight variation of the Motive 1 question, ending downward, almost as if they’ve answered their own question. Emboldened, the answer is given by more voices this time, adding alto to the tenor/baritone. The back-and-forth becomes more heated through the subsequent measures, growing louder and more animated until a climactic arrival when everything “snaps” back into place at Tempo I. 

The first "big" moment, emerging from the heated back and forth of the previous section, occurs at bar 25. There is no time to enjoy the moment: more voices have now added to Motive 1, as if all the arguing has served to convince some that they too have questions. The tam tam at bar 28 serves to change the conversation’s tone, with a more faithful rendition to Motive 1 intoning a question once again.  The tonality shifts to G-flat minor, with only Horn 3 giving the C-sharp. This time, the response is transformed into a triplet figure in the bassoon, baritone, and euphonium, later joined by trombone 1-2 as well. A more traditional response follows (m. 34), while the Motive 1 fragments dissipate, transformed instead into a sort of “echo” of the Motive 2 theme.

Motive 2 takes on an interesting harmonic transformation, creating a yearning melody over a sustained bed of low brass chords (the chords themselves outlining a macro e-flat minor: G-flat major, B-flat minor, E-flat minor. Another moment of questioning everything (m. 45), then a seeming “coming together” (or undoing?) of both motives as the A section comes to a close, propelling us to the next section by way of a "galloping" rhythmic transformation (m. 52, Figure 4). 

Figure 4 - Motive 3 "Galop"

This is the beginning of the B Section, in a new tempo (Allegro). The rhythmic transformation should deposit us neatly into the new tempo and new feel. The ostinato pulse should not be allowed to rush or become clipped. Out of the ostinato pulse emerges a new melody (Figure 5) that bears some thematic resemblance to Motive 2, while a low C-flat drones on in the bass voices and the tenor/baritone voices continue the E-flat ostinato.

Figure 5 - New melodic theme, m. 56

The new melody waxes and wanes, joined by other voices in harmony at m. 70. At this point, the drone begins to alternate between several tones, while the ostinato pulse continues in E-flat and the tempo and volume begin to pick up.

We are suddenly back in 3/4 time with a few different things going on: the ostinato pulse motive from the previous section continues to intone E-flat during the 12 bars of this transition section, while we get a restatement of both Motive 1 and Motive 2 from the A section (at a much faster tempo than previously stated). This leads us neatly to the C Section

An abrupt change occurs here, with the cornets and trumpets presenting a “Scottish” melody (Figure 6) transformed into a heroic, sweeping line, backed by woodwind trills, triangle roll, while the E-flat ostinato pulse from the previous section has been transformed into a B-flat ostinato pulse. 

Figure 6 - "Scottish" Melody

The horns join the trumpets/cornets in the heroic melody, then take over the line completely as it begins to dissipate, handing it off to the trombones. Melody fragments are then passed around several instruments as the tempo and volume begin to die away.

The D section begins at m. 141. A new melody emerges in the woodwinds (Figure 7) in B-flat Mixolydian mode [Bb-C-D-Eb-F-G-Ab-Bb], accompanied by descending quarter notes that also outline the Mixolydian in bass clarinet, tenor sax, and horns. The opening of this new melody is drawn from the ending measures of the heroic melody fragment in m. 130-138.

Curiously, the descending quarter note line adds the D-flat in m. 146, and the bass pedal switches from B-flat to E-flat, dispelling the Mixolydian feel in the accompaniment, while the melody itself continues in the B-flat Mixolydian. One could make the argument that this section is now in E-flat Mixolydian…except for the melody, which continues to stubbornly use the D-natural. However, the D-natural returns in the accompaniment at m.148, which all serves to make the harmonic center quite ambiguous.

Figure 7: D Section melody

At m. 149, the accompaniment appears to re-affirm the B-flat Mixolydian, however, the melody in the clarinets is now employing B-natural, lending to even more harmonic confusion. At m. 151 the pattern of descending quarters is reversed for two measures, with a rising pattern that would appear to be a harmonized B-flat Mixolydian once again, though the final note of the bass line switches from A-flat to A-natural, creating one more instance of harmonic unrest and confusion leading into the next section.

A slight variant on the D section is presented at m. 153 by clarinets, and joined by flutes at m. 157. The B-flat Mixolydian feel is still present via the pedal B-flat and a descending scale. As before, the D-flat is introduced in the descending pattern, but this time the pedal does not shift to E-flat, remaining B-flat as the section grows in volume, heading to the finale.

The return of the A section comes at m. 161, with a largamente presentation of Motive 2 in the brass, while the woodwinds trill an E-flat and the basses present Motive 1. The overall chord here, however, is an A-flat minor in second inversion.  The tam tam at m. 166 serves to return us to E-flat minor. This section serves as a de facto Coda, with the return of both motives, and the final, ringing endorsements of the E-flat minor.

The overall form of the Huntingtower Ballad is as follows (with room for interpretation):

A1 - harmonically ambiguous, first presentation of Motives 1 and 2, m. 1-53
B - E-flat minor (sometimes with the raised 6th), galloping motive, m. 54-85
A2 - return of the A section, in a faster tempo, m. 86-97
C - B-flat Mixolydian, Heroic/Scottish melody, m. 98-140
D - B-flat Mixolydian, new melody derived from Motive 2, m. 141-160
A3 - E-flat minor, Recapitulation and Coda, m. 161-181

This errata list applies to the original, G. Ricordi published version of Huntingtower. Later editions have fixed some of these errors, and unfortunately also introduced others.

  • Bb Clarinet III, m. 20: The C-flat should be a B-flat in both score and part.
  • Bass Clarinet, m. 4: The E-flat should be an E-Natural in both score and part.
  • Bassoon II, m. 7-8: A tie is missing in the part (correct in the score).
  • Horn IV, m. 28: The C-natural should be a C-sharp in both score and part.
  • Bb Trumpet II, m. 86: The D-flat should be a D-natural in both score and part.
  • Euphonium m. 20. The B-double flat should be an A-flat in both score and part.

Proper tempo plays an important role in performances of Huntingtower. Too slow a tempo at the beginning will require an accelerando to make the Allegro section work, and too fast a tempo will simply create rhythmic problems and make the Allegro section sound frazzled. The following tempi are garnered from available recordings of the work:
  • United States Air Force Band (Lowell Graham, conductor):  beginning tempo c. 56; Allegro tempo c. 160 - transition measure was at 60ish, Graham accelerated through the first phrase of the allegro; D section c. 70-72) [Source: https://youtu.be/gRxWbW0RheU]
  • Tokyo Kosei Wind Orchestra (Unknown conductor): beginning tempo c. 56; Allegro c. 148-152; D section c. 52-54). [Source: https://youtu.be/y1HHvSOM2PM]
  • United States Marine Band (Jason Fettig, conductor): beginning tempo c. 56; Allegro c. 136 - disciplined!; D section c. 64). [Source: https://youtu.be/w7zBfUGgmow]
  • Rovetto Wind Orchestra (Andrea Loss, conductor): beginning tempo c. 50-52; Allegro c. 130-132, D section c. 50 - this felt entirely too slow). [Source: https://youtu.be/k2_9IcuEBHc]
  • Ferenc Liszt Academy (Lazslo Marosi, conductor): beginning tempo c. 48-50; Allegro c. 160, Marosi immediately changed tempo two bars before the Allegro; D section c. 56.
  • University of Southern Mississippi Wind Ensemble (Fulvio Creux, conductor): beginning tempo c. 52; Allegro c. 148 (took some time to get to that mark); D section c. 70.  [Source:  https://youtu.be/Og0p28zx02g]