SCOTT MOORE INTERVIEWS THOM RITTER GEORGE
ABOUT THE CONCERTO FOR BASS TROMBONE
CONCERTO FOR BASS TROMBONE AND ORCHESTRA, CN 176 (1964)In June 2008, Scott Moore interviewed Thom Ritter George about his CONCERTO FOR BASS TROMBONE, the origins of the piece, and the people who influenced the composer at the time the music was written. The following transcript should aid those interested in this score's background.
SM: (1) In general, what/who were your major influences as a composer?
TRG: I am a neo-classicist, a composer who uses classical principles in writing music for contemporary times. Classical principles reached their summit in what is now called The First Viennese School - Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. These composers still remain a model for me today, but I readily admit the surface of their music and my own are quite different. Just to take one example from hundreds of situations, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven all used perfect authentic cadences in every score; I do not use perfect authentic cadences in my compositions.
In the early 1960s, Bach's music and technique was a powerful influence on me. I wrote several neo-Bach pieces, but gradually his methods proved less useful to me in composition. His counterpoint has been an ongoing inspiration, and counterpoint is still an important aspect of my writing, even in pieces which are essentially homophonic. I have always enjoyed Bach's music greatly, having conducted, played, and listened to it my whole life.
In the mid-1960s, I became quite interested in Hindemith's compositions and technical methods. Hindemith was also a neo-classicist, and he showed us some fresh possibilities, particularly in regard to harmony and form. By the 1960s, there were some in the modern music field who considered Hindemith "old hat," principally because he advocated tonality in an era where many academics were interested in serialism. From today's viewpoint, Hindemith is in the position of many composers who wrote a great deal - some of his music is effective and valuable while other scores are less interesting and infrequently played.
In the 1970s, I took a closer look at Stravinsky's compositions of his middle period (his neo-classical period). This is wonderful music. It is tonal and diatonic, yet at the same time there is a newness, a freshness about it. Seeing what Stravinsky did in these scores led me to reconsider my technical resources from the ground up - intervals (!), harmony, harmonic function, form, melody, voicing, everything. That was time well spent and laid the foundation for my future works,
SM: (2) How would you best describe your style at that time the Concerto was composed?
TRG: The CONCERTO FOR BASS TROMBONE is a neo-classical work. Some of Hindemith's harmonic ideas were helpful in several passages.
SM: (3) How would you best describe your style now?
TRG: While still a neo-classicist, I have been seeking a greater simplicity of expression. Also, I have been trying to create works which are written on several levels; that is, for the casual listener the music simply sounds attractive on the surface, but the listener who seeks a deeper meaning will be rewarded. I have been studying and striving for effects related to pacing of the music: How and when do things unfold? How is a musical story told?
SM: (4) Since you were a student at the time, who mentored you in the writing of the concerto (Thomas Canning, Louis Mennini, Wayne Barlow, John LaMontaine, and Bernard Rogers)?
TRG: Wayne Barlow was my composition teacher the time I wrote the concerto, and he reviewed the score before it was played. Barlow did not monitor the writing as I was doing it. In fact, I wrote other music for his classes. He was a man of high intelligence who was principally interested in chamber music at that stage of his career (1964).
SM: (5) What can you tell me about Robert Brawn, and how his style and abilities as a bass trombonist influenced your work? [The CONCERTO FOR BASS TROMBONE is dedicated to Robert Brawn and Emory Remington.]
TRG: Brawn was a classmate and close friend. I ate dinner with him and other brass players almost every night during my college years. He arrived at Eastman from his native Maine and studied with Emory Remington ("The Chief"). Brawn had a virtuoso command of the bass trombone, something which was rare in those days (1960s). He was especially known for his "flexibility," the ability to make large range jumps with apparent ease. Brawn also had very good musical instincts.
SM: (6) Where is Brawn now (Eastman Alumni Office has no idea, Google gives inconclusive results)?
TRG: I do not know where Brawn is today. After leaving Eastman, he almost immediately went to Las Vegas where he pursued a career in commercial music. He played many shows at casinos. I last visited with him in Washington, D. C. during the late 1960s. Brawn was in town with a traveling band. After talking with him and the band in his hotel room, I never saw him again.
SM: (7) Tell about your work with Emory Remington.
TRG: Remington ("The Chief") was the long time trombone professor at the Eastman School of Music. When I arrived in Fall 1960, I discovered he had a powerful program in place. He had consummate knowledge of trombone playing, and he had a very definite philosophy about what the trombone should sound like. For Remington, the trombone should be played in a manner similar to the tone production of a fine singer. In fact, Remington sang through every trombonist's lesson as the student played. His insistence on the singing style was impossible to escape. He looked upon each of his students as a son or daughter of his own and had great empathy for them.
Remington also conducted his famous trombone choir, I believe twice a week. He reasoned that trombonists very often play as a group, and he wanted to develop a sense of perfect coordination in ensemble.
For the trombone choir, he needed music. It was Remington who latched on to me, a new incoming composer at the school, and kept pressing for compositions. There was something about his insistence that made it impossible to turn him down. I wrote several scores for him. On one occasion, I offered him a transcription for trombone choir. He accepted it and played it, but he also told me, "No... no... not transcriptions. Anyone can do that. What we need is pieces."
After leaving the Eastman School, I wrote ARIA AND DANCE, CN 263 (1970) for him and his trombone choir. On a trip back to the school, I presented this to Remington and saw him for the last time. I was always glad I composed this final tribute to a remarkable man and teacher.
In the course of things, I also wrote two concertos for his students. The CONCERTO FOR BASS TROMBONE, CN 176 (1964) is the biggest. The other work, my CONCERTO GROSSO NO. 3, CN 149 (1963), is a three movement concertino for tenor trombone and string orchestra.
SM: (8) Where there any changes in structural plans to the [Bass Trombone] Concerto as you began to write? For instance, was it to be a multi-movement piece instead of a single-movement concerto?
TRG: No. As usual, the form was planned before I did any writing.
SM: (8a) Performance constraints (Eastman-Rochester Orchestra)?
TRG: No. The Eastman-Rochester Orchestra was thoroughly professional and could play anything.
SM: (8b) Endurance worries on the part of the soloist?
TRG: Neither Robert Brawn or subsequent performers mentioned endurance worries to me.
SM: (9) Do you remember any technical considerations on the part of the design of the instrument that had to be taken into account?
a) No low "B" in the concerto, which is the only note not available on a single-valve instrument.
b) The double-valved instrument appeared just before you wrote this piece, but it was not as easy to play as the single-valved instrument due to the "stuffy" double-valve configuration. Did Robert Braun use a single or double-valve instrument?
TRG: I recall players at the time often talked about various improvements in their instruments, but I must confess I did not follow this closely since I was not a brass player.
When writing the piece, I had Brawn play every passage shortly after I composed it. If something did not sound right, I devised an alternative. If for any other reason something did not work, Brawn told me about that too. Actually, such situations were few.
I think it is very good for composers, particularly young composers who are finding their way with instruments, to work closely with skilled performers. In later years, I advised my composition students to do the same, but much to my chagrin they commonly disregarded this advice. The composition students thereby cut themselves off from helpful ideas and their scores consequently contained problematic passages which could have been avoided. In my own pieces, I have asked for advice from performers many times. Usually, actual playing shows where alternatives are needed.
I do not know whether Brawn used a double-valved or single-valved bass trombone to play the premiere.
SM: (10) Were there any compromises you made in the solo part, were parts of it too difficult?
TRG: I do not think there were compromises (foregoing artistic results for technical reasons), but there were adjustments as indicated above.
SM: (10a) In measures 83-85, what about the range compared to similar passages? (In general, what were the chief concerns about range. Was the upper range of greater concern?).
TRG: There was not a great concern about range. Remember, Brawn had great flexibility and could handle big jumps without problems. Having said that, I thought then, and still think today, that the bass trombone should not be required to do things in a high range best suited to the tenor trombone. The bass trombone should be treated more like a baritone singer. Even the most powerful baritone singing in opera commonly is worried about his high range. The top of the range should be used sparingly.
SM: (10b) "Holes" (rests) in cadenza, for breath (m. 163+)? Apparently this was to be played at a consistent tempo.
TRG: Yes, this passage should be played at a fairly consistent tempo. The occasional rests are part of the melodic articulation.
SM: (10c) Were there other ideas you had for the cadenza?
TRG: From the first, the cadenza was conceived as an alternative to a regular slow movement. The cadenza joins the end on the first movement to the beginning of the last movement ("Fugue"). I did not think the bass trombone would be at its best trying to play an extended, emotion-drenched slow movement as we often hear in Classical or Romantic concertos. But in a concerto, there should be some time where the solo instrument gets to play alone. At these moments, the audience has the opportunity of concentrating on the solo artist without the distraction of the orchestral fabric.
SM: (11) Talk about the lyrical writing. You mentioned in your email that amongst all the technical talk it would be wise to also consider the lyric passages. How were these different from what is found in other pieces of the time?
TRG: I will admit that the lyric passages in the concerto are generally short, but they are quite important. Musically, they offer a change from the generally virtuoso character of the concerto as a whole. In addition, the solo artist can show how he or she can shape a melody. The lyric passages must not be just a succession of notes. Rather, the melodies have to grown and move forward to certain goals. This is a common challenge in all lyric playing.
SM: (12) Do you still have the sketches and notes from your work on this piece?
TRG: Yes, I still have all sketches for the concerto. There is one aspect of these papers which I have always thought peculiar. At the time I wrote the piece, the professors at Eastman (Wayne Barlow and the conductor Paul White) insisted that I write out the full score in pencil for their inspection. They reviewed this score and quickly approved it. Only then was I allowed to make the ink score on vellum ("onion skin") paper. It would have saved me a considerable amount of work had they allowed me to score the concerto on the vellum in the first place.
SM: (13) You mentioned your displeasure with the wind band arrangements of your concerto, the reasons being artistic in nature. Could you say more about this?
TRG: In my view, the orchestral accompaniment is the perfect medium for this piece. For example, there is no way for a wind ensemble or band to even approximate the mysterious, ethereal, divided string opening of this work. There are many other passages in which only an orchestra sounds right.
Much of that has to do with the fact that the concerto was conceived for orchestra. If a person studied the sketches, they would see little notations such as - "cl" "str" "va" - all are shorthand for how the music is to be scored in the orchestra.
Two years after the CONCERTO FOR BASS TROMBONE was finished, I was commissioned to write my CONCERTO FOR FLUTE, CN 223 (1966). The commission specified that there would be three versions of the accompaniment: (1) flute and chamber orchestra; (2) flute and piano; and (3) flute and wind ensemble. That was an entirely different matter than the scoring of the CONCERTO FOR BASS TROMBONE. So for the CONCERTO FOR FLUTE, I planned things from the start so that all the accompaniment versions would sound idiomatic.
SM: (14) Anything else that I have missed you think is important?
TRG: Actually, there are a few more things to consider -
(a) The bass trombone, like other brass instruments, is still trying to develop a strong repertoire. The instrument will not be taken seriously if its concert music is comprised of transcriptions, joke pieces, jazz works, and pieces that are not really saying anything. What is needed is truly solid compositions, well made technically and having a message. Due to the way music history evolved, good bass trombone repertoire is essentially a 20th and 21st Century phenomenon.
(b) My CONCERTO FOR BASS TROMBONE was possible because by 1964 we started seeing substantial improvements in the physical instrument and many performance advances made by the players themselves. No longer would the players be relegated to simply playing the bass notes of chords in orchestra and band works. They could do much more than that.
(c) In writing solos for wind instruments, it is important to consider the length of pieces. The winds, of course, have their own special beauties. But to an audience, the winds do not have a range of tone colors which will sustain a long concerto in the sense that a violin can. I believe masters of the past realized that. For example, Mozart's concertos for wind instruments are short when compared to his violin and piano concertos. This was a composer who loved the winds, but he realized that it was better to write a shorter, pithy concerto for a wind instrument than risk letting the audience tire of tone color sameness.
I considered this when I composed the CONCERTO FOR BASS TROMBONE, and it explains in part why I rejected the notion of trying to write a full length slow movement. The play time for the concerto is about ten minutes, enough to show the instrument in a brilliant, virtuoso way, yet not so long as to let the tone color grow stale.
(d) I have heard quite a few performances of the concerto which were played too fast. Just because a performer can negotiate the score very fast, it does not mean that the effect of the music comes out well. The major problem in these cases is that the melodies and especially the harmonies are not allowed to unfold in a natural, musical way which is best for the structure. I carefully considered the metronome markings in the concerto and recommend that performers stay reasonably close to those markings.
In all compositions, the selection of tempos should be a top concern of skilled musicians. It affects what they are doing technically, but it also affects the impression the audience is receiving. In his book OF MUSIC AND MUSIC-MAKING (1957), conductor Bruno Walter devoted an entire chapter on good tempo practices, tempo abuses, and finding the right tempo for different situations. His ideas in this section on tempo and throughout the book are excellent.
***Program Notes for CONCERTO FOR BASS TROMBONE AND ORCHESTRA