2009 British Open Championships - Test piece review

8-Sep-2009

Chris Davies casts his eye over Hermann Pallhuber's 'Titan's Progress' and finds plenty of interesting things that have to be overcome...


Pallhuber
Clash of the Titans? Hermann Pallhuber is the man behind the music...

Style and attention to detail are everything in the featured test piece at this year’s Open Championships, Hermann Pallhuber’s Titan’s Progress. Loaded with borrowings from perhaps one of the greatest symphonists of all time, Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), this was Pallhuber’s first foray into composing for the British-style brass band. 

This is not the first outing for this piece of course; it was the set work for the 2008 Swiss National Championships.

‘Titan’

The origin of Pallhuber’s title is Mahler’s 1st Symphony. Although Mahler seems to have had a particular programme in mind in the original versions of the symphony and had labelled it ‘Titan’ in early versions, by 1896 he had removed it after the critic Otto Nodnagel slated it as ‘unintelligible’. 

Nevertheless, Mahler clearly had a specific narrative in mind for the piece, but it may not have been Jean Paul’s 1802 novel ‘Titan’. There is evidence to suggest that the novel actually provided Mahler with an analogy that would help to illuminate the vision he had for the symphony, that of a hero’s life, rather than being the inspiration for the symphony. 

According to Mahler’s friend, Natalie Bauer-Lechner, the symphony was to be understood as an expression of the ways in which a strong, heroic person confronts and struggles with the problems of life. Mahler would no doubt have found such a story familiar, particularly in his turbulent career as an often demanding and difficult conductor. 

Mahler’s 1st symphony is a whistle-stop tour of the life of a heroic individual: it is from this concept that Hermann Pallhuber’s piece seems to take off.

Opening

Whereas Mahler saw Jean Paul’s novel as a capstone for his symphony, Hermann Pallhuber has used it as a structuring tool, drawing on much of the material from the novel itself; in this sense it is ‘programmatic’. 

The piece opens dramatically with a short fanfare-like phrase, followed by a section marked by contrast between merciless aggression and dignified sonority, featuring repiano and flugel. 

This repiano entry is particularly important – it introduces the main chorale theme of the whole work (based on the famous chorale from the final movement of Mahler’s symphony). A more playful giocoso section follows, before the drama really begins at ‘presto’

This section is extremely difficult to keep track of, but the music itself is full of excitement, as recurring patterns of 7/8, 9/8, and 2/4 give the music a restless, agitated feel. 

Could this be our hero’s first confrontation?

Farandole

A sustained, almost-lyrical section follows, again disturbed by fanfare calls reminiscent of the first and last movements of Mahler’s symphony. 

This section is unstable though, and we’re soon plunged back into the agitated world we thought we’d left behind some moments ago. Pallhuber’s next section picks up the humorous baton from the preceding section’s final bars, launching us into a ‘farandole’

The farandole, a popular dance in Nice, France, became particularly famous after Bizet used it in his L'Arlésienne Suite, but it is usually in 6/8, not the 8/8 that Pallhuber has used. 

With quavers grouped in 2 sets of 3 and a set of 2, Pallhuber’s farandole has a certain lop-sided feel to it – it is a warped, ironic imitation of the farandole dance. 

The music moves into 5/8 with further lop-sided dancing – listen out for the scurrying in the basses and euphoniums. Just after this humorous section, we are reminded of the opening chorale theme by the solo cornet – remember this one, because it becomes the principal theme of the finale!


Tranquility, Irony, Fugato

A calmer section with a beautiful euphonium melody follows, interspersed with ‘cheeky’ solos from the flugelhorn and baritone. 

While the seriousness of the euphonium’s lyricism couldn’t be doubted for a second, the flugel and baritone solos are far more tongue-in-cheek, bringing to mind some kind of bizarre folk-like dancing scene. 

A final, ‘cheeky’ flugel statement brings the music into a quasi-fugue initiated by the horns and baritones (it draws heavily on the flugel’s previous statement). The back row has the next entry, followed swiftly by the solo cornets and soprano, then the basses and euphoniums. 

A tricky section with a playful soprano solo comes next, with a number of awkward time signatures and shifts in metre. 

Finale

The closing section of this mammoth work commences with scurrying figures moving up through the band from the basses, building and building until the accompaniment dynamic suddenly drops and triumphant cornets emerge with the chorale theme we heard earlier. 

Pallhuber reminds us of all the key Mahler themes he’s borrowed throughout the piece in this finale – and everyone seems to be involved. Even the offbeat baritones at the start of the section have the first few notes of the chorale theme! 

A massive ‘allargando’ leads us into the final flourishes and fanfares before the enormous final chord rounds off this exciting, complex work.

Humour and Irony

Mahler’s ‘Titan’ Symphony isn’t just about fanfares, fortissimos and flourishes. It contains a number of complex references to the world in which he grew up and lived. 

His second movement, for example, is a ‘Ländler’, which is a kind of Bohemian folk-dance in triple time. A folk-dance in a grand symphony!? 

Mahler’s critics were not impressed by this. Also, his third movement takes the famous tune ‘Frère Jacques’ and transposes it into a minor key, with the double bass playing the tune at the opening (very unusual for the late 19th-century symphony!). 

It appears to be some kind of strange, disturbed funeral march, which the audiences at the earliest premiers of the symphony failed to understand (some have suggested that Mahler was paying tribute to his dead brother). 

The point is this: Mahler had little time for the typical musical conventions of the day, and constantly tried to challenge it with his strange combinations of symphonies, folk songs, and colloquial dances. 

He frequently took musical conventions and subjected them to ironic and humorous treatment; a precedent taken up by Pallhuber in Titan’s Progress.

Humour

Pallhuber’s sense of humour comes to the fore in such places as the farandole – a lop-sided version of what is normally a fairly straight-forward dance. 

Accompanied by glissandi in the trombones and ‘hammered’ accents in the muted cornets, it sets up an irony that shouldn’t be glossed over in any performance. Similarly the amusing use of rubato and muted staccato quavers during the flugel and baritone solos (letter T) contrasts deeply with the lusciousness of the euphonium melody. 

Pallhuber has deliberately tried to match things that aren’t matched at all – something that Mahler frequently does in his symphony.

Themes and Motifs

There are many ways that this piece could be approached. An approach that balances the need for Pallhuber’s Mahler quotations to be heard with a strong sense of the contrast between Pallhuber’s own humour and seriousness will probably do very well on the day. 

To achieve this, the most diligent musical directors will be those who take the time to single out these quotations and track their relevance during the course of the piece, while also having a keen eye for Pallhuber’s own thematic material. 

How can you track the progress of our Titan if you don’t know what he looks like?

Fourths and Fanfares

The most obvious Mahler quotations to be found are the trumpet fanfares (the cornets in the 5th bar of F or the 6th bar of T, for example), which recur throughout Mahler’s symphony (particularly in the first and last movements). 

There are, however, many more quotations to be pointed out. 

The interval of a fourth is extremely prominent in Mahler’s symphony (played at the opening by the woodwind), an interval that crops up throughout Titan’s Progress

The 6 bars before J, for example, presents a series of descending fourth intervals in the ‘martellato’ trombones and horns. While the trombones and horns are playing semiquaver fourths, the second and third cornets play them in semibreves from the ninth bar before J – another subtle, yet essential reference. 

These fourths then become a prominent feature of section J (marked ‘con fuoco’, or ‘with fire’), particularly in the soprano, baritone and solo cornet parts (although they may not look that important!).

Inferno

During the farandole, these descending fourths mix with another Mahler quotation – the falling chromatic triplet, borrowed from the last movement of Mahler’s symphony. 

This last movement, which refers to the ‘inferno’, contains a series of triplets often known as the ‘inferno triplets’. 

Pallhuber first introduces us to these in the eleventh bar of Titan’s Progress, in the horns, cornets and trombones, marked ‘merciless’. We also hear them as triplet quavers at letter F, first in the trombone, then in the Bb bass, then as crotchets in the horns, second cornets and Eb bass a few bars later.

Things to Watch out for….

The most important thing to say about this piece is that it has a clear programme attached to it. It follows a certain evolution throughout – the title ‘progress’ clearly suggests this. As such, the listener must be taken on the journey, and this demands a great deal of attention to the themes and motifs used.

Pallhuber’s piece, like many of Mahler’s finest climaxes, demands a careful treatment of dynamic. 

Mahler is renowned for saving up his most explosive orchestral fortissimos until the final moments of a work. Indeed in Titan’s Progress the only moment where the entire band rises to ‘fff’ is the final chord of the piece. 

That’s not to say of course that big sounds aren’t needed throughout the course of the piece – they most definitely are, but it’ll be interesting to see how the bands tackle the issue of restraint, and whether or not they can save up that little bit extra for the final, colossal, Mahlerian finish.

Challenge

Capturing the humour and irony that Pallhuber has so cleverly built into Titan’s Progress will also be a challenge, as well as understanding the style required at any given moment. 

The farandole, for example, need not be as heavy as the section marked ‘con fuoco’ – it is an ironic, lop-sided dance! Similarly, the ‘cheekiness’ of the baritone and flugel solos can be realised in a variety of ways – whether through playing with articulation or really going to town with that ‘rubato’ marking. Some of the tempos could easily catch some bands out too – most of the ‘allegro’ markings are just below what we might normally expect. 

Letter J, for example, despite being marked ‘with fire’, is only marked at 108 crotchets per minute. Letter U also appears deceptively faster than it actually is – only 118 crotchets per minute.

This is the kind of piece you could easily listen to 5 or 6 times and still find new details each time, and there are so many different possibilities as far as interpretation goes. 

This year’s Open Championship promises to be a most exciting competition!

Chris Davies

Chris Davies is a postgraduate at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, and is currently 1st horn with the Cory Band. He graduated from Oxford University in 2009 with a First Class Honour Degree in music, is an Associate of Trinity College London, and a Licentiate of the Royal Schools of Music. 

He’s currently involved in a research project at the Biosciences Department at Cardiff University with Dr. Alan Watson and Kevin Price (Head of Brass at the RWCMD), studying breathing strategies in music performance. He studies tenor horn with Owen Farr, is a composer and a conductor.

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