Vocal Music for Brass

Last week the brass faculty and students at ULM were treated to a very fine performance and lecture by Dr. Cory Mixdorf,  Assistant Professor of Trombone at Georgia State University.  Dr. Mixdorf happened to be traveling through the area on his way back from a trombone conference in Lubbock, TX (the same conference our brass trio performed at last year), and we were delighted to have him on our campus.  His presentation, titled “Choosing and Preparing Vocal Repertoire for Solo Brass Performance,” contained information applicable to all brass players.  As you might have guessed from the title, his lecture was all about performing vocal music on brass instruments. If you’ve never experimented with playing songs or arias on the horn you’ve been missing out!  There is a wealth of repertoire out there that works very well for recitals and other venues like church services.

Dr. Mixdorf went on to point out that vocal music “provides the opportunity to play solo repertoire composed by some of the most cherished composers,” and because of the presence of text and plot, is “one of the best ways to practice musicality.”  His presentation was informed and well paced, and he performed with a great sound and musical sensitivity.  One big point he made for any brass players (or other instrumentalists) preparing vocal music is to know the text. Knowing the text means not just looking up a translation, but understanding how the words fit each phrase – Dr. Mixdorf advocates creating a separate “solo” part to practice from which includes a translation of the text above the appropriate phrases.  In addition, he suggested conferring with vocalists or those who speak the language the text is written in to further understand the nuances of the words.  All of this preparation will of course energize and deepen our interpretation of the music.

Another big point from his lecture was to perform from the original vocal score whenever possible.  Playing from the score allows instrumentalists to see exactly how their part fits together with the piano, and to paraphrase Dr. Mixdorf, most commonly performed Lieder were originally conceived as piano/vocal duets.  In fact, as long as the page turns don’t become impractical, it can work to perform (or at least rehearse) chamber music and solos from the score too.

My favorite part of the presentation was getting to hear some great vocal music performed on a brass instrument.  I knew many of the works, but in some cases I’d never thought about performing them on the horn.  Many of them would work quite well I think, with perhaps only a few minor edits.  Here are some of the pieces:

  • None but the Lonely Know, Tchaikovsky
  • “Song to the Moon” from Rusalka, Dvořák
  • L’amante spagnuolo, Donizetti
  • O Death, how bitter art thou, Brahms
  • Baby Mine, Churchill

All but the last example are probably available in the public domain, or could be purchased fairly cheaply in vocal score format.  If you don’t know these tunes, check out recordings of the originals and consider performing them on your horn.  If you’re looking for more vocal repertoire to perform on horn, here are some of my favorites.

  • “Nessun dorma” from Turandot, Puccini (read in C basso from the score)
  • Con te partirò (“Time to Say Goodbye”), Francesco Sartori, Lucio Quarantotto, Frank Peterson (read in C basso from the score)
  • Songs of a Wayfarer, Mahler (arranged for horn and piano by Eric Carlson, published by International Opus)
  • Twenty-One Lieder for Horn and Piano, Schubert (Two volumes, arranged for horn and piano by Kazimierz Machala, published by Capo Tasto Music, recorded by Richard King)

Ok, now it’s your turn.  Do you have any favorite vocal pieces that you like to perform?

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There is a beautiful tenor/bass duet in Bizet’s opera “The Pearl Fishers” that works great on almost any combination of low brass. I first heard John Steven’s arrangement performed on horn/euphonium. Since then I’ve performed it with horn/tuba and horn/trombone. It would even work well for two horns. I have the Sibelius file on my hard-drive and could send it if you are interested.

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