Friday, April 6, 2012

Gesualdo for Bassoons

Gesualdo for Bassoons

I've been working on a fun project for a few months now.  My wife is a big fan of the music of Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1631).  For the music student, Gesualdo is usually the composer most remembered from Music History classes as the one with the "bad boy" image -- a murderer obsessed with guilt and physical punishment among other things -- and the composer of madrigals with daring harmonies.

Gesualdo has fascinated composers, authors, filmmakers, and other artists for four centuries.  Stravinsky arranged some of his madrigals, several operas have been written about him, etc.

His music has been arranged for diverse ensembles, so why not for bassoons?

I have arranged five madrigals and three of his responses for Holy Week for bassoons.  The madrigals are for five bassoons, the responses are for five and contra.  TrevCo will be publishing the arrangements, and my group, The Men Who Don't Bite will perform four of them at the International Double Reed Society Conference this July.

The arrangements are:

Madrigals, Book V

3. Itene o miei sospiri
4. Dolcissima mia vita
14. Asciugate i begli occhi

Madrigals, Book VI

14. Ardo per te
17. Moro lasso

Sabbato Sancto Responsoria

2. Jerusalem, surge
5. O vos omnes
8. Aestimatus sum

To arrange them for the range of the bassoon I transposed them all down by either a fourth or fifth.  They fit beautifully, though, with the highest note of the 8 being a D#4 and the lowest a low B for the contrabassoon.

In choosing the pieces to arrange, I favored those that exhibited the following characteristics:
  • ·         An “instrumental” quality such as melismatic passages or striking contrapuntal lines that would translate naturally from voices to instruments
  • ·         Chorale-like passages that could take advantage of the bassoon’s excellent blending qualities
  • ·         Daring harmonic progressions – a Gesualdo trademark
I have edited these arrangements to provide performers an immediate aid in capturing some aspects of the text, musical phrasing and style as would be heard in a compelling vocal performance. I have used the Complete Works of Gesualdo by Wilhelm Weisman and Glenn Watkins as a starting point. My choice of tempos, dynamics, and other expressions is based upon recordings of these works by Phillippe Herreweghe’s Ensemble Vocal Europeen de la Chapelle Royale (Responses – Harmonia Mundi HMC 901320) and La Venexiana (Madrigals – Glossa GCD 920935) among others.

I have been aided in these arrangements through correspondence with renowned Gesualdo scholar, Glenn Watkins. His books, Gesualdo, The Man and His Music and The Gesualdo Hex, make great reading for anyone interested in this composer.   

Gesualdo, The Man and His Music is a straight forward biography and musical analysis, while The Gesualdo Hex is an exploration of Gesualdo's influence on later generations of artists, especially, Stravinsky.  It is also partly a memoir of Watkin's interactions with Stravinsky in the 1950s and 1960s.

For those of you who observe Holy Week and Easter, listening to the Responsoria will add meaning to your week.  Here are some examples:

The Arranger's Art

I wrote out my arrangements by hand and sent them to Rich Shanklin, a friend and colleague who does a lot of music arranging and score preparation.  Rich uses Finale.  His work is excellent.

He sent me the above photos of a sort of musical typewriter used in prior days to transcribe music.

Coincidentally, a former student of mine sent me this video.  It is a short documentary on a master engraver for the music publishing firm of Henle in Munich, Germany.  


As my student said, "And I thought reed making was hard!"

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