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25 February 2019

More than marches and medleys - new music for wind band

Jodie Blackshaw Image: Jodie Blackshaw  

Jodie Blackshaw's latest work Leunig's Prayerbook will be premiered by the Sydney Conservatorium Wind Symphony in a forthcoming concert on 29 March, along with another new Australian work by Catherine Likhuta. This article is an extract of a longer essay about the history of the wind band, its associations with military and school band music, development of instruments, and the different kinds of repertoire created for this medium by the composers of our own time. See also: 100+ Australian works for wind band and 4 Australian works from the 1998 RAAF Wind Band Composition Competition.

'Why this cold-shouldering of the wind band by most composers? Is the wind band - with its varied assortments of reeds (so much richer that the reeds of the symphony orchestra), its complete saxophone family that is found nowhere else ... its army of brass - not the equal of any medium ever conceived? As a vehicle of deeply emotional expression it seems to me unrivalled.' (Lewis, 1991, p. 196)

Percy Grainger wrote the above as part of the program notes for his wind band work The Lincolnshire Posy in August 1939. He clarifies that, at the time, most of the music played by wind bands was not originally conceived for the medium. While Grainger was well aware of what a wind band was, having served as a bandsman in the 15th band of the Coast Artillery Corps during World War I (Bird, 1999), it appears other composers did either not understand the medium, or chose to ignore it. From a compositional viewpoint, the repertoire has extensively developed since 1939, but the 'cold shouldering' by audiences arguably still exists: wind band music is virtually non-existent in art-music platforms external to the genus and is rarely included in radio broadcasts.

Perhaps the most important development in widening the repertoire for the wind band took place in the early 1950s when Frederick Fennell, Director of Bands at the Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester, New York, devised a program of works for what he aptly named a 'wind ensemble'. As Caines writes in his recent dissertation Frederick Fennell and the Eastman Wind Ensemble,

'To be a genre that could be considered high art, there needed to be a switch in how winds were used. The only way Fennell could envision this as an effective change was to rethink the standardisation and repertoire of wind music. Fennell believed that the creation of an independent repertoire would bridge the gaps between the competing factions of wind music, i.e. vernacular and cultivated.' (Caines, 2012, p. 4)

Since 1952, there has been a broad collection of artistic works composed for wind band by an international array of respected composers. Whether it was the establishment of a balanced, sonorous instrumentation, the introduction of wind band at the university level and the resulting improvement in concert performance, or technological advancements made in musical instrument construction, the wind band has grown beyond its utilitarian role into an ensemble worthy of anyone's attention.

So what IS wind band repertoire?

Wind band repertoire can be divided into two main genres, 'Functional' and 'Concert' - functional being music which is prepared for a purpose, be it (primarily) ceremonial or educational; concert being repertoire performed for audience appreciation by high-level groups located in universities or as semi-professional/professional, military/civilian groups.

Due to the historical evolution of bands (see my longer article for details), most current wind bands exist within a military or educational setting, and, because of this, a large percentage of the repertoire exists within the functional genre. Of the two sub-genres, 'ceremonial' delves into repertoire largely played by military ensembles, while 'educational' music focuses on repertoire utilised in primary, middle and secondary schools.

What the table on the left does not demonstrate is the ongoing dominance of product-orientated, formulaic repertoire. It is this repertoire that largely dominates public opinion. The formulaic approach to educational wind band repertoire developed due to the urgent need for student-orientated repertoire during the American school band movement of the 1920s. Formulaic repertoire can be likened to eating a meal at McDonalds - predictable, constant and straightforward. Whilst customer satisfaction is dictated by individual taste, a meal at McDonalds will satisfy the fundamental need of any customer - hunger. In the same way, formulaic repertoire with its predictable structures and melodic sequences, traditional tonal centres and recognisable rhythmic patterns satisfy the teaching need of the eminently busy school-based band director. Formulaic repertoire has its place within the educational sub-set of wind band repertoire but, sadly, it has also generated decades of same-sounding literature that has triggered generations of internal and external criticism.

For much of the public, their knowledge of wind band music is either associated with the functional repertoire of the military or the formulaic compositions performed at school band concerts. There is, however, an additional body of Western art music composed for wind band that is largely unknown to music-loving audiences. The cultivated arm of concert music for wind band can be described as exciting, emotionally dense, playful and thought-provoking; everything art music should be. If any aspect of wind band music has embraced an avant-garde movement, it is in the cultivated concert works largely instigated by Frederick Fennell and his invention of the wind ensemble.

Through Fennell's influence, and the influence of several other American conductors, there has been an ongoing series of role reversals in the wind community and the relationship with their audiences. With the continuing legitimisation of wind music, this specialised genre has been gaining a foothold in the larger music community as a professional and high art genre, while simultaneously clinging to its more vernacular past. (Caines, 2012, p. 4)

In Australia, we are fortunate to host one of the leading conductors in the genre, American Dr John Lynch, at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Lynch's extensive repertoire knowledge and mastery on the podium has inspired well-respected Australian composers to write for the medium. His work at the Conservatorium is fostered by an army of exceptional band directors and music educators based throughout Sydney and Australia. Lynch's appointment has been so well regarded that the Melbourne Conservatorium have followed suit with the establishment of a full-time Director of Bands position. Dr Nicholas Williams from the University of North Texas will arrive in July to take up this post.

Australian schools are simply brimming with brilliant wind bands in each and every state and territory, and they are performing a wide range of exciting repertoire at astonishing levels of performance. Yet we don't hear about these hard-working individuals, and nor do we hear about their concerts. Why?

Because public opinion is stuck in the 19th century. Because there is no professional Sydney Wind Symphony Orchestra. Because the wind band repertoire featured on the radio is usually a march - the only musical form endemic to the wind band genus. Because, for the most part, concert goers are not aware of these performances. They are not reviewed like their classical counterparts and nor are their composers recognised. To be frank, audiences have simply not been exposed to enough cultivated repertoire through the regular channels to know that these performances are worthy of their attendance.

Latest additions to the repertoire

On Friday 29 March, the Sydney Conservatorium of Music Wind Symphony will launch their 2019 season at Verbrugghen Hall with their program 'Distant Views'. Featured on this program are two world premiere performances of substantial works by Australian women. The first is a saxophone concerto by Ukrainian-born, Australian composer Catherine Likhuta, Let the Darkness Out, featuring the highly skilled alto saxophone soloist Michael Duke (from the Nexas Saxophone Quartet and on staff at the Conservatorium).

The second is a complete 30-minute symphony by Jodie Blackshaw. The four-movement work is inspired by four prayers written by Michael Leunig; I 'The Blessing of Light', II 'Bitter and Sweet', III 'Reflection and Resonance', IV 'The Creation of Faith'. This symphony for winds, a rarity amongst Australian composers, promises a raw, honest and uplifting emotional experience for players and audience alike. Both Likhuta and Blackshaw are in the final stages of their PhD in composition and each brings a fresh new voice to the medium. Also on the program is the well-loved John Williams Tuba Concerto featuring Conservatorium concerto winner Andrew Jeffries, the elegant Serenade in Eb Op. 7 by Richard Strauss, ​​and a cornerstone work in wind band repertoire, Symphony in Bb by Paul Hindemith.

Humanity breeds tolerance through knowledge and it is hoped that through this article, a broader audience of music lovers will learn that the wind band is no longer a utilitarian ensemble that simply performs music for parades and school fêtes. The wind band offers a varied and colourful contribution to instrumental music and with literally millions of children world-wide entering musical performance through this medium, it is worthy of our attention. Without wind bands, would there be orchestras and, more importantly, orchestral audiences? It is a medium with a respectable history that has developed two rich and worthy musical genres worthy of study and broadcast. It is so much more than marches and medleys.

AMC resources

Jodie Blackshaw - AMC profile

Cathernie Likhuta - AMC profile

100+ Australian works for wind band - see also: 4 Australian works from the 1998 RAAF Wind Band Composition Competition (jointly organised by RAAF Air Command Band, ABC Classic FM and the Australian Music Centre)

Event details

Sydney Conservatorium Wind Symphony: Distant Views
Friday 29 March at 7pm (event details in the AMC Calendar)


Bird, J. (1999). Percy Grainger: OUP Oxford.

Caines, J. E. (2012). Frederick Fennell and the Eastman Wind Ensemble: The Transformation of American Wind Music Through Instrumentation and Repertoire. (Dissertation/Thesis), ProQuest, UMI Dissertations Publishing (retrieved 25 February 2019)

Lewis, T. P. (1991). A source guide to the music of Percy Grainger: Pro/Am Music Resources.

Subjects discussed by this article:


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