This month’s featured title is Frank Ticheli’s Vesuvius, a powerful showpiece for strong concert bands. This exciting grade 4 piece is available today in SmartMusic. Click the play button below to hear a recording of Vesuvius.
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Background From Composer Frank Ticheli
Mt. Vesuvius, the volcano that destroyed Pompeii in A.D. 79, is an icon of power and energy in this work. Originally I had in mind a wild and passionate dance such as might have been performed at an ancient Roman Bacchanalia. During the compositional process, I began to envision something more explosive and fiery. With its driving rhythms, exotic modes, and quotations from the Dies Irae from the medieval Requiem Mass, it became evident that the Bacchanalia I was writing could represent a dance from the final days of the doomed city of Pompeii.
The Work’s Themes
Vesuvius contains four main themes:
- The main theme (Theme 1) introduces two important features: the D Aeolian mode (colored by Ab), and the irregular subdivision of 9/8 meter (2+3+2+2).
- Theme 2, which is more aggressive and rhythmically active, is actually a loose variation of Theme 1. Both themes share the same primary pitches and melodic contours.
- Theme 3, sinuous and seductive in quality, is first stated by the solo oboe. Each time the theme is repeated, one of its notes is chromatically altered, which creates a constant series of subtle modal shifts, from A Phrygian (measures 146-153), to A Aeolian (measures 154-160), to A Dorian (measures 161-179).
- Like the prior theme, Theme 4 is constantly evolving. In its initial, and simplest form, it is a menacing four-note horn call, but it immediately restates itself as a five-note motive, and continually changes.
General Rehearsal Remarks
Vesuvius is, above all, a furious dance. In order to preserve the work’s fiery energy, the players must clearly communicate all indications of stress (e.g., accents, sfz markings). In addition, the tempo must not drag! In the premiere performance, we found that the energy could be effectively heightened by playing at an even faster tempo than is marked in the score. The players should keep in mind at all times that this is a dramatic work, both in the loud and quiet passages.
Detailed Rehearsal Remarks
- Introduction (measures 1-46): The work begins with an explosion of energy in the Phrygian mode on A. Percussion 3 must use a large slapstick at the beginning for maximum sound. In measures 32-39, the saxophones and clarinets may stress slightly the first note of each paired slur for purposes of clarity.
- Section A (measures 47-103): The main theme (in the alto saxophone at measure 47) is marked only mp, but should sizzle with energy and urgency. The vocalizations of the “ch” (measures 59-62, and 70-73) are meant to enhance the sense of ritual and mystery that is so important in the work. In both occurrences of the vocalizations, I recommend that the performers exaggerate the staccato and dynamic markings. In measure 63, make sure that flute 1 and oboe 1 sound in the foreground.
- Modulating episode (measures 104-139): This episode serves as a transition between the A and B sections of the work. The texture is active, but make sure that all parts marked mp or softer remain in the background so that foreground events can be heard clearly. For example, in measures 107-113 the dialogue among the tubas, first clarinets and first flutes must project clearly. In measures 114-118, a fragment of the “Dies Irae” melody is quoted by the oboes and muted horn 1 as a symbol of the death and destruction caused by Vesuvius. In measures 118-126, the special effect played by the timpanist is a subtle one, and it should remain in the background.
- Section B (measures 140-216): The tempo relaxes slightly, establishing a quiet oasis. Theme 3, which is introduced by the oboe, must not be overshadowed by its accompaniment. The bowed vibraphone passages that occur throughout this section may be played by one or two players, and are in effect somewhat subliminal, adding only a hint of an ethereal quality. In measures 161-179, make sure that the melody (flute 1) sounds in the foreground. Do not overstate the crescendo in the brasses in measures 184-188. (Their dynamic peak is only mf.)
- Transition (measures 217-240): The change of mood and mode is abrupt and dramatic as a furious canon interrupts without warning, and recalls the fiery energy from the beginning of the work. The passage builds in intensity, punctuated by occasional tutti shouts (measures 223 and 232), and explodes into a climactic return of the main theme.
- Section A’ (Measures 241-279): The main theme, now roaring in the brasses, engages in furious battle against a series of rushing scales, played by the woodwinds. The ratchet passages are crucial to the overall frenzy and must be played as loudly as possible on a good instrument. At measure 259, Theme 1 (woodwinds) is pitted against Theme 2 (brasses). At first they are equal in importance, but as the repetitions continue, Theme 2 wins the struggle and builds to another passionate tutti shout (in measure 275), and then recedes.
- Section C (measures 280-335): The struggle intensifies. Another battle begins in measures 303 as Theme 4 (horns, trombones, euphoniums) is pitted against Theme 3 (alto saxophones, trumpet 2). The texture grows increasingly complex as other instruments join the struggle (e.g., the machine-gun-like trumpets of measures 312). The conductor should ensure that all these textural elements are heard distinctly.
- Section A “ (measures 336-369): The main theme, slightly altered, is used as the basis for an extended canon, led by the alto saxophone, and followed by, in succession: clarinet 1 (measure 339), bassoons (measure 342), alto saxophone and horn 1&2 (measure 345), trumpet 1 (measure 346), horn 3, 4, trombones 1&2, one euphonium (measure 349), low woodwinds, trombone 3, tuba (measure 352). The canon builds to a massive explosion of sound in measure 357; it is followed by a repeat of the battle that sounded earlier in measures 241-246. The Coda begins at measure 369 – first quietly, then building to a state of extreme agitation. The players seem to be on the verge of losing control as the tempo accelerates to a point of near chaos. A violent slam! on the bass drum signals the return of the main tempo and one final shout.