Chloe’ Skye Weiser     [A     JMS]

Arts of NYC (Seminar 1) / Professor Saslow

Project 2: Music and Formal Analysis

I attended a concert of the Queens College Wind Ensemble, directed by Dr. Justin J. Comito, at LeFrak Concert Hall on Wednesday, October 28th. Due to the predominantly brass, wind and percussion instruments being played – exceptions were the standing bass and piano – the pieces played were of the band music genre. The audience was rather small, but attentive. The individual songs played were quite varied in terms of their inherent moods and tones, so for the purpose of comparison, I will focus on “Heroes, Lost and Fallen (A Vietnam Memorial)” and “Lincoln Portrait,” composed by David R. Gillingham and Aaron Copland, respectively.

David R. Gillingham’s musical piece “Heroes, Lost and Fallen (A Vietnam Memorial),” imparts a sense of its subject matter to the audience upon reading the program. Before even a mouthpiece was attached or a finger lifted, I had an impression that the music would have a dark tone, as well as a heavy and sentimental mood, due to its focus on the much-mourned casualties of a strongly opposed war. Although it was not incorporated into the song, the composer included a poem to illuminate its purpose and give meaning to the title: “Banish out thoughts / From this grueling war. / Let Suffering and Death / Rule no more. / Resolve this conflict / In our hearts so sullen, / And bring eternal peace / To the heroes, lost and fallen.” Though the poem importantly introduces “Heroes, Lost and Fallen,” it does not seem necessary to add in a verbal component, since it is so full and covers many moods.

The song captivated the audience’s attention by starting out very softly, punctuated by echoing bells, bright xylophone, and an ominous piano passage, a pattern that was to be a key point of repetition in the song, separated by periods of eerie silence. (The drums, though not immediately present, were also crucial throughout; their insistent and varying rhythms contributed to the serious mood.) The band at large, notably the trumpets, joined in abruptly after the foreboding introduction with loud, jarring notes. The trills implemented by the instrument players, as well as the dynamic alternation between soft, eerie stretches and loud interjections characterized “Heroes, Lost and Fallen.” Both dynamics of the piece symbolized different emotions involved in the sentiment of war; while a quieter period served to memorialize devastation, pain, and grief, the more forceful and emphatic ones epitomized feelings of anger. Throughout the song, anger was expressed by the very distinct interjections of different instruments in turn, and seemed to swell, culminating in rising tempo and dynamic.

In a poetic regard, the song was composed of many images to match the changing moods. As an audience member I thought both of wind stirring a circle of dead leaves and also, armed soldiers running through a dark forest with bright lights periodically swinging through, illuminating scared faces and trees. The latter image originates from the dissonant juxtaposition of sounds as the instruments chimed in unexpectedly, one after the other; this created a kind of anxiety that the audience could imagine soldiers feeling while fighting the war. My interpretation is that the cacophonic dispersion of sounds serves as a reminder that the threat of war endures time and space, that it is a dangerous entity and should be avoided at all costs, if possible. “Heroes, Lost and Fallen,” though it truly told a story, did not have a clear ending. There was not one high point, rather many, when the volume and intensity reached climax numerous times in their consistent journey up and down.

“Lincoln Portrait,” composed by Aaron Copland (of whose eponymous music school these Queens College students are an integral part), is similarly of a political undertone, yet with a much more formal – rather than emotional – feel, as the previous song. It was as dynamic as “Heroes, Lost and Fallen,” but with a more moderate tempo. I also found, however, that it was much more rigid and structured; I could see President Lincoln, a role model for the nation, in his dignified suit and hat. According to the program, the piece happens to be one in a series meant to create “a portrait gallery of great Americans.” Copland, having sifted through the President’s speeches and writings, chose a few excerpts in which to encapsulate the important role he played in American history, and incorporated a narrative facet into the piece, which was related by the Music Director, Dr. Edward Smaldone.

The composition was divided into roughly three main sections: the opening, which suggests a mysterious sense of Lincoln’s fatality yet also his simplicity of spirit; the brief middle, which details the times during which Lincoln lived; and the conclusion, which highlights the magnanimity of Lincoln’s legendary words. The opening starts off slowly and softly, then proceeds to get louder, the rising notes held to inspire a feeling of greatness and prestige. The whole piece, in fact, has a very regal tone, as is the tradition with many patriotic songs, such as the national anthem. The notes seem to flow into each other, at points loud and striking, and at others, deeper and darker; these transitions together detail the duality of Lincoln’s presidency: at times harrowing, at others, triumphant. Unlike “Heroes, Lost and Fallen,” the band mostly played as one, making the instruments indistinguishable from each other (except to a trained ear), and rather into a strong, unified sound. At one point during the middle of the piece, the full-band sound died down and there was an oboe soloist, as if to symbolize that there exists a redeeming hope, no matter how small, in even the darkest of times. The narrative aspect – beginning with: “Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history” – added an interesting contrast from the first piece, although it also told a clear story (as per the repetition of, “That is what he said. That is what Abe/Abraham Lincoln said”). While its purpose was to intersperse with the music and provide the audience with a sense of pride, as well as a greater relation with the subject matter, I found that the prose distracted from the greater musical content.  The band would not always get softer while Dr. Smaldone was speaking, but rather swell to show off the glory of the words (mostly during the third section; the microphone allowed the words to still be audible despite the noise).

There are many ways in which art creates a response in the spectator, including dynamics, tempo, mood and tone. David R. Gillingham’s “Heroes, Lost and Fallen (A Vietnam Memorial)” and Aaron Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait,” with narration by Dr. Edward Smaldone, are politically-charged musical compositions detailing rough periods in American history. Though one includes verbal content and the other does not incorporate it, the Queens College Wind Ensemble made good use of the contrast between loud and soft playing to emphasize important emotions, whether of anger and grief or of American patriotism and a sensitivity for times past. Both pieces also evoke poignant imagery that enlivens the music, and creates a powerful experience for those who watch from the audience.