Saturday, October 9, 2010

No strings attached - Giannini's Third, for Wind Band

It was my dad’s birthday this past Monday. And as I think about everything he’s taught me over the years, one stands out in particular: orchestral music sounds pretty good when you leave out most of the orchestra.

When I was growing up, every so often over the summer we’d head down to D.C. from the Maryland suburbs and sit on the steps of the U.S. Capitol to hear service bands perform pieces composed for wind band.1 And just as often, or maybe even more often, we’d hear wind band arrangements of orchestral classics. For these latter pieces, I occasionally thought something was missing. Once you’re used to the fluid turns in the violin that start “Night on Bald Mountain,” it’s hard to get used to choppy clarinets handling the same passage, as interesting as it might sound.

But it also works the other way around. Compare the prim and proper lyrical theme in the orchestral re-arrangement of “Stars and Stripes Forever” with the much more boisterous —and, I think, appropriately march-like — original version for wind band (recording quality strategically chosen to play up contrast).

Anyway, around the time of our trips to the Capitol, my dad mentioned Vittorio Giannini’s Symphony No. 3 (1958) and his own experience playing the tuba part with the All-Maryland High School Band at the Baltimore Civic Center in 1965. Giannini’s Third is the composer’s only symphony to be composed for wind band, and it appears to be the most famous of the Philadelphia-born composer’s five symphonies. Maybe its status as a symphony specifically for wind band helped give it a cultural lifeline, a unique and enduring avenue into a particular repertory. A number of symphonies were composed for this kind of group, but there are, of course, many more for standard orchestra. That may mean that a brand new symphony has an easier time competing to survive if it’s specifically for wind band. Call it natural symphonic selection.

Here’s how this particular symphony came about: The Duke University Band asked Giannini to write something, and according to the composer, “I can give no other reason for choosing to write a Symphony to fulfill this commission than that I ‘felt like it,’ and the thought of doing it interested me a great deal.” That’s a good enough reason, and Giannini reported that when asked how it feels to compose for wind band (and not for orchestra, chamber groups, or voice), he “can only answer, ‘There is no difference. The band is simply another medium for which I try to make music.’” 2

Add to that the fact that there’s nothing really puzzling, shocking, or experimental about Giannini’s Third (except maybe that it’s for wind band but isn’t otherwise strange), and you have a vivacious work that wind bands can really use to please crowds and that also carries the dignity and historical weight associated with the name “symphony”. Giannini seemed to want us to hear this composition as a straightforward wind-band play on a classical symphony. It has four movements, in the standard order of fast-slow-fast-fast. In the liner notes to the Mercury Living Presence recording, he even diagrammed the structure, specifically calling the first and last movements sonata forms. The second is looser, and the third is a scherzo. In other words, Giannini didn’t use the unusual medium as an excuse to do something wild and crazy. And he wanted us to know it.

This might explain why, at times, the Third sounds like a wind band transcription of a symphony for orchestra — and it suggests to me, at least, that Giannini really conceived this symphony as an orchestral piece. When I hear the second theme of the first movement, I wonder if I ought to be hearing soaring strings instead of massed winds. This shouldn't surprise us — Giannini himself was a violinist. The part I’m talking about is in the following clip, after the hymn-like trombone passage and solo clarinet response.

On the other hand, in the finale, the second theme is a solid march, and I think strings would detract from it (here it is the second time we hear it, toward the very end of the movement):

In the second movement, Giannini sensitively blends and contrasts the available wind band timbres. It, too, has its “orchestral” moments, but my favorite parts are when solo instruments play off each other, as in this lullaby-like moment for flute and clarinets:

In the third movement (the scherzo), Giannini gives us some nice range and timbre contrasts (piccolo, flute, and snare vs. bass clarinets, bassoons, and sax) around an undulating clarinet figure — and toward the end of this clip, the brass work their way into the texture:

My dad didn’t know the piece before playing both the first and fourth movements in Baltimore in 1965, but it led him to buy a recording of the whole thing (the same one, with A. Clyde Roller and the Eastman Wind Ensemble, from which the above clips are drawn). As my dad recalled this week, “I thought it was great to be picked for the All-State band. All the band members traveled from all over the state to perform in Baltimore, which, to me at 17, was pretty far from home (Hillcrest Heights in the D.C. suburbs). They paired us up so that two students spent a night living with a family the day before the concert, which was given as part of the Maryland State Teachers' Association yearly meeting.” Click here for some collected snapshots from the actual program booklet, which my dad generously scanned for use here. Zoom in on the tubas.

So, as a special treat, here’s the recording of the entire fourth movement — my favorite in this symphony — from that exact 1965 Baltimore Civic Center Concert, featuring my father, Marc Mugmon, on tuba. It was conducted by Richard Higgins, who headed both the Peabody Conservatory of Music and the Peabody Wind Ensemble. Enjoy!

— Matthew Mugmon

1.“Wind Band” might not be the preferred nomenclature. "Band," “Symphonic Winds,” “Symphonic Band,” “Concert Band,” “Military Band,” or “Wind Ensemble,” please. Wind chimes don't count — serenity now!
2.From the liner notes to the Mercury Living Presence recording by A. Clyde Roller and the Eastman Wind Ensemble.


  1. I've listened to this symphony several times now, and I agree that it sounds "orchestral" for whatever that's worth. At the same time, I can't shake the feeling that it'd have greater sense of seriousness & scope if scored for full orchestra. I can't quite put my finger on it -- maybe it's Giannini's fairly light style, or something more intrinsic to the sound of wind ensemble. The last mvt seems to have the most symphonic scale to my ears (I think it must be your dad's playing!).

  2. You don't have to wish for the 3rd to be heard via a symphony orchestra; VG wrote four other orchestral symphonies that fully reveal his symphonic thinking. You can hear nos. 4 and 5 on YouTube. They are among his greatest works.