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Marc O'Callaghan

Brian Boru - Overture

14 posts in this topic

Hello all,

This is the overture to the Brian Boru cantata I posted the rest of (so far) on Choral & Vocal. As I realise posting 40-ish minutes of music in one go is rather off-putting, especially since I'm not very active on YC myself, let's take things progressively.

Further informations on the subject of the cantata itself can be found in my other post, however I doubt you'll really need any as this is purely instrumental.

Any kind of comments is welcome, as this is my first major orchestral work.

Cheers,

Marc

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Thanks for the reduction. :) A lot easier to comment on.
It's a bit confusing. Things don't really transition and there were a couple of common chord modulations that really felt unjustified considering the contour of the arc.
A lot of your counterpoint conflicts with each other and sounds amateurish even though I see what you want to do. Experiment with instrumentation between different sections (especially registers) and make sure each voice is defined so it doesn't clash.
Good luck!

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^^^What @Monarcheon said.  great points.

 

Also, if you're going to use English names over all, it should be doublebass, not contrabass.  no need also for Tenor Trombone; we already know it's tenor.

Not sure about the French Horn in bass clef, doesn't seem like it's necessary.  Trumpet in Bb is usually for bands and film scores for orchestras, not for symphony orchestras. They are NOT going to play it on Bb so make the part in C.  Last thing, please use rehearsal markings.   It'll make life so much easier for everyone.

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Hi Marc,

You've got a lot of interesting material here. Congrats on your first major orchestral work. Now comes the fun part: polishing! Sorry for the brain dump, but there is a lot of potential here that shouldn't go to waste.

Counterpoint and voice leading

@Monarcheon is right on the money. However, I want to offer some specifics:

1. It is really difficult to track a voice (especially the intended melodic voice) if all four voices are leaping at the same time. If the melody is supposed to be heroically leaping around, give the it some solid ground to leap around on by leading your other voices more smoothly.

2. There is enough rhythmic similarity between the voices I'm wanting to hear block chords where maybe you don't intend them. In fact, I'm wondering if the opening statement wouldn't be better served with a single melodic voice and a roughly homophonic bedrock underneath it.

Orchestration

In terms of orchestration, it's kind of hard to judge right now. The score is not clear about exactly what the forces are. I'm going to make the assumption that you're using standard orchestral winds (2 Fl, 2 Ob, 2 Cl, 2 Bsn) and brass (4 Hn, 3 Tpt, 3 Trb, Tba). Some notes:

1. Don't double the tuba with the double bass under the brass choir. It muddies an otherwise pure brass sound.

2. Find more places to have the woodwinds slur. Having reeds tounge every note is tiring for them and leads to a really choppy texture.

3. Second to the last measure, the 16th note figure in the bass drum is going to be thunderous and not well defined. If you want that, you're good. If you want more rhythmic clarity, put that in the timps. The mallets are smaller and the heads are tighter, so you get a more definite front to each note.

4. This is a biggie: The balance in your brass choir is out of whack. The writing is treating the instruments as much more equivalent than they are. Conceptually, you can cut your brass choir in half: direct (trumpet and trombone) and indirect (horn and tuba). The direct brass provide focus and power because they are pointed at the audience. The indirect brass provide depth and color to the brass choir sound, but can only be depended on as a leading or melodic voice when the direct brass are silent.

Also, the indirect brass suffer from volume limitations relative to the direct brass. A choir of just three trombones is enough to rival the full strings *and* woodwinds of an orchestra at ff. The horns would have to be playing at max effort to equal that, and the trombones still have a dynamic or two to go yet. Similar with trumpets. The tuba doesn't keep up by being heard as much as being felt. Its job is to provide a foundational voice for the choir.

So, with all that said, you might try playing around with isolating single instrument groups or making some combinations of instruments within the brass choir: Trumpet/Trombone quartet or sextet (bright and clear); Trombone/Tuba quartet (regal at mp and menacing at ff); Horn/Tuba quintet (very rich and colorful).

Notation

1. The wavy line is not standard notation for percussion rolls. Modern notation for rolls is always three slashes.

2. Always show the middle of the bar. Rather than doing a dotted quarter on beat 2, do a quarter tied to an eighth. It seems counter-intuitive to use two notes to write something that could be written as one, but it's so much easier for the player to count correctly when there is a note on the middle of the bar. In the case of 4/4, this means always having a written note or rest for beat 3.

3. Don't use cresc. and dim. for any dynamic changes shorter than 2 measures. These are best handled with hairpins.

4. You'd make it much easier on the conductor to split your percussion staves into Percussion 1 (S.Dr. and B.Dr.) and Percussion 2 (Cymbal, Gong, Tam Tam).

5. Your percussion entrances need labels. It is not reasonable to expect a conductor to remember your line assignments. Exception: Snare and Bass Drum sharing a percussion staff with no other instruments.

6. Having both gong and tam tam in a score will require an explanatory note with your intent. Are you looking for two different sizes? Flat vs. raised center?

7. Do not use bass clef for Horns under any circumstances. It is an ambiguous notation and you may not get the line in the octave you want. Treble Clef with ledger lines is much more precise for low horn parts.

8. It is OK (but not ideal) to 8vb a tuba part in the score to save space, but always write ledger lines below the staff in the tuba part. Tubists are as used to reading down there as on the staff.

Structure

Finally, I have one big question for you: Relative to the cantata, what purpose do you envision the overture serving?

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Many thanks to all three of you for your comments!

@Monarcheon I realised there were quite a few involuntary dissonances in there, I believe I have corrected them now. I hope those "unjustified chord modulations" were also bettered in the process - to my ears it sounds more logical now than it did before, but that's only me and the composer is never the best judge (especially when he's not trained!). If you still think some modulations are inappropriate, could you give me an instance, so I can know what you mean exactly? The sudden transitions were meant to show how fast things will change later in the story (from peace to brutal war and back to peace), but I realise it's not very appealing to the listener and tried to soften them up.

@maestrowick I know American orchestras use C Trumpets, but as far as I know European ones have kept Bb (as I'm Swiss and writing about an Irish character, I'm assuming the work would be played somewhere in Europe, if it ever was to be performed). I'm not so sure though, so I changed it anyways.

@Adrian Quince Thank you dearly for that extensive review, I didn't expect as much! I understand your point on the voices being hard to follow if they all leap at the same time and tried to correct it, but I don't really find any major instances here. If there still are any, would you please point them out? As I said, I've been working so much on this piece these last weeks I probably don't notice things that would seem obvious if it was somebody else's work.

The final 16th-note figure is not really meant to sound defined, rather a loud growl behind the orchestra to mark the (quite predictable) end, so I left it with the Bass Drum.

Thanks for pointing out I'd left the Tam-Tam in the score, I don't use it anyway.

I had trouble adjusting the brass parts to balance them better, as I don't really know those instruments - is the new solution, i.e. mostly the same but with divisi Trombones, an intelligent way to get around the problem? Especially the opening statement was troublesome - I see where you're going when you suggest a single melodic voice, but it seems to me like it would be a pity, there are a few harmonics I like in that part, even though it's far from perfect. I hope the new version is more appropriate.

Thank you for the info about drum roll notation  - the way I learned it (with the wavy line) goes back to Cecil Forsyth, i.e. in the twenties, so I guess it's a bit outdated now :grin:.

Answering your question, @Adrian Quince, I intend the overture to introduce the story, as I mentioned above, showing the progression through war and peace and ending in a battle. A few themes I brought into the overture will appear later in the cantata, but that's not the main purpose - rather I intend it to set the ambiance/general feeling of the story.


Anyway, as always, any comments on the new version are welcome!
Cheers,
Marc

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Hi Marc,

Glad you found that helpful! Taking a quick peek at the revisions, the brass writing is already improved. But I'm still seeing crossed voices and things that are blurring the texture. I'm still left wondering what "the tune" is.

In terms of the mood you're trying to set, I'm not getting a big enough contrast between the martial and pastoral. The martial section really isn't militant enough yet to make me think there's a war happening. The brass writing at the beginning is on an 8th note grid.  That rhythmic grid will project a sense of evenness and calm even if everything on it is loud and clangy, especially with the dense rhythms in the snare drum.

Without getting too deep into specifics, think about soldiers. Unity is a big thing with them. They eat together, march together, and fight together. So, might they not sing together? Might they not be urged on by drums and trumpets?

I'll have more details when I can take the time to look this over, but just wanted to give you a couple of things to think about.

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@Adrian Quince I see what you mean about the martial mood not coming through. I've taken things the other way round and instead of trying to produce a fanfare-ish sound at the beginning I took up the tune of an Irish folk song, the well-known Irish Soldier Laddie (a handy song, because it can be sung by drunkards dancing on the tables just as well as enthusiastic soldiers or indeed very homesick ones), and basically I now rather picture the soldiers marching away singing with the drum egging them on. I hope this comes through? I also took up the opening notes of the Song of the Volga Boatmen, which is a motif that really expresses the unrelenting force of the tired army marching on.

I also changed a few things in the rest of the piece, I hope it sounds better now.

 

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Hi Marc,

Sorry for taking a bit to reply. I'm just now getting to spend some good time with this.

I like the shape this is taking. The setting of Laddie in the beginning is a nice mood setter and puts you in the right part of the world. Volga Boatman, though, puts me somewhere else completely. Juxtaposing the two really makes it sounds like the Russians are going to invade Ireland. (You do have to keep an eye on that Putin, I suppose. Never know what he'll try next.) Plus, the timps at the beginning already have a beleaguered soldier vibe.

In terms of the orchestration, it's getting cleaner as well. Something I'd really encourage you to do it do a version of this score in which each wind and brass player has their own staff. So, in this case, four horn staves, 3 trumpet staves, etc. It may not print pretty, but it makes you consider exactly when you have each player playing.

Once you've got that really worked out, then you can condense back to a reasonable format. My usual practice for a full brass choir is:

Hn. 1-2
Hn. 3-4
Tpt. 1
Tpt. 2-3
Trb 1-2
B. Trb.
Tba.

The big thing is that a staff is never shared by more than two instruments. Three instruments on a staff is way harder to read than two for the conductor. Also, it puts one high and one low horn on each staff and separates any solo trumpet work from the lower parts.

Now, a couple of things about writing for brass, especially in light of this being an overture to a Cantata:

1. Save your brass high notes. Playing brass instruments is a very physical activity in any register, but especially in the upper register. Take a look at the beginning of this video and watch the player's embouchure:

See how those really small muscles are working really hard? They can only do that so many times in a day. As a composer, especially of a larger work, you have to respect that.

2. Brass instruments generally don't tune well with each other in the upper register. In addition to the players working harder, the upper register generally exposes the tuning idiosyncrasies of the instrument. As a rule, I would not take multiple trumpets or multiple french horns above the staff in unison together. Use only the 1st player above the staff (and then sparingly).

What to do with the other parts, then? Octaves are a good reinforcement, especially for a first trumpet above the staff. They give the 1st player an overtone to "ride" since brass instruments will vibrate sympathetically with the sound around them.

3. Do you really need three trumpets and three trombones? Looking quickly through the rest of the cantata, I don't see the third trumpet and bass 'bone player having enough work to justify them being there. Your writing in the overture will work just fine without them, as well. And remember, when it comes to getting this performed, the smaller the orchestra the easier it is to stage.

4. In a similar vein as 3, do you really need 4 horns, or would 2 suffice?

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The beginning was really smooth and led into the piece quite well. Great use of what I believe was the harp and the accompanying instruments that came shortly after. 

I've never been great at trumpets so I think this really helps give me insight with those. 

The whole piece was able to send me through different types of emotions as it went. It felt royal, yet there was something mythical about it during the quieter parts. 

Good stuff man.

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@LostSamurai Thank you very much for your review! Happy I managed to get the emotions I felt through to you.

@Adrian Quince Again, thank you very much for your help, I really am very grateful for all those informations and ideas you are giving me. I knew brass didn't like high notes and they probably would not like me for writing that, but I hadn't thought about the tuning question. I suppose I'll bring them down most of the time and if I really need high notes will double them in octaves.

Originally, I planned for two Tenor Trombones and two Trumpets, but then assumed it must have been a bad idea when you talked about 3 of each :blush2:. As you now know, I have no orchestral experience and will, for the time being, have to take your word for it that there's no need for 3, but I'm concerned about the horns - melodically I never use more than 2 voices after that, so finally yes, why not only use 2 instead of 4, but do you think they would still come through enough?

I understand your view on the Volga Boatmen, it's true that it sounds very Russian and almost too menacing for what I wanted it to be, just like you said :grin: . I think I'll remove those bars, with a few days hindsight they are indeed more of a hindrance to the Laddie than anything else.

I'll try to think all this through and reorganise the score like you suggested - and really, with all the helpful comments you have made, don't be sorry for taking time to answer!

 

 

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On 2/19/2017 at 3:55 AM, Marc O'Callaghan said:

Originally, I planned for two Tenor Trombones and two Trumpets, but then assumed it must have been a bad idea when you talked about 3 of each :blush2:. As you now know, I have no orchestral experience and will, for the time being, have to take your word for it that there's no need for 3, but I'm concerned about the horns - melodically I never use more than 2 voices after that, so finally yes, why not only use 2 instead of 4, but do you think they would still come through enough?

My bad on the three brass thing. I should have thought through the economic question sooner.

On the horns, remember that an orchestra with an oratorio will generally be on the smaller side anyway. In terms of balance, good brass players (or a least average ones with an attentive conductor) will make sure that a section with only 2 horns balances fine. If you decide to start writing more chords for the horns (which are a very effective sound, by the way), then it would be worth going with a 4-horn section.

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Here is the latest version. As you suggested, @Adrian Quince, I gave each instrument his own staff, made a couple of changes and condensed it back into a standard form. I also added a title page, which explicitly gives the required numbers.

Enjoy!

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Hi Marc,

This looks much cleaner to me. Well done! In general, though, I still think there's too much unison in the two trumpets. Look for spots to deploy second trumpet on harmony notes (3rds, 5ths, and 6ths) away from first trumpet.

Also, remember that when you double an instrument you're trading volume for clarity. On the fanfare figures (like in m. 38), I would have only trumpet one play that.

Finally, in m. 63, the horn doubling of the tuba is only going to muddy things up. Horns are the least agile of the brass and the tuba will have a strong octave overtone anyway.

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Hi @Adrian Quince, again many thanks for your comments :)

I see what you mean about the trumpets, it seems a pity to waste the harmonic potential there. What do you think of this version? I also removed the horn doubling of the tuba, as you suggested. This really seems to be taking shape now, for the greatest part thanks to you!

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