Eric on Writing for Brass

Once upon a time, I was a brass major. My instrument in high school was the baritone horn, and I kept that as my major through undergrad. I have no idea where it is now. After college, it remained at my parents’ home, I think, where it may have found use as host for a floral arrangement or possibly became part of a fountain my dad made for the backyard.

One of my first attempts at composition was a duet for baritone horn and tuba, written my sophomore year in high school as a graduation present for a friend who played the latter instrument. It was, as I now recall, short and distressingly repetitive and kept modulating all on its own until it descended into the cumbersome key of C-flat major. At that point, I had to finish it to be ready to present it, and I lacked the skill to know how to modulate to a more user-friendly key anyway, so there it sat, collapsed under all of those flats. Rest in peace, piece, wherever you are.

Ten years ago I composed for brass again, supplying a dedicatory fanfare to celebrate the opening of the KSU Performing Arts Center (yes, it’s been 10 years). I have had it in mind to expand that work but had to set such aspirations aside in favor of other projects. In 2017 a commission came from Dr. Otis French, then at the University of Mount Union, to compose a work for performance by an alumni brass choir on homecoming weekend. One suggestion was to base the work on a hymn tune, and that led me to write “Voluntaries on the Old 100th.”

For this performance with the Philharmonic, I have added string parts and expanded percussion to incorporate more of the orchestra on a program that will already feature brass instruments. The familiar tune is heard in various iterations—from a nebulous beginning with phrases echoing from offstage to a resounding full-throated concluding chorale. In between, there are four variations on the tune. One is playfully lilting, another samples the antiphonal style of Giovanni Gabrieli, while another in minor mode is darkly dramatic. I enjoyed employing the full resources of the brass family while exploring the musical material, and I managed to stay out of C-flat major altogether.

Eric Benjamin—Music Director/Conductor

Share this: