Chamber Music Corner: New York Brass Quintet 50th Anniversary
By Mike Forbes
Before the readership of this column cries foul for my featuring a chamber music group that is no longer in existence, let me assure you that the New York Brass Quintet legacy lives on! Though they officially disbanded in 1984 at the International Brass Conference, a new commemorative CD recording has recently been released showcasing digitalized sounds of the NYBQ’s LP from 1959: “NYBQ IN CONCERT” and the 1960 LP: “The NYBQ Presents Two Contemporary Composers” (Golden Crest Records).
Low brass musicians of my generation (that is, those born after the creation of the Tubists’ Universal Brotherhood Association in 1973), have probably heard OF the New York Brass Quintet, but probably never actually HEARD the NYBQ. The latter was certainly my situation, until Bill Jones sent me this important new recording. Professor William Jones teaches trumpet at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC and is the one responsible for conceiving, organizing and implementing this commemorative CD project. Additionally, he recently hosted the first Brass Chamber Music Forum this past October at Appalachian State where members of the NYBQ were reunited and featured alongside members of the American Brass Quintet, Bay Street Brassworks, and a host of composers and students. This CD release and this new Chamber Music Forum are based on the 50th anniversary of the pioneering efforts of the NYBQ, but one could also say that all brass chamber music activity (even this column) is based on those early efforts of the NYBQ.
Well before the Canadian Brass donned their tuxedos and laced up their sneakers or before Leonard Bernstein called upon the future members of the Empire Brass to organize, the New York Brass Quintet paved the way for a foundation of brass chamber music unbeknownst to so many brass quintet players today. There is not a school of music without a faculty brass quintet or a metropolitan area without at least one gigging quintet as part of its scene. The New York Brass Quintet is directly responsible for this monumental achievement.
This CD helps to explain and showcase the NYBQ’s early pioneering efforts. It is almost impossible for this author to imagine a day before Robert King Music, or the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble, where only woodwind quintets and string quartets were seen as viable chamber music groups. My lack of imagination is simply a result of the strong willed intentions of all the past members of the New York Brass Quintet: Trumpet: Robert Nagel, Allan Dean, John Glasel, Ted Weis, Robert Heinrich. Horn: Paul Ingraham, Frederick Schmitt, Fred Bradford, John Barrows, Ray Alonge, Barry Benjeman. Trombone: John Swallow, Keith Brown, Erwin Price. Tuba: Thompson Hanks, Harvey Phillips.
To give some perspective of the development of the brass quintet genre (for the readers of my generation) via the NYBQ, I will refer to the program from the Brass Chamber Music Forum given to me from Bill Jones:
“The establishment of the brass quintet with a standardized instrumentation occurred primarily in the United States in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and was the result of the formation of the New York Brass Quintet and the American Brass Quintet. Evidence seems to indicate that the brass quintet was an American creation. There were brass ensembles in existence at this time in Great Britain, Russia, and Hungary, but the trend in these countries was toward large ensemble performance. According to Philip Jones…there was a lot of excitement when Robert Nagel came to England with the NYBQ and exposed listeners to new playing techniques and ideas. After hearing NYBQ play an hours’ worth of music, he and John Flethcher quickly began work on establishing a brass quintet.
Composers also were beginning to write for the quintet instrumentation that is now considered fixed. By 1954 works had been produced by twentieth-century composers including Eugene Bozza, Ingolf Dahl, Henry Cowell, Barney Childs, Carl Busch, Robert Sanders, and Albert Schmutz. In 1951, Bernard Fitzgerald, a well-known brass educator, predicted that the brass quintet might eventually become the standard or ideal brass ensemble. He anticipated that the combination of either two cornets, French horn, trombone and baritone, or two cornets, French horn, and two trombones would be considerably more versatile than any quartet combination, and this group of instruments would have the advantage of more sonority than the quartet, would alleviate the endurance problem without reducing the number of voices to less than four, and would retain more flexibility than the brass sextet.
The formation of the NYBQ as a professional entity in 1954 was the single most important event in establishing the brass quintet as a standard chamber music ensemble. Founded by Robert Nagel with the assistance of Harvey Phillips, it has been the longest-lived and perhaps the most significant of the professional brass ensembles that are active today. The development of this and many other professional ensembles, as well as the evolution of the modern corpus of musical compositions for the brass quintet, began after this date.
The main impetus for forming the quintet came from the promise of work from Young Audiences, Inc. an organization dedicated to representing performances for school children. To present these lecture-demonstration concerts the quintet immediately began to develop a repertoire that included transcriptions, arrangements, and original works. Early concerts included the Sonatine by Eugene Bozza, Quintet by Robert Sanders, Music for Brass Instruments by Ingolf Dahl, and numerous transcriptions of works by Renaissance and Baroque composers including Gabrieli, Pezel, Holborne, and Bach. By the end of their association with Young Audiences, Inc., it is estimated that they had performed between 500 -700 public school concerts over a four and a half year period.
The years from 1954 to 1961 could be described as formative years for the group, culminating in a New York debut in 1961. The first official performance of the NYBQ took place on June 11, 1954 at the New York City Town Hall, in a concert of “The Charles Pope Choristers.” The selections performed were Pezel—Dances, Holborne—Three Pieces, Purcell—Music for Queen Mary, and Gabrieli—Canzona No. 2. Their full recital debut in New York also took place at Town Hall in November, 1961. They performed works by Arnold, Bozza, and Collier Jones’ quintets and early music.”
As a member of a professional tuba quartet, this author is especially intrigued by the ways in which the NYBQ went about the legitimization of their unique new ensemble in musical circles unwilling at first to accept a brass quintet as a viable chamber music ensemble. The next excerpt from Bill Jones helps to bring to light some parallels that tuba quartets face today in their becoming legitimized.
“By 1958 the quintet had developed two primary goals. The first goal was to develop an audience for brass quintet through concertizing, and the second goal was to increase the repertoire for the ensemble. The quintet secured management through Ermine Kahn of New York City who managed the group for three seasons, and then the quintet secured management through Columbia Artists, Inc. in 1960. Two music publishing companies, Mentor Music, Inc., and Chamber Music Library, were formed by the group. Both of these companies have actively published both transcriptions and new compositions for the brass quintet.
The year 1960 marked the beginning of an active touring schedule, first through tours that covered the U.S., and then through several European tours. European and American tours were introducing audiences to a new chamber music genre for the first time. Unusual tour bookings called for performances for audiences ranging from the teenagers of Bonn to select audiences made up largely of other brass players, conductors, composers, publishers, concert managers, and leading music critics. They would present an unfamiliar repertoire, in a new style, by the first brass quintet to tour Europe, interpreting chamber music to people of different national cultures.”
The commemorative CD recording, titled: “The New York Brass Quintet Celebrates Its 50th Anniversary” presents a powerful listening experience to audiences familiar with the NYBQ, but perhaps an even more relevant one to unfamiliar listeners. Works include those by Pezel, Gabrieli, Haines, Harris, Holborne, Bozza, Wilder, and Hammond. It is an especially rewarding listen considering that this was the first interpretation by a brass quintet of these landmark pieces in the repertoire. Furthermore, the playing is simply superb! In today’s recording world where digital editing and splicing is the norm, it is truly inspiring to hear these master brass musicians play this demanding music in one take. Harvey Phillips’ incredibly agile playing in the Bozza is especially breathtaking, but even moreso when one considers that he is performing on a contrabass tuba, rather than on the bass tuba, which has become the norm for tubists today when performing that work.
You may obtain your own copy of this Commemorative CD by sending $20 (includes shipping and handling) to HPF-GCA-CD, PO Box 933, Bloomington, IN 47402-0933. If you would like to read more about the recording or the NYBQ, the liner notes are available on the WindSong Press Website: