Composing for Euphonium: An interview with Christa G. Habegger
by Jason Luthy
Christa G. Habegger (1955) has been a member of the vocal faculty at Bob Jones University since 1977. Before joining the faculty, she also earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in voice and piano performance at Bob Jones. During the past fifteen years she has spent much of her time accompanying brass musicians in recitals and competitions. This work has led her to write several works for brass and piano. While many composers overlook the euphonium and concentrate on writing for instruments with a wider market, Professor Habegger has written several works for euphonium including Impressions of the Woods, Spring Fever, and Impressions of Summer, which are published by Cimarron Music.
JL: How were you originally drawn to writing for the euphonium?
CH: Of the members of the BJU music faculty, I’m one of the few who always agrees to accompanying opportunities. As a result, I wound up playing for several brass players. In fact, after playing for the winner of BJU’s annual brass competition several years in a row, the unofficial word among the students was that if you wanted to win the brass contest, you’d better ask Mrs. H to play for you. I began playing for a fine euphonium player, Joel DuBois, now a doctoral candidate in Colorado, when he was in high school, accompanying him for contests and scholarship auditions and continuing as his accompanist during his college career as a euphonium performance major. In the six or seven years of our association I grew to love the repertoire for euphonium. Impressions of the Woods, my first piece of absolute music for the euphonium, is the result of a challenge Joel issued to me. Impressions of the Woods started as musings on some paintings of Claude Monet, which in turn inspired me to write poetry, which in turn, suggested music which I felt could best be expressed by euphonium.
JL: What traits do you feel give the euphonium its own unique character as an instrument?
CH: Years ago, when I was a child, I remember my father, who was (and still is) music director at our church, commenting on the offertory, which was a euphonium solo. He said something to the effect that euphonium is derived from euphonious, meaning “pleasing to the ear.” I concur with him that the instrument is aptly named: its sound is beautiful with its robust but mellow tone and its capability for both power and tenderness. A good euphonium player can draw from the instrument tremendous tonal color as well as technical brilliance in its three-octaves-plus range. Euphonium is an instrument of great versatility both in solo and ensemble work.
JL: What are some ways the euphonium’s nature impacts your writing for it?
CH: To me, the euphonium is the perfect vehicle for poetry in music. I try to write in such a way as to showcase the instrument’s dark, rich tonal color, particularly in the lower reaches of its range. I also like to hear the instrument demonstrate its agility. And, because I’m a soprano, I revel in the occasional high note.
JL: Many of your works for euphonium are programmatic and impressionistic.
Does this have to do with your personal feelings about the euphonium?
CH: It probably has more to do with my poet’s soul. As I said earlier, I find in the euphonium an ideal outlet for what I want to say. It’s rather odd, actually, that I discovered in the euphonium such an outlet: I had never even made a noise on a euphonium until about ten years ago, when the three brass players for whom I had written the 16 pieces featured on my Tone Poems for Brass CD (all pieces published by Cimarron Music Press, Ledyard, CT) insisted I take a turn at playing their instruments. (I use the term play loosely.) I tried the trumpet first, then the trombone. I was clearly unsuited for both. I managed a mighty blast on the euphonium, though it was nothing very euphonious to be sure. We attributed my success to a big mouth and plenty of hot air. I am happy to leave the playing to someone else, but I do love the sound of a well-played euphonium.
JL: How have your years of accompanying experience affected the way you
write for piano in your compositions?
CH: I’ve been hit with some massively difficult brass accompaniments, like the Donald White sonatas for trombone and trumpet, White’s Lyric Suite for euphonium, the Hindemith tuba sonata–those are not accompaniments at all, but are rather piano parts in a collaborative effort with the brass player. I don’t consciously set out to write scary piano parts that will compete in terms of difficulty with the standard literature, yet some of my piano writing is quite involved and difficult (as I discovered when I recorded the piano parts for Tone Poems for Brass ). There are a couple of considerations I think I follow almost unconsciously: one is the purpose of the piece. If it requires a full texture and a grand dynamic scheme, obviously the piano writing is going to be more complex in support of the brass part. If the brass part is primarily lyrical, with melody always predominating, the piano part is more of an accompaniment with a lighter texture. The second consideration is the use of the piano in the collaboration. Just as I set out to showcase the brass instrument, I hope to make the piano writing satisfying for the player.
JL: The euphonium is often overlooked by composers due to the much larger market for music for other instruments, such as trumpet and trombone. What should euphonium players be doing to promote their instrument to composers?
CH: Euphonium players certainly succeed with music composed for cello or trombone, or with transcribed works for other instruments, but there’s a special dimension of the euphonium that should be celebrated in works specifically for the instrument. Perhaps the best way to encourage composers to write for euphonium is simply to ask them to do so. I would think that a euphonium player who explores contemporary brass literature and finds a musical language he likes should initiate a correspondence with that composer to commission a work. At least in my case, the amount of the fee is far less important than the invitation to try a new avenue of expression.
JL: As euphonium players, what should we be doing to show composers our gratitude when they do write for our instrument?
CH: Feature their pieces publicly in recitals, and invite them to comment on the process of composition and/or the philosophy of writing, if that’s possible. I remember a recent series of workshops and recitals we had on our campus with composer Eric Ewazen. It was a delight and an education, not only to hear his music performed, but also to hear him talk about the process and what drives him to create.
JL: In general what is it that drives you to create new music?
CH: Sometimes a piece just sort of comes at me and demands to be written down. For instance, one night in the shower I began humming the opening bars of what became the Grave movement of my Sonata in Baroque Style . I had to pile out, dripping wet, and scribble down the Big Tune while it had possession of me. Other times, I respond to a need, such as when people want a particular type of piece for a special occasion. Much of creativity is simply hard work, with or without a germ idea or outright inspiration. Those rare moments of inspiration (and I’ve had a few) make the work flow more smoothly, but they’re not absolutely essential to the process.
Jason Luthy received his Bachelor of Music in Music Education from Bowling Green State University (Ohio) in 2006. He is currently the assistant marching band director at Elmwood High School, in Bloomdale, Ohio, and is pursuing at Master of Arts in Music Education at Eastern Michigan University. He is also a member of the 122 nd Ohio Army National Guard Band. His euphonium instructors have included Dr. Paul Droste, Velvet Brown, Tim Olt, and Matthew Tropman.
A Selected Listing of Publications for Brass by Christa G. Habegger
Habegger, C. G. Legend. Cimarron Music Press: Dallas, Texas.
Habegger, C. G. (1997). Ballad, for Jeremy. Cimarron Music Press: Dallas, Texas.
Habegger, C. G. Sonata in Baroque Style. Cimarron Music Press: Dallas, Texas.
Habegger, C. G. Two Poems for Low Brass. Cimarron Music Press: Dallas, Texas.
Arr. Habegger, C. G. (1996). Be Thou My Vision. Jantz Music Publications: Greenville, South Carolina.
This treatment of the Irish melody Be Thou My Vision was created for euphoniumist Joal DuBois in 1996. It features interplay between the euphonium and piano and a variation on the melody.
Arr. Habegger, C. G. The Cleansing Wave. Jantz Music Publications: Greenville, South Carolina.
Habegger, C. G. Impressions of Summer. Cimarron Music Press: Dallas, Texas.
Three short movements for euphonium and piano (“The Garden,” “Reverie,” and View from the Ocean Resort”).
Habegger, C. G. (1996). Impressions of the Woods. Cimarron Music Press: Dallas, Texas.
Four movement impressionistic suite for euphonium and piano (“Prelude-Dawn,” “Scherzo-Noon,” “Aria-The Pool,” and “Rhapsody-Sunset”) written for euphoniumist Joel DuBois in 1996. Each movement is based upon a painting by Claude Monet.
Habegger, C. G. (1998). Spring Fver. Cimarron Music Press: Dallas, Texas.
A short lyrical piece for euphonium and piano written for Joel Dubois in 1998. Spring Fever features soaring melodies in the euphonium over a rolling feverish piano accompaniment.
All arrangements were created for the Tuba-Euphonium Ensemble at Bob Jones University.
Arr. Habegger, C. G. Children of a Heavenly Father/Child of the King. Cimarron Music Press: Dallas, Texas.
Arr. Habegger, C. G. Jesus Saves. Cimarron Music Press: Dallas, Texas.
Arr. Habegger, C. G. My Faith Looks Up to Thee/No Other Plea. Cimarron Music Press: Dallas, Texas.
Arr. Habegger, C. G. Tone Poems for Brass. Cimarron Music Press: Dallas, Texas.