Concerto for Brass Quintet


Concerto for Brass Quintet


for brass quintet (1995)

  • Premiere: 6 September 1995  / Mills Concert Hall, Madison, Wisconsin  / Wisconsin Brass Quintet
  • Instrumentation: tpt(=flug).tpt2(=flug).hn.trbn(=euph),tba 
  • Duration: 25'
  • Dedication: Commissioned by the Wisconsin Brass Quintet and the University of Wisconsin - Madison School of Music for their 100th Anniversary, 1995-1996.
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I. Sennets — II. Melodia — III. Invetion — IV. Romance — V. Tuckets

Program note

My point of departure with the Concerto (completed in New York City in 1995) was that contrasting harmonic systems might be used to organize a large-scale form. It is called a concerto because, although there is no accompanying orchestra, each player’s part demands the endurance and technique of a soloist. Structurally, the quintet’s five movements surround the central Invention in the manner of concentric parentheses.

The Wisconsin Brass Quintet recorded the work in 2000 for Arsis.


There is a strong vein of Stravinskian neo-Classicism running through Hagen’s instrumental writing, and this brass work fairly bubbles with good-humored high spirits. The designation of concerto is entirely apt, and it is a splendid display piece for five excellent players.

— John Story, Fanfare Magazine, September, 2000

Movement 1

The first movement (Sennets) manipulates four major triads -- B-flat, D-flat, E, and G -- as discrete pitch groups rather than as traditional functional chords. Sennets were the fanfares sounded for the entrance of royalty. In this movement, solos for each player alternate with far-off, muted, close canons (simple arpeggiations of the four triads) for the entire ensemble. During one of the canonic sections, the tuba quietly introduces the theme of the second movement.

Melodia (the second movement) takes that theme and submits it to five variations and a coda. The harmonic language is traditional and triadic; the four triads from the first movement figure as tonal centers. The mood is nostalgic: I allude to the music I sang in church on holidays as a child, as well as the brass interlude from my 1992 opera Shining Brow, for which the Wisconsin Brass Quintet served as principal brass players in the orchestra during it’s world premiere. In the coda, the theme is played a final time by the trumpets, accompanied by a rhythmic cell in the horn and trombone; this cell becomes the first of the two interlocking rhythmic cells that comprise the A section of the central Invention movement.

Invention (the central movement) has an ABA arch form. A strict eighth note rhythmic grid is enforced. A second rhythmic cell is superimposed over the cell introduced in the coda of Melodia. Two pitch groups are wedded to these cells. During the course of their cellular development, the pitches associated with the two interlocking rhythmic cells are consistently doubled at the interval of the second, seventh or ninth, yielding attractive-sounding, but harmonically functionless faux bourdon. The contrasting B section that follows is melodically based and is harmonized traditionally. Each player enjoys a single verse of what is essentially a song. The A sections contrast a well-crafted, “emotion-free” post-minimalist pallet with what might be perceived as a more traditionally “felt” neo-romantic central B section. (This section is the exact center of the piece as a whole.) The A section cells return and are developed further before a coda. This material returns at the end of the quintet as a whole.

The trumpets take flugelhorns and the trombonist takes the euphonium, creating a darker, richer sound for the Romance. Like the Invention, it has an ABA arch form. Choral outer A sections utilize strict quartal harmony. The B section utilizes triadic harmony; a single three-chord-long sequence is cycled through the circle of fifths - sort of a compositional credo. As each dominant falls to the next tonic during this section, the melodic sequences riding above the harmonies grow more florid. This melodic figuration evolves into a jazzy descant for flugelhorn that rides over a recapitulation of the opening quartal chorale. A brief, mellow coda combines fragments of the triadic sequence and the quartal chorale. While writing this movement, I enjoyed imagining myself as a forties composer scoring some film noir classic like The Big Sleep.

The last movement returns to the mood and pitch set organization of the first. The title Tuckets is drawn from the great Saint Crispin's Day speech in Shakespeare's Henry V (IV: ii): "Let the trumpets sound the tucket sonances and the note to mount." Tuckets accompanied the exit of royalty. The four three-note pitch groups return. In this movement, the virtuosic fanfares, which unfold the pitch groups horizontally, are juxtaposed with stuttering accompaniments that present the same pitch groups vertically. The first movement’s canons return, as well as fragments of the second movement’s tune, before the fanfares again take center-stage, climaxing in a recapitulation of the Invention’s coda.

Commissioned to celebrate the University of Wisconsin School of Music’s 100th Anniversary, the quintet is joyfully dedicated to the members of the Wisconsin Brass Quintet, for whom it was written. It was first first performed on 6 October 1995 at the Mills Music Hall, Madison, Wisconsin, by the Wisconsin Brass Quintet.

— Daron Hagen, 1999

(Banner photo: the Wisconsin Brass Quintet)