Thoughts from the Euphoniumists' Table
James D. ThorntonIn the course of my travels I am frequently asked what I do for a living. Of course, I answer with pride that I am a member of "The President's Own" United States Marine Band. But then I am invariably queried as to what instrument I play and my response of "the euphonium" usually brings a blank look, an averting of the inquirer's eyes. Or a concise "What's a youfonien?" And that bothers me.
The euphonium was developed in the 1820's to fulfill a specific need as a midrange instrument in marching and concert bands. Shortly thereafter its soloistic capabilities were noticed, and by the end of the nineteenth century it was quite popular as a solo instrument due to its beautiful sound and its ability to instill technical passages with great warmth and personality. By this time the euphonium had also been installed in its own small and limiting niche in the world of music which it was rarely able to break out of.
I cannot understand why the major composers of the late romantic period almost completely overlooked an instrument whose inherent personality 30 reflected their own: but I do have a possible explanation for the euphonium's limited expansion in the early twentieth century.
Around the turn of the last century a great upheaval was taking place in the harmonic structure and aesthetic significance of western music. Composers were left with no solid foundation on which to base their musical impulse. In this turbulent and frenzied revolution the writers of music were forced to react against the passionate excesses of the romantic composers: for these composers had caused the present state of confusion. 30 the "modern" composers reacted against the beauty of form. Texture, intimacy, and pleasure by creating an atmosphere of agitation, bleakness, stridency, and fain, they were frantically reaching toward a foundation that they felt must preclude allusion to the romantic tradition.
Understandably, an instrument like the euphonium, whose very soul speaks of warmth and beauty, may have seemed an unacceptable vehicle for their frustration. Now, as the art of music is becoming again aware that comprehensibility (and thusly communication) is its only reason for survival, the euphonium, because of its exceptional communicative abilities, is finally being given the chance to exit its formerly restricted boundaries and present itself as the versatile and valuable musical instrument that it is.
The euphoniumists of today are in an exciting and rewarding position in the music world because now is when the future of our chosen instrument is being decided. And I am glad that I play the euphonium.
The euphonium is an instrument of communication. Its future use and appreciation are dependent upon its interaction with and reception by people. The euphoniumist must choose his literature wisely and perform it in a manner conducive to that interaction and reception,
The euphonium needs to have a broad spectrum of literature at its disposal, The music written for the euphonium in the past hundred years is a valuable heritage and much of it is still worthy of performance, The compositions of today, although sometimes hindered by lack of understanding of the instrument, are certainly useful additions to our as yet limited original repertoire, But euphoniumists must compose or encourage to be composed much more music utilizing the euphonium effectively as a solo or ensemble instrument that might possess an enlarged repertoire from which we can confidently draw.
Another efficacious outlet for the euphonium is the use of transcriptions, it certainly will not derogate the euphonium or the euphoniumist to perform a work initially written for voice or other of the mechanical instruments, Many of these compositions lend themselves admirably to the technical and musical capabilities of the euphonium and are welcome and necessary increments to the repertoire.
Literature itself, though, is only a series of representational characters which holds little or no meaning until realized in performance, A high standard of performance (implying artistic meaning and again communication) is dependent upon a coherent attractive style and an extensive degree of professionalism, We cannot foolishly ignore the many valuable aspects of the euphonium style that have developed in the past, The variety of inflections and flourishes which have become part of the instrument's vocabulary provide at least the foundation of a characteristic euphonium style. And we must develop beyond this foundation rather than in spite of it. Each euphoniumist, through the investment of his own personality and taste, can contribute to the ever changing style of the euphonium and the greater amount of thought and finesse which is put into this investment will determine the level of musical maturity that the euphonium approaches.
Though the ideas expressed (literature) and the manner of expression (style) are important contributing factors, the intrinsic value of an instrument still rests upon its aesthetic significance; its ability to communicate with and touch the listener, And this, above all, is the responsibility of the persons who play the instrument, the euphoniumists,
The author, James Do Thornton, is a former student of Mr. Harold T. Brasch, and is currently [1978 - ed.] a member of the U.S. Marine Band euphonium section.
NOTE: this article is reprinted from Euphonia magazine, Jan-Feb 1978, with permission of the publisher, Glenn Call.
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