From Heaven Shall It Come Down Upon Thee Until Thou Be Destroyed

From Heaven Shall It Come Down Upon Thee Until Thou Be Destroyed

for Brass Ensemble (Piccolo Trumpet in Bb, 2 Trumpets in Eb, 2 Trumpets in Bb, 4 Horns in F, 3 Trombones, Euphonium, Tuba)

(2002, 2010) (c.15′)

Richard Hoffmann, my undergraduate composition teacher at Oberlin, used to bring up a particular book in lessons frequently.  You could immediately spot the book on the shelf in the library as it was noticeably taller than the books around it and was bound in bright yellow cloth.  Das Grosse Buch vom Posthorn, was exactly what you might expect it to be, almost entirely reproductions of just about any painting produced in central Europe that had a posthorn somewhere in its frame and about 30 pages or so of transcribed posthorn calls arranged geographically.  As I looked through this music, an idea began to form; posthorn fanfares from multiple regions that all conveyed the same meaning, played within a chord progression in which each note of the chord serves as the tonic for one of the fanfares.  This idea eventually became the middle section of the first movement of this brass ensemble you will hear tonight, and the germ for the remaining two movements as well.

The first movement, Heavens as Brass, begins with harsh chords in the trumpets built up from minor seconds with liquid arpeggiations from the remaining players outlining chord progressions that move by almost too quickly to register aurally.  Each arpeggiation is expanded in time until the entire section gives way rapid descending scales based on the same progressions heard earlier.  This leads into the central fanfare section based on the posthorn calls announcing how many fresh horses you will need at the next town.  Three rising and quickening chord progressions are played, leading directly into an extended ascending scalar passage leading us back to an expanded recapitulation, now the minor seconds from the opening have opened up to major thirds and the arpeggiations are expanded to the point of nearly exploding the bar line.  As they reach the end of the ensuing contraction a giant Eb major chord is reached, emphatically ending the movement.

The second movement, Earth as Iron, outlines an immense circle of fifths progression that winds its way, getting faster all the time, through each section of the ensemble through inversions of the chords derived from a set of posthorn fanfares.  As this progression moves to its halfway point, it is constantly being destabilized by parallel sequences in the trumpets and short melodic figures derived from them in the piccolo trumpet and tuba, as well as a stubborn refusal to leave the initial chord by the 1st horn and euphonium.  This middle section consists of the longest of the posthorn fanfares announcing “extra mail,” whatever that means.  These move chromatically up a tritone from chord we had reached in the circle of fifths which is accompanied in the background by the largest disrupting gesture.  As the fanfares fade back to our circle of fifths chord, we return to complete the progression, now much faster with more precipitous registral changes until we land on the chord with which we began.

The final movement, Rain of Powder and Dust, begins in unisons and octaves in the horns, giving way to a pointillistic presentation of the posthorn calls announcing how many new wagons you will need in the next town.  The initial tonics of these fanfares are based on the opening minor seconds of the first movement, and as they complete iterations of the fanfare, a dissonant chord of fourths separated by tritons is built up beneath them, the detritus from their “rain.”  At the point in which all of the fanfares have contracted to their original forms we cut to the middle section.  The dissonant chord is continued in the background while the horns begin slow, ascending scalar passages from their initial note of the movement.  This note B, which has underlined the entire movement, is slowly destabilized by micro-glissandos in the trombones, and is joined by a scales beginning on Db in the trumpets once the horns ascend to that point.  A resolution to C is immediately undermined by a shortened retrograde recapitulation.  As these fanfares recede into the pointillism of the opening, the dissonant chord beneath them is expanded to encompass the entire aggregate, with several key members resolving again to C almost inaudibly while the horns quietly insist on B.  As the detritus dies away, C is all that is left, a resolution by mere perseverance.  The text of each movement and the title for the entire piece are taken from the Bible, Deuteronomy 28:23-24:

And thy heaven that is over thy head shall be brass, and the earth that is under thee shall be iron.

The Lord shall make the rain of thy land powder and dust: from heaven shall it come down upon thee, until thou be destroyed.

  1. Heavens as Brass: quarter = 60 – quarter = 76 – quarter = 60 – 3:37
  2. Earth as Iron
  3. Rain of Powder and Dust

Members and alumni of the Boston Conservatory Brass Department and friends, 2010-11; Matthew Marsit, conductor