Category Archives: Early Music

Fanfare on Ein feste Burg

Fanfare on Ein feste Burg. Two versions. A. For 7 Renaissance instruments: 2 Soprano Shawms, Alto Shawm, 2 Sackbuts, Quartbass Dulcian, large Tabor. B. Brass Quintet with optional large Drum. 1:30.

Commissioned and Premiered 20 Oct 2017 by Piffaro, the Renaissance Band, Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral, for the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation. Brass Quintet version premiered 29 Oct 2017 by Musica Concordia, Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Abington, Pa.

From the Minneapolis Star Tribune: “Smith’s piece exploded into life…. A slew of heavy thwacks on a tabor (a Renaissance snare drum) launched Smith’s Fanfare, mimicking the bang of hammer on nail in Wittenberg. The rasp of shawms and the splendid snort of a quartbass dulcian (a bassoon-like instrument) intoned Luther’s great hymn melody as Smith worked bristling variations on it. It was a bracing opening gesture…”

My Broad Street Review essay on the composing this is here. The first pages of both versions are below. Here’s a quick, live run-through of the brass & percussion version:

Composer Intent

[First published in the Broad Street Review, 2 Jan 2014, as “The sound of the music“]


The Theorbo Player, Antiveduto Gramatica, 1615

Having composed more than a few works, totaling a couple hours of music, for early instruments—including Vespers (for Renaissance instruments), The Nobility of Women (Baroque), Red-tail and Hummingbird (mix of early and modern), and others—I’m probably one of the bigger fans of historically informed performance practice. I’ve defended it in the Broad Street Review a half-dozen times, and I was happy to read Tom Purdom’s recent lauding of early instruments in BSR (Do I hear a harpsichord?, December 3, 2013).

Each instrument, early or modern, has a unique sound that cannot be duplicated by any other. Trombones are not better sackbuts, for instance, I wrote here, and that applies to all modern/early comparisons.

With apologies to South Pacific, there is nothing like a shawm.

It comes down to composer intent. Simply, what does the composer want the music to sound like? Composers know, precisely. If they don’t, they’re not very good at what they do (leaving aside those who instruct performers to make up their own sounds, another issue entirely). They give over countless hours to sculpting sound as exactly as they can.

So what did I say to the Aestas Consort in Chicago, who asked me to rewrite some of Vespers for other instruments? The piece I spent months composing, shaping, and adjusting to the exact requirements of a 16th-century instrumentarium?

“Absolutely,” is what I said.

To go from shawms, sackbuts, early harp, and theorbo to string sextet with harpsichord?

“You bet.”

That’s how quickly I tossed composer intent out the window.

Are you John Cage

Some nuance, though, if you will. Composers do, after all, want their music to be heard, so we like to say “Yes” as often as we can, or at least as often as our schedules permit. There’s the story of the woman who called up John Cage. She asked him, “Are you John Cage?”

“Yes, I am,” he answered.

Apparently wanting to be very sure that she had the right John Cage, that this was the John Cage and none other, she pressed with one more question. “Are you John Cage, the percussion composer?” Now, this is like asking Picasso if he’s the guy who uses blue paint. But Cage wasn’t offended at the typecasting, wasn’t insulted, didn’t blink. Sensing that the question was shimmying a flag up a possible commission flagpole, he saluted, saying what any composer who wishes for performances would say.

“Yes, I am,” said John Cage.

Say Yes first, then think about it

The quick acceptance of revisiting the opening hymn of Vespers, “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern” (“How Fair the Bright and Morning Star”), papered over some real issues with which I’d have to grapple, of volume, voicings, phrasings. But I did say “Yes,” and without very much thought on it.

Partly because I’d done this before, rearranging “Psalm 113” from Vespers, for piano. “Piano!,” I whispered guiltily to my friends in Piffaro, the Renaissance Band (who had commissioned Vespers). Piano!—that heat-resistant, tempered, set-in-stone, hammered, scorched-octave machine-in-a-box—that enemy of all fluidity in tuning—yes, yes, I had done it, it was too true.

But mostly it was because I relished the challenge of changing it, to see if it would still work. Composers love creating problems to solve. To do that, I had to banish from my head all those sounds I had crafted and come up with entirely new ones. I had no interest in reshaping Renaissance sounds. No, I had to throw them out and start over. With the same music.

That was the challenge, but no different from Ravel moving Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition from piano—piano!, that singing, caressing, evenly voiced marvel of construction—over to that motley crew called the orchestra.


So I ripped open “Wie schön” and rewrote lines. From early to modern, from winds and brass to strings, all done over. The soft pressings of the theorbo (a long-necked bass lute) and early harp, those translucent curtains fluttering in the late afternoon sun, I set aside for the scuttering-in-the-shadows harpsichord. Gone were the squiring portents of the double-reed shawms; gone, too, the ripe, plummy brass. In their place: elegant strings, from bright violins to puckish violas, ruddy cello, and the tide-moving double bass.

If I’ve made it work in its new ensemble, there will be no better and no worse. Apples and oranges, you might say, or the sweet tang of fruit compared with the smoothness of a soup stock begun in butter-sautéed onions. Incomparable.

“Composer intent” is the grail behind every performance-practice discussion, and I do trust it. It is, I believe, the most important consideration in trying to figure out how something ought to be played. I believe this because I know from experience how music grows out of the instruments themselves, out of the sounds composers spend so much time trying to assemble rightly, idiomatically. All the thought processes—all the millions of decisions we make consciously and subconsciously—lock the music into a form that cannot be shaken, not without irreparable damage.

Until we change our minds.

“Absolutely,” is what I said.

Priscilla on Broadway

PriscillaIn the Smith house we couldn’t be prouder of Priscilla, just written up in the Philadelphia Inquirer by David Patrick Stearns. He saw the Mark Rylance productions on Broadway of Richard III and Twelfth Night, in which Priscilla’s been playing since October, and interviewed her backstage between shows.

She’s playing shawm, recorder, and bagpipe onstage (and above), and, with the music director returning to England for some of the run, Priscilla has also taken on some of the directing responsibility.

(If it is at all possible to see one or both of these, by the way, do not hesitate. They’ve been extended to February 16. It is a life-changing theatrical experience to see Rylance and that entire cast. I suppose I could think of a better way of saying this, but here goes: I mean it.)

The plays are stunning, the music is beautiful, and Priscilla—along with her playing Baroque oboe on the Bach at One concerts at Trinity Wall Street, and her many other engagements playing modern oboe and early instruments—continues to amaze us. Couldn’t be prouder.

The Red Book of Montserrat premieres at Kimmel

KimmelI could hardly have been happier at the premiere of The Red Book of Montserrat last night at the Perelman Theater in the Kimmel Center, Philadelphia. This newest string orchestra work is a 20-minute suite commissioned by the Philadelphia Sinfonia, Gary White, music director. There’s more information here about the work and how I went about composing it.

One of the things I wanted to make sure to mention in my remarks from the stage before the performance was how fortunate I felt in having these young people play my music. I said that I was looking over my shoulder a bit, because The Red Book was sandwiched between Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain, orchestrated by Rimsky-Korsakov, and Scheherazade, composed by Rimsky-Korsakov.

I hold R-K in the highest reverence as a composer and most especially, as an orchestrator (you can’t really separate the two, but that’s another article), and so, as I felt Tchaikovsky’s presence last week with Three Dances, I was certainly aware of Rimsky last night. He can spring an orchestra’s sound off the stage like nobody else. I was laughing and shaking my head at all the brilliant instrumental chess moves he was making all evening.

But, as I said before my piece, I had an ace in the hole: the players of Sinfonia and their conductor. They were marvelous. Red Book made its impact with their impassioned performance. The many small (and not so small) first-chair solos were lovely, the overlapping washes of sound in the fourth movement were delicious, the dance rhythms were crisp, the sound was big and juicy.

As I also said, I’m honored and humbled by being allowed to compose, and to compose for the Philadelphia Sinfonia. A thrilling performance, a thrilling concert!

The Red Book of Montserrat


The Red Book of Montserrat is a suite for string orchestra commissioned by the Philadelphia Sinfonia, the excellent youth orchestra Gary White directs. It sets five of the ten songs from the Llibre Vermell de Montserrat, the 14th-century book of music and texts from the monastery in Spain. Montserrat is a holy site of pilgrimage, a shrine to the Virgin Mary; the songs praise her and appeal to her for guidance. The tunes are well-known to early-music aficionados and played often in various guises by many ensembles. I wanted to see how they might dance in a string orchestra.

One of the challenges in composing this was to maintain interest in a strings-only setting of repeated verses meant for singing. I employed a variety of string techniques to do this, by no means avant-garde: some harmonics, divisi, pizzicato, solo writing. But they were enough, I thought, to keep the players on their toes while playing archaic rhythms in a modal harmonic language.

My hopes were that they would enjoy learning a new, energetic work, and that I would have used the traditional string ensemble to full advantage.

The piece is about 20 minutes long. The Philadelphia Sinfonia premiered 16 May 2013 at the Perelman Theatre, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia. A sneak preview of movements 2 and 3 was performed 17 Feb 2013 at St. Stephen’s Church, 10th Street below Market in Philadelphia.

These are the movements and descriptions, with the original Llibre Vermell order of songs and titles, the full score, and recorded excerpts from the premiere:

Full score

1. Empress of the Joyous City of Paradise 

#9, Imperayritz de la ciutat joyosa de paradis. Uses solos and half-sections to alter the color. Prominent is the hemiola rhythm, typical of early music, which splits the 6/4 bar two different ways, 3+3 and 2+2+2.

2. O Virgin, Shining Brightly 

#1, O Virgo splendens. “O resplendent Virgin, here on the high mountain, glowing with miraculous wonders, where the believers from everywhere ascend. Ah, with your gentle loving eye behold those caught in the bonds of sin, to let them not suffer the blows of Hell, but let them be with the blessed by your intercession.” A chant-like, rolling melody. The three-part canon is indicated in the original manuscript; I underlaid it with simple, musing bass lines.

3. Splendid Star on the Mountain 

#2, Stella splendens. The repeating verses are interspersed with a chorus of the same music, heightening the need for unflagging interest in the orchestration. Solos with varying degrees of embellishment are used throughout.

4. Our Queen above All Heavens 

#6, Polorum Regina. Meditative and static with simple imitation of a glowing melody, this splits some string sections into three parts over a ruminating bass.

5. We Hasten to Death 

#10, Ad mortem festinamus. A sermon in the decidedly non-morbid, rollicking, Totentanz tradition: “We hasten to death, let us desist from sin. I have resolved to write about the contempt of the world, so that this degenerate age will not pass in vain. Now is the hour to rise from the evil sleep of death. Life is short, and shortly it will end; death arrives faster than anyone believes.” Everyone from king to priest to rich to pauper joins hands with Death. And dances.

What's Better, Sackbut or Trombone?

[First published in the Broad Street Review, 30 April 2013, under the title The great debate: Sackbut or trombone?]

sackbutWhen all you have is a hammer, it’s said, everything starts to look like a nail. The job of constructing an answer to the early/modern instrument question—is the trombone better than its Renaissance/Baroque ancestor, the sackbut?—might start here.

But before addressing that question— first raised in the Broad Street Review last month by Dan Coren—we should look at two conventional answers—both wrong.

The first answer: Yes, the trombone is better. It’s bigger, louder, lower and brighter than the sackbut; ergo, it’s better.

That answer is tempting but wrong, for the same reason that modernism per se is tempting and wrong. Modernism contends that we’re better because—well, because we’re here and everyone else is dead. Those who came before us were good only in so far as they paved the way for us.

Whose ‘Dark’ Ages?

So modernists play the sackbut in the scales of the trombone and find the sackbut wanting. They’re like a baseball player who, having been sent into a game as a pinch runner on third base, thinks he hit a triple. All children think they’re tall on the shoulders of their fathers.

One cure for modernism is to see it for what it really is: chronological chauvinism. We call an age Middle or Dark only when we believe we’re Top or Light.

Violin vs. erhu

The second customary answer—that neither the trombone nor the sackbut is better than the other—is also wrong. Those who give this answer say that “better” is an illusion. Judging instruments is meaningless.

Some music lovers argue that a violin is better than a viol, but they’d never say (out loud) that a violin is better than an erhu, the two-stringed Chinese fiddle. (To hear one, click here.) Judging European against European doesn’t offend, but European vs. non-European is a faux pas.

Still, the erhu sounds, well, weird to our ears. With a little good will, we presume that the fault lies with us. Yet the thought nags that Tchaikovsky’s Serenade sounds better on violins.

That thought should nag. We 21st-Century humans may not be better than our ancestors, but there’s no denying that we can improve things—even instruments. The hammer may be as old as Thor, but it can still be tweaked. Violins may not be better than erhus, but we’d be foolish to deny the fitness of a tool to its purpose.

Why use sackbuts?

In other words: a hammer’s great for pounding nails, but don’t paint your house with it.

So the right answer to the early/modern question is this: Both the trombone and sackbut are better. As with every question about music, the answer depends on the music.

Why use sackbuts in 2013? I can think of many reasons, but I’ll give just one. No other brass instrument can play full out, deep into its ruddy sound, and still blend quite so well with voices. Sackbuts blend with soft and loud instruments, with recorders or flutes or organs or shawms. A gang of them perfectly balances one singer.

Try that with trombones and you’ll always be shushing them (trombones can play gorgeously quiet of course, but trombonists are forever being shushed). Or you’ll need to increase the number of singers or instruments, or introduce microphones, all to rejigger the balance. Which means you’ll alter the tone, definition of attack, and a dozen other qualities.

From cornet to trumpet

Musicians adjust and get away with a lot when they must. But music isn’t about getting away with stuff. If Monteverdi wrote for sackbuts, then use sackbuts and glory in the sound. Why ever would we change Monteverdi?

Mahler wrote for trombones; use them and they’ll play fully into their sound (and clean house). Why would we change Mahler?

Actually, the trombone evolved from the trumpet—trombone in Italian meaning big tromba, or trumpet. The sackbut comes (probably) from the French sacquer and bouter, the “pull-push” describing how it’s played. Once the trombone got its sea legs, it became a different instrument from the sackbut. Improve a sackbut now and you get a better sackbut, not a trombone.

When Louis Armstrong switched from the cornet to the brasher trumpet, some folks thought he was making a mistake. But Armstrong’s playing changed. The size of bands and venues changed. Soon, everyone switched to trumpet. But the cornet remains as beautiful as ever. Fashion changed; instruments didn’t.

As for the earliest instrument of all—the human voice—there’s not even a question. It’s always been early and it’s always been modern. David may have sung his psalms as a Heldentenor, for all we know (Wagner wasn’t around then—too bad for Wagner, perhaps—to define the voice type).

Notes need to be hit, and some even nailed; but the hammer isn’t the only tool in our tool belt. What’s the best tool? The answer is simple: What’s the job?

Red-tail and Hummingbird "The two most interesting portions of the program"

Michael Caruso reviews the Orchestra 2001/Piffaro concert in which Red-tail and Hummingbird was played twice, adding a beautiful word about Vespers.

The two most interesting portions of the program came on either side of its intermission. Prior to the interval, Piffaro’s shawms, sackbuts and dulcians played Kile Smith’s Red-tail and Hummingbird. Following the break, it was the chance for a brass quintet plus bassoon from Orchestra 2001 to perform the Philadelphia-based composer’s score. Piffaro’s musicians played without a conductor while Smith led the modern players.

Piffaro then paired an excerpt from Smith’s Vespers (commissioned in 2007) with Praetorius’ “Christ lag in Todesbanden.” Played from the church’s loft, the sound of the old instruments floated out over the audience as it must have done in centuries past in the Praetorius and with a sweetness in the Smith that reminded me just how lovely a work his Vespers truly is.

Michael Caruso, Chestnut Hill Local, 8 March 2013