Richard Peaslee ‘Nightsongs’: An Eclectic Trumpet

The inspiration for this blog stems from my love of newer solo trumpet works, with Richard Peaslee’s Nightsongs being among my all time favourite. A fairly unknown composer, Peaslee was born in New York City in 1930, where he later studied composition at Yale University. His initial career path was to compose for big bands, with his inspiration coming from Stan Kenton’s big band. However, his style has been described as eclectic as he encompasses jazz elements, electronic soundscapes, folk-like idioms and extended instrumental techniques. Due to his rich cultural heritage, his style has become an amalgamation of his upbringing in New York City and his involvement in a range of different musical genres including writing for film and TV, dance and various jazz ensembles. Peaslee is probably the best well-known for his work in theatre and writing scores for chamber groups in Broadway. Nightsongs was composed in 1973, specifically for Harold Lieberman, a successful music academic and trumpet player who played for a range of world-famous bands such as Pink Floyd and Benny Goodman. Peaslee wrote Nightsongs while he was in the midst of his musical theatre career, although this particular piece incorporates various jazz and extended techniques.

Nightsongs is a one-movement piece for trumpet and flugelhorn, with a string orchestra accompaniment (though it is sometimes heard with just a piano accompaniment also). There is a four-bar orchestral introduction which is primarily led by the harp playing an arpeggiated G minor chord, whilst the strings gently rumble, moving to the dominant on the off-beats in the bar. The flugelhorn then enters in its lower register, which is luscious and daringly haunting, which is paired with the swelling strings below which are delicately trilling on various notes, beginning on A and going through G and C and finally ending on D, playing a full circle of tones. Tension is built here through non-chord tones and further then releasing them back into chord tones, which creates a to-and-fro effect to the accompaniment. To counteract this, the flugelhorn plays a syncopated rhythm, consisting of dotted quarter-notes, triplets and trills, which are all primary characteristics of the main melody. By bar 26 the texture changes quite a fair bit in both the accompaniment and the solo flugelhorn, with the accompaniment (more specifically the harp and lower strings) playing eighth-note triplets and the upper strings are playing a straight and simplified version of the main theme.

Peaslee bases the next section of the piece on the twelve-tone row, which is passed from the lower strings upwards, creating a very sparse texture. This shift in texture leads up to an exciting array of ascending and descending triplets played by the soloist (note the soloist has changed to Bb trumpet here). The previous feeling of yearning that Peaslee had created in the last section is washed away somewhat and a more hopeful atmosphere is created. To emphasise the use of twelve-tone, or in fact a semi-twelve-tone approach to this section, Peaslee repeats only small sections of the row, and then abandons it after the seventh, which creates a very open feel to this section. This section is also marked Slower-Expressive which further highlights Peaslee’s various compositional decisions. Bar 83 marks the next section of the piece, and this is perhaps my favourite section. Marked Slow the accompaniment play some incredibly enchanting E minor 13th chords, which again, are syncopated. The soloist has changed back to flugelhorn for this section, and after a short introduction from the accompaniment, plays a smooth melodic line. The major challenge the soloist faces at this point is the intervals Peaslee has written, for instance intervals of 9th’s and 10th’s are incredibly difficult to play in a higher range, especially when marked pp. Again, to create atmospheric space, Peaslee relies heavily on the Lydian mode to shine through the rubato melodic lines from the soloist, against the syncopated Ab minor 11th chords played by the accompaniment. The tempo slows a little at this point, however the accompaniment is very active, now playing arpeggiated sextuplets in F# minor, with the soloist building up to the climax of a top C# marked ff and slowly dying away to a subtle mp. This section in particular I really enjoy as it just feels so other-worldly and it really shows off the trumpet as an instrument and just how versatile it can be.

The enchanting E minor 13th chords are heard again, although this time with the soloist who is playing the exact same rhythm as the accompaniment, which infers a sense of unity at this point, which there hasn’t been much of thus far. The upper strings and harp play a short melodic cell which foreshadows what the soloist plays a few bars later, and thereafter the accompaniment starts dying away and becoming less and less prominent. The underlying chords here do reflect Peaslee’s jazz background with the his use of a C minor 9th sus 4 chord underneath the melodic line played by the soloist. An E minor 11th chord is held in the accompaniment and the soloist plays a nifty descending sequence, utilising the locrian mode. This leads into the next section which is marked as Fast, and is by far the most exciting and driven section of the work. Pealsee plays with time signatures a lot here, changing from 4/4 to 3/4 to 5/4 and so on so forth. The rhythmic drive for this section is an eighth-note triplet sequence in the accompaniment and it passed between the parts within the accompaniment and the soloist. There are some very tight harmonies in this section, with Peaslee also being frivolous with his tonal centres in the solo part as you can hear his use of G# Aeolian mode, D Dorian and my personal favourite, G# Lydian mode. The melodic lines played within this section are actually taken from previous material in the piece, but as Peaslee has placed them in a new time signature (5/4 being the most prominent in this instance) he has essentially added two beats to the theme, therefore it sounds fairly different to its original source.

I do hope I haven’t lost too many of you at this point! Moving on, the next section is dramatically slower than the previous section, with a tempo marking of 60 (as opposed to 132). An eight-bar measure of the opening theme is heard in the accompaniment, with the flugelhorn leading in with a trilled low E. A tonal centre of G minor is heard in the soloist at this point, however, as you’ve probably guessed at this point, Peaslee does not stay in with this tonal centre for too long. The soloist is playing in a high range at this point and is playing in syncopation, unlike the accompaniment, which again has become quite active with eighth-note triplets. The soloist retreats back down to a lower register and the tempo starts fluctuating somewhat in the last few measures of this piece. With the accompaniment and soloist playing minimal material here, the soloist picks up and descends into a luscious low B trill, which is played through the last few bars of the piece until the last bar. The accompaniment plays another variation of the main melody based around an Eb7 chord and then the piece ends with two very spacious chords, one open fourths, the other open fifths. This ending leaves the piece feeling very unsteady and uncompleted, which essentially fulfils the overriding feeling of this whole piece.

Nightsongs is an eclectic composition that interweaves Peaslee’s jazz background, with his use of extended harmonies, use of modes and extended instrumental techniques. It’s also a piece that requires a lot of endurance from the soloist as changing between instruments is tricky enough, but with the stamina required as well due to the range of the piece and the tricky valve combinations makes it an exciting piece to learn to play. I really enjoy the style of this piece and how it easily changes from one tempo to another, whilst still feeling like a complete piece.  Peaslee’s stylistic considerations within the piece are incredibly intense but so very rewarding and as a jazz trumpeter myself, I really enjoy the extended use of harmonies and jazz modes to create a very mystical and challenging solo piece of music for the trumpet and flugelhorn.

Recommended Recordings:

This is a wonderful recording played by the incredibly talented, Philip Smith – Enjoy!


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