Wendy Mae Chambers ‘A Mass for Mass Trombones’: Tremendous Trombones!

Good afternoon! Welcome back to day 3 of my Female Fortnight Challenge. Today’s instalment is on an American modern-day composer who is incredibly innovative in the presentation of her works. For this blog I shall be looking into Wendy Mae Chambers’ powerful work A Mass for Mass Trombones. This work is fantastic, so I do hope you enjoy it!

Wendy Mae Chambers was born in 1953 in the USA. She studied at Barnard College between 1971-1975, where she received a BA in Music. She went on to study at Stony Brook University, where she earned her MA in Composition. Chambers delivers her music in very imaginative ways – usually in the form of large-scale events. The work this blog will be looking into was performed as a large-scale musical event (more on this later!). As well as this, Chambers is known for another skill – on the toy piano! The New York Times has commented saying that “Ms. Chambers is not only a composer, but also possibly the world’s most foremost virtuoso on the toy piano.” She has composed a full suite for toy piano as well as organising an event named Kun which was held in the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens in Miami – which was scored for a whopping 64 toy pianos!

Chambers is certainly best-known for her large-scale music events, which she does to bring classical music into the public sphere. Chambers has succeeded in pushing her music outside the domain which is usually restricted to specialists and academics. Her music is very unique and usually scored for strange combinations of instruments. Here are some examples of her large-scale events and works thus far:

Real Music – Scored for 9 cars (1978)

Music for Choreographed for Rowboats – Scored for 24 musicians in rowboats in Central Park NYC (1979)

Clean Sweep – Scored for 9 vacuum cleaners (1980)

One World Percussion – Scored for 50 percussionists and solo Tibetan Horn (1981)

Pluck – Scored for 30 harps at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine (1984)

Marimba – Scored for 26 marimbas (1985)

Solar Diptych – Scored for 30 trumpets (1985)

Kun – Scored for 64 toy pianos (2009)

As you can see from the selected list above, Chambers’ work is inclusive as it requires so many instrumentalists. Her large-scale events can be seen on the internet (Kun is very interesting to watch!). Chambers uses a range of both conventional and also unconventional instruments to create different effects in the different spaces that she works with. She doesn’t just write for large-scale events, however, she also writes chamber and solo works such as:

Popcorn – Scored for percussion quartet (1977)

Suite for Toy Piano – (1983)

Serenade – Scored for Trumpet and Vibraphone (1992)

Solarsonics – Scored for solo Viola (1994)

Songs for endangered Species – Scored for percussion, harp and baritone (1999&2000)

Chambers’ titles are usually eye-catching and this goes hand in hand with the music she produces as it is extremely eccentric. Chambers’ has worked closely with the likes of John Cage, who appreciated her individualistic approach to music making and sharing. She has a keen interest in Ethnomusicology (community and world music), which can certainly be heard in a wealth of her works. She has written a cycle named Mandalas which is inspired by her trip to Tibet. In the current day, Chambers lives in New Jersey, where she continues to make music with the community.

The piece I shall be looking into today is entitled Mass for Mass Trombones which is literally what it is! The work is essentially a requiem and has 9 movements:

I. Introit 

II. Kyrie 

III. Gradual 

IV. Tract 

V. Dies Irae 

VI. Offertory 

VII. Sanctus 

VIII. Agnus Dei

IX. Lux Aeterna 

Mass for Mass Trombones is based on the 13th Century Mass for the Dead, which is also in nine movements. The work is scored for a whopping 77 (yes you read that correctly!) trombones. Due to how tricky it is to find recordings of this work, I will be looking into all movements bar the Agnus Dei and Lux Aeterna. The work is in memory of Chambers’ father, John Michael Chambers. It premiered live at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City in 1993. With my analysis of this work I will also show the text that each movement of the requiem reflects (both the Latin and English translations). I will also be providing separate links to each recording within each section of writing.

I. Introit – http://www.wendymae.com/mp3/t1.mp3

Latin text:

Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine,

et lux perpetua luceat eis.

Te decet hymnus Deus, in Sion,

et tibi reddetur votum in lerusalem.

Exaudi orationem meam;

ad te omnis caro veniet.

Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine,

et lux perpetua leceat eis.

English Translation:

Grant them eternal rest, O Lord,

and let perpetual light shine upon them.

A hymn becomes you, O God, in Zion,

and to you shall a vow be repaid in Jerusalem.

Hear my prayer;

to you shall all flesh come.

Eternal rest grant unto them, O, Lord,

and let perpetual light shine upon them.

The opening movement to the Mass for Mass Trombones is incredibly evocative. Chambers writes block chords in sequence, which I think represents the light shining upon the rested. The growth that can be heard in the chords is spine-tingling within the atmosphere of the Cathedral. After this united sequence ends, a solo trombone emerges with a simple, yet effective solo. I believe this solo is the trombone asking ‘Hear my prayer’ – as this leads into the ensemble entering as a unit once more with a polyphonic dialogue between them. Due to the reverberation in the Cathedral, notes sound longer than perhaps written, which creates a really mysterious atmosphere. After this section, another solo trombone sounds with a variant of the first solo. This solo is accompanied by some of the ensemble, which grows into a rather dark, minor harmonisation. Once this has died out, another solo trombone sounds. The warm timbre of the trombone creates a very powerful sound when played in an ensemble. A call and response figure can be heard, with the timbre being full of vibrato and also full of different overtones which are produced by the various ranges being heard all at once. Another solo trombone can then be heard. This is then shadowed by a very dark section again, which utilises the bass trombone’s lower register.

The starting chord progression is then heard once more, which highlights the repeating of the first two lines of the Introit. This leads onto a section that I can only describe as a proclamation of sound. The polyphonic texture here makes it hard to distinguish parts at times, but when new themes enter they layer beautifully on top of the suspended notes. The mighty triumphant sound of the trombone makes this movement incredibly versatile. There is a small resolution section where the tone shifts to the major, which gives slight relief. The polyphonic texture is still being varied here. A solo trombone sounds again, with a new solo theme. The soloist is answered by the full ensemble, who play a very bold dotted crotchet motif. The opening chord progression is then heard once more, again reiterating the first two lines of the Introit. The reverberation within the Cathedral at the time of performance must be just thrilling to hear! A solo trombone then plays above a very solemn accompaniment, built up of broken chords. The ensemble ends on the first chord they started on, essentially completing the cycle.

II. Kyrie – http://www.wendymae.com/mp3/t2.mp3 

Latin Text:

Kyrie elesion;

Christe elesion;

Kyrie elesion.

English Translation:

Lord have mercy;

Christ have mercy;

Lord have mercy.

The second movement is started with a motif which is layered by different sections of the ensemble. This beginning is much warmer and chorale-like which is a nice contrast from the previous, darker movement. The timbre here is created by the layered textures and overtones that the trombones are playing. There is much more unison parts within this part of the movement. A variation of the initial motif is heard for some time. I think that this is reflecting the repetitive nature of this particular movement of the requiem. There is a louder chord which marks the end of the section. This leads us into a call and response section, which uses the idea of being close and far away. Dynamics and areas of the Cathedral are used here to create this conversation effect. The same motif is played in the different areas, just on different notes. The ensemble then begin to join in with a simple crotchet melody. The layers start to be rebuilt after the conversational interlude, and the warm nature of the movement is emphasised once more. Another dialogue is then heard between different parts of the ensemble, before they all come back and play in (what I think) is two main parts. You have the main melody group and then the counter-melody group. The mood is brought down slightly by 7:35 and a solo trombone plays over very quiet chords. A very warm tonic chord is played to finish this movement off.

III. Gradual – http://www.wendymae.com/mp3/t3.mp3

Latin Text:

Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine:

et lux perpetua leceat eis.

In memoria aeterna erit iustus,

ab auditione mala non timebit.

English Translation:

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord:

and let the perpetual light shine upon them.

He shall be justified in everlasting memory,

and shall not fear evil reports.

Similar to the previous movement, the Gradual begins with a chorale, although this time with a soloist singing above. There is a gradual build up of textures, with sections of the ensemble playing a variation of the first solo theme. The tenor trombones you can hear are playing in their upper registers, which sound very pure and I bet it is particularly dominant within the Cathedral. The mood turns slightly darker, with the lower trombones playing in their lower registers to counteract the higher register. The music then cuts for a second, with the solo trombone returning and playing another solo under a pedal note played by the bass trombones. Part of the ensemble play a short motif which sounds in the distance, and this is brought to the forefront, with the ensemble playing the motif. The soloist joins in this dialogue and the two parts begin another conversation. I think the reason that this movement is fairly repetitive is to reiterate the line ‘He shall be justified in everlasting memory’. Chambers’ use of the space is evident (even when you can’t see it!) it’s not just 77 trombonists all sitting together, in fact by the sounds of it only a select few are sat together at any one time!). The spacial awareness is so evocative within this movement, it’s absolutely fantastic. The soloist returns, this time unaccompanied. The ensemble start entering and the chord from the beginning of the Introit are shadowed, which reflects the first two lines of the Gradual text (as it is the same as the Introit). The solo trombone plays one last solo before the ensemble play the last chord of this movement.

IV. Tract – http://www.wendymae.com/mp3/t4.mp3

Latin Text:

Absolve, Domine,

animas omnium fidelium defunctorum

ab omni vinculo delictorum

et gratia tua illis succurrente

mereantur evadere iudicium ultionis,

et lucis aeternae beatitudine perfrui.

English Translation:

Forgive, O Lord,

the souls of all the faithful departed

from all the chains of their sins

and by the aid to them of your grace

may they deserve to avoid judgement of revenge,

and enjoy the blessedness of everlasting light.

The fourth movement begins with the tonic chord being layered from top to bottom using the ranges of the trombones. There is quite a bright feel to this movement, and the pace is slightly faster than the other movements. This movement is much more homophonic in texture. This may be very tenuous as a link, but from the beginning of the work, it is like it has set of a chain reaction of sounds from each part of the ensemble. This perhaps reiterates the link to the line ‘from all the chains of their sins’ from the text, although this is just me speculating. This movement is perhaps the shortest, as it is only about 4:35 in length. This movement is like one long proclamation on a similar theme, which is very effective within the Cathedral atmosphere. This movement is incredibly resonant both in sound and in message.

V. Dies Irae – http://www.wendymae.com/mp3/t5.mp3

Latin Text:

Dies irae, dies illa,

Solvet saeclum in favilla:

Teste David cum Sibylla.

 

Quantus tremor est futurus,

Quando iudex est venturus,

Cuncta stricte discussurus!

 

Tuba, mirum spargens sonum

Per sepulcra regionum,

Coget omnes ante thronum.

 

Mors stupebit, et natura,

Cum resurget creatura,

ludicanti responsura.

 

Liber scriptus proferetur,

In quo totum continetur,

Unde mundus iudicetur.

 

Iudex ergo cum sedebit,

Quidquid latet, apparebit:

Nil inultum remnaebit.

 

Quid sum miser tunc dicturus?

Quem patronum rogaturus,

Cum vix iustus sit securus?

 

Rex tremendae maiestatis,

Qui salvandos salvas gratis,

Salva me, fons pietatis.

 

Recordare, lesu pie,

Quod sum causa tuae viae:

Ne me perdas illa die.

 

Quaerens me, sedisti lassus:

Resemisti Crucem passus:

Tantus labor non sit cassus.

 

Iuste iudex ultionis,

Donum fac remissionis

Ante diem retionis.

 

Ingemisco, tamquam reus:

Culpa rubet vultus meus:

Supplicanti parce, Deus.

 

Qui Mariam absolvisti,

Et latronem exaudisti,

Mihi quoque spem dedisti.

 

Preces meae non sunt dignae:

Sed tu bonusfac benigne,

Ne perenni cremer igne.

 

Inter oves locum praesta,

Et ab haedis me sequestra,

Statuens in parte dextra.

 

Confutatis maledictus,

Flammis acribus addictis:

Voca me cum benedictus.

 

Oro supplex et acclinis,

Cor contritum quasi cinis:

Gere curam mei finis.

 

Lacrimosa dies illa,

Qua resurget ex favilla

ludicandus homo reus:

Huic ergo parce, Dues.

 

Pie Iesu Domine,

Dona eis requiem. Amen.

English Translation:

The day of wrath, that day

Will dissolve the world in ashes

As foretold by David and the sibyl!

 

How much tremor there will be,

when the judge will come,

investigating everything strictly!

 

The trumpet, scattering a wondrous sound

through the sepulchres of the regions,

will summon all before the throne.

 

Death and nature will marvel,

when the creature arises,

to respond to the Judge.

 

The written book will be brought forth,

in which all is contained,

from which the world shall be judged.

 

When therefore the judge will sit,

whatever hides will appear:

nothing will remain unpunished.

 

What am I, miserable, then to say?

Which patron to ask,

when even the just may only hardly be sure?

 

King of tremendous majesty,

who freely saves those who should be saved,

save me, source of mercy.

 

Remember, merciful Jesus,

that I am the cause of thy way:

lest thou lose me in that day.

 

Seeking me, thou sat tired:

though redeemed me having suffered the cross:

let not so much hardship be lost.

 

Just judge of revenge,

give the gift of remission

before the day of reckoning.

 

I sigh, like the guilty one:

my face reddens in guilt:

Spare the supplicating one, God.

 

Thou who absolved Mary,

and heardest the robber,

gavest hope to me, too.

 

My prayers are not worthy:

however, thou, good Lord, do goo,

lest I am burned up by eternal fire.

 

Grant me a place among the sheep,

and take me out from among the goats,

setting me on the right side.

 

Once the cursed have been rebuked,

sentenced to acrid flames:

Call thou me with the blessed.

 

I meekly and humbly pray,

my heart is as crushed as the ashes:

perform the healing of mine end.

 

Tearful will be that day,

on which from the ashes arises

the guilty man who is to be judged.

Spare him therefore, God.

 

Merciful Lord Jesus,

grant them rest. Amen.

The Dies Irae movement begins with a proclamation from the ensemble. This leads in a solo trombone playing the first theme. There is more active dissonance heard already within this movement. Chambers writes pulsating chords, using sharp dynamics, which creates a very interesting effect. Another bold statement is made by part of the ensemble. This leads back into the solo trombone again, which plays between the pulsating chords from the ensemble. This structure of the soloist and ensemble format is played out for quite some time. This, in turn, creates familiarity within the music. As you probably would have guessed by the length of the text for this movement of the requiem, this section is c.9 minutes long. It is quite repetitive, however, so when a new theme comes in it is repeated and emphasised quite a few times. My favourite section of this movement is the loud ‘breakthrough’ section, where it seems the whole ensemble is playing. Previous themes are subsequently layered and varied slightly for the duration of the rest of this movement. The movement ends quietly after a short outburst, and it slowly dies away.

VI. Offertory – http://www.wendymae.com/mp3/t6.mp3

Latin Text:

Domine Iesu Christe, Rex gloriae,

libera animas omnium fidelium defunctorum

de poenis inferni et de profundo lacu.

Libera eas de ore leonis,

ne absorbeat eas tartarus,

ne cadant in obscurum;

sed signifer sanctus Michael

repraesentet eas in lucem sanctam,

quam olim Abrahae promisisti et semini eius.

 

Hostitas et preces tibi, Domine,

laudies offerimus;

tu suscipe pro animabus illis,

quarum hodie memoriam facimus.

Fac eas, Domine, de morte transire ad vitam.

Quam olim Abrahae promisisti et semini eius.

 

English Translation:

Lord Jesus Christ, King of glory,

free the souls of all the faithful departed

from infernal punishment and the deep pit.

Free them from the mouth of the lion;

do not let Tartarus swallow them,

nor let them fall into darkness;

but may the standard-bearer Saint Michael,

led them into the holy light

which you once promised to Abraham and his seed.

 

O Lord, we offer You

sacrifices and prayers of praise;

accept them on behalf of those souls

whom we remember today.

Let them, O Lord, pass over from death to life,

as you once promised to Abraham and his seed.

 

The sixth section of this work begins with quite chords, which are littered with suspensions. This creates the beautiful dissonant sound and the overtones that carry over throughout the Cathedral. The dynamic grows into fruition and a wonderful theme is heard between at least three sections of the ensemble. This initial theme is taken and subsequently passed around the ensemble to create a really interesting atmosphere. Chambers’ use of dynamics within this movement is at its most prevalent, in my opinion. When the ensemble comes together, even if it is for just 3-4 notes, it is the most powerful thing! I believe that these moments are reflective of whenever the word ‘God’ or ‘Lord’ is used, as it represents strength – and 77 trombones definitely bring that! This movement is about 6:30 minutes in duration, and again is quite repetitive with the recycling of themes. It ends with chord sequence from the beginning of the movement.

VII. Sanctus – http://www.wendymae.com/mp3/t7.mp3

Latin Text:

Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus,

Dominus Deus Sabaoth;

pleni sunt caeli et terra gloria tua.

Hosanna in excelsis.

 

Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini.

Hosanna in excelsis.

 

English Translation:

Holy, Holy, Holy,

Lord God of Hosts;

Heaven and earth are full of your glory.

Hosanna in the highest.

 

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.

Hosanna in the highest.

 

This is the seventh movement of the requiem (and also the last I will be looking into due to recording restrictions). It begins with the lower end of the trombones playing quite a tumultuous motif, which is layered on top of one another. This quickly dissolves and resolves into this beautiful solo, which is accompanied by a warm sound. The solo is proclaiming this main theme, which I believe represents heaven and the joys of the afterlife. There is a lot of fluctuating from major and minor tonalities, which creates a lot of colour within this movement. I find this movement absolutely beautiful and it is by far my favourite solo out of the movements heard thus far. I enjoy the interaction between the soloist and ensemble here, they are very connected and the message speaks loud and clear. This movement concludes with the last (presumably tonic) chord dies away.

It is a shame I cannot look into the last two movements, but I do hope you have enjoyed reading and listening to this mammoth work for 77 trombones. I find it a complete triumph and I wish I can experience this live at some point in the future. I have given the individual recordings next to each of the movements above, but its you have any trouble accessing them, I shall be providing Chambers’ website below. Wendy Mae Chambers is a fantastic composer whose innovative works give anybody the chance to access classical music – something I feel is very important! If you have got this far – well done! Thank you for reading the blog, make sure you look out for what Day 4’s blog will be on tomorrow!

I’d like to dedicate this blog to the many wonderful friends I have that play the trombone – if any of you get round to listening to this work I do hope you enjoy it!

Happy Reading!

Wendy Mae Chambers Website :

http://www.wendymae.com/events.html