Writing or arranging for a small brass ensemble can be an exceptionally rewarding experience. With the plethora of brass instrumentalists in the UK it is always possible to find a group of people that would be happy to perform the music that you have written or arranged.
Of course, arranging for a brass instrument can take a little practice but with a little bit of attention to detail and perseverance it is possible to create music that is idiomatic and will inspire musicians to play. There are a number of groups that you can arrange for when thinking of brass chamber groups and a variety of variations that can be considered:
Brass Quartet – 2 x Bb Trumpet, French Horn and Trombone
Brass Quartet – 2 x Bb Trumpet & 2 x Trombone
Brass Quartet – 2 x Bb Cornet, Tenor Horn and Euphonium
Brass Quintet (orchestral) – 2 x Bb Trumpet, French Horn, Trombone and Tuba
Brass Quintet (brass band) – 2 x Bb Cornet, Tenor Horn, Trombone and Bass (Usually Eb)
Brass Sextet (orchestral) – 3 x Bb Trumpet, French Horn, Trombone and Tuba
Brass Sextet (brass band) – 3 x Bb Cornet, Tenor Horn, Trombone and Bass (Usually Eb)
Brass Septet (orchestral) – 3 x Trumpets, 1 x French Horn, 2 x Trombone and Tuba
Brass Septet (brass band) – 3 x Cornets, 1 x Tenor Horn, 2 x Trombone and Eb Bass
Brass Octet – 4 x Trumpets (Orchestra) – 1 x French Horn, 2 x Trombone and Tuba
Brass Dectet or ten piece (orchestral) – 4 x trumpets, 1 x French Horn, 4 Trombones and tuba
It is worth considering which instruments have possible alternatives to offer a wider range of possibilities. As you can see it is easy to interchange the trumpet and cornet or the tenor horn and french horn. You can also substitute tenor trombone with baritone or euphonium, or alternatively the Eb Tuba with the F, BBb or CC Tuba. It is also possible to use a flugel horn in place of a fourth trumpet or cornet if required. If you are writing for an orchestral group and prefer to have a different trumpet sound it is possible to use the piccolo trumpet, a trumpet in D or in F. If you are after an additional tonal quality it is always worth considering adding an organ part.
Although brass players do need to have rests considered for breathing, it is worth considering stamina of the players that you are writing for. This is especially important for first trumpet parts where it is not a good idea to write high in the register for continued periods of time.
Remember that the majority of instruments in the brass family will require you to deal with transposition.
- The trumpet, cornet and flugel horn are all pitched in Bb and this will mean that the written note for the player will sound a tone lower.
- The tenor horn is pitched in E flat and sounds a major sixth lower than than written.
- The French horn is pitched in F and will sound a perfect fifth lower than written. It is well worth avoiding a lot of the higher register for the French Horn. These notes are tiring to play, even for the accomplished player, and should be used with caution. A grade 5 player would normally only be expected to play up to a top G.
- The Tenor Trombone can be written in bass and tenor clef and the notes that are played sound at concert pitch. However, when the trombone has notes written in treble clef (as you would expect for a brass band player) the music sounds a major ninth lower than written. The tenor trombone is used as a Bb flat instrument in a brass band context.
- The Bass Trombone is always written in bass clef (or sometimes tenor clef) and sounds at concert pitch.
- The tuba’s music is written in bass clef and sometimes, although quite rarely, in the tenor clef.
- The Eb bass sounds an octave and a major sixth lower than written and the Bb bass sounds two octaves and a major second lower than the written note.
- The euphonium and baritone are sometimes written in bass clef and when this is the case they will sound at concert pitch. In the brass band, the euphonium and baritone are written in treble clef and the notes sound an octave and a major second lower than written.
Brass chamber groups are becoming more popular than ever and it is easy to see why. The instruments are all extremely versatile in terms of what they are capable of and as well as producing a rich sonorous sound it is possible to create a light and delicate texture. The popular quintet format is very well known and there are a plethora of exceptional compositions and arrangements for the combination. These include the Malcom Aronld, Ewald Quintets, Richard Rodney Bennett (Arabesque) to name but a few.
If you are writing for a particular event or place it is worth considering carefully how you organise the music. For example, if you are writing for a large church or a resonant building it is worth writing tutti rests to allow the sound to clear occasionally. It is always worth considering the tonal capabilities that are available within the quintet and remembering that although the tuba may seem like an ‘um-pah’ instrument it is capable of great agility and lightness.
Arrangements have been made exceptionally popular by Canadian Brass, Empire Brass and members of the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble.
In fact PJBE have made a profound difference to the way in which brass instruments have been used and viewed by the general public and musical fraternity. Through their tireless work, brass chamber music is in the strongest possible place and now has a real expanse of music available. There are also a large number of ensembles that exist providing a real platform for the music to continue in the future.
With an ethos of looking forward and a willingness to play new music, brass ensembles are definitely worth the effort and time for composers or arrangers. So, lets start writing now…