Monday, April 1, 2013

Italian Postcards

Italian Postcards first got legs over a decade ago, and it's still running strong! It's one of my most performed compositions. It was commissioned in 2000 by the Humboldt State University Brass Chamber Music Workshop. [Read my previous blog about the Workshop.] Every piece of music has a story or three behind it, and it's about time I wrote about Italian Postcards, especially since the German brass quintet, Windcraft, just performed the piece today in Munich. Watch their wonderful performance of Italian Postcards HERE.

The Colosseum in Rome.

The original Italian Postcards is for brass septet: 2 trumpets, 2 horns, 2 trombones, and tuba. Substitute parts make alternate instrumentations possible. The idea was to enrich the repertoire for brass chamber ensembles larger than the standard brass quintet. The piece is a three-movement suite, the idea being that each movement is the musical representation of a picture postcard from a popular Italian city. The movements are: I. Roma. Sunrise at the Colosseum; II. Venezia. Lovers in a Gondola; and III. Milano. A Crowded Marketplace. Each movement is roughly two minutes in length. Roma is brassy and grand, Venezia is tender and lovely, and Milano is quirky and fast.

In fact, I didn't actually start with an Italian focus for the music in mind, even though many listeners who have been to Italy say the music captures the imagery well. Also, no actual postcards prompted the music, and I've never even been to Italy! But it makes a good story. The truth is that, as the piece neared completion and I started pondering titles, the concept of three musical postcards from Italy came to me as I recalled a youthful memory.

Lovers in a Venetian gondola. Photo © Pierre Jean Durieu |

Jack and Althea Kifer were close friends with my parents. Althea and my mom grew up in Eagle Rock, California and established a lifelong friendship during their college years at UCLA. The Kifers visited our family often when we lived in Northern California, and I have fond memories of those times. Jack and Althea also traveled the world extensively. Althea still does, and she even made a complete circumnavigation of the world just a year or two ago. On their travels, which took them to over 200 different 'countries' (according to the Travelers' Century Club), they always sent us Burkharts a postcard or two. For a young boy like me, growing up in a rural community, getting postcards from Central and South America, Western and Eastern Europe, Africa, and the Asian and Pacific nations was exciting. The stamps were exotic and the pictures fascinating. The idea of "Italian Postcards" is closely connected to my enjoyment of the postcards from the Kifers, and I dedicated the composition to them.

A crowded marketplace in Milan.

When I finished the music, the reality of the popularity of brass septets hit me, which is that brass septets are rare, whereas brass quintets are popular in many countries around the world. So, I made a version of Italian Postcards for brass quintet (2 trumpets, horn, trombone, and tuba), and it is this version that has been widely performed and enjoyed. My own group, the Premiere Brass Quintet (see blog), made the first recording of Italian Postcards on our CD, "Watercolor Menagerie," which is available from iTunes and CD Baby (search on "Raymond David Burkhart") and from Premiere Press. The sheet music is also available from Premiere Press. Go HERE for the original brass septet version, and go HERE for the extra crispy version for brass quintet. Ordering is easy through Paypal.

Italian Postcards prompted four results worthy of mention here. First, tubists responded very well to the soloistic lines for tuba. Such writing is not often found in brass chamber music, and many tubists have found their parts in the second and third movements of Italian Postcards to be especially satisfying to play. So, in subsequent works for brass, I have taken care to write more good lines for tuba.

Second, one brass quintet performs Italian Postcards often in churches, but the title of the second movement didn't strike them as just right for sacred services. So, when they perform "Venezia. Lovers in a Gondola" in church, they rename it "Andante Religioso" or something like that. You are welcome to do the same!

Third, a dear friend, who has played Italian Postcards often, wrote me that, some day for a special occasion, he'd like the second movement sung for him. I found that to be an interesting choice of words, since the work was purely instrumental. But why need it remain so? Giving it some thought, a text from Psalm 139 came to me, and it fit the metric pattern of the second movement well: "Whither shall I go from Thy presence, or whither shall I flee?" As I considered the rest of the psalm, I found that part of it could be paraphrased to fit my melody perfectly. The result is my sacred solo, "Whither Shall I Go?"

Fourth, the popularity of Italian Postcards prompted me to write much more brass chamber music (see my Web site), including five additional suites for brass: Watercolor Menagerie (2001 -- the title work for the CD of the same name), Love Letters (2004), Bouquet de Brass (2005), Mishap (2009), and Isle of Colours (2012). All are published by Premiere Press, and Watercolor Menagerie and Love Letters can be heard on the CD, "Watercolor Menagerie." The stories behind these works are fodder for future blogs.

Ciao for now!

Dr. Ray