This post lists the compositions I’ve listened to which feature glockenspiel. I was surprised at the lack of solo pieces for the instrument (more about that below), and almost no solo works with accompaniment. It was much easier to find pieces where glockenspiel is a part of an chamber ensemble or orchestra.
I’ve searched quite some time for solo glockenspiel pieces, however, the number of pieces I found was to a great extent less than what I’ve expected to come across. Note that I couldn’t find complete scores for many of the pieces mentioned here, so I may not be able to show a full understanding, and the analysis I include with my impressions also depends on other sources, especially Douglass’s doctoral dissertation. (2016)
As he writes (2016: 2), only a small body of solo glockenspiel literature existed in the latter half of the twentieth century and into the first decade of this century, much of it unpublished.
I’ve only found two pieces from this period to listen to:
Stuart Saunders Smith – Thaw (1993)
This work seems to be the first one to treat glockenspiel as a solo instrument. Before it, glockenspiel was only used for its programmatic associations, like the bell tower carillon, music boxes, or Messiaen’s use as the transcribed birdcalls. (Muller, 2014: 14)
As Wadley (1998) points out, Smith was born in Maine, with much of the impressions of his life being surrounded by its cold expanse. Thaw is one of the still-lifes of the Maine landscape, and I loved the way the rough textures engage with the more clear and delicate ones, as such reflecting the melting frost. I found a description for the performance on jwpepper:
“Imagine each bar of the orchestra bells as an icicle. As you engage each icicle it melts into other, previously engaged icicles, creating a finemist.”
All in all, I found this complex piece very enjoyable and its use of glockenspiel was very intriguing to me.
Robert Morris – Twelve Bell Canons (2005)
There are twelve movements, named after twelve months of the year. I managed to dig up the program note here that says the performer should perform only the piece titled for the month in which the performance is to take place, quietly at a meditative or solemn outdoor occasion. In Douglass’s interview with him (2016: 21), Morris said:
“I was emboldened by a young man named Trevor Saint. He wrote me and told me there was a new version of orchestra bells that came with a brighter and long-line sound, so that was one of the reason I did this piece. But I also wanted to write something that would be used in a ritualistic way. I felt that a brass instrument is good for that but I wanted something that was softer and perhaps meditative in quality. And since very often in Buddhist services gongs are used, I wanted something that would be like that but I wanted it to be played on a Western instrument.”
I particularly liked reading what he said about his compositional process:
“I had developed a theory of canons in which I can specify exactly what harmonies I want to have at what intervals. I am constructing a certain kind of matrix. I don’t consider it mathematical but many people would. It’s essentially an application of some principles of serialism to making canons. I’ve used this technique in a lot of pieces but the bell canons were sort of the announcement of this possibility and so I thought of it like a work of (if I may be so bold) Bach, in which he tries all the different ways in which you can do something.”
Douglass (2016: 21-22) lists many different things we can find within the canons, such as the typical imitation at a precise interval, isorhythmic repetition and the use of all twelve pitches of the chromatic scale. Among these, what I appreciated the most was the use of silence. The time signature in which all the canons were written – 8/4, is also an interesting choice.
Moving on, most of the solo pieces came later, breaking point being Sylvia Smith’s Summit (published 2007), in which she commissioned new pieces for solo glockenspiel:
“It seems that orchestra bells had been a missed opportunity for composers and performers. Most everyone owns or has access to orchestra bells. I wanted to bring the instrument out of the orchestra and into a solo and chamber situation. I decided that this overlooked mallet instrument deserves a bigger repertory. What I’m trying to do is make a larger statement as a collection so what I had hoped to do is really present very different pieces in very different styles just to explore things people had not thought of before on bells. I got the variety from picking the composers. I knew that if they just did what they do best, there would be variety. I’m really happy for how it turned out.” (Smith, 2015)
Still, I expected repertoire to be much bigger, unit I saw Scott Steele’s post where he mentioned Brett Dietz’s article for Percussive Notes that recognized how many composers and performers prefer marimba and vibraphone for extended solo works. Unfortunately, I am unable to get a copy of the Percussive Notes, but this volume, and the paper in general, is definitely on my future reading list.
Anyway, the reason why many prefer marimba and vibraphone may be because of the glockenspiel’s special high-pitched sound, almost harsh and uncomfortable range for the human ear (Muller, 2014: 14), which makes it sound “cerebral and esoteric.” But as Dietz wrote on his website, what is wrong with that? As you will see, despite what many think, it is possible to find glockenspiel’s artistic potentials as a solo instrument.
Dietz’s website, which I’ve linked above, has all the recordings of Summit. Here, he also added several more pieces he himself commissioned. You can also find Dietz’s performances of the pieces on his youtube channel.
Roscoe Mitchell – Bells for New Orleans
Douglass described this piece as a tone poem. While the name is usually reserved for large orchestral works, such as Strauss’s Don Juan and Liszt’s Prometheus, Mitchell wanted to use glockenspiel to tell the story of hurricane Katrina in New Orleans:
“The instrument provided me with a platform to convey the feelings I had; I knew some of the people who were affected.” (Mitchell, 2015)
Douglass divides it into five parts, all of them moving from carastrophic chaos to mournful order. Two intervals occur very interestingly – the minor second with tremolo serves to convey a sense of pain, while tritone the feeling of somberness. Beside the texture created by syncopation and tuplets, what I found particularly fascinating is the simultaneous ringing of the pitches in a few places to convey bells ringing throughout the city. This is especially in the last part of the piece, where the ringing conveys “an unresolved but acquiescent state of mind.”
Besides the amazing narrative, Mitchell’s piece really showed me glockenspiel’s capabilities and potentials of being an expressive solo instrument, which as we’ve seen above, is usually unnoticed by many. Hopefully, I will be able to get a hold of the score and analyze this piece in more depth in the future.
Will Ogdon – A Little Suite and an Encore Tango
As Douglass points out, this piece demonstrates glockenspiel’s abilities to “… create primary melodic lines (musical foreground) and secondary accompaniment lines (musical background),” resulting in an interesting homophonic texture. From the excerpts given by Douglass, what illustrates the homophony further is the two-stave notation.
The piece consists of four miniature movements. The first, Night Song starts off really sweetly, in a style reminiscent of the lullaby. Soon though, harmonic shifts in the background become apparent, as if painting the mysteries of night. I especially enjoyed the interaction between these two different musical images and the use of roll and tremolo. Second movement is A Quiet Midnight, continuing the mysteries of the first movement. Especially interesting is that the two staves have separated dynamics, making the homophonic texture even more layered. Indeed, it sounds to me as if several parts are playing. Sylvia Smith, who commission the pieces for the Summit said about this piece:
“It is tricky because he has markings where you have a crescendo in a place where you don’t strike. So you have to really think about, as a player, how you’re going to do that. I ended up thinking it and imagining singing it and it seemed to come out closer to what he wanted.”
In the third movement, Morning Bells, we find double-stop octaves, which further develop the idea of homophonic sound. I love that being morning now, the music goes back to the sweetness which we’ve encountered in the first movement. The final movement is An Encore Tango. It is different from the rest of the movements, because all the music is in the foreground. The rhythmic is the syncopated Habanera of the Argentinian tango and its variation. As Douglass writes: “…it sounds like a rhythmic, mechanical music box that has just been wound to full capacity and turned on.” The piece ends with disintegrating the rhythm: “…similar to the way a mechanical music box would slow down as the tension in the winding mechanism is gradually released.”
Honestly, before this piece, I would have wondered if voice-layering would be possible to produce on an instrument such as glockenspiel. Now I have no doubt.
Stuart Saunders Smith – Over
Another composition for solo glockenspiel by Smith. I was pleasantly surprised by this one, since it demonstrates the glockenspiel’s ability to create polyphony, written in two staves. As Douglass (2016: 48) points out, the cantus firmus of the piece is the famous melody of Over the Rainbow from The Wizard of Oz (1939), on which Smith creates a contrapuntal improvisation. In the beginning part, the melody is alluded to directly, while later in the piece the melodic fragments are very much hidden by all the improvisational techniques.
Much like the homophonic capabilities of glockenspiel, I was also unaware of its polyphonic property, which is why this piece was another important eye-opener for me. The author’s comment was also something that intrigued me:
“And the piece, like a lot of my pieces, has a subtext: what does mortality mean? The word “over” is to be used a number of different ways, as well as the song “Over the Rainbow.” What is gonna happen to us once we’re over? Is there a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow (chuckles) or is it just simply over? We don’t know. So the piece should be played as an elegy.” (Douglass, 2016: 59)
Marta Ptaszynska – Katarynka
This one was my absolute favorite! I was a bit puzzled by the title, only to learn that katarynka is the Polish name for barrel organ (Fig. 1), a small mechanical organ in which a barrel with pins or staples is made to rootate by a hand crank, engaging the individual pipes to create sound. (Randel, 2003: 87)
Fig. 1. Katarynka or barrel organ
The piece imitates this instrument wonderfully, not only in the timbre created by a range of techniques, but also by the way sections interact in tempo, specifically through the slow-fast-slow pattern of the sections, and accelerando and ritardando – just like when you turn the handle of katarynka. In the interview with Douglass (2016: 30), Marta called this whirling. She was even so imaginative as to include the following effect in the piece:
“When you stop turning the handle, it starts to produce the same sound until you start around again. You have to move the handle very smoothly and after a couple of times around the katarynka starts to produce the round sound. Otherwise, it’s just got a crackling sound.” (Douglass, 2016: 33)
Besides this, what left a really strong impact upon me were the tonalities employed, many quite impressionistic in nature, such as the whole-tone scale, and there are even interesting instances of bitonality. Despite not having a score to truly appreciate this composition and all its elements, I was truly mesmerized by all the sonorities and the colorful texture Marta’s piece pulled me into. Simply enchanting!
Glockenspiel in Chamber music
Morton Feldman – Why Patterns? (1978)
This piece is written for glockenspiel, flute and piano. Felman described his unique treatment of glockenspiel, which was quite rare at the time:
“I didn’t have to be ashamed to make a “lady,” so to speak, out of the glockenspiel. [Why Patterns?] is the only piece I know of that treats the glockenspiel as a very serious instrument. It was a big psychological decision – it wasn’t a choice of a novelty.”
Keillor writes how the piece was inspired by Feldman’s passion for abstract expressionist art, as well as the antique Middle Eastern rugs patterns:
“The master rug weavers, to Feldman’s eye, laid out a set of patterns to be woven concurrently, with no pattern holding precedence over another. They coexist in the final product, running their course on the rug with separate rates of recurrence. Why Patterns? follows the same procedure. Each instrument has a separate rhythm, and the instruments are never synchronized until the final bars. They each follow their own logic.”
Feldman himself said about the piece:
“The work is notated separately for each instrument and does not coordinate until the last few minutes of the composition. This close, but never precisely synchronized notation allows for a more flexible pacing of three very distinct colors. Material given to each instrument is idiomatically not interchangeable with that for the other instruments. Some of the patterns repeat exactly — others with slight variations either in their shape or rhythmic placement. At times a series of different patterns are linked together on a chain and then juxtaposed by simple means.”
Generally, the idea of using all of these elements in music was completely new to me, and this was also the first time that I’ve seen instruments being notated almost completely in separate time signatures. I really enjoyed the coloring by glockenspiel, and the way this was coupled with piano and flute was lovely. The effect is even more pronounced in the ending when the glockenspiel descends chromatically, while piano is in its low and flute in its high register.
Georg Friedrich Handel – Saul (1738)
As I mentioned in my timpani listening log post, Saul is my favorite oratorio by Handel, with the Dead March from Act III being my favorite piece for some time now. I wrote in the aforementioned post how interesting Handle’s choice of instrumentalization is – from the employment of the kettledrums from Tower of London, that are an octave lower than the usual timpani, as well as the use of trombones, which weren’t standard orchestral instruments at the time. The most interesting and exotic though, is his use of glockenspiel in Act I’s Scene II Symphony and choruses Welcome, welcome, mighty king! and David his ten thousand slew.
Handel’s glockenspiel is transposed down a fourth. I wrote in more detail about this instrument in my research regarding the history of glockenspiel. It’s interesting that Jennes mentions how Handel also called glockenspiel Tubal Cain – in reference to a biblical metalworker. It’s also curious that I found this paragraph that Petrus Comestor wrote:
“Tubal Cain, who was the first to invent the art of blacksmithing, […] delighted in the sounds of metals, [and invented musical tones], which discovery the Greeks attribute to Pythagoras.”
Though this is an error in the translation, and it should be Jubal instead of Tubal. We know this today, but I wonder if this may have had any influence in the past.
Anyway, although many cite Handel’s Saul as the first composition that employs glockenspiel in the orchestra, before him, Reinhard Keiser used it in his Der siegende David (1728), to “convey the magical-medicinal effect of David’s divinely inspired music-making”. (Locke, 2012: 194) However as Smither (2012: 225) points out, we can’t really know if Handel was aware of Keiser’s oratorio. Next to that, Handel utilized glockenspiel in a completely different context – “to reinforce a chorus of the Israelites that throws Saul into a jealous rage.” (Locke, 2012: 194)
I find this use of the glockenspiel – which upon first listening I thought playfully portrays the festivities, actually being the haunting sound of Saul’s rising jealousy, to be brilliant.
Douglass, M. S. (2016) Orchestra bells as a chamber and solo instrument: a survey of
works by Steve Reich, Morton Feldman, Franco Donatoni, Robert Morris, Marta Ptaszyńska, Will Ogdon, Stuart Saunders Smith, Lafayette Gilchrist and Roscoe Mitchell. [PhD] University of North Texas. At: https://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc849634/m2/1/high_res_d/DOUGLASS-DISSERTATION-2016.pdf (Assessed on 10 July 2017)
Muller, J. (2014) ‘Amidst the Noise: Stuart Saunders Smith’s Percussion Music.’ In: Percussive Notes July 2014 pp. 6-15 At: http://jeremymuller.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/Muller_SSSPercMusic.pdf
Wadley, D. J. (1998) “…And Points North” by Stuart Saunders Smith: An examination of musical influences and a performer’s guide. [PhD] The University of Arizona. At: http://arizona.openrepository.com/arizona/bitstream/10150/282597/1/azu_td_9829324_sip1_m.pdf
Smith, S. (2015) Telephone interview with Douglass, M. S. In: Orchestra bells as a chamber and solo instrument: a survey of
works by Steve Reich, Morton Feldman, Franco Donatoni, Robert Morris, Marta Ptaszyńska, Will Ogdon, Stuart Saunders Smith, Lafayette Gilchrist and Roscoe Mitchell
Mitchell, R. (2015) Telephone interview with Douglass, M. S. In: Orchestra bells as a chamber and solo instrument: a survey of
works by Steve Reich, Morton Feldman, Franco Donatoni, Robert Morris, Marta Ptaszyńska, Will Ogdon, Stuart Saunders Smith, Lafayette Gilchrist and Roscoe Mitchell
Locke, David Laurence (2012) musicologia.unipv.it/dipartimento/pdf/locke.pdf