This is a list of xylophone pieces I’ve listened to. Much like the glockenspiel, xylophone has been limited to the orchestra and ensemble/chamber repertoire. Glockenspiel though did catch the attention of some contemporary composers, who gave it interesting and unique treatments as a solo instrument, as you could see in my glockenspiel repertoire blog post here. Xylophone, on the other hand, continues to be ignored as an unaccompanied solo instrument. The solo pieces I’ve found were almost all with accompaniment, many being arrangements of the pieces written for other instruments, or original works found in relation to popular ragtime, jazz, novelty and vaudeville music.
Unaccompanied Solo Xylophone
Thomas Pitfield – Sonata for Xylophone Solo (1967)
I read in the description of the piece here that it is known as the first solo for the instrument to require two mallets in one hand. This is a four-movement piece and explores mostly the major tonality, with only the final movement beginning in minor, only to end back in major again.
I was a bit surprised by this, but even more to learn that in general, the pieces featuring xylophone tend to use the major key. I read an interesting paper on this subject called “The Happy Xylophone: Acoustics Affordances Restrict An Emotional Palate” by Schutz, Huron, Keeton and Loewer, which goes into more detail and compares the xylophone repertoire with the marimba, writing how xylophone lacks the three prosodic cues that characterize the sad speech – dark timbre, low pitch height and slow articulation rate. (2008: 126)
The xylophone is also associated with vaudeville and jazz bands, because its lively-sounding timbre worked well with the syncopated dance music of the 1920s and 1930s. However, I do believe xylophone could be made to sound sad and dark despite its bright timbre, the same way that the composers have shown that the solo glockenspiel could produce full solo works, despite its esoteric, almost piercing sound. I hope to demonstrate this in the future.
Matthew Hindson – Flash for Solo Xylophone (2010)
I loved this piece, specifically the rhythmic accents, time signatures and various techniques, such as interesting glissandos. Although originally it was composed for marimba, the version for xylophone does demonstrate its possibility of being a virtuosic unaccompanied solo instrument, despite its non-sustaining bright sound. Such a shame that more people don’t realize that.
Lou Frank Chiha “Frisco” – Silver Threads Among the Gold (1916)
This is an instrumental version of a song of the same name, which was popular in the USA in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is recorded in the golden age of xylophone in the ragtime and novelty music (c. 1900-1925). I loved the gentleness produced on the xylophone in Frisco’s version. Interestingly, it is played with four mallets, which is often reserved for marimba – another example of how ignored xylophone’s possibilities are. Recording is quite old, but I enjoyed the special charm of vintage sound. With this song, a sextet from “Lucia di Lammermoor” on the reverse was also recorded by Frisco, however, I couldn’t find this anywhere
Accompanied Solo Xylophone
George Hamilton Green – Xylophone Rags (published 2000); Valse Brillante and Caprice Valsant (both published 1936)
I couldn’t find the precise date of when Green composed his solo rags, only the recording dates, which are confusing – some were recorded early around 1920s, while other versions date late from 1960s and 1970s. I was impressed to learn that Green, who was an incredible xylophone virtuoso, developed a repertoire for the instrument of almost three hundred waltzes, fantasies, rhapsodies, transcriptions of violin concertos and etc.
Eyles, who wrote an interesting essay on the xylophone pieces of ragtime and novelty music (1989: 21) categorizes Greens’s solo xylophone music as the novelty music, although he writes that it is not incorrect to also call it ragtime, since it closely aligns with the ragtime era and style. Thus, he offered the term novelty ragtime, which might also be the best description of the xylophone music of the period. Since I knew nothing about ragtime and novelty music to begin with, I had to investigate the terms a little bit.
While reading about ragtime, I found Berlin’s book (1980: 5), in which he writes that initially, it was related to the broken, syncopated – “ragged” rhythmic feature of the coon song, which was quite a derogative vocal musical form in which image of Black people was stereotyped. With the deracialization, the instrumental ragtime music appeared, in which marches, two-steps, waltzes and other genres were all subjected to the same syncopated rhythmic style. (1980: 8) In the early 1920s, novelty music developed out of ragtime. Eyles (1989: 19) writes that while there are many similarities, the differences include the use of minor tonality, whole tone scales, augmented chords, 9th chords, sudden key changes, and especially the faster tempos – sometimes even as fast as possible in order to create dizzying effects.
The collection of rags I found includes eight pieces. The forms are quite standard and most of its sections marked – including intros, then A, B and C sections that are often repeated, and many are with modulatory episodes. What really amazed me was how technically intricate these pieces are, from the grace notes to the three kinds of rolls that Eyles (1989: 29-31) mentioned – short/separated, legato/slurred and portamento rolls. This distinction of rolls was new to me. I loved all of them, the Whistler and Chromatic Foxtrot among those I liked the best. Just a short note regarding the accompaniment, depending on different versions that can be found, it may include piano or ensemble/orchestra.
In addition to this collection, I really enjoyed the virtuosity of Caprice Valsant and Valse Brillante, the latter being my favorite piece by Green.
I didn’t list any specific compositions, since he mostly played arrangements and transcriptions of works for other instruments. His playing blew me away. Brown also plays snare drum, and in the video below he even plays both instruments, even adding the tambourine:
Finally, among the popular ragtime and novelty music, I also listened to William H. Reitz and his arrangements, including Waterfall Polka and Gavotte.
Alan Hovhaness – Fantasy on Japanese Woodprints, Op. 211 (1965)
Arriving now in the realm of classical music, this piece is not only my favorite xylophone piece that I’ve listened to, but it introduced me to the amazing composer, Hovhaness. His music is religious and mystical in nature, drawing the influence from the exotic styles, such as Armenian music, as well as the music of the Eastern world – particularly Indian and Japanese. (Rosner, 1972: 6)
I really enjoyed the rich orchestration and all the colorful modes that were employed, and likewise all the techniques that nod to the Japanese musical influence. The main theme is beautiful, mostly using the modifications of the traditional Japanese “In scale,” which consists of E-F-A-B-C (Goto, 2013: 85), and the most amazing part about it is the way it is varied each time it appears, especially the dissonant variations by the woodwinds. The oboes, clarinets and flutes in these parts even use a special type of slide – portamento, reminiscent of the Hichiriki, a Japanese oboe. (Goto, 2013: 88) The dance section was my favorite part, specifically when the flute take the lead and plays the microtones – another musical inspiration from Japan. The march-like section is also very curious, I adored how timpani plays the same rhythmic pattern, however starting each time on different beats. The two bass drums also play curious rhythmical patterns, associated with the O-daiko drumming Ondeko – Taiko drumming music of the Sado Island. (Goto, 2013: 89-90) Finally, the ending in which the crescendo reaches the climax with all the orchestral expansion, a bit reminiscent of Ravel’s Bolero, really astounded me.
Xylophone in this piece is the real highlight and delight. From its timbre that enriched the theme, to all the unique techniques that Hovhaness employed, showing us a different side of the instrument – a mystic tone, which I don’t think any other composer explored. That is why I was quite disappointed to learn that many perform this piece on marimba. While very similar, because of the tuning and the different upper partials, xylophone has a sharper tone, while marimba has a bit more rounded tone. But this is why when this fantasy is played on marimba, I don’t feel the same drama – instead I hear a more grounded timbre. Xylophone in this piece, on the other hand, sounds a lot edgier, almost illustrating the sound of the waves, wind and the dancing droplets of the water. Somehow to me, it seems a lot more mysterious and dark, in certain parts leading us to special depth.
I really hope to get a score of this piece soon, so that I could appreciate all of these things even more and analyze the elements in-depth.
Mayuzumi Toshiro – Concertino for Xylophone and Orchestra (Pub. 1965)
The piece by Hovhaness directed me to the Japan, where there was quite an enthusiasm for xylophone, and later for marimba. Mutsuko (2005: 2-3) writes that the xylophone was imported in Japan during the Edo period, being included in the geza ongaku of the kabuki theatre. You can read my post regarding kabuki and other Japanese theatre forms here, which I did for the first part of the course. Beside kabuki, xylophone was also used in boating songs, the instrument itself was also boat-shaped. This is interesting, since when I listen to the fantasy by Hovhaness, I precisely had the association of boat, waves and the sea.
As Matsuko (2005: 3-4) further writes, in Meiji period, the boat-shaped xylophone was placed in the musical education. In the later instrumental music education, the xylophone can be seen as one of the central items. However, after the spread of keyed harmonica and the recorder, though it didn’t retain the central role, it remained indispensable in the music education. That it why it is no surprise Japan produced many well-known xylophone performers, such as Hiraoka Yoichi.
Unlike the Fantasy, I was lucky to find a full score of Mayuzumi’s Concerto, so this was a great opportunity to look at the notation for xylophone, while also being able to analyze the piece more extensively. Among the many amusing things in the first, Allegro movement, such as chromaticism, the use of octatonic and whole-tone scale, glissandos and other techniques on the xylophone, I really loved the shifting rhythm, reminiscent to the beginning of the Shishi (lion dance) section of Kanda Bayashi – a folk drumming tune from Kanda in Tokyo (Goto, 2013: 91). The short cadenza was also interesting.
Still, the second, pentatonic Adagietto movement was my favorite, especially the use of the traditional Yo scale in the main theme. One very interesting moment, occurring in the beginning of this movement, is when the trumpets and horns move in parallel motion, one using the traditional In, while the other Yo scale. (Goto, 2013: 94) You can also check a blog post I did regarding these two scale in the second part of the course here.
The third Presto movement returns to the musical ideas from the first movement, however, in a unique chromatic theme, a bit circus-like, though repeating the lion dance – Kanda Bayashi rhythm near the end. It’s interesting that Yoichi who first commissioned the work, never performed it. Whereas he liked only the second movement because of the Japanese elements, he was displeased with other parts because of the Western modernist approaches in the composition. (Goto, 2013: 98) I quite enjoyed this interesting mix of styles.
Mimura Nanae – transformation of pachelbel’s cannon.
Chamber/Ensemble Pieces with Xylophone
Igor Stravinsky – Les Noces (1923)
This is a dance cantata composed for the percussion, four pianos, chorus, and vocal soloists, however, it is more often performed without dance. Some sources list this as orchestral work, while some as an ensemble piece. This is perhaps because the piece stands in the middle – it can be viewed as written both for a reduced orchestra, or a fuller ensemble. I will group it under the ensemble works.
Les noces marks the end of Stravinsky’s Russian period. Borrowing in a unique way from the Russian folklore, he distilled this material to produce transformable pitch class sets, reusable in many permutations (Szabo, 2011: 9), also making this piece the beginning of his Neo-Classical period. The dance cantata illustrates the preparations for a Russian peasant wedding, for which Stravinsky himself wrote the text. There are two parts with four scenes in total. The first part consists of three scenes – At the Bride’s House and At the Bridegroom’s House and The Bride’s Departure. Part two contains the Wedding Feast scene.
The xylophone, just like the rest of the percussion, serves as a rather ornamental instrument, appearing and disappearing from the piece depending on the dramatic situations. There are moments though where the effects produced by the xylophone justified the inclusion of its timbre, for me especially the second scene of the first part, for example the use of the tremolo and the ascending scale-like passages. There are several places where the phrases in xylophone also use the aforementioned transformation of the pitch class sets borrowed from the Russian folk tradition. If anything, Les noces demonstrates how xylophone, despite its bright and non-sustaining sound, can be successfully used for musical dramatization.
Béla Bartók – Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion (1938)
This sonata has a very interesting structure. As Simons (2000: 25) points out, while it formally follows the traditional form of the three-movement classical sonata, there is another form interlaced within – the slow-fast-slow-fast movements of the Baroque church – chiesa sonata. (I mentioned the chiesa sonata briefly in relation to Corelli. You can read about it in the second part of this post)
The baroque chiesa form is introduced through the slow introduction to the fast first movement, slow second movement and the fast final movement. While reading about this piece, I found out that Bartok uses the golden ratio scale and the acoustic scale (overtone or Lydian dominant scale). I’ve never heard of these before, which is why I plan to add a special post regarding these two scales in the general research section of the second part of the course. There are also curious contrapuntal sections in this piece, which I wrote more about in the post regarding the modern and contemporary polyphonic pieces.
Although there are many instances where xylophone, together with other percussion instruments, only adds to the texture and color, there are certain places where the traditional roles of piano and percussion are switched. These moments where he explored the percussive nature of piano and the melodious nature of percussion really intrigued me. This is mostly in the third movement, in which xylophone introduces the dance-like theme and has a prominent function in several occasions. The most obvious example of the role reversal is in the development section, as Simons describes (2000: 85) with “…xylophone as the only representative of the thematic material during the thirty-measure antiphonal hurdy-gurdy section…”, while the pianos imitates the low-register glissandi of timpani and the bell-like register of the xylophone. (Simons, 2000: 85) In fact, the pianos die away, leaving the snare drum and the cymbals to conclude the piece. Very astounding indeed.
Note that there is a version with the orchestra added titled Concerto for Two Pianos, Percussion and Orchestra.
Schutz, Huron, Keeton and Loewer (2008) ‘The Happy Xylophone: Acoustics Affordances Restrict An Emotional Palate’ In: Empirical Musicology Review 3 (3) pp. 126-135 At: https://mimm.mcmaster.ca/publications/pdfs/emr000046a-schutz-etal_revised.pdf(Accessed on)
Eyles, R. (1989) Ragtime and Novelty Xylophone Performance Practices. [PhD] The Catholic University of America.
Berlin, E. A. (1980) Ragtime: A Musical and Cultural History. Berkeley: University of California Press
Goto, A. (2013) Yoichi Hiraoka: His Artistic Life and His Influence on the Art of Xylophone Performance. [PhD] University of North Texas
Rosner, A. (1972) An Analytical Survey of the Music of Alan Hovhaness. [PhD] State University of New York at Buffalo.
Simons, Harriet (2000)