Brass chamber music: the septet

As we have seen over the past few posts, the tradition of brass chamber music developed strongly in German and Scandinavian countries in the 19th Century. Germany embraced the quartet, German-Russian composers and players developed the quintet (I haven’t gotten to the quintet, yet, in this series of chamber music blogs), and in Sweden the sextet flourished. Finland was the place for the septet, starting around 1870. Before that time, there were brass quartets, quintets and sextets. The Swedish brass sextet was a model for the Finnish septet. The Swedish funnel-bell cornets were often used.

I first heard about the Finnish septet from my friend Michael Holmes, who had studied this in detail as a student living in Finland. He presented this as a lecture that I attended many years ago.

The traditional Finnish brass septet has one cornet in E-flat, two cornets in B-flat, one alto horn in E-flat, one tenor horn in B-flat, one baritone horn (euphonium) in B-flat, and one tuba in E-flat or B-flat. They often represented municipalities, fire brigades or factories. Literature for the groups came from military band repertoire and folk music at first, but later there began to be new compositions inspired by competitions and a growing interest in the distinctive sound of this genre.

Here is a recording of a typical Finnish-style septet:

Even Jean Sibelius wrote some compositions for the brass septet. Here are some examples that are truly extraordinary:

Here’s a split-screen performance of Sibelius’ “Tiera” by students of the Curtis Institute:

Here’s the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble playing the Prelude from Sibelius’ Petite Suite:

Sibelius wrote an Allegro, and an Overture in F-minor for septet. I owe a debt of gratitude to Kauko Karjalainen’s 1997 article, “The Brass Band Tradition” in the Historic Brass Society Journal for much of the information in this post. I think we can all agree that this repertoire is wonderful. Now let’s play and listen to these septets more often!

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