Imagine a long, slender pipe carved from wood or ivory and sheathed in leather. Its mouth piece resembles that of a trumpet, its finger holes that of a recorder, and its slightly curved design offers a comfortable grip for the ergonomically conscious. With a delicate timbre eerily similar to that of the human voice and the capacity for light, rapid ornamentation, its expressive capabilities are manifold.
I’m speaking, of course, of the cornetto—no, not the delicious pastry accompanying your cappuccino, but the popular Renaissance instrument. Although a far cry from the Strads and Steinways filling our concert halls today, the cornetto was a premier virtuoso instrument of its time, demanding a strong embouchure and keen finger dexterity from its players. Sixteenth-century luminary Giovanni Gabrieli was quite fond of the instrument, writing a host of resplendent antiphonal works that featured a pair of choirs (cori spezzati) accompanied by a small consort of two cornettos and three sackbuts (trombones). These instrumental ensembles constituted a sort of proto-brass quintet.
At the same time Gabrieli was writing polychoral antiphony in Venice, Thomas Morley, the prominent English madrigalist, was composing music for similar ensembles in the court of Queen Elizabeth. Morley, one of only a pair of Shakespeare’s contemporaries to set his verse to music, will be featured in the upcoming concert of the American Brass Quintet in November, marking the opening of the ensemble’s 50th season.
Four hundred years after Morley’s consorts serenaded the Elizabethan royalty and Gabrieli’s canzoni rippled through Venice, the American Brass Quintet has spearheaded its own renaissance of sorts, bringing the once favored genre of brass chamber music back into prominence. Not only does A.B.Q. represent the quintessence of the modern brass quintet, the group practically invented it as a viable ensemble. Before World War II, brass quintets were about as common as the microwave oven.
One of the biggest reasons for the scarcity of brass ensembles was fairly straightforward: there was virtually no repertoire. For each of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven’s combined 108 string quartets, they wrote exactly zero brass quintets. Founded in 1960 during the postwar flourish of chamber music groups in New York City—which also witnessed the establishment of the New York Woodwind Quintet (1947)—A.B.Q. has for nearly a half-century made the commissioning of new works central to its mission. This has been an enormous success, beginning with its very first collaboration in 1960 with Charles Whittenberg.
“The first commission, Charles Whittenberg’s Tryptich, was a home run!” said A.B.Q.’s bass trombonist, John Rojak. “That must have encouraged the members at the time to pursue composers vigorously, as well as inspired composers to write great brass pieces.”
The ensemble’s most recent commission, Shafer Mahoney’s Brass Quintet, was premiered this past summer at the Aspen Music Festival, and will receive its New York debut at A.B.Q.’s November 6 concert at Juilliard. Between Whittenberg’s Tryptich and Mahoney’s Brass Quintet, more than 100 works have been written for A.B.Q. by some of the world’s most renowned composers.
“The impact on repertoire has been so significant and some of the greatest pieces for brass quintet have come around because of the A.B.Q.,” said Kevin Cobb, one of the ensemble’s two trumpeters. “It’s a testament to the group that wherever we go, we will usually hear groups playing something that the A.B.Q. has brought forth.”
The emphasis on commissioning new works is part of A.B.Q.’s unique dedication to building a repertoire of purely brass music. Raymond Mase, who has been playing trumpet in A.B.Q. since 1973, sees this element of the mission as crucial to the integrity of the ensemble: “Our group took the high road with trying to get lots of new pieces and not relying on transcriptions or arrangements. Presenters and managers encouraged this as brass could then have a more meaningful place in chamber music than if all we played was the music of others.”
Part of the project of expanding a purely brass repertoire includes the adapting and editing of Renaissance works written for the progenitors of the modern brass ensemble. Mase has taken the lead in this domain, and no one could be more fit for the task. As the writer Andrew Porter once described him in an article for The New Yorker, “Ray Mase [is] a cornetto player to end doubts about the instrument’s ability to stay in tune, and to justify that 17th-century likening of it to ‘a ray of sunlight.’”
Thus A.B.Q.’s repertoire is almost exclusively concentrated during the periods of the Renaissance and late modernity, leaving a 300-century-long blind spot during which time the bulk of the Western canon emerged. As always, there are exceptions, including the brass world’s favorite “Ludwig”—Maurer that is—a lesser-known 19th-century composer whose Five Pieces A.B.Q. will also present in its November concert.
While building repertoire is central to the promotion of brass chamber music, education is also crucial in preserving the genre for generations to come. A.B.Q. has been affiliated with Juilliard for more than 20 years and in residence at the Aspen Music Festival for nearly 40. For Mase, this steadfast commitment to education is facilitated by A.B.Q.’s compatibility as an ensemble. As he puts it, “Our skill in coaching brass chamber music is a natural extension of our working together as a group.”
Fifty years as a cohesive chamber music ensemble is no small achievement, as there are always looming factors that could lead to disbandment. Despite a high turnover rate early in its history, A.B.Q.’s last quarter-century has seen only a pair of personnel changes. As Mase notes, “Among the current five members we have collectively over 120 years of service to the group. So if anything, the A.B.Q.’s second quarter-century has been one of more stability and consistency.” In addition to the aforementioned members, hornist David Wakefield and trombonist Michael Powell round out A.B.Q.’s current roster.
Despite their recent camaraderie, plans for A.B.Q.’s 100th anniversary concert in the fall of 2060 might still be a little premature. The constant teaching, editing, commissioning, and performing are not simply generous ways of supporting an otherwise self-sufficient industry—on the contrary, A.B.Q.’s work is central to the brass quintet’s very existence as an entity. As Cobb insisted, there is still a long road ahead: “I speak of serious brass quintet music like I speak about endangered species: It’s still around, but who knows for how long. The work the A.B.Q. does is far from over.”