Katzenjammer Prelude


for brass ensemble and percussion

duration: 5′



for brass and percussion

duration: 5′

Commissioned by friends and family in memory of Janet Katz; Harvard class of 1977
Premiered by the Harvard Band, Nov. 1, 2013; director, Mark Olson. Conducted by Louis Coppersmith. 

Notes from the composer:

Sometimes, as composers, we are presented with the task of writing a piece in memory of someone we’ve never met. We are sent anecdotes, other items, tidbits, and stories, and asked to create a piece of music that will have meaning — not only to the immediate friends and family, but also to those who will experience the piece for perhaps years and years to come. To be honest, I wrestled with this quite a bit; how do we find those elements of a person’s life that can be boiled down to four or five minutes of music, and feel that we have given the person justice? Such was the case in creating this short fanfare-style work for the Harvard Band in memory of Janet Katz.

I was contacted by her friends, as well as the director of the band, and asked to consider several criteria in a new piece for Janet:

(1) That it should be a fanfare, written for brass and percussion only.
(2) That it include a “trumpet cheer” — a section that could be extracted for use in the stands at football games and other sporting occasions.
(3) That I consider that Janet played french horn in the wind ensemble, and tenor drum when marching.
(4) That it include a drum cadence.
(5) That it reference places that were important to her: New Jersey (where she was
from), London (where she spent most of her adult life), and Harvard.
(6) That she loved the music of Bruce Springsteen and Stephen Sondheim.
(7) That it include whimsy, strange juxtapositions, perhaps even “Ivesian overlaps”.

So where does one begin?

Well… the first thing I knew was that I wanted the very opening to be celebratory, and all about Janet, in an instant; therefore, the first 12 bars or so bring together several main elements:

(a) After a drum-roll, the piece opens with huge chordal writing, in a very celebratory manner.
(b) The trumpets play a melody taken from Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: “There’s no place
like London” (I chose to borrow from Anthony’s innocent tone, rather than Todd’s bitter rendering), while the horns (Janet’s instrument) wail on the opening line from Springsteen’s “Born to Run”.
(c) The percussion play the rhythm from the famous tenor drum solo (Janet’s other instrument) from Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra. I thought this appropriate because of the tenor drum, but also because Bartok’s most famous piece was premiered in Boston. Much more of this occurs throughout my piece.
(d) Lastly, the opening tempo is “quarter note = 56”. This is the age that Janet died. Way too young, of course.

Once I had the opening “Janet music” composed, I began searching for inspiration for the rest of the piece. The grand pause (G.P.) that follows the opening fanfare is very significant.

Oddly enough, inspiration for this came from the “poop sheet” that Janet provided for the band for an upcoming Harvard–Yale football game in 1975. This was sent to me by Janet’s classmate and my friend, Laura Garwin, and it provided several light-bulb moments. In the “poop sheet”, there occur three mistakenly typed semicolons. Two appear to be slips of the fingers on a typewriter (remember, this was 1975!), but the third is unexplained. This gave me the idea to use the grand pause — a musical technique to stop the music temporarily — to build dramatic tension, even if it comes unexpectedly. So, of course, there are three such “Grand Pause”s in the piece.

The marching material — appropriate for a marching band — that immediately follows the first pause combines the (very much disguised) “Ten Thousand Men of Harvard” (the most traditional Harvard “fight song”) with excerpts from the aforementioned Bartok concerto. This develops and grows, and then abruptly stops (G.P. #2).

After this second pause, I felt the piece needed some beautiful, reflective music, always important when writing about a lost family member or friend. To do this, I combined a horn solo (Janet) that resembles the famous soli in Brahms’s 4th symphony — which any horn player would know — with fragments from “…no place like London”.

I followed this with a quick transition — again using very veiled hints at London life (in this case “Rule Britannia”) — before leading us to the “trumpet cheer” (see (2) above).

Back to the “poop sheet”: Janet concedes her lack of humor (not true), but in doing so, states
that “the Globe never asked Napoleon to write for the ‘My Favorite Jokes’ column.” This was great fodder for me. I had been told that these trumpet cheers are often stolen from orchestral repertoire. The reference to Napoleon was perfect, and immediately gave me some Beethoven ideas for the piece. His 3rd symphony was nicknamed the “Eroica” in homage to Napoleon (Beethoven later tried to retract this — unsuccessfully), and includes a huge french horn fanfare in the scherzo. I transposed this fanfare for trumpets, and… voilà. I then added a “roll-off” for the drums, with requested “unexpected beats”.

For the coda of the piece, I re-rendered the march music (followed by the third G.P.) and revisited the opening “Janet” music. Janet’s “poop sheet”, combined with Beethoven again, gave me material for my ending: she uses four postscripts (ending with P.P.P.P.S.), which I found hilarious. Similarly, Beethoven often had a difficult time ending his works: just when you think it’s over, he has added another bit of material; and just when you think that’s over, etc… Rather then drag it out, however, I simply quoted the trumpet cheer four times (P.P.P.P.S.), and then added seven punch chords, signifying the list of seven items to be checked off her list at the end of the “poop sheet”.

It is impossible to capture someone’s entire life in a five-minute work. However, the process of gathering what I could of the essence of Janet Katz, and setting it to music, has proven a most rewarding one for me. I do hope it provides meaning for those close to Janet, and for those who may never have met her. I sincerely wish to thank the family and friends for involving me in this work, and for providing background information to serve as inspiration.

The title, “Katzenjammer Prelude”, was suggested to me by another of Janet’s friends, Laura Trumbull. It literally means “cat’s wail” or “discordant sound” and has sometimes been used as a term for a hangover. Though my piece is not necessarily “discordant”, it did occur to me that its air of celebration might reflect a prelude to the suffering associated with a “Katzenjammer”.

And lastly, one more thing: there are three semicolons in this program note… Jim Stephenson, September, 2013.

Additional information

Additional information

Weight 5 lbs