Sadness: Whitacre

WhitacreEric Whitacre (b. 1970) is one of the most popular composers, conductors, and clinicians today. He is very charismatic, tech-savvy, and has just received his first Grammy award. Be sure to check out his website where there are many amazing projects, such as his virtual choirs which are explained in his Ted Talk. While principally a composer of choral works, my favorite piece of his was written for band, or wind symphony as those in the profession call it.

October by Eric Whitacre is today’s piece of Classical music that expresses sadness. Here is what the composer has to say about the piece:

October is my favorite month. Something about the crisp autumn air and the subtle change in light always makes me a little sentimental, and as I started to sketch I felt that same quiet beauty in the writing. The simple, pastoral melodies and subsequent harmonies are inspired by the great English Romantics (Vaughn Williams, Elgar) as I felt that this style was also perfectly suited to capture the natural and pastoral soul of the season.

I share Whitacre’s sentiments, but I would add that to me, the piece expresses a sad, emptiness. Listen to the couple of clarinets accompanying the oboe soloist.

It seems as though the oboe is calling out for comfort, a kind word, love or acceptance. As I hear this part, I do imagine a pastoral scene where I am in the middle of a field of wheat, completely alone without a soul in sight. The scene has a chilling beauty to it, as though it would make me happy if only I had someone to share it with.


Soloists often express human emotion the most tangibly. There are two oboe solos in this piece and a rare euphonium solo as well. If you are not familiar, a euphonium is a low brass instrument with roughly the same range as a trombone. However, it has valves like a tuba and has a bell that faces up instead of forward. It tends to have a sweeter, more muted sound than the trombone. The University of North Texas, where I received my masters degree, has the only full-time euphonium professor, Brian Bowman. I gained a new appreciation for the instrument during my time there, being surrounded by so many great euphonium players.

I confess that it is difficult to listen to this piece without shedding tears. Even when I heard it for the first time in high school, I cried. And high school-age boys are not supposed to cry. I suppose I couldn’t help it, as there are some sections that express the heaving kind of crying, weeping, or sobbing. It seems that waves of emotion come over the listener during some sections, such as this one:

While the piece does end on a strong major chord, it is only after a long emotional journey. The feeling the listener is left with by Whitacre is one of a greater appreciation and greater affection for that which is important in life. This is perhaps the chief utility of negative emotions like sadness and sorrow: to give us a better perspective on the good. Thanks, Eric.

5 thoughts on “Sadness: Whitacre

  1. I was surprised and delighted to read about euphoniums in your post. The 4 valve instrument has a similar range to the bass trombone. In the USA there used to be less of a clear-cut distinction between the baritone horn and the euph, with instruments being available with a list of options: 3 or 4 valves, angled bell, different bore and bell diameter etc. I’m not sure if this is still the case. I myself spent 4 years as euph soloist with a brass band before returning to bass trombone. The euph is a magnificent instrument and a player’s endurance seems to go on forever, possibly because less effort is wasted squeezing air through it due to its generous proportions. I played an old 4 valve Boosey and Hawkes Imperial which weighed a ton but had a rich depth of tone that is difficult to describe. People in the US need to beware of inconsistencies in English descriptions. The so-called ‘tenor horn’ is an alto instrument and the baritone horn is a tenor instrument, along with the euph (which used to be called a ‘tenor tuba’). English brass bands refer to tubas as ‘basses’. ‘Tubby the bass’ doesn’t quite do it for me. Keep ’em coming, John Morton.

    • John, thanks for the feedback. I am a big fan of British brass bands. Of course, they employ baritones and not euphoniums, generally. That’s funny about the names of the tenor vs. the alto horns. I never knew that.

      • Justin, thanks for the response. The ‘standard’ brass band uses two baritone horns and two euphoniums but top bands will often have solo players also. The baritone had been neglected by writers but there are some good solo features available now. Marching band versions that point straight out at the audience are less common over here which is a pity. They also have jazz applications because they blend better with the trumpets and trombones, an important factor with section balance. Did you ever see a ‘trombonium’?

      • John, I may have seen a trombonium in college, but I’m not sure. I actually marched a marching euphonium (Dynasty brand) one year in high school. I enjoyed it very much and I wished that I’d gone on to join a Drum & Bugle Corps, even though I was to study clarinet the following year at university. It’s one of my biggest regrets.

      • We all first heard of tromboniums when JJ Johnson and Kai Winding doubled on them during one of their tours in the 60’s. Imagine a baritone horn with the bore and bell diameter of a trombone and that’s it. I recall the instrument had an angled bell, also. It would take a clever man to tell the difference between a trombonium and a bass trumpet or even valve trombone in a blindfold test. Keep in touch, JM.

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