Putting Percussion at the Forefront: Inside The Mind of William Kraft

     William Kraft is a pioneer of percussion music. He played percussion with the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 1955-1963, was principal timpanist from 1963-1981, and assistant conductor for three seasons under Zubin Mehta. Mr. Kraft has written an abundance of excellent percussion music (one of the first composers to do so), and was Composer-in-Residence for the LA Phil from 1981-1985.

Putting Percussion at the Forefront: William Kraft’s Concerto for Four Percussion Soloists and Orchestra

            When William Kraft was writing the Concerto for Four Percussion Soloists and Orchestra in 1964 and was having difficulty composing in his home environment, he went to an idyllic spot in Brentwood, California called the Huntington Hartford Colony. His friend Virgil Thomson, who had been at the Colony before and referred it to Kraft, described it as “Somewhat boring but rather pleasant… the perfect place to compose." Kraft had been working on an overture for over two and a half years and had only five minutes completed. Realizing he couldn’t compose at home, he asked his friend, John Vincent (director of the Colony), if he could stay at the Colony for the entire month of June to work on the piece. When he got there and commenced writing, he finished the rest of the overture during his first week…his creative juices were starting to roar to life! Kraft decided to stay for three more weeks and had no desire go to home. As he walked through the beautiful grounds, Kraft thought, “There was no percussion concerto that I knew of that I thought was really good. None of the concertos really had percussion at the forefront. The thematic material has to be idiomatic for percussion. If one writes a piano concerto, one emphasizes for a piano. One must find the idiomatic potentials for percussion!” Coming to this revelation, Kraft started writing Concerto for Four Percussion Soloists and Orchestra.

It should be noted that Kraft considered the tone row as a melodic idea. The tone row refers to a way of organizing pitches so that there is consistently no tonal center, resulting in a very expressive and often dissonant sound. The melodic ideas were somewhat serialized, but nothing else in the concerto was serialized. Kraft’s Concerto for Four Percussion Soloists takes us on a beautifully ardent and thoughtful journey with its three contrasting and truly innovative movements.

The First Movement: Recitativo Quasi Senza misura

The first movement shows us what Kraft’s intentions were. He had wanted to show that percussion could be beautiful and dramatic and have all the qualities that are expressed by other instruments; qualities that are usually not associated with percussion. This movement is made up of several solos for the different sub-groups of the percussion family: non-pitched percussion, timpani, and a glockenspiel cadenza in the introduction. With a thoughtful and earnest look in his eye Kraft said, “What else was there to do? The idea was to establish the idea of percussion being expressive and beautiful, I hoped.” Once Kraft set the stage in the first movement, he could move on to the second movement.

The Second Movement: Allegro con Brio

The main theme of the second movement is Kraft’s use of the tone row. Asking Kraft about the second movement, he said, “In the mid-twentieth century, one was compelled to write twelve-tone music if they were to be recognized as a composer, so this was a watered-down twelve-tone movement that only considered the (tone) row as a melodic idea. I didn’t follow the dictates of the twelve-tone idea. In a twelve-tone piece, one is supposed to have not only the pitches serialized, but also the duration, dynamics, you know… everything is controlled… all the parameters are supposed to be serialized. It’s a cop out if I’m going to be talking about it (Concerto for Four Percussion Soloists and Orchestra) as being twelve-tone. I bent the rules to say what I wanted to say. Any composer is a composer because he hears things and wants to get them down.” The second movement is quite a contrast to the first, and is light in nature, like a Scherzo. Basically, the second movement is: A: orchestra, B: percussion, and A Prime: tutti (full orchestra). He wrote the B. section for only non-pitched percussion so that the thematic material would be idiomatic. Then, pitches were applied to what the non-pitched percussion had played. The middle section starts with brushes and is succeeded by two flutes, non-pitched percussion and then the bassoons. With a martini in his hand, Kraft said, “Once you get started, the compositional gift presents the idea; the rest is creative craftsmanship.” He chose the flutes because he wanted it to have a chamber music type of feel to it. Gradually bringing in the other instruments of the orchestra, he had somewhere to go, rather than doing something like bringing in the strings right after the brushes. The whole idea that had been written for percussion was expressed in the orchestra…. this was the A. section of the second movement. The B. section was for percussion, and the A Prime section was with the orchestra. It’s an ABA form. Kraft continues, “Structure is all a matter of balance and contrast so, I generally create structure along the way, I don’t pre-conceive it as some composers do. I had two friends whom I respected greatly talking about this one time: Leonard Rosenman and Morton Subotnik. We were together one night and they were beginning new pieces. They had the music predetermined, the whole structure. And I thought (that) I don’t want to know. I like the adventure along the way, but as I’m writing, I’m always thinking ahead”, Kraft said while sitting by his fireplace. The second movement has a little bit of humor. It ends on a piccolo note doubled by a crotale and according to Kraft, “It’s a bit cute.” Then comes the third movement, which is meant to be a total contrast to the second movement.



The Third Movement: Cadenza con Variazioni

“The structure is obvious: Theme and Variations," Kraft said as the flames from his fireplace began to flutter away. The third movement begins with a timpani cadenza, and the first four notes are low C to F, followed by a high F# and G#. These notes are fundamental to the variations that follow the cadenza. The timpani are the thematic foundation. All the material from the movement is derived from the cadenza at the beginning. The timpani cadenza in the beginning is extremely loud and powerful for the purpose of contrasting the light and delicate second movement. “I remember the premier (we had four performances)… Thursday night was the opening, and Friday afternoon was mostly ladies day. The audience was a sea of blue, gray waves, in other words generally elderly ladies who went shopping on Friday morning and then went to the concert Friday afternoon. After the end of the second movement, I was tuning the timpani for the opening of the third movement and Zubin (Mehta) gave me a stage whisper. He said, ‘scare the old ladies!’. So when I hit that first note, one saw the whole audience just bounce up," said Kraft with a huge smile and lots of laughs. All that follows is in variations based on the timpani cadenza. The variations are paired between orchestra and percussion. The orchestra would play a variation, and the same variation would be scored for percussion. In the end of the third movement, the conductor controls the orchestra in a 5/8 bar ostinato while the timpani and tuba work together in a duet free from the orchestra. Some orchestras have the concertmaster hold the orchestra together in the 5/8 while the maestro conducts the tuba and the timpani, though Kraft prefers that the tuba and timpani work independently.

            Kraft wanted to find the idiomatic potentials for percussion when he was writing the Concerto for Four Percussion Soloists and Orchestra, and it’s safe to say that he did exactly that. After hearing Kraft’s concerto, it’s hard to believe that there weren’t other concertos in the early 1960’s that put percussion at the forefront; the piece sounds very innovative yet, at the same time, natural. The ratio of percussion to orchestra is extremely tasteful and it’s what any percussionist would hope for in a percussion concerto. At the time that Kraft composed Concerto for Four Percussion Soloists and Orchestra, there were, in fact, quite a few concertos featuring percussion as the solo instrument, but none of them had the same intentions as Kraft’s piece.

Kraft’s most cherished critique came from Ingolf Dahl, the very respected composer, conductor, and professor at USC. Ingolf called him the week after the performances to say, “What is this piece you wrote? A percussion concerto! Everyone is raving about it, no matter whether they are music professionals or simply members of the audience. How did you do it!?”

The intention of showing that percussion could be beautiful, dramatic, expressive, and have all the qualities that are expressed by other instruments was brought to life in Kraft's concerto. It is also lovely to have some humor in the light sounding scherzo-like second movement. Many people would agree that humor and laughter are crucial parts of life, and Mr. Kraft certainly enjoys laughing and smiling; this is reflected in the second movement of his concerto and it consequently makes a great contrast to the first and third movements that surround it. Concerto for Four Percussion Soloists and Orchestra is a wonderful, irreplaceable part of percussion literature and it turns a page in music history in a very seamless and natural way. It's a piece of music that will certainly hold its own and endure the test of time.