He was born in Saint Petersburg and died in Leningrad. Ewald was a professor of Civil Engineering in St. Petersburg, and was also the cellist with the Beliaeff Quartet for sixteen years. This was the most influential ensemble in St. Petersburg in the late 19th century, introducing much of the standard quartet literature to Russian concertgoers. He also collected and published Russian folk songs. Ewald’s professional life, like that of many of his musical contemporaries, was in an entirely different field; that of a civil engineer, in which he excelled, being appointed in 1900 as professor and manager of the Faculty of Construction Materials at the Institute of Civil Engineers. An obituary signed by his fellow professors of the I.C.E. makes mention of a profound heritage in the development of materials production for construction resulting from Ewald’s work, and suggests that “…an entire industry for the production of brick and cement manufacturing is beholden to him”. Brass players however are indebted to him for something very different – a series of quintets which have become a staple of the repertoire and which represent almost the only, and certainly the most extended examples of original literature in the Romantic style.
Ewald’s formal musical training began in 1872 when he enrolled at the St Petersburg Conservatory at the age of twelve. Founded in 1861 by Anton Rubenstein, this institution was the first of its kind in Russia and it was here that Ewald received lessons in cornet, piano, horn, cello, harmony and composition.
Ewald’s cello teacher Karl Davidov encouraged him to immerse himself in practical music making of any sort whenever the opportunity arose. For that reason Ewald soon became (and was to remain throughout his life) one of the most active and versatile members of a remarkable circle of dilettante musicians. This group, whilst all being amateur in the strict sense of the word, made, with the influence of a shared interest in indigenous folksong, a significant contribution to the development of a distinctive Russian national musical style which, for the majority of the 19th century had been almost entirely submerged by the Germanic tradition in both teaching and practice.
Amongst this circle was a group who became known as The Mighty Handful, consisting of Mily Balakirev (railroad clerk), Alexander Borodin (chemist), César Cui (soldier and engineer), Modest Mussorgsky (Imperial Guard Officer) and Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov (navy officer). The musical focal point for Ewald and the Mighty Five, as well as others, was provided by what became known as the ‘Friday Evenings’ - weekly soirées for amateur performers and composers at the house of Mitrofan Petrovich Belaïev (timber merchant), which were initiated in 1888 and continued unbroken until his death in 1904.
Belaïev’s importance in the development of the musical life of Ewald and all the other Friday Evening participants was considerable and went far beyond merely providing a venue for their activities. After the death of his father in 1885, Belaïev set about encouraging the development of new music in a number of practical ways, such as: the founding of a publishing house (Edition M.P. Belaïeff); the promotion of orchestral concerts; and the aforementioned Friday Evenings. It was at these evenings that one of the regular performing ensembles was a string quartet in which Belaïev played the viola and Ewald the cello. As well as providing opportunities for music making, these gatherings allowed Belaïev to audition potential publications and it is almost certain that it was for performance by, and amongst his friends and musical contemporaries, that Ewald’s four quintets were written.
For many years Ewald’s four quintets were considered to be the first original pieces composed specifically for an ensemble which is recognisable today as essentially the modern brass quintet - consisting of two treble, valved instruments, one alto, one tenor and one bass. A recent discovery of 12 four-movement brass quintets, thought to have been written in the 1840s (pre-dating Ewald by some 60 years) by the French composer Jean François Bellon (1795–1869; violinist and one-time leader of the Paris Opera Orchestra), show that Ewald was not actually the unwitting pioneer he was long thought to be. However, the popularity of his quintets has in no way diminished because of this.
Both Bellon and Ewald wrote music that displayed the increased virtuosity and homogeneity possible as a result of developments in brass instrument design and manufacture in the second half of the 19th century. Inevitably, at such a time of change and invention, there would be some variation in the exact design of instruments in favour from country to country and so the actual constituent parts of Ewald’s quintet would have differed in some ways from those instruments played in Bellon’s quintet and certainly in current times, by such as Canadian Brass.
Photographic evidence from about 1912 shows that Ewald himself played in a brass quintet. It is seen to consist of two piston-valved cornets, rather than the modern choice of trumpets; a rotary-valved alto horn, rather than the French horn; a rotary-valved tenor horn, rather than the trombone; and a rotary-valved tuba (played by Ewald himself). Of these instruments, it is the alto and tenor horns that are most strikingly different from their modern quintet counterparts. There is no documented evidence of exactly for whom Ewald composed his quintets, or the exact instruments on which he envisaged them being performed. Therefore, one can only speculate that, for instance, cornets might have been preferred to trumpets, because of the latter’s association with the more strident demands made of it in symphonic settings, rather than the intimacy of a chamber setting for which the former was perhaps more suited. Similarly, the likely preference of a tenor horn (similar to today’s euphonium and an instrument occasionally transposed as a soloist to the symphony orchestra, as in the first movement of Mahler’s 7th symphony), may have been the result of a wish on Ewald’s part to maintain the virtuosic potential, as well as tonal characteristics throughout his ensemble by sticking entirely to valved, conical-bored instruments. Certainly this suggestion is one that might find favour with modern-day trombonists required to rise to the challenge of what can only be described as, at times, unidiomatic writing. And of course one cannot reject the theory that it was simple pragmatism of utilizing insurments and performers close at hand.
For many years it was wrongly thought that Ewald was the composer of only one quintet, his Op. 5 in B flat minor, because this was the only one published (by Edition Belaïeff in 1912) during his lifetime. The discovery of the other three works was due to the tireless research of André M. Smith, (an eminent musicologist and former bass trombonist at the Metropolitan Opera, New York) who was given the manuscripts by Ewald’s son-in-law, Yevgeny Gippius in 1964. A further nine years of investigation was necessary to authenticate the manuscripts, before the pieces were given their first modern performance during the 1974-75 season in a series of concerts by the American Brass Quintet at Carnegie Hall. Recently, Canadian Brass published critical editions all of the Victor Ewald quintets edited by Tony Rickard, taking into account, and benefiting from, all recent scholarship surrounding these works.
A very approximate chronology of the composition of the four quintets runs as follows:
Quintet no. 4 in A flat major (Op. 8) - c. 1888
Quintet no. 1 in B flat minor (Op. 5) - c. 1890
Quintet no. 2 in E flat major (Op. 6) - c. 1905
Quintet no. 3 in D flat major (Op. 7) - c. 1912
The apparent confusion between the numbering and approximate date of composition of the quintets arises from another long-held misconception, also corrected by the studies of Mr. Smith. For some time it was considered that Quintet no. 4 (Op. 8) was merely a transcription by the composer of a string quartet written in the late 1880s and not an original composition for brass. However, Op. 8 was indeed initially written for brass but was considered to be unplayable at the time due to the demands of both technique and stamina made on the performers. Ewald duly reworked the piece for string quartet and it was in this form that it was published as his Op. 1.
The Canadian Brass editions do not set out to provide an Urtext, but rather to give performers a consistent and practical set of material for concert use. The edition therefore follows the instrumentation conventions of the modern brass quintet, in that it is scored for two trumpets (in B flat), French horn (in F), trombone and tuba. Due to the aforementioned taxing nature of the piece, an alternative E flat part is provided for the 1st trumpet in Op. 8.
Suggested metronome markings have been added based on the accumulated evidence of several recordings (including those by Stockholm Chamber Brass, Canadian Brass, The Wallace Collection and the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble) as well as the editor’s own preferences. They are in no way included as a definitive statement, but rather in the hope that they may be of assistance to musicians discovering these pieces for the first time.Brass Quintet No. 1 in Bb min, Op. 5 (1902, rev. 1912)
II: Adagio - Allegro - Adagio
III: Allegro Moderato
Brass Quintet No. 2, Op. 6
I: Allegro Risoluto
II: Tema Con Variozioni
III: Allegro Vivace
Brass Quintet No. 3 in Db Maj, Op. 7 or 11
I: Allegro Moderato
Brass Quintet No. 4, Op. 8
I: Allegro Commodo
IV: Allegro Con Brio
Philip Jones Brass Ensemble, Quintet No. 1, originally released on Just Brass, LP Argo Records ZRG 655 (1970), rereleased on CD Philip Jones Brass Ensemble Greatest Hits Decca 289 467 746-2
Empire Brass Quintet, Quintets No. 1, 2, 3, Russian Brass, LP Sine Qua Non Superba SQN-SA 2012 (1977)
The Brass Ring, Quintet No. 1, Crystal CD561 (1986)
Atlantic Brass Quintet, Quintet No. 3, Summit DCD 119 (1990)
Stockholm Chamber Brass, Quintets No. 1, 2, 3, 4, Sounds of St. Petersburg, BIS BIS-CD-613 (1994)
Center City Brass Quintet, Quintet No. 1, Chandos 10017 (1996)
The Wallace Collection, Quintets No. 1, 2, 3, Baltic Brass, Deux-Elles DXL 1042 (2001)
Center City Brass Quintet, Quintet No. 3, Chandos CHSA 5023 (2004)
Philadelphia Orchestra Brass, Quintets No. 1 and 3, Ondine ODE-1150 (2010)