The Lowly Anvil

I recently joined a wind band, after a lapse in horn playing of nearly 30 years.  It’s a continuing challenge, but once of the side benefits has been to re-learn pieces that brass bands and concert bands often play.  As I shifted from passive to more active listening , I noticed the anvil more often than I expected.

This isn’t all wind band music but they are a few of the pieces I particularly liked.  Not the Anvil Chorus from Verdi’s opera Il Trovatore, which puts the instrument in the name.  But where the tool provides a nice percussion backing.  I laughed out loud when I found musical anvils for sale, which make sense but are what the kids today might call extra.

A screenshot of the score for Holst's Second Suite in F, showing the anvil part
The anvil part (treble clef) in Holst’s Second Suite in F

Holst’s Song of the Blacksmith

Gustav Holst, perhaps my favorite wind band composer, wrote the Song of the Blacksmith as the third movement in his Second Suite in F.  Most bands would not use an actual anvil, but it sounds like they should.

Here’s one of the premier wind bands – the United States Marines Band (“The President’s Own”) – playing the piece on a recent upload on their Youtube channel.  The anvil starts about :40 seconds in.

Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelungen

Lord of the Ring fans would recognize the connections Richard Wagner made to ancient magic rings being crafted and used to keep others in thrall, as in his Das Rheingold.  They may even recognize them from the film, since Howard Shore used them as well.

As the dwarves make the ring, the sound of their anvils rings out over the music.  While I like the Ring Cycle in bits, I don’t have the endurance for the whole thing.  I was delighted to discover Der Ring Ohne Worte (The Ring without Words), a version bringing the entire cycle in at just over an hour, synthesized by Lorin Maazel.  Here’s the German university orchestra from Rostock playing the piece, starting at the anvils.


As you can see from this list under the anvil’s Wikipedia entry, there are many soundtracks that have used the anvil.  They’re mostly background, filling out the base line or adding percussion.  Here’s the anvil’s line from Trinity Infinity, a score by Don Davis for The Matrix.

Screenshot of the bottom corner of page 1 of the music score for Trinity Infinity
Part of the conductor’s score for Trinity Infinity from the Matrix soundtracks.

As you follow the score, you can hear the heavy notes, often after the strings or other instruments have built up to a forte.  It’s always more interesting to see the piece from the conductor’s score, rather than your own instrument – you can get a real feel for all the other things that are going on.

It’s more obvious in a composition like Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerard‘s Gladiator Suite.  Whatever they’re using for the anvils really rings out.

One benefit of active listening is really hearing the choices the composer or arranger made in not only the notes, but the instruments playing them.