Friday, November 30, 2012

Get your warm fuzzies someplace else!

I'm going to start blogging on Fridays as well, starting in Advent (which is a really bright idea for a church organist. We've got hardly anything to do until after Christmas).

Friday's blog will deal with music for the church, so if you'd prefer not to read about or hear music for the (Methodist) Christian Church, don't read the blog on Fridays. On Mondays I don't plan to post any religious music at all. That's my thin wall between church blog and state blog.

I'm not planning to get into any heavy theological matters on Friday, either, though. But I'm not going to completely avoid the topic. You're welcome to participate regardless of your background or your thoughts or beliefs. To paraphrase the old slogan of the Methodist Church: Open minds, open hearts...open blogs. Y'all come on in and make yourselves comfy.

Now then...the first week of Advent (cue scary music).

Look, I realize this isn't going to make a great first impression, but the prescribed readings for the first week of the four week period of Advent which leads up to Christmas (and is also the first week of the church year) are not exactly what you'd call the most cozy. Given the whole business with the Mayan prophecies about the end of the world in three weeks (with attendant media frenzy), what better time to introduce dire predictions about the end of the world? And that's exactly what those readings are about. Repent! Gird your loins! The end is near! Better be on your best behavior, you know?

Historically, some very large sections of the church have, on the first (and subsequent) Sunday(s) of Advent, made it a time for sober reflection, including Bach's church in Leipzig, Germany. Which would explain why the selection you are about to hear does not, in any remote way, even vaguely resemble "Jingle Bells." Or "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas." Or "Sleigh Ride."  There. You've been warned.

It is based on an ancient chant called "Come, Savior of the Nations." Unfortunately my budget doesn't allow me to have a team of monks on stand-by, so I've recorded the chant on the organ the way it proceeds in Bach's piece, but you get the idea:

 Veni Redemptor Gentium  (that's what the boys call it in Latin)*

*note: this version has had one note consistently altered from the original, and is more rhythmic. You might call it the 17th century German Protestant version of the 12th century(?) chant. The text goes back to the 4th.

Now one of the tricks about listening to a piece by Mr. Bach is that once everything gets going at once, it can be difficult to figure out what exactly to be listening for. In this case I've given you the melody of the chant so you'll recognize it when it goes by. And don't worry about finding it in the maze of simultaneous voices. It isn't subtle. It doesn't sneak up on you (kind of like the great and terrible day of the Lord).

The first phrase will appear, loudly, with tuba stops in the pedals (the bass), about 40 seconds or so into the music, once the upper three voices have all made their appearance, one at a time. This will be followed by a period in which the pedal will take a short rest. In about 15 or 20 seconds, a second phrase will thunder forth. I've turned the volume down on the recording but I still don't recommend being too close to your speaker. Lather, rinse, repeat, until all four phrases have completed, which only takes a couple of minutes. If it takes you a few times to figure out how the whole thing works, just listen to it again. It'll be here.

Meanwhile I'm going to go put on sackcloth and mope around the house for a bit.

Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland   by J. S. Bach  (BWV661a if you're into that sort of thing)



Monday, November 26, 2012

Coldness and Darkness

I'd like to introduce you to the Sibelius Piano Sonata. It's not that often played and I haven't noticed any good performances of it on the web, so if you've not heard of it get in line. Once again, for any locals who were at my concert last year in which I played the Alkan Grand Sonata, also a very rarely played piece, I don't have any t-shirts for you saying you've heard it. But the Sibelius is its own reward.

It's also not all that time-consuming for a piano sonata. I'm only going to play the first movement today, which is enough to start. Since this is the first time I've played a piece called "sonata" on this blog, I'm going to conveniently side-step all the fun intricacies of what that means and simply make a couple of suggestions. The first is that you listen broadly.

Jean Sibelius: Piano Sonata in F, first movement: molto allegro (very fast)

Sibelius' piece starts off with a jubilant, dance-like tune, which kicks off a whole series of little musical ideas that might sound like birds, or bells, or more dancing, and which build to two rapturous climaxes--climaxi? climae? Anyhow, the second one is bigger than the first, and when we come down off that mountain we hear three sets of chords repeated three times--thrice three. Section one takes just under two minutes.

Section two is much more melancholy and/or passionate than the first. It goes into several minor keys, and gets more subdued as it goes along. Near the end, you are hearing the two ends of the piano with nothing in between--a very lonely, thin sound. But it is actually a hint of the opening tune coming back, and after a rush of scales, the opening dance returns (4:34), and the third section of the piece is largely a repeat of the opening section, although it is a little richer and more complicated than it was the first time, possibly for having had the experience of passing through the second section. It ends exuberantly.

Now at this point most musical commentary would suggest that you listen for this theme or that theme and how the composer cleverly turns it upside down in the second part of the development--which we can try another time, but for today all I'm really interested in is having you notice how the piece slowly makes its way from light to darkness to light. This isn't at all how a textbook would suggest that a composer put together a sonata and it is really Sibelius' unique personal contribution. It's also rather appropriate for the last week in November.

Here in the northern hemisphere the earth is getting colder, and darkness is settling in at about 4:30 in the afternoon here in Illinois. It seems as though we are very much in the middle section of this piano sonata.

Further, if you use your imagination you might hear, in addition to possible bird calls or tolling bells or rhythmic tunes that make you want to dance as I mentioned above, rushing scales that sound like a fierce north wind or crashing waves or other elements of the natural world.

While I'm sidestepping major musical issues I should mention that the idea that you should listen for things like wind and waves in a piece of music is kind of on the outs with the musical establishment; it is considered pretty superficial listening, and composers aren't supposed to engage in that sort of thing either. But more about that another time. Meanwhile, I think we can justify that sort of listening partly because Sibelius tended to think that way while many other composers did not, and because while you are listening for local phenomenon like birds and bells you are also listening to the long-term unfolding of the piece, which takes more sophisticated listening, so I ought to be able to keep my license with the musical establishment on that basis--we'll see.

I first heard this piece on a record one day at the school library when I randomly pulled it off a shelf and made a discovery. It made enough of an impression that I wanted to listen to it a second time. Which is all you can really ask of a new piece of music, that it intrigue you enough that you want to allow it time to grow on you, and to really start to figure out what it is about, because with most composers of merit it is going to take several listens to really get into the heart of the music anyhow. The question is are you game for another listen?

Jean Sibelius: Piano Sonata in F, first movement: molto allegro (very fast)

Monday, November 19, 2012

Reverse Listening

A little while ago, I played Ralph Vaughan-William's Prelude on Rhosymedre in church and someone commented that she hadn't heard the hymn tune part of it before and found it interesting. That's because I happened to point out that it's based on a particular hymn tune and sang a bit of it (which I will not do for you today--aren't you lucky.)

If you're not familiar with this piece, you should just listen to it. It's lovely. Actually, that's a bad pun, but...oh, just listen to it.

Vaughan-Williams: Prelude on Rhosymedre

Even if you've heard this piece before--it's actually achieved a bit of notoriety in the church organ literature, which I realize does not put it up there with the theme from the James Bond movies in terms of recognition but is still something--you may not have noticed the main melody. Which seems, odd, right? I mean, you'd think that would be the first thing you'd notice. But probably the part you are most likely to whistle is the part right in the beginning. You know, this part. It turns out not really to be the main attraction, technically speaking.

Vaughan-Williams's piece is actually based on a hymn tune. Hymn tunes are often given interesting names, like Duke Street and Erie and Runs Like the Wind (actually, that's probably a race horse), in part because people often used to sing different sets of words to the same tune and the author of one was not likely to be the composer of the other. This particular tune is called "Rhosymedre" which is why it's a Prelude [based] ON Rhosymedre. It has an alternate name as well, which is "lovely." Bad pun revealed. (c.f. three paragraphs ago)

Here's how the hymn tune goes, as an instrumental.

Now if you have the time to go back and listen again, you'll notice a couple of things. One is that the tune doesn't make its grand entrance for 30 seconds into the piece, and another is that it is louder and slower than the other stuff. And, given that first characteristic, you may be kicking yourself for not noticing it before. It's the loud part, after all. But then, it is also slower than the stuff Mr. Vaughan-Williams wrote to go around it, and just as our eyes tend to focus on action, our ears do as well. We also aren't really into waiting 30 seconds. If it's that important it should show up right way.

And besides all that, Vaughan-Williams did wrote a very nice little bit of music, which is why he has a pretty good reputation over a half-century since he died. The hymn tune, on the other hand, was written by--uh...

Actually, it was written by a Mr. J. D. Edwards, which fact Vaughan-Williams kindly notes in the score. It is his tune, after all, even if it is not all that exciting. But it is a nice tune. Rather lovely, wouldn't you say?

There are, in fact, a whole lot of pieces of music in which this sort of thing happens, particularly organ music, and also particularly church music. One of the most famous is one by a Mr. Bach which happens to start out like this, but is in fact based on a hymn tune which begins like this. Bach's contribution is more attractive musically, and again, is more recognizable. The man or woman on the street just might recognize the first part, but would be hard pressed to come up with the second part. And yet that second part is actually the hymn that the congregation was supposed to sing. And, let's face it, it would be a challenge to sing the swirl of notes Bach came up with for the instruments to play over top of it.

Anyhow, while the faster parts get all the attention, it isn't a bad idea to listen for the other things going on in a piece of music. Sometimes they turn out not to be so significant after all. Sometimes they are actually what inspired the composer in the first place.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Onward and up--well, not this time, actually...

I felt like just having a little fun today, so if you're in a similar mood, this is for you. It's a bit of Joplin. I've been thinking about having a go at some Jelly Roll Morton, actually, but probably won't get around to it until after Christmas. At the moment, just not being sick and too busy is a good start. So let's have a bit of Joplinesque cheer...

(Click here to make noise come out of your computer!)

The piece is called "The Cascades" and it is exactly halfway through the Joplin catalog. If you don't mind one nerdy observation, since I spent a month in 2009 working my way through the first half of Joplin's rags, I find this one interesting for one particular reason. The ideas are great, the tunes, the rhythms, are catchy, and, by the way, the second part of the piece, a little over a minute and a half in, when the 'trombones' come in in the left hand--that's the trickiest thing Joplin ever wrote, I think--but if you're a composer you know that after a while, cranking out piece after piece, you struggle not to keep doing the same thing. And for Joplin, it wasn't easy to stay fresh, since rags have a pretty set formula. The odd thing here isn't that there are four sections, all of which repeat (and each, conveniently 45 seconds long in the recording!): no, what's odd is that, after the first two parts, it's time to change keys. Nothing new there. But for some reason, Joplin decides not to go where ragtime composers nearly always go, which is four steps up; instead he decides to go one step DOWN. What made him do that, I wonder?

Here's what I mean. I'll play you about four seconds of the first part, and fade into a little bit of part three....
It's not that much lower, so don't worry too much if you can't hear it.

The Cascades was actually a sort of man-made waterfall at year-young world's exhibition in 1904. It was built right outside the festival hall, and apparently Joplin, whose music was played there, wrote the music as a kind of tie-in. Did he conceive the strange modulation in response to the idea of falling water?

Kind of far-fetched, isn't it? Maybe, after 21 rags he was just trying to find something different. And, since, as far as I know, he didn't do it again, maybe he figured it was the kind of eccentricity you only did once.

But you know, if you listen to it all the way through, you probably won't even notice it. That's how smoothly he constructs this little transition passage.

Boy, you never know when a composer is doing something truly strange and making it sound like no big deal at all. You just can't trust these folks, can you? wink, wink, nudge, nudge...

Monday, November 5, 2012

Keep Singing

A few months ago we lost a friend to cancer. There was really no way to be able to attend the memorial service--it was on the east coast and I had duties several states west, but one morning as I was in the middle of a little surge of compositional activity for other reasons it occurred to me to try to set one of his favorite songs for piano and send it along as an mp3 file that could be played during the service. Eventually, some of us gathered in Illinois to celebrate his life and the piece was played there as well.

I don't generally work that fast, but the piece was written in one day and recorded the next. Actually, as I listen to it now I think I could play it much better, given a little time to sort out what is actually going on musically--giving my mind and my fingers time to let it ripen, so to speak. But I've been too sick to practice for the last couple of weeks so you're stuck with the original version!

The piece is based on a folk song, "How Can I Keep from Singing." The day it was written, Pete Seeger, who has become identified with the piece, was a guest on The Colbert Report, which I happened to see. And, when I looked up the piece on Wikipedia (where else?) it turned out the lyrics were first published on that same day in August, exactly 144 years earlier.Odd, that.

One of the things that makes the piece tricky is that in addition to the tune itself there is another, faster melody, bubbling along in the same hand, crossing the tune over and back, continually singing, running without growing weary...

When the tune itself temporarily disappears there is a melancholy section in e minor...remember, this is for a memorial service. But there is something else before the end, before it all fades away into silence. Maybe it will speak to you. Or not.

In any case, yesterday at our church we remembered those who had passed on in the last year (on All Saints Sunday this is customary throughout large portions of the Christian world). We do so by lighting little candles for the departed when we go up for communion. I was, as usual, busy playing the piano and could not light a candle. So this is my candle.

Rest in peace, Howard.

How Can I Keep from Singing?