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.

No comments:

Post a Comment

I don't bite...mostly.