Monthly Archives: May 2009

Josef Holbrooke, Ralph Vaughan Williams

On the first Saturday of the month Jack Moore and I host Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection on WRTI 90.1 FM in Philadelphia and on the all-classical webstream at wrti.org. We also broadcast encore presentations of the entire Discoveries series (seven years and counting) every Wednesday at 7:00 pm on WRTI HD-2. For a look at all the shows, click here.

Saturday, June 6th, 2009, 5:00-6:00 p.m.

Josef Holbrooke (1878-1958). The Viking, Poem No. 2 for Orchestra, op. 32 (1900). Brandenburg State Orchestra Frankfurt, Howard Griffiths. CPO 7774422. Tr 2. 19:02

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). English Folk Song Suite (1923) arr. Gordon Jacob. London Symphony Orchestra, Adrian Boult. Angel 65615. Tr 8-10. 8:45

Josef Holbrooke. Three Blind Mice, Symphonic Variations on an old English Air, op. 37, no. 1 (1900). Brandenburg State Orchestra Frankfurt, Howard Griffiths. CPO 7774422. Tr 3. 14:37

Nationalism in music came later to England than it did to the Continent, and like all movements, has more than a few parts to it. Beyond the quoting of native folk tunes, nationalism evokes an ethos of the country, the people, and the cultures—even when they conflict with each other. American music, for instance, encompasses jazzy urbanisms as well as cowboy laments, often within the same composer’s output. Other currents similarly vie with each other in England, where Josef Holbrooke and Ralph Vaughan Williams are two big parts of an English identity in classical music.

Holbrooke, Josef 1Holbrooke and Vaughan Williams, born in the 1870s (along with Holst), represent the second generation of an English musical renaissance, following the older Stanford, Elgar, and others. Holbrooke is entirely English despite his German-spelled first name, which he adopted to differentiate himself from his father Joseph, also a musician. On top of that, his music is influenced heavily by the iconic German composer of the time: his chromatic harmonies, large orchestrations, and even a northern-mythological opera trilogy brimming with leitmotifs elicited a nickname for him as “the Cockney Wagner.”

But his orchestral writing was indeed new and fresh, especially to English ears. He had a knack for the grand gesture that was more than empty pomposity, but colorful, dramatic, and sweeping. Much is programmatic, The Viking being a perfect example. It follows Longfellow’s poem The Skeleton in Armor. It’s a story of piracy, love, elopement, father’s rage, sea battle, domestic bliss, the death of the Viking’s wife, and a grief-stricken suicide by the armor-clad Viking falling on his spear.

The fate of the Three Blind Mice, while also employing a sharp instrument, is—luckily for them—not as catastrophic. The immensely talented Holbrooke displays his lighter side in this brilliant setting of 20 variations on the children’s tune. Both works were recorded from materials housed in the Fleisher Collection.

Vaughan WilliamsWith Three Blind Mice, the English Folk Song Suite of Vaughan Williams sails in the main current of nationalism, folk music. Vaughan Williams earned his folk credentials by traveling throughout the countryside, collecting more than 800 songs and probably saving many from oblivion. (Always magnanimous and never an ivory-tower composer, for many years he also conducted at the English Folk Dance and Song Society.) This suite also has a curlicue history. Vaughan Williams first wrote it for band; his student Gordon Jacob, who would become a leading composer for bands, took this work and arranged it—for orchestra.

Born in the same decade and dying within three weeks of each other, Holbrooke and Vaughan Williams together helped bring the music of their country to international exposure. They did this by remaining true to themselves, and by remaining very English.

Vespers interview 2

Part 1 of the interview with Navona is here. My additional comments (now, three months after the interview) are in italics.

2. Do you draw inspiration from other musical works, art, literature, etc.?

I’ve always been drawn to words, and find that setting them, or having a text somehow behind the music, feels very natural. I love writing songs, for instance. I’ve been fascinated by language my whole life. Not that it’s easy to work with text compared to writing non-texted music—nothing’s easy, if it’s to be done well—but I find working with language to be congenial to the creative process for some reason. And for this project I was of course inspired by performing all sorts of sacred and secular Renaissance music with our little family house band, Quidditas.

I mention music and literature, but left out art on purpose. I enjoy the visual fine arts, but have not drawn inspiration from them, not to this point, anyway. Years ago I wrote a piece for a competition, based on a painting. I didn’t win. I heard the winner, and the judges were right, at least concerning my offering. I was in between pieces, and that was one of only two I’ve ever written in my entire life that was not for an actual performance. As a rule, one should never write for a competition.

3. Can you reference any of your past works in relation to Vespers?

I’ve written music for use in church ever since I began to compose. But while the Vespers texts are sacred, this isn’t a church piece, really, any more than the Monteverdi Vespers or the Bach B minor function as church music. Features that were new to me in this project were writing for Renaissance instruments, and writing for a professional choir. While I’ve written for professional instrumentalists and singers before, this was a unique situation. I didn’t know what Donald might think when I sent him the first piece I finished, the a cappella 16-voice “Herr Christ, der einig Gotts Sohn,” so I had to assure him that all of it wasn’t going to be quite that, um, adventurous.

I think that, as a whole, Vespers can be challenging to sing, although there are good chunks of it that are not all that hard. My harmonic language has always leaned modal, and much of the rhythm in this is chant-based and barline-resistant. But I always strive for individual lines to be musically satisfying in their own right, and the response from the musicians has been gratifying to me.

A few people have said that Vespers is a breakthrough work for me, and while I see where that may be true, it’s very hard for me to judge. Every piece is new to me, and I attempt new things all the time. Also, much of this work comes out of the service music I’ve been writing for the last 20 years. The major differences are (1) not a lot of people have heard that music, and (2) all of it is short. A good bit of dramatic calculation went into Vespers that I never had to do before. I found that the dramatic sweep affected every aspect of it: timing, text choices, instrumentation, texture, everything. I also found that I enjoyed that calculation immensely.

Places to buy Vespers, update

Amazon

Allmusic

Arkiv Music

Barnes and Noble

Borders

The Crossing

mp3va.com

Navona Records

Naxos Direct

Piffaro

Swapacd

Tower

Proudly in the Amazon Top 100 of Hot New Releases in Music… that is…

> Any Category

> Music

> Classical

> Historical Periods

> Classical (c.1770-1830)

Go ahead and laugh, I’ll wait.

Oh, so sorry to interrupt, but do you see Albrechtsberger’s name there? Hm? No. No, you do not. So just go ahead and laugh. That’s it. Have yourself a good time.

Vespers CD, more reviews

Uncle Dave Lewis, allmusic.com, 21 May 2009

The passages written for Piffaro alone… validate the faith they place in Smith; his thinking out of the centuries-old box in regard to Renaissance instruments leads to some novel combinations of textureVespers is an appealing listen; Smith’s music is colorful and ingratiating, and the performance of both Piffaro and the Crossing is of front-rank caliber. Performance ★★★★, Sound ★★★★

Choral Moderns

Infodad, 27 May 2009

Like Penderecki, Smith mixes old elements with distinctively modern ones, but both the elements and the way they are joined are quite different. Smith incorporates Renaissance vocal techniques and fluent modern writing for wind band, with some strikingly effective choral sections (on the word “Alleluia,” for example) and a series of instrumental movements that are more than interludes – they are themselves based on religious texts, which they seem to have absorbed and then reproduced in an alternative form. Smith… incorporates a clean, modern sound while paying tribute to compositional techniques of the past…. Vespers is an emotionally and musically appealing update of some timeless religious sentiments, with the use of German text enhancing a never-quite-imitative connection to the era of Bach – for example, in “Herr Christ, der einig Gotts Sohn” (“God’s only Son, for all time”).

Kile Smith’s Vespers released on the Navona label

Michael Lawrence, The Recovering Choir Director, 6 May 2009

Many composers today, however likable their work might be, still seem to be searching for something to say, as if they haven’t yet completely found their musical voice. Unlike so much that sounds experimental, Smith is a composer who has found his voice: Here is a man that teaches with authority. Behind his work stands not only a well-trained pen, but also the excellent Lutheran musical tradition. Vespers… combines old and new and embraces originality without eschewing lovability.

Vespers CD, Philadelphia Inquirer

Comparing Vespers to a CD by another over-50 Lutheran composer, David Patrick Stearns makes me smile and go Hm at the same time, here, in the Philadelphia Inquirer. As usual, he invites me to think. Phil Kline’s John the Revelator is the other CD, and both come in for praise, with large differences observed. I know just a bit of Kline’s music and have enjoyed it, having broadcast two of his pieces last year on Now is the Time. I have not heard what may be, to Philadelphians at least, his most-performed piece, Unsilent Night, which Relache stages every Christmas season, the city streets filled with boombox-toting audience members creating soundscapes as they walk.

Stearns rehearses the differences in music from composers who he says start from different philosophies: Kline has tension, shards, and angst, Smith has refuge, spiritual solidity, and solutions. While it would be ungracious to quibble in the face of a tremendously positive, even expansive review, I can’t help thinking that there is hardly anything more existentially problematic than the Introit for Vespers, Psalm 70 (and a big reason I found it such an attractive candidate for setting):

Make haste, O God, to deliver me; make haste to help me, O LORD. Let them be ashamed and confounded that seek after my soul: let them be turned backward, and put to confusion, that desire my hurt. Let them be turned back for a reward of their shame that say, Aha, aha. Let all those that seek thee rejoice and be glad in thee: and let such as love thy salvation say continually, Let God be magnified. But I am poor and needy: make haste unto me, O God: thou art my help and my deliverer; O LORD, make no tarrying.

What a sorry state the Psalmist David is in. I never noticed until composing this that it ends as it begins—so obvious, but so cast against type for what we think of as a praise text. If I had written the Psalm, I would’ve ended it at “Let God be magnified” and have done with it. Then it makes a nice Problem  Stated / Problem Solved. Just like TV, and a much easier ending for the composer. (The music for “Let God be magnified” I also use in the raucous ending of Magnificat.) But David, after all that, after getting to the “solution,” after finding the right place to be, falls right back to his former state. This is one of the many reasons Scripture compels: the more we discover of ourselves, the more of us we find already discovered in it.

But Stearns’s review impels me to listen to John the Revelator, as I look forward to any likenesses or differences that may occur to me.

Where flames a word, preview

Joe Barron of the Montgomery News wrote a preview of The Crossing’s Month of Moderns concerts, and passed on a bit of news to me: that Kirsten Broberg and I both chose some of the same Paul Celan text to set. My work, Where flames a word, uses three texts, the last bit being what we both chose:

(I know you, you are the deeply bowed,
I the transpierced, am subject to you.
Where flames a word, would testify for us both?
You—all, all real. I—all delusion.)

I’m looking forward to hearing Kirsten’s piece tonight, on a concert that also includes music by Bo Holten, James MacMillan, and Steven Stucky. On June 5th, I’ll be on the program with Paul Fowler, Jackson Hill, Holten, and Arvo Pärt. All at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill. The Month of Moderns started off last weekend with a powerful performance of Joby Talbot’s Path of Miracles that continues to resonate.

Vespers interview 1

In March the record company sent me questions, the answers to which would be included in a press packet going out with the release of the Vespers CD. I haven’t seen the packet, but here are Navona’s questions and my answers, with my thoughts almost three months later. I’ll break this up into multiple posts, since I do go on.

1. Did your upbringing with Lutheran Liturgy make this an especially personal project?

Very much so. I feel at home with this; using these texts, and this order, and these chorale tunes seems natural to me. Fifteen years attending a German-language Lutheran church in Philadelphia not all that long ago was also a fantastic immersion into the sound of German—the language and the chorales. I became familiar with chorales that aren’t really known to Americans, and learned how best to sing them. They are amazingly beautiful and strong works of art.

…“and learned how best to sing them,” pretty cheeky, that. I remember what I was thinking: that chorales need to have energy. Basically, we Americans sing them too slow. I knew, being raised Lutheran, that I was supposed to like “A Mighty Fortress,” for instance, but I never really did, not a whole lot anyway, and now I know why. At a larghetto tempo with full organ—which was standard American service performance practice—it is not only interminable and stodgy, but fatiguing as well. All those C’s (or D’s in some hymnals) hammering away at your larynx take their toll. I don’t mean that we have to go back to the off-beat Renaissance rhythm of the original, either. That’s fun to break out every once in a while, but even the ironed-out 4/4 version can be done well if the tempo is picked up (although much of the chorales are Renaissance music). Don’t heave the full diapason over the congregation like a wool blanket for every verse. What is even worse is that “A Mighty Fortress” is the alpha and omega of many Americans’ knowledge of Lutheran chorales. There are so many gorgeous, exciting, snappy ones that should be aired out. And they’re not too hard. Some of these were written for children. But don’t get me wrong: I didn’t figure this out. Jackie did, and if I can learn, so can everyone else.