Monthly Archives: January 2010

Vespers interview 4

The last part of my interview with Navona, the record company behind Vespers, from last year’s release of our CD. Part 1 of the interview is here, Part 2 is here, and Part 3 is here. Additional comments as I ponder my answers now, a year after the interview, are in italics.

6. Would you elaborate on composing for Renaissance instruments in a contemporary setting?

Again, I think you have to respect the instruments for what they are. A sackbut is not a trombone, for instance. If you think of it as a small trombone, that gets closer, but it still misses so much of the essence of the instrument. It’s its own thing. But it’s the same with all instruments. Look at today: there’s so much writing for trombones that treats them as if they were tubas or bassoons. And some people write for voices as if they were trombones, for goodness’ sake.

So we have to respect each instrument for what it is. It would be an error for anyone to think of the shawm as just a primitive oboe (even though we’re told that’s what it is), but for a composer, it would be a miscalculation. Each instrument, ancient or modern, has its own particular strengths and weaknesses. Even the violin, which has hardly changed since Beethoven’s time—how could it be improved?—cannot be all things. Each instrument has its own acoustical properties. The Renaissance recorder produces such a wild mix of shapes, colors, and textures, that to overload it with chromatics would flatten out and deaden the very qualities that reveal its distinctiveness.

I think that’s true, in general, for all “early” instruments. They have character: audacious character. The “improvement” many of these instruments underwent was meant precisely to tone down that character, to knock the edges off, so that they could behave better with others. Well, it is tricky to write for early instruments in mixed ensemble. This is why they invented consorts of instruments: a range of dulcians from top to bottom, say. But there are ways to do it, if you let the character speak, and listen for where the blends are. You have to find a way to let them gallop full out, hooves flying, otherwise I don’t see the point in writing for these tremendous personalities.

It’s funny: I never was bitten by the electronic music bug. But reading the above, I’m thinking that electronic composers and I are not too far apart. We’re trying to find that essence of sound that is peculiar to the piece we’re writing. Maybe we’re not so far apart.

7. Is this the Vespers for the modern man?

It’s a good question, but I don’t know, I guess I’ve never believed in modern man. Or, I might say, people in every age believe that they are uniquely modern man, and I part company at the “uniquely.” That is, I don’t believe that we’re made of different stuff from our forebears, or that we think different thoughts, or that we face different problems. We are, all of us, in all times and in all places, the same. Old books teach us this, don’t they? When I read Thomas Mann or Mark Twain or Jane Austen or Shakespeare or Dante or Beowulf or the Psalms I come face to face with… me. They speak to me in my language; I understand them because they recognize me. I see myself in the Vespers liturgy if I listen closely enough. Then I write down what I hear. If I’ve done my job well, then anyone can hear it.

I’m not a post-modernist and have never even been a modernist. (Post-post-modernism is a phrase I’ve seen; will have to look that up. If it involves—in any way—irony, I’m outta here. You cannot have irony without tradition, without settled truth. Irony works… well, irony is funny only if you have an agreed-upon tradition. I’d make a Lutheran reference here but we Lutherans aren’t funny. No, okay, we are funny, but only to each other. You have to be there.)

8. What other projects are you currently working on?

Just finished my first string quartet, in which I attempt to solve the problem of evil in the world, in three-quarter time. I’m joking. Sort of. It’s called The Best of All Possible Worlds, and a reading of Candide got me thinking about Voltaire’s spoof of Leibniz’s optimism. I confess that I side with Leibniz, even granting, for the sake of argument, Candide’s naïveté. And it really is a waltz.

Right now I’m finishing another major choral work for The Crossing, an unaccompanied piece setting three texts of Paul Celan. Donald Nally constructed a season-long Celan Project, delving into the writing of this remarkable, sad poet. His texts are stunning. How about that, Voltaire and Celan, looks like I’m still working with language.

Then I’m continuing to work on the reduction and transcription of Vespers for other instrumental possibilities. Other choirs have expressed interest for performance with keyboard or other combinations of instruments, so Vespers continues to grab my attention.

Whew, a lot has happened in a year. I finished The Best of All Possible Worlds, then the Paul Celan piece Where Flames a Word, then Two Laudate Psalms, and as of this writing have three big commissions to finish in the next year: choral with instruments, vocal with full orchestra, and instrumental. I did finally finish the piano/vocal score to Vespers: it’s something we never needed for the premiere or recording, but is needed now.

Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins

Attracted to Gerard Manley Hopkins since college, I consider him still to be my favorite poet. 1989 was the centenary of his death, and I was asked to provide settings to poems of my choosing for a conference being held at St. Joseph’s University. Jackie sang, and Samuel Hsu was the pianist for “Spring and Fall,” “Penmaen Pool,” and “Henry Purcell.” Sam, the instigator (as always), insisted that I speak before the recital, and this gave me, as I recall, as much agita as anticipating the reception these songs might elicit from the international gathering of Hopkins scholars. I was concerned mostly with getting the notorious rhythms of the words “right”: a grail not to be found in any event, but I at least wanted to show them (including those who had written books on Hopkins’s rhythms) that I was aware of the issues.

I also wrote—why, I don’t remember—harmonizations to two melodies of Hopkins that he composed to Shakespeare’s “Who is Silvia?,” which I attempted, for this conference, in a putatively appropriate style contemporary to Hopkins himself.

In 2000, while Resident Composer for Jens Nygaard’s Jupiter Symphony in New York City, the opportunity arose to create orchestral settings for these. “Penmaen Pool” had since been recorded by Nancy Ellen Ogle on her compilation CD of  contemporary composers, An Evening with Gerard Manley Hopkins. I don’t remember if it was because I now thought of that as a separate song, or that I was taken with “As kingfishers catch fire,” or that the second song needed to have more energy (all of which was true), but I decided to replace the pool with the birds for the orchestral set, in this case with tenor soloist. Different singers became interested, and so I transposed the new set (with piano) as needed, now called, simply, Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Spring and Fall

To a young child

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow’s springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What héart héard of, ghóst guéssed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.

Í say móre: the just man justices;
Kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Chríst—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

Henry Purcell

The poet wishes well to the divine genius of Purcell and praises him that, whereas other musicians have given utterance to the moods of man’s mind, he has, beyond that, uttered in notes the very make and species of man as created both in him and in all men generally.

Have, fair fallen, O fair, fair have fallen, so dear
To me, so arch-especial a spirit as heaves in Henry Purcell,
An age is now since passed, since parted; with the reversal
Of the outward sentence low lays him, listed to a heresy, here.

Not mood in him nor meaning, proud fire or sacred fear,
Or love or pity or all that sweet notes not his might nursle:
It is the forgèd feature finds me; it is the rehearsal
Of own, of abrupt self there so thrusts on, so throngs the ear.

Let him Oh! with his air of angels then lift me, lay me! only I’ll
Have an eye to the sakes of him, quaint moonmarks, to his pelted plumage under
Wings: so some great stormfowl, whenever he has walked his while

The thunder-purple seabeach plumèd purple-of-thunder,
If a wuthering of his palmy snow-pinions scatter a colossal smile
Off him, but meaning motion fans fresh our wits with wonder.

Cello Spirituals sheet music available

The sheet music for American Spirituals, Book Two, for cello and piano, is now available through Paul Jones Music. I wrote this for Anne Martindale Williams, principal cellist of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, and Paul Jones, who accompanies her on her latest solo CD, Sacred Music for Cello, which has been available for a few months now.

Sharing in this project are many other composers and arrangers of works written for church or concert performance. Particularly, cellists who play in church services should be interested in the entire volume of new hymn arrangements, spirituals, and well-known works by Bach, Mendelssohn, and Fauré. Anne edited the cello solos and added fingerings. She was also delightful as could be while we worked on the pieces.

I’ve enjoyed working with Paul on this and on the earlier American Spirituals, Book One for violin and piano. Those were written for David Kim, Concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the CD and sheet music for that are also available.

Top 10 Classical, City Paper

In the blur of year-end festivities I neglected to post this Philadelphia City Paper trumpeting sooner: #3 in their Top 10 Classical for 2009. They say,

Good for Philadelphian Kile Smith for creating a worldwide buzz with this exceptionally beautiful work commissioned and performed by Piffaro, our acclaimed Renaissance ensemble. Vespers sneaks up on you, like a velvety cocktail, and then you are hooked.

MusicWeb International Recording of the Month

Vespers, for January 2010:

a brilliant new work… fascinating… totally modern, without ever being simplistic

Smith was able to take advantage of the fact that, like most other period wind groups, the performers in Piffaro are proficient on a variety of instruments, as were their Renaissance counterparts.… Smith uses the choir in a similar manner, extracting soloists from amongst the singers and mixing and matching…

Smith’s style is essentially tonal and he uses both plainchant and Lutheran chorales in his settings… often striking and modally inflected… moments of edginess and chromaticism. Though based on medieval and renaissance sources and ideas, the result is totally modern, without ever being simplistic.

Though the various movements are written for different varieties of forces, using two different languages and mixing plainchant and Lutheran chorales, Smith creates a coherent and well-balanced final structure.

I have nothing but praise for the performers. The Crossing sing the music as if they have been doing it all their life—there is nothing contrived or awkward about their presentation. And their twenty members make a beautifully blended sound, which matches the wind players well. Piffaro play Smith’s music as if it was the most natural thing in the world, which is a testament to their technique and to Smith’s ability to craft new music for old instruments.… fascinating blend of ancient and modern. Piffaro and Kile Smith have created a brilliant new work in the spirit of the Lutheran Vespers service which remains accessible without ever talking down.

more here

J.S. Bach, Monica Huggett, Gonzalo X. Ruiz

My latest CD mini-review for the WRTI E-newsletter. You can read all my CD reviews here.

Orchestral Suites for a young prince
J.S. Bach Orchestral Suites
Monica Huggett, Ensemble Sonnerie
Gonzalo X. Ruiz, oboe
Avie 2171

As if the modern oboe weren’t difficult enough to manage, somebody got the idea to remove all of its hardware and play it the way they did 300 years ago. This is the Baroque oboe, and it is notorious, even among period instruments, for its moodiness and independent streak, this feline of instruments.

Gonzalo Ruiz, however, is a lion-tamer. If you know nothing about the dangers early instruments present with intonation and responsiveness, you will merely love this CD. But if you are aware of the extreme-sport adventurousness of Historically Informed Performance (that’s right, HIP, they really call it that), you will be picking your jaw off the floor every minute or two to say: Wow.

This is that amazing. Ruiz reconstructs the Suite No. 2 for oboe solo instead of flute, and your head will swim at the smooth beauty of it. Violinist Monica Huggett leads Ensemble Sonnerie with intelligence and grace. The playing on this Grammy-nominated CD is supple and radiant, and Bach’s stature grows even more (if that’s possible). You’ve made it through 2009; treat yourself to a Wow.

Alexander Glazunov

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 We also broadcast encore presentations of the entire Discoveries series (now eight years and counting) every Wednesday at 7:00 pm on WRTI HD-2. For a look at all the shows, click here.

Saturday, January 2, 2010, 5:00-6:00 p.m.

Alexander Glazunov (1865-1936). The Seasons, Winter, Introduction, Scene, and Two Variations (1899). Royal Scottish National Orchestra, José Serebrier. Warner 61434. Tr 5-8. 5:36
Glazunov. Symphony No. 1, “Slavyanskaya,” E major, Op. 5 (1882). Royal Scottish National Orchestra, José Serebrier. Warner 68904. CD2, Tr 5-8. 34:17
Glazunov. Dance, from Salome (1909). Royal Scottish National Orchestra, José Serebrier. Warner 69627. Tr 7. 7:13

Alexander Glazunov is a transitional figure in Russian classical music. He combined forces once thought to be opposed—nationalism vs. cosmopolitanism, country vs. city, East vs. West—and by so doing, he helped to establish the formidable musical legacy of Russia. In his compositions, he proved that this fusion could succeed.

He was born late enough to miss the contretemps among Balakirev, Rubinstein, and others concerning the propriety of folk styles in concert music. His precociousness has something to do with it; at only 16 and already studying with Rimsky-Korsakov, he heard the premiere of his first symphony (conducted by Balakirev). It is a delightful amalgam of popular and classical sensibilities and was an immediate hit. The music-loving businessman Belyayev (who played in a community orchestra) took notice and started a company to publish the music of Glazunov, Rimsky-Korsakov, and other illustrious composers. It grew into a giant among classical music publishing houses and is still in existence today.

Glazunov quickly became one of the leaders of the new Russian music. He worked with Rimsky-Korsakov to edit and finish works of Borodin; his memory was so phenomenal that he was able to write down Borodin’s Overture to Prince Igor after hearing it played once. He became a professor at the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1899, the year he completed his ballet, The Seasons. In 1905 the Conservatory made him its Director (after he resigned in protest of their firing of Rimsky-Korsakov), and soon after, amid international tours with concert upon concert of his music, he wrote Salome. He left Russia in 1928, following many other artists who could not work under the increasingly oppressive regime. He married, moved to Paris, and died there in 1936.

While the critical reception to his music is mixed, he is important because he solidified trends during a time of upheaval. He improved and updated educational standards at the highest levels. His compositions are lyrical, intelligent, and often brilliant. He was a wizard orchestrator, following in the steps of his teacher and good friend, Rimsky-Korsakov. These are no mean accomplishments, and it takes a strong, determined, and exceptional musician to take these on, let alone succeed. Glazunov succeeded.