Monthly Archives: July 2015

The Symphonic Randall Thompson

On Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday, August 1st, 5-6 pm.

Randall Thompson (1899–1984). Symphony No. 1, movements 1, 3 (1930)
Thompson. Symphony No. 2 (1931)

RandallThompson480Alleluia is by far Randall Thompson’s best-known work; he is known overwhelmingly for his choral music, such as Frostiana and The Peaceable Kingdom. But Thompson also composed three symphonies, so we’ll get to know his symphonic writing on Discoveries.

From two works of his that are in the Fleisher Collection, we’ll hear the outer movements of Symphony No. 1 and all of Symphony No. 2. Both were composed early in his career, within a two-year span.

In two ways Randall Thompson exemplified the goal of the best in academia: thorough devotion to students by the passing on of a tradition of excellence, and a personal model of success in his field. The son of an English teacher, Thompson entered Harvard in 1916 after trying his hand at a few compositions.

There is an oft-told story that he auditioned for the choir, directed by the legendary Archibald T. Davison, and didn’t get in. “My life,” he would famously say later, “has been an attempt to strike back.” (There’s a good article on Randall Thompson in Harvard Magazine.)

Graduating from Harvard in 1920, he received his doctorate from the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. Thompson went on to teach at Wellesley College, Berkeley, the Curtis Institute of Music—where he was its director from 1941 to ’42—the University of Virginia, and Princeton; in 1948, he returned to Harvard to teach. He chaired its music department from 1952 to 1957. In his career he taught harmony, counterpoint, music history, and choir, and in 1935 he even wrote a book on what should be taught, College Music.

He was, by all accounts, witty and well-loved. Composers who studied under him include those as different as Leonard Bernstein, Samuel Adler, Leo Kraft, Frederic Rzewski, and John Davison (who taught for many years at Haverford College). Thompson’s approach was always classical—to teach the tradition and the principles by which the masters governed their art. This may help to explain the balance and rigor exhibited by all his pieces, including these two symphonies.

Howard Hanson conducted the premiere of Symphony No. 1 with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra at Eastman in 1930, as part of Hanson’s seminal American Composers Concerts series. In 1932, Symphony No. 2 began life under the same auspices. Throughout the works, listen for the craft of the lines and the control of the emotional landscape. Randall Thompson sculpts the orchestra into a choir of voices, into a praise—an alleluia—of balance, reason, and beauty.

A Symphony Bigger Than the World

[First published in WRTI’s Arts Desk, 27 Jul 2015.]


Gustav Mahler, etching by Emil Orlik, 1902

Mahler once told Sibelius how big a symphony needs to be, but Mahler’s own second symphony, called the “Resurrection,” is even bigger. WRTI’s Kile Smith considers the Mahler 2nd, its themes of life and death… and of life after death.

Mahler once said, “A symphony must be like the world. It must contain everything.” If that is so, then Mahler’s second symphony, the “Resurrection,” is bigger, even, than that.

Gustav Mahler had already tackled big questions in an orchestral work called Funeral Rites. He played it on the piano for Hans van Bülow, and the conductor said that it made Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde sound like Haydn. Mahler turned Funeral Rites into the first movement of his Resurrection symphony.

“Rise again, yes, rise again, / Will you My dust, / After a brief rest” are words from a poem that struck Mahler like a bolt of lightning. Questioning life after death, the symphony remembers happy times but also yearns for release from meaninglessness. It ends with a transcendent hope, in poetry Mahler wrote himself, “Rise again, yes, rise again, / Will you, my heart, in an instant!”

Mahler knew that his second symphony paralleled Beethoven’s ninth. But he also knew that symphonies go well beyond words, because he also once said, “If a composer could say what he had to say in words, he would not bother trying to say it in music.”

Three Things I Learned from Yes

YesFragile[First published in Broad Street Review, 21 July 2015.]

Saw my buddy Andrew, a gifted keyboardist, vocalist, and composer, shook his hand, and then held it. I said three words.

“Chris Squire, man.”

“Oh, man, Chris Squire.” He looked at me and nodded his head slowly. “Ohh, man.”

That was all we needed to say. The bass guitarist for, the founder of, and the one constant in the English rock group Yes, Chris Squire, had died the day before.

Andrew and I are of that half-generation that came of musical age after the spring rains of pop, in that early summer overtumbling with what was planted and what was not, yet all a brilliant green. We came of age just after the Beatles and the Petula Clarks and the Beach Boys—we knew and loved them of course, but as we hovered in the years between accountability and majority, they were not ours, not really. They and Motown and the early Temptations and Woodstock were, as it were, the pastures of our older brothers and sisters, through which we were allowed to run. We sang along with “American Pie,” but it was the Iliad of our elders.

We searched for a music that would be ours alone; we listened intently for whatever it might be. Saddled with inchoate aspirations we were, in a word, adolescent: a state that is an Atlantis now, in these arch times, when everyone wants to be an adult but no one reads Siddhartha in eighth grade, when everyone wants to be childlike but no one reads Mark Twain, when everyone barks opinions but no one remembers that the signal aspect, the great goodness of the adolescent, is silence.

We wanted the unfathomable in harmony. We craved rhythms that would pound in a chest where we hoped was a heart, and, oh, we wished for melodies that would soar above the cracking ruins of an imagined world.

We wanted Yes, and then Yes came, and Yes was ours.

1. Line

The first of three things I learned from Yes was that music has a line. Chris Squire, they say, was a lead bass, which means, I suppose, that he played the bass guitar not as a bass, but as a guitar. We didn’t know the term “lead bass,” but we knew he used a pick, and no bass player used a pick because it was uncool. The secret, though, of those who are cool is that they don’t care about cool. The uncool care about cool. Squire used the pick, used the bass, as a weapon, ripping tracers of fiery lead into the sky. We looked on in wonder.

The group in its early-’70s configuration—The Yes AlbumFragile (both 1971), Close to the Edge (1972), Tales From Topographic Oceans (1973)—included Steve Howe, Zen master of a guitarist who played koans, not solos. Drummer Bill Bruford combined a jazz spontaneous combustion with a feel for the long line. Rick Wakeman’s layers of keyboards were much more than the show that they appeared, sparkling and overwhelming like a giant wave, rising and crashing. The ethereal voice of Jon Anderson was the cantus firmus, high yet strangely stony, part choirboy and part gargoyle.

With filigrees, trills, mordents, and arpeggios, this was like no rock music we’d ever heard. It growled as if it were worshipping in the nave of a cathedral. Lines leaped high, spinning into the darkness of ribbed vaults, and it wasn’t until much later that we found a word to describe it, a word far removed from rock. This was positively Baroque.

2. Sound

Many composers today love to work with the textures of sound. I am not one of those. I don’t say that defiantly; it’s the nature, I suppose, of what I’ve come to believe is the kind of music I write, which is, more and more, driven by counterpoint. There’s a sense that you could transcribe the music of the supreme contrapuntists—Bach, Josquin—over to kazoos and the music would still sing. But only a sense. They knew what they were doing with sound as much as anyone, only they balanced sound with every other feature.

So I’ve aspired to balance, but I have to pay attention to raw sound, as it isn’t instinctual with me. Then I hear Squire’s Rickenbacker bass, with round-wound strings, driving (often, from on high) the electric force-field of Yes. This isn’t a thuddy wall of sound, either; each element is lively. With seemingly little post-production, it is crisp and real.

3. Rock

Yes would come to be called prog-rock—progressive rock—but we didn’t call it that then. The trick of Yes is that for all their innovations they never forgot that they were a rock band. For all its album art, for all its high concept lyrics, it just didn’t take itself all that seriously.

We composers love to take ourselves and our theories seriously. Theory is fine, but we forget that theory never describes what is there. Theory describes us. Music industry theory—the suits—turned Earth, Wind & Fire into a disco band, after all. Theory gave us Schoenberg (read that how you may) and theory also gave us the Monkees. Yes, then, when we needed Yes in that early summer of pop before the drying winds came, resisted theory, and played over a crack in the earth.

I took up the bass guitar. I took to composing, too, and in early adulthood put the bass down, easily finding my limits and fearfully discovering my hopes. Silence, and the time it needs, will do that.

Chris Squire is gone, but remains the herald of my and Andrew’s adolescence, and the shibboleth of our middle age. We speak his name to each other, and nod, and know. Yes was unlike anything else in pop—before or after—in that parenthesis of adolescence, an unfathomable, pounding, filigreed, soaring rock band. And Yes was ours.

Capriccio on Now Is the Time

TrombaMundiA caprice may be deeper than we think on Now Is the Time, Saturday, July 18th at 9 pm. Jeremy Gill’s just-released Capriccio with the Parker String Quartet is, at first glance, a series of technical exercises. But the pizzicatos, slides, duets, trios, and sound-painting are only the vehicles for deep music-making. We have time on the show for most, but not all of, Capriccio, and it’s an exhilarating ride.

Karim Al-Zand begins the program with a tasty Fanfare, in itself a trio of duos, for the six trumpets of Tromba Mundi. The percussion quartet calling itself ensemble, et al. performs Clock-watching Isn’t Waiting, one of a handful of attractive pieces the group composed together for its recent CD present point passed.

from ensemble, et al.: Clock-watching Isn’t Waiting 

Karim Al-Zand: Fanfare
ensemble, et al.: Clock-watching Isn’t Waiting
Jeremy Gill: Capriccio, excerpts

Every Saturday night at 9 Eastern, Kile Smith hosts Now Is the Time, all styles of contemporary concert music by living American composers on WRTI’s all-classical stream. At click on the Listen: Classical button at the top of any page. Thanks for supporting American contemporary music on WRTI! 

The Rite of Spring

[First published in WRTI Arts Desk, June 8, 2015.]

In June of 1912, Igor Stravinsky premiered the piano version of his daring new work The Rite of Spring, a year before its orchestral unveiling. His piano-playing partner was none other than Claude Debussy. Classical music has never been the same since the public first heard it.



Debussy, Stravinsky, 1910. Photo by Erik Satie

The reaction to the ballet was furious. It was so immediate, in fact, that the audience started to riot during the performance. Their response may have been caused by the purposely inelegant dancing or by arguing factions of music-lovers, but whatever the reason, shouting started during The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky at its 1913 premiere, and it turned the music world upside-down.

Its impact is even more remarkable when we consider that Stravinsky had already made a provocative name for himself with two previous ballets, Firebird and Petrushka. The opulent scoring of the first shows Stravinsky’s indebtedness to his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov, and the second reveals the savagery (open or barely-contained) that would be a hallmark of the Stravinsky style no matter what kind of music he wrote.

But even by his standards, the rambunctiousness and abandon of The Rite of Spring is over the top in the world of classical music. With dancing or without, the music leaves us breathless.

Puccini, an expert at expressing emotion himself, saw the second performance and said that Stravinsky’s music was “the work of a madman. The public hissed and laughed,” he said, but then he added, “and applauded.”

A Quiet Alleluia, Famous for 75 Years

RandallThompson480[First published in WRTI’s Arts Desk…]

In this week in July of 1940, one of the most-loved and most-sung choral works, written by a composer living in Philadelphia, was premiered in western Massachusetts. I look at how Randall Thompson’s Alleluia is almost the opposite of an “alleluia,” and why.


From Randall Thompson, the composer who was then the Director of the Curtis Institute of Music, conductor Serge Koussevitzky requested a loud and festive choral fanfare. It was to open the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood.

But this was July 1940, and Thompson couldn’t do festive, not then. Evil was spreading in Europe in a world war America was debating whether to join; France had fallen the month before. So what did Thompson compose?

Over five days he took the word “Alleluia”—literally, “Praise the Lord”—and turned it on its head, just as (he said later) it is in the Book of Job: “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Thompson calls this a sad piece, this six-minute slow and insistent layered intoning of “Alleluia,” ending in “Amen.” It’s about the last thing you’d think of composing for an alleluia or for a fanfare. But Alleluia by Randall Thompson is one of the most beloved choral works of all time.

[For more on the 75th anniversary of the Thompson Alleluia, visit the Arts Desk at]


Deo Gratias, from Vespers, with Brass

ExcDeoGratiasBrassOne of the great things about the project that became Vespers was the uniqueness of the ensemble—writing a piece for the world-renowned Renaissance band Piffaro was as fun and exciting as could be. But it also meant that basically nobody else could ever perform Vespers, since not everybody has 27 Renaissance instruments in their rumpus room!

(Although, Piffaro has performed it numerous times since, for which I’m ever grateful, with The Crossing, of course, who premiered and recorded it, with Northwestern University’s Bienen Contemporary/Early Vocal Ensemble, (thank you, Donald Nally, again and again), with the outstanding Seraphic Fire, and this November, I’m looking forward to seeing it with The Choristers.)

[Updated 29 Nov 2015] Here’s the recording of the premiere on 30 Oct 2015 at Roosevelt University, what beautiful line to the singing and energy to the brass playing!:

A number of people have asked me about transcriptions of Vespers since its 2008 premiere, though, and so I’ve been busy making piano reductions and string arrangements, with and without other instruments, of different sections. (You can see these from the menu above, under Music/Choral Vocal/Vespers.)

Last week I finished another one.

The last movement, Deo Gratias, now has a new arrangement for choir and brass octet, to be premiered next season by Cheryl Frazes Hill, the director of choral activities at the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University. It was a joy putting this together for 4 trumpets (one in D and 3 Bb), 2 trombones, bass trombone, and tuba. The double choirs had to stay since they’re the basic part of the sound, but I simplified them a bit by eliminating all the divisis within each choir.

Above is a page to look at. Let me know if you want to see the whole thing, and I’ll send it to you.

Here’s an audio excerpt from the original: