Monthly Archives: June 2017

Rejoice in the Lamb

Rejoice in the Lamb. SATB, 5′.

To Dr. John H. French, on the 25th anniversary of his ministry as organist/choirmaster of The Church of the Holy Trinity, Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia. Premiered 2 July 2017.

Live recording of the premiere:

 

Using the same title as the Benjamin Britten 17-minute cantata, and using words from the same monumental Christopher Smart poem, Jubilate Agno, that Britten used, this is a 5-minute a cappella anthem or concert work. The first two lines of my setting (text below) are also in Britten’s, but the other two lines are not. John French had asked if the Britten work, which he loves and has often conducted, could possibly inspire another setting, and so I looked closely at Britten’s piece, and then Smart’s original poem.

After long consideration—the poem is huge—the text began to take shape around the occasion I was asked to celebrate, French’s 25 years as organist and choirmaster at one of the great churches of Philadelphia, and a landmark on Rittenhouse Square, The Church of the Holy Trinity.

Smart was a profoundly pious man, and that did not make his life a smooth one. Taken to falling on his knees in the street and praying, he was viewed as unstable and was committed first to a mental asylum and then to a debtors’ prison. He wrote part if not all of Jubilate Agno in confinement.

The life of this poet and the circumstances of this poem colored the music’s character. The shifting between E major and a parallel mode of A lydian came out of this. I thought that the halting, almost-too-sweet “Give the glory to the Lord” was appropriate, as were the repeating Hallelujahs, driving to an ecstatic proclamation at the end.

I have been Holy Trinity’s resident composer since 2013, fortunate to have most of my anthems and another commission sung in that historic church. Among the distinguished leaders who have served there are the rector Phillips Brooks and the organist Lewis Redner, who created “O Little Town of Bethlehem” at that church for a Sunday School class in 1868. John French serves as the descendant of Redner, organist Robert Elmore, and many others who were dedicated to the spiritual growth of the congregation and the integrity of the music they produce, just as they are descended from Asaph of the Psalms, “the musician of the Lord.”

Rejoice in God, O ye Tongues; give the glory to the Lord, and the Lamb.
Hallelujah from the heart of God, and from the hand of the artist inimitable.
For a NEW SONG also is best, if it be to the glory of God; and taken with the food like the psalms.
Let Asaph rejoice with the Nightingale—The musician of the Lord! and the watchman of the Lord!
—Christopher Smart (1722-1771)

Charles Ives and Independence

On Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection July 1, 5–6 pm:
Charles Ives (1874–1954). Variations on “America” (1891), arr. William Schumann
Ives. Symphony No. 2 (1901)

Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection starts the Independence Day weekend with that most independent of American composers, Charles Ives. His music is wild, grand, humorous, poignant, and, at times, ornery. Most of all, though, it is shot through with that very American streak of independence. It isn’t a non-musical independence, like a personal or a political statement would be, but goes deep into the grain of music. The independence of Charles Ives is that stubborn willfulness to grab a moment—any moment, no matter how exuberant or plain—and shake it until all artifice drops off and all that’s left of the moment is, well, its momentousness.

His Second Symphony is a perfect example. Composed when Ives was in his 20s, it’s his breakout symphony. The First is well done, but even with sharp corners here and there, it’s a little too schooled, too European.

With the Second, you hear “Turkey in the Straw,” “Camptown Races,” “America the Beautiful,” “Long, Long Ago,” and “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean.” They rub shoulders with, almost riot with, strains of Beethoven’s Fifth, Brahms’s First, Bach, and Wagner. And then Ives tosses in hymns, spirituals, reels, and more: enough to expand it into a five-movement symphony.

Like many Ives pieces, the Symphony No. 2 wasn’t premiered until years after its creation; 50 years, to be exact. Leonard Bernstein conducted the premiere with the New York Philharmonic in 1951. Ives, in ill health for much of his life, listened to the broadcast at home with his wife Harmony, on their cook’s radio. He was surprised by how much the audience clapped at the end.

Some of Ives’s earlier organ music made its way into this work. He was an accomplished organist, playing in churches from age 14, and one such work came to light because the organist E. Power Biggs asked him, in 1949, if he had anything Biggs might play. They uncovered Variations on “America.” Biggs then edited, published, and performed it. The composer William Schuman orchestrated it in 1963, and again the New York Philharmonic stepped up for the premiere, in 1964, with André Kostelanetz conducting.

It is a mistake to think of these Variations as satire. Ives never satirizes. It’s closer to the mark to listen to these as a young boy might, a boy who grew up with fervent bands of amateurs playing music as if their honor—or the honor of their country—depended on it. Ives’s father directed such bands. Young Charlie played in them. He is in love with this tune, and that is one secret to the strange pull and influence of Ives on American music.

The other thing to remember, and which gives context to these Variations, is that when Ives wrote it, as organist in a Brewster, N.Y., Methodist church, and played it at the July 4th celebration (after trying it out first in February—can you imagine what the congregation thought of that?), he wasn’t that far removed from the boy at the parade. Charles Ives composed Variations on “America” when he was 16.

Reflection

Reflection. organ, 6′

FredJCooperOrganBook.jpgI was commissioned, along with four other composers—Matthew Glandorf, David Schelat, Kathleen Scheide, and Jeffrey Brillhart—to write a work for the Fred J. Cooper Memorial Organ in Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, to help celebrate the 10th anniversary of the organ’s installation.

Although the works were meant to be standalone pieces, we were assigned an order and a description of the types of pieces desired. Overall, the AGO chapter requested music that would serve for as many occasions as possible, not just for the sacred services for which most organ literature is created.

The description assigned to me was “Slow and introspective, perhaps an aria.” The title, Perhaps an Aria, tempted me greatly, along the lines of President Eisenhower’s famous quote to Leonard Bernstein, “I liked that last piece you played; it’s got a theme. I like music with a theme, not all them arias and barcarolles.” Bernstein then wrote, of course, his Arias and Barcarolles.

Privately, I like poking fun (and being made fun of in return), but shy away from it in public. So, I turned from Perhaps an Aria and settled on the more neutral title, Reflection. I recall that, in early drafts of the piece, literal reflections of the rising melodic intervals of thirds, fourths, and so on appeared, but except for echoes buried deeply, those did not survive the compositional process. Nevertheless, the title stands, taking its place somewhere between a sacred Meditation and a secular Reverie.

The wonderful organist David Furniss, Dean of the AGO Philadelphia Chapter, premiered this on June 10th, 2017, as part of the Organ Day celebrations at Kimmel’s Verizon Hall. The five works in this Fred J. Cooper Organ Book are published by ECS Publishing to coincide with the premiere. Here, David rehearses the piece on the Fred J. Cooper Memorial Organ the day before the premiere, and below, the first page of my score, before going off to the engravers:

The Dance of Ravel and Satie

Satie, Moulin de la Galette (“The Bohemian”), Ramon Casas, 1891

Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday June 6th, 5 to 6 pm… In the last Discoveries we took a snapshot of Saint-Saëns, Ravel, and Poulenc from 100 years ago. Each was from a different world of French music. Camille Saint-Saëns was old: older than the old guard, older than the director of the Paris Conservatory Gabriel Fauré (his student and Ravel’s teacher), and older, even, than Fauré’s predecessor Théodore Dubois.

Ravel was a great and rising success in 1917 in a rapidly changing mainstream. Debussy (d. 1918) had long since upset traditional tonality and conservatory-approved fugue and forms. Rather than lining up easily charted chords, he composed washes of incalculable harmonies pinwheeling as colors.

Ravel traveled in that same landscape, if not along the same musical road. Even though he gathered many admirers for his lustrous yet precise scores as the years wore on, many still held him at arm’s length. And he still smarted over having been turned down for the Paris Conservatory’s Prix de Rome, not once or twice, but five times. Dubois lost his job as director after the last time and an outcry over l’affaire Ravel broke—all the finalists turned out to be students of Dubois—but the hurt remained.

Francis Poulenc would lead in the next generation. Around 1917 the iconoclast Erik Satie called him and five other composers the Nouveaux Jeunes. Later, a critic coined Les Six. Satie would fall out and in with them, but he, even though older than Ravel, was in many ways their spark. They wanted to be new, not like Wagner, not like Debussy, and not like Ravel.

Maurice Ravel

But what they and Satie and Ravel had in common was dance. Large orchestral works became much more difficult to mount during and well after the Great War. The likes of Ravel’s mammoth 1912 Daphnis and Chloe would not be feasible for a long time. But impresarios like Diaghilev were making a good business of ballet. Artists like Picasso and Cocteau ripped up boundaries and reimagined spaces and angles. Dancers and choreographers created theater (and word-of-mouth) like never before. And composers made music from beat-up pianos, drums, and whatever instruments were at hand.

Exotic stories and myths were popular, as in Daphnis and Satie’s Mercury, but so was nonsense and non sequitur. Each minute-long section of Jack in the Box is in C major. Satie wrote it for piano, then lost it (on a bus, he thought). He died and it was found in his cluttered apartment, behind a piano. One of Les Six, Darius Milhaud, orchestrated it. Dance, and the worlds of French music, lived on.

PROGRAM:
Maurice Ravel (1875–1937): Daphnis and Chloe, Suite No. 1 (1912)
Erik Satie (1866–1925): Mercury (1924)
Satie: Jack in the Box (1926), orch. Darius Milhaud
Ravel: Daphnis and Chloe, Suite No. 2 (1913)1999

O Thou Who Camest from Above

O Thou Who Camest from Above. SATB, 4 ‘. Commissioned for the 90th Concert Season of the Greenville College Choir and Chamber Singers, Jeffrey S. Wilson, director. The tune is Hereford by Samuel Sebastian Wesley (1810-1876), the text is Leviticus 6:13 and the hymn by Charles Wesley (1707-1788), is based on the Leviticus verse.

In April 2016 I was the guest composer for the Greenville College Schoenhals Fine Arts Symposium in Greenville, Illinois. At the end of my few days’ residency there, during which I taught classes and heard performances of works of mine, the chair of choral activities Jeffrey Wilson asked me if I would be interested in composing a work for their annual choir tour. They tour every year, and in 2017 they would be coming to Philadelphia and the East Coast, as it happened, during their 90th concert season.

[Live recording from Greenville’s Spring ’17 Home Concert]

I was happy to be asked to write for his excellent choir. Greenville is a Free Methodist university (previously a college, they received university status on 1 June 2017), and Jeff wondered if I might like to arrange this work by the great Methodist hymnodist Charles Wesley, set to music by Charles’s grandson Samuel Sebastian Wesley. I did not know the hymn but immediately liked both words and music, the tune Hereford.

Noting that the hymn was an application of one verse from Leviticus, I decided to set that verse as well, using it to open and close the arrangement. While setting those words, I only then noticed the assonance of its final words “go out” with the opening of the hymn, “O Thou,” so that explains the musical overlapping. To transition back to Leviticus at the end, I added the “Amen,” which in earlier generations ended the singing of every hymn.

Written for a college choir of about three dozen singers, this is of moderate difficulty and workable for any church choir with balanced sections.

[Here is the Greenville College Choir singing it at the WRTI studios, stopping by on 17 March 2017 to rehearse some of their tour concert. Jeffrey Wilson conducts:]


The fire shall ever be burning upon the altar; it shall never go out.
—Leviticus 6:13

O Thou who camest from above
The pure celestial fire to impart,
Kindle a flame of sacred love
On the mean altar of my heart!

There let it for Thy glory burn
With inextinguishable blaze;
And trembling to its source return,
In humble prayer and fervent praise.

Jesus, confirm my heart’s desire
To work, and speak, and think for Thee;
Still let me guard the holy fire,
And still stir up Thy gift in me.

Ready for all Thy perfect will,
My acts of faith and love repeat,
Till death Thy endless mercies seal,
And make the sacrifice complete. Amen.
—Charles Wesley (after Leviticus 6:13)