Annunciation and Magnificat

annunciationmagnificatp3Annunciation and Magnificat. Brass quintet (with opt. flugelhorns), narrator, 22 minutes

Annunciation and Magnificat is a set of musings on the text of the first chapter of Luke, verses 26 through 55. Beginning with the announcement to Mary from the angel Gabriel that she would become the mother of Jesus the Messiah, and ending with her song of praise, the text explores her questions and trepidations, the angel’s assurances, and Mary’s visit with her cousin Elisabeth who was then pregnant with John the Baptist. A narrator reads the text, which I’ve divided into eight sections. The quintet plays a meditation on the text after each section is read, the Magnificat ending with the non-scriptural but traditional Gloria Patri:

1. The angel Gabriel was sent
2. She was troubled
3. Fear not, Mary
4. How shall this be?
5. Nothing shall be impossible
6. Behold the handmaid of the Lord
7. And Mary arose
8. Magnificat

Elements of the music appear, transformed, as the work progresses. In “Nothing shall be impossible,” the key of D-flat travels quickly to the farthest key away, G, and back again, which journey I tried to make as unnoticed as I could. Normally I take one emotion from each section and attempt to express that musically, but I do, in the Magnificat, follow the text closely. The antiphon recurs as in a sung Magnificat (albeit truncated sometimes), after each two-line thought; the overall feel is of a jubilant dance.

I am thankful to the Gaudete Brass for the opportunity to compose this. Their trumpeters are also excellent flugelhorn players, so I was happy to provide places in the music where those warm-sounding instruments could optionally be used.

Annunciation and Magnificat was premiered 3 December 2016 by the Gaudete Brass Quintet at St. Clement Parish, Chicago.

1. The angel Gabriel was sent
And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, you who are highly favored, the Lord is with you: blessed are you among women.

2. She was troubled
And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be.

3. Fear not, Mary
And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for you have found favor with God. And, behold, you shall conceive in your womb, and bring forth a son, and shall call his name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.

4. How shall this be?
Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?

5. Nothing shall be impossible
And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon you, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow you: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of you shall be called the Son of God. And, behold, your cousin Elisabeth, she has also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren. For with God nothing shall be impossible.

6. Behold the handmaid of the Lord
And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to your word. And the angel departed from her.

7. And Mary arose
And Mary arose in those days, and went into the hill country with haste, into a city of Juda; and entered into the house of Zacharias, and saluted Elisabeth. And it came to pass, that, when Elisabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost: and she spake out with a loud voice, and said, Blessed art you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And what is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For, lo, as soon as the voice of your salutation sounded in my ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy. And blessed is she that believed: for there shall be a performance of those things which were told her from the Lord.

8. Magnificat
And Mary said,

My soul magnifies the Lord,
And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.

For he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden:
for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.

For he that is mighty has done to me great things; and holy is his name.
And his mercy is on them that fear him from generation to generation.

He has showed strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

He has put down the mighty from their seats,
and exalted them of low degree.

He has filled the hungry with good things;
and the rich he has sent empty away.

He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy;
As he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed for ever.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost;
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

—Luke 1:26-55, Gloria Patri

Beethoven for Breakfast in Phoenix

[Edited version first published in the Broad Street Review 29 Nov 2016 and reprinted by permission.]

I had just about given up on corned beef hash, and if that doesn’t alarm you, you should know that I rarely give up on anything. I believe that the car in front of me will return to the right lane where it belongs. I also believe that someday a political post on Facebook will reveal something that had, never, ever occurred to me. That’s what I’m talking about: I’m an optimist.

When I was in Phoenix recently for a radio conference, I wanted to escape the hotel for breakfast. I walked across the street to a rough-hewn restaurant where corned beef hash was on the menu. And so, I set my chin and nodded the chin-set nod of the optimist. At first, I thought, No, hash is either too dry or too greasy, edible only by way of poached egg, or ketchup, or by washing it down with coffee.

But, the adventurous southwest stoking my optimism, I ordered the hash. While waiting for its arrival, I looked blankly through the menu at everything I could have ordered. Pancake stacks, slices of French toast, and heaps of huevos rancheros mocked me.

Then I looked up.

An offering

The kitchen door opened and the waitress, backlit by fluorescence and haloed by steam, walked toward me carrying a plate. The glow from the kitchen suffused the room and lingered. The faces of other hotel escapees slowly turned as they followed the plate. A couple reached across their breakfasts and lightly clasped hands. Boz Scaggs, singing “Look What You’ve Done to Me” over the sound system, dropped to a whisper. The waitress approached, stopped, lowered the dish, and placed it silently in front of me, as an offering.

You think I am exaggerating, but I am telling you, I noticed all this and noticed that I was noticing this. I mouthed, “Thank you,” but I do not know if the words came out. I beheld my breakfast. I glanced up just to catch her smiling as she turned.

The onions in a medium chop were on the cusp of translucence, shining with the bright dreams of youth. The potatoes were what potatoes always might be, but rarely are. Not dry, not oily, not hard, not mushy, they were fully and softly potatoes, luscious.

And then, the meat. We take for granted that corned beef hash is made from corned beef, but the Ding an sich is lost, always lost. This, however, this corned beef, was sliced into strips, and gently laid to one side. Bite-sized, they were fried, their edges crisp, their demeanor Buddha-like, their immanence ever present.

I stared at the plate, and, giving thanks with eyes open, bemusedly reached for my fork. I gently pierced one strip of the meat, put it into my mouth, and an entire life of breakfasts swooped me through years and decades and fixed me into that moment. Joy made room for discernment as I tried to enunciate why this was better than any hash I had ever eaten.

The heavens are telling

Again, you will think I am overselling, but I thought of Beethoven and his “Die Ehre Gottes aus der Natur.” We know it in English often as “The Heavens Are Telling.” Not to be confused with Haydn’s “The Heavens are Telling” from The Creation. Here is Beethoven’s:


I am serious. Beethoven came to my mind.

Beethoven gets to essentials quicker than any other composer. This is his greatness, and this is our problem. Beethoven is essential, but he is not pretty. He doesn’t entice us with the voluptuousness of Tchaikovsky, the wit of Mozart, the gravity of Bach, the warmth of Brahms — other composers we probably loved before Beethoven. No, he sticks his big saucer of a face into our business. His wild mane of hair pushed straight back looks as if he just forced his way, grunting, through a wind tunnel. We always hear that Beethoven is great, and we always say, “Yes, of course,” but our heart isn’t in it, not at first.

The opening of his Fifth Symphony we admire more than love. How clever he is to make all that music from those four silly notes, yes, yes. “Joyful, joyful” from the Ninth Symphony is exciting, but afterward the whole thing sounds, well, a bit brusque. “The heavens are telling” — not harmonized, mind you, and in the choral arrangement just octaves for everybody — is nothing but a C major triad, for crying out loud, followed by a big leap that looks like he just ran out of room.

Getting Beethoven

But at some point we succumb. Voluptuousness, wit, gravity, warmth, and everything else walk into the room. At 40, I finally got Beethoven. At 40, we realize that what we are is what we are going to be. For some, it’s a crisis; for me, it was liberation. I’m not unique in that. It happened to Brahms, and at that age: that fist-shaking opening to his First Symphony is not him screaming that he could never follow Beethoven; it is Brahms roaring: I am not you! I think Beethoven smiled right then.

At 40, hearing Beethoven on the radio yet another time (it was his Second Symphony, of all things), I got him, and I got that I could be me. I couldn’t be Bach, or Mozart, or Brahms, and (I whispered only to myself), they couldn’t be me.

Then I knew in the glowing restaurant why this was the best hash I had ever eaten.

The potatoes were not meretriciously tantalizing and then cold-hearted inside, but were simply and fully potatoes to the end. The onions were nothing more nor less than onions, but if you’ve ever worked them, you know that onions, like the universe, are onion all the way down.

The corned beef hash, you have guessed by now, tasted like what it never tastes like. It tasted like corned beef. Perhaps I forgot to tell you, but I love corned beef. And that opened up to me endless glory.

Two Composers Defining America

On the next Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday 3 Dec 2016,  5–6 pm on WRTI:

conversebuschFrederick Shepherd Converse (1871-1940): Serenade (c.1903)
Converse: The Mystic Trumpeter (1904)
Carl Busch (1862-1943): Omaha Indian Love Song; Chippewa Lullaby, from Four North American Legends (1918)
Busch: Elegie (1899)
Converse: Flivver Ten Million (1926)

In January we began a survey of the history of American orchestral music with George Bristow, born in 1825. Now in December we end 2016 with two composers who lived into the 1940s, wrapping up an American century with Frederick Shepherd Converse and Carl Busch, representing American music as well as any other two.

New Englander Converse could be a model for the American composer at that time. The son of a wealthy businessman, his musical gifts overrode his father’s desire for him to join the business. He studied composition with John Knowles Paine and George W. Chadwick, then went to Munich and studied with Chadwick’s teacher Joseph Rheinberger. Returning to the States, he taught at Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music (Chadwick having in the meantime become its director), then at Harvard. But after only eight years total of teaching, Converse left academia to compose full-time.

He wrote choral, orchestral works, and operas. The Irish-themed The Pipe of Desire was the first opera by a native-born American to see the stage of the Metropolitan Opera. The small Serenade for strings was followed by his grand tone poem based on Walt Whitman, The Mystic Trumpeter, premiered by the young Philadelphia Orchestra in 1904.

That and his much later Flivver Ten Million have become his most-played orchestral works. Flivver humorously celebrates the ten-millionth Ford Model T to roll off the conveyor belt. Converse said he wondered “what Mark Twain would have done with such a theme if he had been a musician.”

The Danish composer and violinist Carl Busch studied in Brussels and Paris, and at 25 was invited to Kansas City, Missouri by the Danish consulate there. He formed a string quartet, came to America, and stayed. He became the leading musician in Kansas City, directing the Philharmonic Choral Society and the Kansas City Symphony Orchestra.

Busch fell in love with American Western and Native American cultures. Many of his works use home-grown melodies, including, in his Four North American Legends, Chippewa tunes. The so-called Indianist Movement in music, though a short-lived phase, grew out of the urge to find unique American folk elements from which to craft an American classical music. The irony that Americans were partly spurred on in this quest by foreigners has not been lost. Antonin Dvorak famously wrote the very thing in the 1890s while here, and the Danish-American Carl Busch was one of those who led the way.

An All-Philadelphia Now Is the Time

boathouserowdayNow Is the Time jumps into the Giving Thanks for Philadelphia weekend on WRTI Saturday, November 19th at 9 pm. All the composers and many of the performers live in and around Philadelphia, or studied here. Retired Haverford College professor Harold Boatrite’s music is always smart and tuneful, and his Sonata for Flute and Piano is no exception. Daniel Kellogg and Zhou Tian both went through Curtis, and both have their works played here by Mimi Stillman, from her CD Odyssey.

David Bennett Thomas teaches at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts and is here represented by Sketches for Flute and Guitar. Vistas is by Ingrid Arauco, one of Boatrite’s successors at Haverford, and David Laganella (from Penn a while back), leaves us with a luscious Sundarananda, celebrating the woodworked sculpture of another Philadelphia-area artist, George Nakashima.

from Zhou Tian: Duet for Flute and Piano 

PROGRAM:
Harold Boatrite: Sonata for Flute and Piano
Daniel Kellogg: Five Sketches for Solo Flute
Zhou Tian: Duet for Flute and Piano
David Bennett Thomas: Sketches for Flute and Guitar
Ingrid Arauco: Vistas
David Laganella: Sundarananda

Every Saturday night at 9 Eastern, Kile Smith plays new American classical music on WRTI’s Now Is the Time, at wrti.org and on HD-2. At wrti.org click on the Listen: Classical button at the top of any page. Thanks for supporting American contemporary music on WRTI! 

The Music of Presidents (A Century Ago)

On Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday, November 5th, 5-6 pm:

The Star-Spangled Banner: Music (c.1773) by John Stafford Smith (1750-1836); words by Francis Scott Key (1779-1843)
Percy Grainger (1882-1961): Spoon River (1919)
Grainger: Mock Morris (1910)
Grainger: Youthful Rapture (1901)
Grainger: Irish Tune from County Derry (1902)
Grainger: Molly on the Shore (1907)
Grainger: Shepherd’s Hey (1908)
Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924): La bohème, Mi chiamano Mimi … O soave fanciulla
Joseph Haydn (1732-1809): Cello Concerto No. 2 in D, 2. Adagio, 3. Rondo (Allegro)

casals1917

Pablo Casals, 1917

Presidents, like everyone else, bring music into their lives according to their individual tastes, and the White House has witnessed the growing appropriation of music for home life and official functions. George Washington danced a minuet at his 1789 inaugural ball, and in 1801 the United States Marine Band played at the first public reception at the White House, for John Adams.

Thomas Jefferson heard the Marine Band play the popular tune “To Anacreon in Heaven” in 1806. That song would soon be fitted with new words by Francis Scott Key, inspired by an image from the War of 1812. The new song, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” was immediately popular, and was made official by the United States Navy in 1889. President Woodrow Wilson authorized its use for military occasions in 1916, and it finally became the national anthem in 1931, during the Hoover administration.

Wilson’s oldest daughter, Margaret Woodrow Wilson, was an accomplished soprano, singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at a San Francisco world’s fair in 1915. She was First Lady of the White House after her mother died and before Wilson remarried in 1915. It was a family that loved music. We’ve already seen that the president asked Enrique Granados to play at the White House, and Percy Grainger also played a piano recital there in 1916.

The new technology of gramophone recordings had already by then entered the presidential quarters. In 1909, William Howard Taft was listening to records of Enrico Caruso on the brand-new Victrola he had installed in the Blue Room. For composers, his tastes ran from Wagner to Puccini, with La bohème becoming a particular favorite.

Working back to his predecessor Theodore Roosevelt, who was president from 1901 to 1909, we see an appearance by one of the greatest performers of the 20th century, Pablo Casals. He played for T.R. in 1904, and then 57 years later, for J.F.K. in 1961.

Standing for the national anthem

[First published 24 October 2016 in the Broad Street Review. Edited and reprinted here by permission.]

philliesstadiumThere’s controversy around the national anthem, but all I’m thinking about is my low E-flat. Our ad hoc men’s choir is about to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” for the Phillies. There aren’t that many of us second basses, so that E-flat, the lowest note in the arrangement, is foremost on my mind as I stand in the chute leading onto the field.

Finding the right note

I’ve had that E-flat and lower, sort of, since high school, but the older I get, the more solid those notes are, especially in the morning. That’s in my favor.

But this is early afternoon. It’s outside and a little cold; my low notes evaporate if I’ve been talking a lot. And (I should’ve mentioned this first), since I’m not a trained singer, I have little technique. To keep warm, I have a heavy white undershirt under my heaviest white dress shirt (with black pants and shoes, our uniform), and I haven’t talked much all day.

It’s October first, the last Saturday of the regular season, Phillies vs. the Mets, and it’s German-American Day at the stadium. We cobbled the choir together from the German men’s and the ecumenical choirs I sing with, plus more guys who wanted in. We’re led by my wife Jackie; she’s also the director of both choirs.

Inside baseball

Nearby, Temple is playing football, and the Police and Fire Department Thrill Show is raising college tuition for children of parents killed in the line of duty. We plan plenty of time to get to the stadium, and arrive two hours early. Congregating near the right-field gate, we see lots of Mets fans enter. The Mets were fighting for a playoff spot; the Phils were never in the race. Ryan Howard, the slugging first baseman well past his most-feared hitting days, is playing his last weekend as a Phillie.

A guard leads us down the entrance ramp. Below the stadium we walk, past forklifts, water and electrical conduits, locker rooms, and skids of grass seed. Staff members glance at us. The Phanatic sashays up to us, rubs a bald guy’s head, gives us two thumbs up.

In a large, carpeted locker room where we can keep our things, Jackie reminds us of the two places we are not to breathe: After “what so proudly we hailed,” and after “bombs bursting in air.” We run the music a few times, softly.

We head to the staging area at field level, and hear the crowd and the echoing stadium announcements. Through the chute we see players warming up on the field. “This is where the Mets will celebrate, today or tomorrow” our guard says confidently. “Gonna be champagne all over, we cover everything in plastic.”

Onto the field

We get into singing formation. I’m in the second of two rows, on the end, so it turns out I will lead us in. We line up in the chute. I quietly test my E-flat, seeing how it feels. Then I tell myself to knock it off.

We wait. The Phillies honor four or five different groups. Somebody hands somebody else a large posterboard check. A little kid is dressed as the Phanatic. A tech guy sets up our microphones. The Phanatic goofs around. Somebody throws a ceremonial first pitch. In front of me another tech guy, talking on his headset, looks over to me and says, “Okay, now.”

I walk up a few steps and onto the field. We’re on the third-base line, next to the Mets dugout. The dirt crunches under my black dress shoes. The grass, as beautiful up close as it is from the stands, is a lively green and feels strong. Taking my place, I look at my black shoes against the green grass. I look at the guys and I look at Jackie. I look into the stands in front of me and see nothing but blue shirts. They’re all Mets fans.

They’re standing and they’re silent and they’re looking at us.

Jackie sings our first three notes, and we launch into it at a good clip, in unison, “Oh, say, can you see….” We were warned about the echoes. They are loud and will throw you off. Following the conductor is always recommended; here, it is essential.

Can you see?

This is the only national anthem that’s a question. Will the flag still be there? That’s it. That flag we saw yesterday, before the night and the bombs fell, in this land of the free and the brave, is it still there?

We break into four parts at “proudly we hailed,” and it is an exciting moment but I do not breathe. We carry over into “at the twilight’s last gleaming.”

Do we see the flag?: That’s the anthem and that’s the controversy. Maybe some see only the American flag and not American imperfections, and maybe some see only the imperfections and not the flag. But don’t most of us realize that it’s both? Hasn’t it always been both? Haven’t we always imperfectly lived out the idea of America? Isn’t America, above all, an idea? Haven’t we always been a question, just like our anthem?

So I sing, and so I stand. Knowing the imperfections, I stand for the idea. With my imperfect voice I stand for all who made the idea possible, and for all who still make it possible, for Jackie, for my family, for the Thrill Show and their families, for the guys I’m singing with, for the kid in the Phanatic costume, for the Phillies, for the Mets fans, for everyone standing, for protestors taking a knee, for all. I stand and sing for America.

We finish big and the crowd roars. Mets fans in front of us pump fists into the air. As we file out, high-fiving them on the way into the chute, some lean over the railing and say, “Thank you.”

Ryan Howard hits a home run later, but the Mets win, 5–3. I have no idea how my E-flat went. It comes near the end, on the word “free.”

There Is No Great and No Small

americanflagFor Lyric Fest’s opening concert of the 2016/17 season, titled I Hear America Singing, I was commissioned to set a poem of Ralph Waldo Emerson, from his 1841 first series of Essays. The poem sometimes carries the title of “The Informing Spirit.” I composed this song for mezzo-soprano Suzanne DuPlantis and pianist Laura Ward, the co-directors of Lyric Fest.

The premiere performances took place in Philadelphia: Saturday, October 8th, 2016 at 7:30 at Chestnut Hill Presbyterian Church, and Sunday, October 9th, 2016 at 3:00 at The Academy of Vocal Arts. The song is a little over three minutes long.

There is no great and no small
To the Soul that maketh all:
And where it cometh, all things are;
And it cometh everywhere.

I am owner of the sphere,
Of the seven stars and the solar year,
Of Cæsar’s hand, and Plato’s brain,
Of Lord Christ’s heart, and Shakespeare’s strain.

I read somewhere that the elemental vibration of the universe is a B-flat. I have no idea what that means, or even how such a thing is calculated, but it’s something that gets your attention. These words connected me to that concept, so the song is in B-flat, but the small/great dichotomy suggested a twist. So instead of a big, fat B-flat major or a dark minor, I twisted it into one of my favorite modes, the lydian. I hope you like the entrance of the first E as much as I do. There is a simplistic, almost silly spinning of 8th-notes, which work into a two-part counterpoint of different small phrases. These I repeat at different scale degrees and in different orders, and that is a fair description of what goes on in the song. The words, as the words always will do, tell me where to stretch, to lay back, and to land.

I Hear America Singing featured an all-American program of Stephen Foster, George Crumb, Elliot Carter, Charles Ives, Aaron Copland, Marc Blitzstein, and along with There Is No Great and No Small there was a commissioned new arrangement by John Conahan and a premiere finale by Daron Hagen.

thereisnogreatp1