Category Archives: Piano music

Softly and Tenderly, Grace University Lutheran

GraceUniLuStephen Self plays Softly and Tenderly at Grace University Lutheran Church in Minneapolis this Sunday at the 10:30 service.

I wrote this short work for solo piano quite a while back, and revised it in 2012. You can read a description of the setting of this old revivalist tune here; for the Broad Street Review I wrote about the revision process here.

Stephen runs a thriving and active music program at Grace University Lutheran, located next to the University of Minnesota and one of the most important hospital complexes in the Twin Cities. Along with choirs and a healing ministry it includes a Composer in Residence program with composition students from UM. I’m grateful that I’m able to participate long-distance in the life of this church on Sunday!

Variations on a Theme of Schubert

Variations on a Theme of Schubert

Solo Piano, 17′ 

Solo Piano—2222—2100—timp, 1 perc—str. 17′. Full score

The theme is from Schubert’s song “An mein Klavier,” or “To my Piano.” Following the theme are seven variations, each exploiting significant intervals or rhythmic gestures of the song, and each making use of the tune in some way.

Variation 5 also quotes “Beneath the Cross of Jesus,” a favorite hymn of Samuel Hsu’s, the dedicatee of the original version for solo piano. In this variation, the middle register sings the first few notes of that tune, while the left hand assays the Schubert tune in the extreme low register, extremely slowly.

Variation 6 leads into the final variation without a break, and the Schubert tune is treated as a three-part invention, leading into a chorale.

The piano part in the solo and orchestral versions is the same.

The solo version premiered in 1997 by Paul Jones to honor the 25th Anniversary of Samuel Hsu’s professorship. The work was revised, and Variation 4 was added, in 1998/99; the orchestration was completed in August 1999, and premiered by the Jupiter Symphony in New York City on September 20th and 21st, 1999, with pianist Makiko Hirata, Jens Nygaard conducting.


[Reprinted with permission from the Broad Street Review under “Advice for aspiring composers: Stop all that strolling, and just stand still”]

It looked like a black sparrow, except that it was slightly larger than a sparrow, and also there’s no such thing as a black sparrow. This bird was on the ground in front of the dormant forsythia, scratching in fallen leaves the way a junco does, both feet hopping together forward and backward, quick, a hot-stove touch, uncovering bugs and seeds.

Juncos are gray, though, and white underneath. The binoculars reveal, yes, a white belly, too, and a beak more like a finch’s and, oh, bright red on the sides—how did I miss that?

I have no idea what it is, but this is a brilliant bird. It was happy to stay there, too, giving me time to get out my bird book if I wanted to. But I didn’t want to. The thing now was to stand still with it and watch.

Many people think that composers do their composing on long walks. I know they think this because they ask me if that’s what I do. It’s understandable; Beethoven is said to have strolled through Vienna with his hands clasped behind his back, singing loudly to overcome his deafness, scaring children. Brahms, too, strolled through Vienna to the tavern with his hands behind his back, scaring other composers, probably. Mahler, they say, did the same stroll in Vienna, to orchestra rehearsal, rubbing hands together, scaring brass players. Or Mozart…Vienna…hands swinging free…creditors.

Vienna has good P.R. But that’s not how composing works.

This hymn needed work

I do enjoy strolls, and composers do seem to share that trait, from what I’ve read. But walking mainly benefits the artist’s psyche, not any mechanics of generating art. That is, a composer is as calmed or as exhilarated as anyone else by walking, and is just as filled with an appreciation of nature’s beauty. A composer may even think of tunes or work out musical ideas to some extent while hiking around.

But to get any real work done, you’ve got to attach your posterior to a chair and have music paper in front of you.

I just finished working on a piano piece that will be recorded soon, a short setting of a hymn tune, Softly and Tenderly. I actually wrote it a long time ago, but over the years I knew that it needed another look. Something about it made me uneasy. Overall, I remembered liking it OK…but no, it needed work.

Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling,
Calling for you and for me;
See, on the portals He’s waiting and watching,
Watching for you and for me.

Come home, come home,
Ye who are weary, come home;
Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling,
Calling, O sinner, come home!

The recording project gave me the excuse to take it out again. I looked at it and was frankly horrified by the doltisms. Everywhere I looked, more clunkers.

Ripping it up

This would take some doing to fix. Since it was in my memory, I would think of it while driving by myself, or walking, or dozing off at night.

No remedies appeared, however. I finished a deadline for another work and then finally did what (I now realize) I had been delaying so long: I sat at the computer, opened up a fresh page of piano staves, and started entering notes.

I began by simply re-copying the old version (so old, in fact, that it was in blessed manuscript). Hmm, some nice things.

Then I ripped it into pieces. There were so many items needing improvement: muddy voicings, awkward lines, an intro that couldn’t make up its mind, dead spots, an unsatisfying ending. I plunged in, rebuilding there, tweaking here, slashing, tightening.

Too simple, too obvious

The biggest problem, though, was the “come home” motif, two notes high, then repeated low as the lead-in to the melody. Because I didn’t want them to stagnate, I had changed the notes as the tune progressed. Leaving them as just two notes seemed too simple, too obvious. They had to go somewhere. Didn’t they?

That was the problem. They didn’t need to do anything, it finally occurred to me. They just needed to call me home.

So I trashed the changed notes and just repeated what was there. Come home, come home, come home—that’s what it needed. It was right in front of me, and as soon as I stopped trying to be sophisticated, the piece started to live.

All I had to do was sit down and look, sit and listen, to stop strolling, to stop moving. As soon as I stood still, with the music in front of me, it became clear.

Love and propinquity

P.G. Wodehouse describes this situation exactly, with Bertie Wooster trying to induce his two friends to fall in love.

“What do you call it when two people of opposite sexes are bunged together in close association in a secluded spot, meeting each other every day and seeing a lot of each other?”

“Is ‘propinquity’ the word you wish, sir?”

“It is. I stake everything on propinquity, Jeeves. Propinquity, in my opinion, is what will do the trick.”

Bertie knew the trick for Gussie Fink-Nottle and Madeline. It’s the same for composers. Separate us from music paper, and the music disappears.

Walks are all very well, but what’s needed is to come home and stay still. The music paper—or the computer screen—with staff-lines waiting to be noted, that’s where the music happens. I stake everything on propinquity.

I looked it up finally, by the way. It was a towhee, an Eastern towhee that I saw while standing still. It’s a beautiful bird. I do hope that you may see one.

Softly and Tenderly

My talented colleague Tim Shaw is an excellent pianist as well as a successful composer of sacred music represented by major church music publishers. He’s about to record a CD of hymns for piano and asked if he could include a piece of mine. He remembered that I’d shown him a setting of Softly and Tenderly years ago.

I was delighted to say Yes, of course, but then said, Wait. I’d composed it a few years ago—I looked: 1986, oh my, that long ago—and then I looked at the music and, oh my, much of it was quite, um, poor. So I asked for some time to “brush it up”: major reconstructive surgery is what I meant.

It actually didn’t take long, once I sat down with it, and there wasn’t much rehabbing. No, not really, just those bass notes that sequenced and oughtn’t’ve. And that treble-clef run that had one chromatic too many, and the dynamics that couldn’t make up their minds, and the pedaling that couldn’t make up its mind, and the muddy, confusing inner voices under the low emergence of the melody, and those other bass notes that really did need to change but hadn’t, and the meter changes hopelessly red-flagging me that they had no idea what they were doing or where they were going, and the doltish dead spots between phrases, and the two brief but major interludes that were shockingly mindless.

Okay, I fibbed. It did take long, once I sat down with it. I guess I knew it would, which is why I’d put off sitting down with it for 26 years. It was a good piece; rather, it was waiting to be a good piece, it was hours away from being a good piece. Hours and hours over a few days, for 33 measures, just once through with these words behind it:

Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling,
Calling for you and for me;
See, on the portals He’s waiting and watching,
Watching for you and for me.

Come home, come home,
Ye who are weary, come home;
Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling,
Calling, O sinner, come home!

It was nice to come home.

(For the Broad Street Review, I wrote about the process of revising this; you can read that here.)

I sent the new version off to Tim this week, hoping he hadn’t yet looked at the old one. Here’s some of it on MIDI piano: 


My first thought was to call this short piano work Elegy, my second, not to. We were all saddened by the tragedy of Sam Hsu’s death, but anyone who knew Sam could not stay sad for long. Elegy, though, seemed to lock me into sadness, however peaceful or resigned it may be.

I knew that I would use the tune of “Beneath the Cross of Jesus,” as it was a favorite hymn of Sam’s. His arrangement of it resonates with me to this day. Its beauty and Debussy-like luxuriance speak so eloquently of Sam’s personality while playing anything on the piano. When I was a student composer, I thought it wasn’t fair that anyone who didn’t compose could write something so beautiful. And now…well, I still don’t think it’s fair.

Three elements go into this piece: a chaconne (repeating chords and bass line), bits of the hymn tune, and the letters of Sam’s name (in pitches, Samuel becomes E-flat, A, E, C, E, A, and Hsu, B, E-flat, C). It opens with “I fain would take… my…,” and then Sam’s name is played over the chaconne. It gradually becomes busier, until it ends on “I fain would take my…,” and then, in a new key, “stand.”

Very simply, the tune for the words “Beneath the cross of Jesus” is stated, then Sam’s letters again. And then I felt him showing me what the title should be. It is his testimony, and mine.

Premiered 24 March 2012 by Ephraim Schäfli, at Cairn University, Dr. Samuel Hsu Memorial Concert. Commissioned by Cairn University.

Diabelli podcast

Charles-Valentin Alkan—a great publicity shot or what

In addition to the Bernard Rands interview, Network for New Music has also released a podcast about their Diabelli Project, 25 variations on that theme made famous by Beethoven. The variations, ranging from 48″ to 2’44”, were written by Philadelphia composers to celebrate Network’s 25th Anniversary.

Listen to Peter Burwasser interviewing Jan Krzywicki and Linda Reichert here. Linda relates that they asked for variations of no longer than a minute and a half, knowing that they’d get a bunch of plus-two-minute pieces. Oops, mine is 2’07”.

Part of my Diabelli Variation, for solo piano, is featured on the podcast. Jan says that it reminds him of late-Romantic Alkan, and hey, I’ll take it. Except that late Romantic always sounds that you intended to be romantic but you were, you know, late. (The City Paper review is here and the Philadelphia Inquirer’s, here.)

I don’t think I’ve ever heard any Alkan, but I have now looked at his music. It is very, very… very hard. My variation is just… well, I asked Charles Abramovic if there was anything goofy or unidiomatic in the writing (something I always ask performers, and I believe I always do use the word “goofy”). “No,” he said, “it’s just hard.” Then he said, ”Write some more.”

Here’s the premiere:

and here’s the 4-page score:

Diabelli Variation

Network’s Anniversary wishes on YouTube

In conjunction with their 25th Anniversary and Diabelli project, Network for New Music videotaped a couple of us with our greetings. Here’s mine, taped in the Fleisher Collection, with a little bit about the Diabelli Variation I wrote:

Anna Weesner’s tribute is here.