Saturday, April 18, 2015

April 19, 2015 - Easter 3

Hear My Prayer - Felix Mendelssohn

Hymns: #174 Salzburg, #82 Divinum Mysterium, 
              #212 Richmond

The anthem this week is one of Felix Mendelssohn’s best known English choral works after Elijah. Hear My Prayer is a cantata for soprano, mixed choir and organ or orchestra written in 1844.The text was written by William Bartholomew (1793-1867) (who also collaborated with Mendelssohn on Elijah) an English librettist, composer and writer that made a living as a chemist. The work was premiered by Ann Mounsey, Bartholomew’s wife. The work has enjoyed a great deal of popularity because of a very successful 1927 recording by boy soprano Ernest Lough . The cantata is in two parts. The first is a recitative-esque call and response section. The second part is a lovely lyric aria filled with rolling triplets that evokes the gentle “wings of the dove” which also points toward the coming day of Pentecost.

Friday, April 10, 2015

April 12, 2015 - Easter 2

Duetto III - J.S Bach
b minor Mass: "Christe Eleison" - J.S. Bach
Messe Solennells: "Sanctus" - Charles Gounod
Grand Triumphal Chorus in A - Alexandre Guilmant 

Hymns: #210 Ellacombe, #193 Puer Nobis, 
              #209 St. Botolph

This week the music is two Bach duets and two French Romantic pieces. Both of the Bach duets are incredibly melismatic with imitation and interesting harmonic progressions. Gounod and Guilmant were both Catholic French Romantic organists skilled at improvisation. Both of these pieces are on the simpler side and geared more towards the smaller parish and the musicians that can’t improvise or didn’t write their own music for their programs.

The gradual anthem and prelude are two duets by J.S. Bach. The prelude is one of four duets from the Clavierubung III, Bach’s “Organ Mass.”  The prelude consists primarily of broken chords which makes it reminiscent of the trio sonatas and the third Brandenburg Concerto.  The gradual anthem is the “Christe Eleison” from the b Minor Mass for two sopranos. The piece is so interesting in the way that it works through harmonic progressions that are completely removed from the key that they appear to be in. This duet is very tender and beautiful piece that shows the intimate nature of the “God the son” personage of the Trinity.

The postlude is Guilmant’s “Grand Triumphal Chorus in A” from the “Practical Organist” a collection designed to teach organist not particularly inclined toward improvisation. These pieces and (overall) fairly simple pieces are in various different styles that illustrate the various portions of the Catholic Mass. The march acts as a pseudo trumpet tune that functions as a Rondo form march with the theme played on solo trumpet.

The communion anthem and postlude were written by the French composer Charles Gounod. Gounod is perhaps best known for his setting of the Ave Maria which uses the Bach C Major prelude from the Well Tempered Clavier as accompaniment. This music was introduced to him by Felix’s sister Fanny. Gounod’s music is often seen as less serious in nature than that of his contemporaries but some of that could be due to the popularity of it. Most of us recognize his Funeral March of the Marionette as the theme song of the Alfred Hitchcock Show. The anthem is taken from the Messe Solennelle for SATTBB choir and STB soli. The Sanctus alternates between a solo tenor aria and the full choir. The B section stacks dissonant parts and obscures the key before leading to a restatement of the theme, this time by the full choir. 

Friday, April 3, 2015

April 5, 2015 - Easter Sunday

Sing Ye to the Lord - Edward Bairstow
I Have Seen the Lord - Alan Hovhaness

Hymns: #207 Easter Hymn, #205 Gelobt sei Gott, 
              #199 St. Kevin

The anthems this week are both very personal statements of faith. The first is Edward C. Bairstow’s setting of Miriam’s song, Sing Ye To the Lord and the communion anthem I Have Seen the Lord by Alan Hovhaness an account of the events at the tomb after the resurrection of Christ.  Both of these detail very base very genuine accounts of the joy of Easter day.

The gradual anthem was written by the English organist Edward C. Bairstow (1874-1946). Bairstow served as the organist at York Minster from 1913 until his death. He was known for being a rather terse and blunt individual (perhaps a reason I find him appealing.)Most of Bairstow’s compositions are for the church. Having composed nearly 30 anthems for the Anglican Church he is enjoyed a successful career. The piece goes back and forth between a strong declamatory section and some slightly more meditative sections. The piece is announced with trumpets before the choir’s first entrance. The meter changes to a flowing section in three that is still full lauding the “Mighty Victim from the sky.” The dynamics drop to pianissimo with a sequence that rises in dynamics and pitches at the idea that Christ has opened Paradise and the Saints shall rise. The triple meter theme returns in unison and builds to a return of the opening fanfare for a final “Alleluia, Amen.”

Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000) was born in Somerville, Massachusetts. His father was an Armenian chemistry professor at Tufts College. His love of music began at an early age. He started piano lessons at age 7 and decided on a career in music by age 14. He studied at Tufts College and later at the New England Conservatory. He was greatly influenced by the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius whom he visited in 1935. Later in his career he experienced some artistic disappointments which lead him to embrace the Armenian heritage his mother had tried to minimize. Over the course of his career he composed more than 500 pieces in various styles and mediums. I Have Seen the Lord is an Easter anthem for Soprano solo, mixed voices, Organ, and trumpet written in 1964. The anthem depicts the events in the garden on Easter morning. It opens with a trumpet solo which evokes images of the sun rising. The soprano soloist sings as both the angel and Mary while the choir acts as narrator. The trumpet returns this time without the organ underneath leading to the ending in 7/8 singing in the mode which the trumpet introduced during the interlude. In the final five measures the trumpet, choir and organ all join for a triumphal conclusion.

These two pieces speak in a vastly different musical language but both capture the joy and hope of the resurrection while not overlooking the mystery of the whole event. Both deal with the mystical images in the musical language (Hovhannes) and the text (Bairstow). The majesty and mystery of the day are captured in these two anthems.

Friday, March 27, 2015

March 29, 2015 - Palm/Passion Sunday

Valet will ich der geben - J.S. Bach
The Crucifixion - John Stainer
Saw Ye My Savior? - David N. Johnson

Hymns: #154 Valet will ich der geben, #147 Bourbon,
              #160 Cross of Jesus

The music this week is geared toward the life of the simple parish church. John Stainer’s The Crucifixion and David N. Johnson’s Saw ye My Savior are both examples of well written but very simple music that is easy to sing but also has a message that’s easily relatable. The prelude is a setting of Valet will ich der geben by J.S. Bach. This tune was combined with the text All Glory, Laud, and Honor, a nearly required hymn of the Palm/Passion Sunday literature.

Sir John Stainer’s  cantata was written in 1887 and dedicated to his assistant organist at St. Paul’s Cathedral, William Hodge. The work received its first performance at the Marylebone Parish Church with Stainer conducting and Hodge (who served as organist and choirmaster at this church) at the organ.  The libretto was written by Rev. William Sparrow Simpson and draws on all four gospels for the recitatives and composing the texts of the hymns and choruses himself.  The work is modeled on the much larger St. Matthew’s Passion of J.S. Bach with recitatives and arias telling the story and choruses and chorales providing dramatic commentary on the action. The design of this piece however, was to be accessible to the average parish choir.

The work was an immediate success but quickly fell subject to harsh criticism. The text was viewed as highly sentimental and the music was seen as “Victorian” in style which was quickly being cast aside in favor of the music of Stanford and Parry. The piece does what it set out to do. It is an extended setting of the passion for the average church choir. It is scored for four part choir of mixed voices, tenor and bass soloists and organ. The work was orchestrated in the 20th century and has enjoyed great success becoming a Lenten tradition in many parishes. The tenor soloist, like in the Bach, sings the role of the Evangelist narrating the story while the bass teeters back and forth between singing as the voice of Jesus and commenting on the events of the story. The men of the choir sing the “seven last words of Christ” while the full choir sings the two large “mob scenes” at the Triumphal entry and the Crucifixion.  In addition to these arias, recitatives, and choruses there are beautiful chorales for choir and congregation included that bring the storyline to the audience of today. While the cantata is at times very sentimental and not without its shortcomings, it has moments of real beauty. God So Loved the World is an anthem that continues to be performed in churches around the world. The Victorian sensitivities do not overshadow the sincerity that is captured in the text and in the imagery shown in the music.  It is a truly heartfelt piece that is not only accessible to the average parish choir but is also accessible to the typical church congregation.

David N. Johnson(1922-1988) was educated at the Curtis Institute and earned his doctorate at Syracuse University.  He served as head of the music department at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, head of the Organ Department at Syracuse University, and professor of music at Arizona State University. Many of his compositions are based on hymn tunes and Saw Ye My Savior ? is no different. This tune taken from the rich Southern Harmony tradition is set with flute and organ in a simple and unadorned setting for soloists and choir. Johnson, as always, preserves the integrity of the tune itself. The piece opens with a verse played by the flute and organ before the sopranos come in for the first verse. This is followed by an a cappella verse for four part choir (the only verse that the choir sings). After a short organ interlude there is a solo verse for tenor which fades into a restatement of the opening verse sung by a solo soprano.

The organ prelude is Bach’s setting of Valet will ich der geben. The text is actually a funereal hymn, “I want to bid you farewell” but has since been paired with the text “All Glory, Laud, and Honor.” This odd little piece in 24/16 places the tune in the pedal with florid counterpoint in the upper three voices. The piece feels a bit like a gigue with its lilting rhythms. The prelude captures the lighter more jubilant spirit of the day.

Monday, March 23, 2015

March 22, 2015 - Lent 5

An Wasserflussen Babylon - J.S. Bach
By the Waters of Babylon - Samuel Coleridge-Taylor
Behold the Saviour of Mankind - Frances Williams
An Wasserflussen Babylon - Sigfrid Karg-Elert

Hymns:#709 Dundee, #474 Rockingham,
             #439 Wondrous Love

The theme for this week’s music was largely taken from Psalm 137 which is not the psalm for the day but one that fits in with the themes of Lent as we approach the events of Holy Week. The other source is a text by Samuel Wesley (1662-1735) set to music by the Welsh born composer Frances Williams (1904-1978). These texts lead us directly into the highly emotional events of Holy Week and Easter.
An Wasserflüssen Babylon (By the Rivers of Babylon) was written in 1525 by Wolfgang Dachstein (1487-1553). Dachstein was a German monk that joined the Reformation cause in 1525 and was appointed organist and assistant preacher of St. Thomas’ Church. The two settings presented today are vastly different in style but use similar textures to create the effect of the flowing rivers. The setting by J.S. Bach (1685-1750) BWV 653 from the “Great Eighteen Chorales” places the chorale tune in the tenor register as an ornamented solo. The piece is a ritornello chorale prelude with a second composed theme that is presented inbetween phrases of the chorale theme. The piece is a sarabande – a slow dance in 3 with falling lines and increased chromaticism as the work progresses. This helps to draw out the mournful nature of the text. The second setting is by the German composer Sigfrid Karg-Elert and is taken from his 66 Chorale-Improvisations. This setting is also intended to be played tenderly in a lilting 3 with a solo and accompaniment structure. In this setting the accompaniment is filled with creeping chromatic lines that descend in a weeping winding manner. The final phrase changes everything with a rising line played not on the reed solo of the beginning but on a solo flute accompanied by the soft string stops of the swell.

The choir also presented a setting of Psalm 137 for the gradual anthem. This setting was written by the Afro-British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912). He was born in Holborn, London the son of Alice Hare Martin, a British woman, and Dr. Daniel Peter Hughes Taylor of Sierra Leone. The two never married because Taylor returned home to Africa unaware that Martin (herself an illegitimate child) was pregnant. Martin’s brother was a professional musician and guided Coleridge-Taylor to an education at the Royal College of Music where he studied violin as well as composition by C.V. Stanford. In 1899 he married Jessie, a former RCM student. Her parents were against the major because of Coleridge-Taylor’s mixed race heritage. The couple had two children, Hiawatha (probably named for the title character in his most famous composition) and Gwendolyn. Upon the success of his cantata Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, a setting of Longfellow’s poem, he embarked on a tour of the United States. He became very interested in the Pan-African movement and was well received by the African American community. His setting of By the Waters of Babylon starts as a very typical setting of this well-known text. The difference is that he sets the entire psalm which takes a rather grim turn toward the end. The psalm is a poignant psalm of lamentation. The text tells the story of an oppressed people held captive. Their enemies are taunting them (There is a great deal of parallel here with the trial and crucifixion of Christ) telling them to “sing one of the songs of Zion” but they refuse because they cannot sing it in a foreign land. A quartet sings verses 5 and 6 stating that they would rather be silent than to sing to these songs to the false gods of their captors. This is taken up by the full choir who remind the listener of the way that the Edomites razed Jerusalem. In the last verse we see the wrathful God of the Old Testament stating that “Blessed shall he be that taketh thy children, and throweth them against the stones.” This – although difficult to hear does capture the anger of an enslaved people. It is interesting that Coleridge-Taylor set this text in this way. I think that it is a text that may have resonated with him as he thought of his African heritage, the ending of slavery, and British imperialism.
The communion anthem is Frances Williams’ setting of Samuel Wesley’s text Behold the Saviour of Mankind. This short and simple a cappella motet is a meditation on the Crucifixion and the prophecy of what is to come after. Williams was born in Wales and emigrated to Seattle, WA with her family in 1913. She was educated at Julliard where she studied piano and composition. Throughout her career she was very devoted to her Welsh roots. The last project that she was working on when she died was editing the Jubilee Edition of the Welsh National Gymanfa Ganu Association Hymnal. The tune by Williams embodies the many moods of this short text but this text is often paired with the hymntune “New Britain” better known as “Amazing Grace.”


Friday, March 13, 2015

March 15, 2015 - Lent 4

Blessed Jesu, Fount of Mercy - Antonin Dvorak
God So Loved the World - John Stainer
Aus tiefer not - Martin Luther

Hymns: #686 Nettleton, #448 Deus Tuorum Militum,
              #671 New Britain

The music this week combines the more solemn side of Lent with a message of hope and love. Dvorak’s Stabat Mater and the Lutheran chorale tune Aus tiefer not capture some of the sadness of the impending crucifixion while; ironically God So Loved the World from The Crucifixion gives a message of hope and love.

Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) wrote his Op. 58 Stabat Mater in response to the death of his daughter, Josefa. The piece was written in 1877 and premiered in Prague in 1880. The gradual anthem is a translation of the third movement Eja, Mater, fons amoris (Blessed Jesu, Fount of Mercy.) The text of the Stabat Mater originated in the 13th century and is considered one of the seven greatest Latin hymns. The piece opens with the basses singing a rising dotted figure that is echoed by the other three voices. This leads into a chorale section. This is then repeated. The actual text of this is not about Christ but about his mother: O thou Mother! fount of love! Touch my spirit from above, make my heart with thine accord. This hymn is often included in the Stations of the Cross.

God So Loved the World is probably Sir John Stainer’s (1840-1901) best known work. It is taken from the Lenten work The Crucifixion and is the piece’s central movement. Stainer was an English organist and composer who was very popular during his own lifetime, but whose works have largely fallen out of favor today. They are frequently criticized as being too overtly emotional and romantic and lacking in real substance. Stainer began his career as a choir boy at St. Paul’s Cathedral and at age 16 was appointed organist of St. Michael’s college. He went on to hold similar posts at Magdalen College and St. Paul’s Cathedral. He was also made a professor at Oxford. In addition to his compositions, Stainer made contributions to music by writing treatises on harmony, composition and the organ. He was also a notable musicologist who rediscovered the works fifteenth century composers including Guillaume Dufay. God So Loved the World remains a staple in most church libraries because of its simple beauty and flexibility. Despite being quite simple a good degree of musicality is necessary on the part of the singers to realize the piece’s potential.

Aus tiefer not is a German chorale tune written by the theologian Martin Luther (1483-1546) usually associated with the text of Psalm 130 (Out of the depths I cry to thee.) This translation of the Latin hymn De Profundis is one of eight hymns contained in the first Lutheran hymnal published in 1523. This piece has inspired choral composers and composers of organ music for centuries including Bach, Pachelbel, Reger, and Mendelssohn. 

Friday, March 6, 2015

March 8, 2015 - Lent 3

I Will Arise - Gwyneth Walker
Ave Verum - Charles Huerter
Kyrie, Gott Vater in Ewigkeit - J.S. Bach
Prelude au Kyrie - Jean Langlais

Hymns: #574 St. Petersburg, #51 Decatur Place, 
              #518 Westminster Abbey

This week’s music was written by two American composers. One piece is a setting of a Southern Harmony hymn and the other a setting of a 14th century Eucharistic hymn. Both pieces are personal statements of faith that play into the introspective nature of the Lenten season.

I Will Arise is a setting of a Southern Harmony tune arranged by Gwyneth Walker (b. 1947). Walker was born in New Canaan, Connecticut and holds degrees from Brown University and the Hartt School of Music. In 1982 she resigned from her position at Oberlin to focus on composition full-time.  Walker wrote Three Folk Hymns in response to attending worship services at several small protestant churches. The pieces were premiered by the North Guilford Congregational Church Choirs in 2006. 
The pieces are simple in nature and were written to be easy enough for the average small church choir. I Will Arise is arranged so that it can be sung in many different combinations. The hymn tune “Restoration” was first paired with text by Joseph Hart (1712-1768) in William Walker’s 1835 Southern Harmony. Walker preserves the style and tradition of the hymn by adding a harmony above the melody rather than below it and by adding heavy accents. In this presentation I have broken up who has the melody and the harmony in different verse. The piece ends by adding a soprano descant.

There are so many settings of Ave Verum, perhaps the best known is the Mozart. This setting was written by Charles Huerter (1885-1974) a Brooklyn born composer and teacher. He studied piano and composition at Syracuse University. Ave Verum was written for the Syracuse Festival Chorus and their director Howard Lyman. The piece is simple and homophonic with a lot of similarities to the setting by W.A. Mozart’s. It’s gentle, prayerful nature has some endearing qualities.  

Continuing with my Lenten exploration of the music of J.S. Bach (1685-1750) this week I am playing Kyrie, Gott Vater in Ewigkeit from the Clavierubung III often called the “German Organ Mass. This monumental piece is a collection contains a prelude and fugue, 21 chorale preludes and 4 duets. The chorales are settings of the parts of the Lutheran mass and catechism. The piece is bookended by the “St. Anne” prelude and fugue in Eb. This Kyrie is the first of six settings of the Kyrie, three for manuals and pedals and three for manuals only. They set the tree separate verses of the Kyrie that reflect prayers to each person of the trinity. This setting is of the text:
O Lord the Father for evermore!
We Thy wondrous grace adore;
We confess Thy power, all worlds upholding.
Have mercy, Lord.
by Martin Luther. The piece is written in stile antico form with long note values and strict counterpoint. This collection reflects some of Bach’s most complex writing for the organ. The chorale tune is placed in the soprano in long notes while the lower two voices and pedal play florid counterpoint based on the first phrase of the chorale tune. 

The prelude was written by Jean Langlais (1907-1991), a blind organist and composer. The piece is taken from his Hommage à Frescobaldi, op.70. This eight movement work written in 1951 is his second organ mass. Langlais added three movements to the five movement mass. The final movement, Épilogue, uses the opening theme of Messa della Madonna from Frescobaldi’s Fiori musicali. Anne Labounsky writes: “Although each movement is short, several of them demonstrate his ideal of mysticism: to draw the listener into a state of contemplation…through the suspension of time.” This simple Kyrie places the plainchant melody in the pedal played on a 4’ stop.  The manuals play on soft 16’ and 8’ string stops.  This simple prayer opens this piece in a soft and rather mystical way.