Thursday, May 1, 2008

Listening Journal 4

Ben Johnston

4th String Quartet: Amazing Grace

Ben Johnston is an American composer known for his work in microtonality. Having studied with John Cage, Harry Partch, and Darius Milhaud, Johnston benefited from the American music education system in place during the mid-20th century. His works span the second half of the 20th century. Written in various just tuning systems, 4th String Quartet (Amazing Grace), written in 1973, is perhaps Johnston’s most famous piece. Johnston creates a world of sound evoking many strong emotions that simultaneously convey Johnston’s masterful composition techniques.

One could say that Harry Partch was the prime influence on Johnston due to the appearance of microtonality in Johnston’s works. Partch was apioneer in justly tunedmicrotonality and often could be heard dividing an octave into more than 43 unique tones. Although Johnson used this many divisions in some of his other works (the 3rd String Quartet employs 53 divisions per octave), the 4th String Quartet achieves a fairly tonal sound, with five to twenty-two divisions per octave. This tonal sound contrasts well with the serial 3rd String Quartet, a work Johnston designated to be played before the 4th String Quartet and separated by a period of silence. The resulting juxtaposition is entitled Crossings.

Johnston seeks to create a more pure sound (describe what you mean by “pure soundd”) based on mathematical ratios of pitches developed by early thinkers such as Pythagoras. Although the idea is hardly new, Johnston does not merely employ these ancient tuning systems, he combines them at different points throughout the work to achieve perfect consonances and grinding dissonances of less than a half-step. The overtone series figures heavily into Johnston’s procedures, as he places special emphasis on the 2:1 ratio of the octave, 3:2 ratio of the fifth, 5:4 ratio of the major third, and the 9:5 ratio of the minor seventh. Johnston utilizes certain combinations of these constant ratios to create a unique pitch system to fit the requirements of his music. The sound is different from what we are used to hearing in the equal temperament system, as all half steps are not equal. An example of this occurs during the first statement of the tune, which includes a violin playing the melody using Pythagorean tuning, which is based on perfect fifths. Different tuning schemes are used throughout, including Johnston’s creation of a 13- and 22-tone set of pitches spanning one octave.

The 4th String Quartet is a set of Theme and Variations on the tune “Amazing Grace.” The piece itself can be appreciated on a superficial level for its ability to set this tune in such a manner that the melody, when stated, lies in the forefront while the harmonic and rhythmic undercurrents create a whirlwind of motion underneath. On a more involved level, one may notice the intense complexity of the seemingly unrelated rhythmic motifs. Johnston has parts simultaneously playing in different time signatures, with some of these parts playing in 27/32 for periods of time!

The work itself begins with a seemingly straight-ahead string quartet setting of the tune. This first statement strongly suggests the harmonies that could be heard during the early colonial times of America. Lots of open fifths are unisons are used to create this colonial sound. There is no dissonance as a result of the intended harmonies, but Johnston makes sure that his just tuning system can be recognized by highlighting some of the dissonances (semi tones, quarter tones, etc.) unique to his series of pitches. The next variation adds more motion and dynamics while still maintaining a relatively standard string quartet feel. After two more variations in which there is constant polyphony, texture changes, and few cadence points, Johnston shifts to a minor mode. During this time, the presence of a plucked cello becomes more prominent. Johnston creates this texture in which the cello stands out by having it play in a completely different time signature than the other three instruments. This creates somewhat of a hemiola effect for the listener.

Next, Johnston transitions into a middle section where a cello ostinato keeps the motion continuous. The ostinato does not line up with the constant meter of the rest of the instruments and the violin states the tune in a harmonic mode closely resembling the Phrygian mode. A brief lyrical interlude similar to the first variations is followed by quiet and eerie flurries of strings. This flurry of motion continues while the viola plays an unadorned version of the melody. The cacophonous accompaniment of high strings juxtaposes against the melody until another lyrical section serves as a transition to the more lyrical ending section. The coda section continues with evermore increasing chromatic harmonies that continued stressing the dissonances created by the tuning system. The final rendition of “Amazing Grace” uses jazz-influenced chromatic chord substitutions and ends with an anticlimactic plagal cadence. Overall, the piece invokes uneasy, yet familiar feelings for the listener. The recognizable theme is permutated in ways that are difficult for the average person to comprehend.

At this point in time, it seems as if Johnston’s legacy consists of his experimentation with new tuning systems. This work, although highly structured with intertwining complex rhythms, does not contain aspects of serialism that can be found in Johnston’s previous works. (i.e. 3rd String Quartet) Johnston hints at nationalism with his choice of a standard American hymn for the subject of this work. This dedication to the American folk idiom compares with certain works by Charles Ives. Such close connections with fellow composers prove Johnston worthy of a place in musical history reserved for composers of the highest regards.

This piece should belong in the Canon. Although it has been composed in the last 50 years, the magnitude of this almost 12 minute work is quite large. Johnston combined many different elements of rhythm, tuning, American folk song, and the classical genre of the string quartet to create this unique work. Due to the popular appeal of containing a well-known song and the sheer magnitude of this piece, its conclusion in the Canon should not be considered premature or ill-informed. Johnston’s techniques are continuing the legacy of the American avant-garde composers. For this and other reasons stated above, this work should be a part of the Canon.

I enjoyed this work because it contained a melody I already knew. This aspect makes an enormous difference when I am trying to follow along and connect with a song. Johnson’s variations are fresh and ridiculously dense. His harmonies are likewise quite modern and hip. I think that a modern work such as this will need to be re-examined after a span of time so that it can be seen with older eyes. Because it is so modern, it is difficult to know if this string quartet will stand the test of time. I hope that it will and audiences will be able to enjoy this work for many years to come.

Shinn, Randall. “Ben Johnston’s Fourth String Quartet.” Perspectives of New Music 15, no. 2 (Spring-Summer 1977): 145-173.

I used this article to view a copy of the score and obtain more detailed and esoteric insights into the tuning ratios and metric derivations that could not possibly have been determined by just listening to the piece. And on a personal note, I am not related to this author

John Zorn

Cat O’ Nine Tails

To say that John Zorn is an eclectic musician and composer would be a crass understatement. Known in the jazz world for his incredible alto saxophone talents, his music styles span almost every genre imaginable. He has been affiliated with jazz, free jazz, metal, klezmer, avant-garde, contemporary, improvised, punk, and many other styles of music. Cat O’ Nine Tales (1988) is a string quartet composed in the contemporary classical vein. This is one of Zorn’s first instances writing for a classical ensemble. Bearing this in mind, one can begin to identify the extreme experimental nature with which he has approached this work.

Much like its composer, Cat O’ Nine Tails brings together an assorted combination of musical ideas. As a listener, it is extremely difficult, if not entirely impossible, to distinguish any type of musical form. Zorn shifts textures so rapidly and at a seemingly random rate that it is tricky to follow along. If one were to describe a generic pattern, however, it seems as if Zorn tries to switch back and forth between serene, lulling textures to disjunctive, chaotic sections that go beyond description.

Before discussing the work in more detail, it is important to describe some of the unconventional sounds that Zorn employs to achieve his composition. On many occasions, the string players are scratching along their strings to create a sliding, scrapin noise. Zorn also has the lower string players slap the strings against the neck of the instrument. Zorn frequently uses glissandos and also adds a section where the four strings combine together to create the sound of a squeaky door hinge.

A work such as Cat O’ Nine Tails is difficult to describe It lacks a clearly defined form and its musical ideas are eccentric. The piece begins in a frenetic cacophony. After a few seconds, a calm section is played followed by this alternating formula for basically the entire duration of the piece. Most of the hectic sections are extremely virtuosic and seemingly lacking in clear tonality. Zorn creates a world of sound in which it seems as almost anything is possible. Each small episode is so different from the others that it seems they are unrelated. This is refreshing and exciting for the listener because what comes next is always something unexpected.

Among these episodes, Zorn weaves in passages of tonality. He plays at least two snippets of a hoedown and also quotes “Tea for Two” in one of these episodes, showing his background in jazz music. He also briefly plays what sounds like a sounding-off at the end of a cartoon show. Zorn had already composed lots of film music for documentaries and cartoons, so this little Looney Tunes-esque segment again highlights Zorn’s eclectic musical involvement.

Bearing in mind Zorn’s previous involvement with writing music for cartoons, one can begin to see how this influence pervades Cat O’ Nine Tails. This string quartet could almost be seen as program music. It seems to be conveying a cartoon-like story and would fit perfectly with a screened adaptation. Various effects, including the squeaky door hinge already mentioned, are communicated throughout the duration of this piece. Images of explosions, cartoon animals running around, and moping characters are conjured in the mind of the listener throughout the piece.

For all the energy and tenacity expressed within the piece, it ends in a relatively feeble manner. During the last minute of the piece, Zorn chooses to sustain chords and ends without a true resolution. Similar to the Johnston work discussed before, this piece ends anticlimactically.

Having reviewed two string quartets written within 15 years of each other, a general comparison would help define each work in respect to other contemporary works in a similar genre. The organizational concepts of each composer varied greatly. While Johnston’s string quartet maintained a theme which the audience could easily follow, Zorn’s composition is random but keeps the listener engaged by continually coming up with fresh ideas that seem to come out of nowhere. Whereas Johnston created his own variety of tuning systems, Zorn stayed fairly close to the established equal temperament system. One final major difference is the feeling of pulse generated by each selection. Johnston had clearly defined sections that remained at one tempo while Zorn seemed to change tempos every few seconds.

As for the inclusion of Cat O’ Nine Tails in the Canon, I would have to say not at this point in time. The piece is simply too modern to be able to tell if a place in the Canon is warranted. If the inclusion in the Canon would be based on creativity alone, then this work would rightfully deserve a place. But since it lacks a clearly identifiable form, the difficulty of trying to follow the piece aurally supersedes its creative merits.

I enjoyed Cat O’ Nine Tails because it kept me in a constant state of suspense. The stunning virtuosity was impressive, although not too entirely necessary at times. In general, certain passages were simply too confusing and difficult for the listener to clearly follow along. All in all, Zorn is an incredible visionary who never seems to run out of musical ideas. I would recommend this piece to anyone who wants a fresh take on music.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Hall Johnson

The Hall Johnson Songbook

The spiritual, an art form America by the slaves and their descendants, first appeared in the second half of the 19th century. Their texts are based on Christian teachings and tend to focus on certain themes: avoidance of Satan, repentance, prayer, and oppression. Hall Johnson (1888-1970) was an American composer known for his spiritual compositions, taking what was once a simple genre of music and expanding its possibilities to achieve works of art comparable in compositional prowess to music written in Europe at this time.

This particular recording was made in 1969 by the Virginia State College Choir under the direction of Eugene Simpson. The authenticity of this recording is unquestionable due to Johnson still being alive and his close association with Simpson. These two men were some of the foremost authorities on accurate interpretations of spiritual material and there professional relationship allowed them to exchange their ideas freely. Of the thirteen a cappella songs on the record, most are original compositions, but some, like “Elijah Rock,” are intricate arrangements of traditional spirituals. Without a valid interpretation, it is possible that the true intention of the works could have been lost.

Johnson composed many of his spirituals during the 1920’s and 30’s. This was at a time when spirituals were declining in practice in black churches yet still maintaining popularity in performance venues. When listening to this recording, it is easy to take for granted what most spirituals sounded like at this time. Johnson, whose father was a minister and college president, received an excellent education which led to professional work as a violinist and violist. This education, which included time at the Julliard School, was still somewhat of a rarity at this time for a black man. With this vast knowledge of music theory, Johnson was able to take the spiritual to new heights by successfully juxtaposing the traditional spiritual style with his more advanced perception of harmony.

A cursory listen to this record might not warrant much appreciation for Johnson’s efforts. His spirituals employ a simple texture that allows for easy following by the audience. The refrains are often shorter than one phrase and repeated frequently. However, when one begins to delve deeper into Johnson’s harmonic underpinnings, it becomes increasingly apparent how much Johnson alters the usual I, IV, and V chords that are the basis of almost all hymns and spirituals. He also begins using extensions and alterations that go past the 7th. (9th, 11th, 13th, etc.) These alterations are always used with good taste and never just for the purpose of making something sound “different.” In Johnson’s style of music, as is the case with most Western music, the lowest note, sung by the basses, provides the harmonic reference point and is mostly the root of the chord.

Johnson approaches and leaves many of his vertical textures by half step. This is a practice that is also an integral part of jazz harmony. Other similarities with jazz music include the extensive use of the dominant seventh chord to frequently tonicize closely related key centers. Also, hints emerge of the stepwise bassline found in jazz.

As far as form is concerned, many of the spirituals contain sections of call and response between a soloist or small group and the rest of the choir. A great example of this occurs on the opening song “Cert’n’y Lord.” A baritone and bass soloist alternately ask the choir about being ready for Heaven, to which the choir enthusiastically responds “Cert’n’y Lord” after each question. Similar to these call and response portions are the repeated refrains of the songs. These repeated refrains are combined with alternating verses to create a sort of strophic form. In “Fix Me, Jesus,” the choir sings “Fix me, Jesus” as a refrain that then allows a soloist to sing a short interlude before the refrain is repeated again. Overall, Johnson effectively utilizes many different textures to achieve different sonorities and timbres that are simple in and of themselves, but when combined, create ingeniously contrasting sections

The texts are all derived from the Christian faith. Due to the history of blacks in America, the texts often talk of being freed from oppression. This is a concept that works on the level of avoiding sin but also as an inspiration to endure the racial challenges and suppression the blacks faced in America. In the vein of Charles Ives, Johnson occasionally interjects quotes into his works. In the somber tune “When I Was Sinkin’ Down,” Johnson uses a small portion of the hymn “What Wondrous Love Is This?” He seamlessly weaves the traditional American folk hymn into the song, without doubt a decision influenced by his upbringing as the son of a minister.

On the whole, I thoroughly enjoyed these spirituals. Johnson’s compositions bring a fresh air to the realm of choral music and the genre of the spiritual. For lack more adequate terms, his alterations and chord substitutions were “hip” and “swingin.’” Johnson’s harmony shows signs of the modern jazz alterations. And as for a place in the Canon, I think that these works most definitely would belong in some sort of more specific Canon, but not THE Canon. The quality of the music is extremely high, but canonic works often tend to be more refined in nature. These works are not significant enough in the broad spectrum of world music. I do believe, however, that their place in a choral Canon would be more than justified.

Hall Johnson expanded the spiritual traditions with his compositions and helped demonstrate that new harmonies could be introduced into the spiritual setting. His works are truly American and serve as a testament to the African-American music tradition.

Marion Bauer

Symphonic Suite for Strings and American Youth Symphony

In the early stages of the 20th century, American composers were seen as second-rate musicians by the rest of the world in comparison to their European brethren. Furthermore, female American composers were hardly given a chance to gain a reputable status among their peers. So it is a small wonder that Marion Bauer (1882-1955) stands out as a leading figure of American music after World War I. Despite most of her fame stemming from the publication of her book Twentieth Century Music, her teaching tenures at New York University and The Julliard School, and her leadership in organizations such as the American Music Center, the American Music Guild, and the League of Composers, a study of Bauer’s works reveals a distinctive style steeped with lyricism, modern harmonies, and American song traditions.

Symphonic Suite for Strings (1940) is an emotionally wrenching work composed shortly after the death of some of Bauer’s Jewish family members at the hands of the Nazis. As the name implies, this work is for the strings found in an orchestra and rarely breaks out of a two- or three-part texture. The suite contains three movements in slow-slow-fast order. The first movement, “Prelude – Andante,” is a lyrical, somber expression that opens with a portion of harmonized two-part counterpoint. This section hints at the counterpoint of Bach, a reference that will be further realized in the third movement. Bauer utilizes sections of shifting tonalities separated by clear points of cadence. Another notable feature attributable to Bauer’s style is the use of rich textures and strong bass presence. The most striking portion of this movement is Bauer’s impeccable control of dissonance within her carefully crafted melodic lines. This movement, written in C minor, ends with an old compositional technique used in many hymns: the Picardy Third. Bauer does not seem to follow any kind of precedent concerning standard key relationships between the first and second movements. The second movement, “Interlude – Commodo,” is written in the key of F# minor, a tritone away from the original key of C minor. Bauer begins the movement in a similar manner as the first one. The violins play searching melodies that eventually develop into another short section of 2-part counterpoint. An abrupt cadence leads into a despairing portion that evokes a feeling of loneliness. Lower string parts play filler material at the end of main phrases by the upper parts to create a kinetic texture. The movement ends with a dissonant arpeggiated pattern. “Finale – Fugue” is the final movement and can be perceived as an endearing tribute to Bach. Bauer complies with the traditional understanding of the form, yet composes a piece offering intense counterpoint composed in a 20th century style. Like many of Bach’s fugues, this movement sees different string parts entering in an imitative style. Bauer uses one main theme to unify this movement. When compared to the sections of the previous movements, this movement seems to have been almost entirely composed in a linear style. Bauer implies certain chords, but doesn’t use any detectable chord progressions. To end the work, Bauer uses a glorified V-I progression back to the home key of C minor

Like the Symphonic Suite for Strings, the American Youth Symphony (1943) contains three movements and many recurring stylistic features. The work was commissioned for an extended high school orchestra with wind instruments and piano; however, it is by no means an “easy” piece. Throughout this work, Bauer provides sections firmly rooted in American popular traditions. The first movement, “Andante Maestoso – Allegretto – Vivo,” is a sectionalized movement in G minor that begins with the statement of a theme in a march-like fashion. This is stated by the full ensemble and then restated alone by the piano, hinting at a concerto form. The piano, however, cannot be seen as a solo instrument accompanied by an ensemble because its part is hardly virtuosic and the piece does not follow concerto form. Bauer effectively uses the piano to supply poignant interactions with the rest of the ensemble. Following the march, the first movement continues in a spirited manner with the Allegretto and Vivo sections. Bauer continues her use of chromaticism and mixes in a deft appliance of rhythmic patterns. This movement closes with a restatement of the opening theme.

When listening to both the Symphonic Suite and the American Youth Symphony, a striking resemblance can be made among Bauer’s melodies. They are not necessarily restricted by the given key signature, tend to tastefully resolve dissonances, and possess the ability to evoke strong emotions. Bauer continues with a movement in C Major, “Andante ma non troppo,” composed in a peaceful triple feel. Harmonies are especially important in this movement because chords are held out for long durations. Traces of Impressionism abound with the use atmospheric harmonies and unclear key signatures. The ending portion of this movement calls to mind the common ii-V progression that is the cornerstone of jazz harmony.

The last movement, “Allegretto,” is in the key of G Major and contains a medley of American popular song forms. The first song type Bauer uses is that of an American dance known as the cakewalk. This dance form is very festive and employs clearly defined repeated sections. The next portion of this movement takes on the form of a minor blues. After a majestic swell, the entire work concludes with a Western hoedown. The piano plays a typical “boom-chuck” accompaniment that takes the piece to its grandiose finale. In this final movement, Bauer stylishly uses American popular styles without having them sound trite or tacky. Along with the traditional simple harmonies associated with these forms, Bauer incorporates lavish harmonic sequences that offer seamless transitions between sections.

I enjoyed both of these works immensely. Bauer’s lyric melodies and expertly controlled dissonances provide a fresh musical landscape that engages and challenges listeners to expand their sonic horizons. Bauer’s uncanny melodies offer a distinctive “sound” that can only be attributed to her. Bauer respectfully acknowledges musical forms of her predecessors, but also seeks to break the mold with formal ingenuities of her own. Highlighted in this paper is Bauer’s use of key signatures. Her movements are connected to each other, but often without the use of standard relatable key signatures. Bauer’s achievement of a distinctive “American” sound through her use of common American song forms suggests a stylistic relationship to Aaron Copland. Both of these composers were alive at the same time and used many techniques that seem to mirror each other.

The placement of these works in the Canon is debatable. I would propose that they be included in a more selective Canon. As is the case with the ever-increasing amount of quality music being published, certain works are incredible, but do not particularly stand out among other compositions. I believe this to be the case with Bauer, as her pieces are of excellent quality but do not approach the masterpiece level of other compositions by her contemporaries. The inclusion of these works in a female composer Canon would be more than deserved. Also, these works could be a part of a 20th-century American composer’s Canon.

Bauer’s identifiable style and her controlled use of dissonance lend credence to her inclusion at the forefront of the evolving American compositional form of the first half of the 20th-century. By combining American popular song forms with modernistic harmonies, Bauer established herself as a viable American composer.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008


Paulus by Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy

Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, arguably the most naturally gifted composer of the Romantic era, was commissioned to write an oratorio commemorating the life of Paul in 1832. He finished this work nearly four years later in 1836. Upon first glance, similarities to such large-scale oratorios from the bygone era of Handel and Bach seem to pervade the entire piece. With further review, however, one begins to notice that those similarities are the result of the utmost reverence that Mendelssohn has for the traditions of his musical forefathers. The booming chorus sections that seem to overwhelm the listener’s senses are then seen as Mendelssohn’s tribute to the Baroque era He does manage to weave in his own modern style with the use of chromatic harmony as well as recitative and aria portions that mirror their respective counterparts in the opera tradition of Mendelssohn’s time.

This two-act oratorio recounts the New Testament story of Saint Paul and runs a little over two hours in length. The first section describes the life and martyrdom of St. Stephen and Saul’s conversion. The second act focuses on the missionary work of Saul, going by his newly-christened name of Paul, and his fellow prophet Barnabas. This second movement ends with Paul’s death at the hands of the Romans. The piece is written for chorus with four soloists: soprano, alto, tenor and bass. Each of the soloists depicts various characters and contributes to the narration of the story. Paul is portrayed by the bass throughout and the tenor sings the roles of Barnabas and Stephen while the soprano and alto soloists chime in during the narrative recitative sections The sections of this work include choral works, chorales, recitatives and arias.

The work opens with a lengthy thematic overture. Mendelssohn, known for his conducting prowess, demands the utmost attention of his audience for seven minutes in this stunning display of majesty that delivers many haunting and foreboding themes that appear later throughout the overture, acting as connecting material. Following the overture, Mendelssohn begins with a magnificent choral piece entitled “Herr! der du bist der Gott.” With this movement, Mendelssohn makes clear his attempt to bring back the overwhelming aspect of Baroque oratorios. This work introduces the sacred context of the rest of the oratorio. Whereas other oratorios might be confusing in regards to their purpose, Mendelssohn seems disinterested in making his story entertaining. He focuses on the events that actually occurred in the Bible in hopes of conveying their deeper spiritual meanings.

The mention of Mendelssohn’s overbearing religious perspective in this oratorio warrants further explanation. Mendelssohn grew up with a strong Jewish heritage. His grandfather was a prominent Jewish rabbi and scholar; however, Jews were not looked upon favorably during Mendelssohn’s time, so eventually his family adopted the name Bartholdy to replace their existing last name. Mendelssohn took both names, to the dismay of his father, although he remained a devoted Lutheran. This reasoning explains why this particular story of conversion has a special meaning for Mendelssohn.

Following a conventional homophonic chorale singing the praises of God, Mendelssohn launches into the story of Stephen. The soprano and bass act as narrators as they sing a duet telling of the people’s frustrations with Stephen. The chorus, playing the part of an angry mob, then voices these frustrations in an eerie choral tune, an effect achieved by percussive orchestration. Two typical traits are highlighted here. The first is Mendelssohn’s tendency to have a recitative section before each choral or aria section. This penchant continues for the duration of the work. The other typical trait is this characteristic orchestral accompaniment. Mendelssohn was a celebrated conductor and knew how to effectively compose a work for an orchestral setting. For example, a narrator tells how Stephen was stoned by his own people. During the stoning, the angry mob repeatedly calls for Stephen to be stoned. Their incessant chants are reminiscent of the mob cries Jesus faced before he was crucified. The question may be beginning to creep into the reader’s mind at this point of why the death of Stephen is depicted in an oratorio about Paul. The reasoning for this is not entirely clear, but the connection between the two is that Stephen’s martyrdom is the first time Saul is mentioned in the New Testament. By depicting Stephen’s death using a substantial amount of time, Mendelssohn shows the absolute determination of Saul in his quest to persecute all Christians. This device lends further credibility to Saul’s amazing conversion that is to come.

Recitative passages describe Saul’s actions on his journeys to persecute Christians. His destructive actions are catalogued in dramatic fashion by the tenor narrator with a sparse accompaniment from the orchestra. An aria follows that praises the glory and goodness of God. This leads us to the conversion of Saul. In a perhaps somewhat premature climax, the chorus plays the role of God speaking to Saul during his conversion. “Wachet auf! Ruft uns die Stimme,” a well-known chorale still sung in churches today, follows in what is an appropriate choice following Saul’s “wake-up call” that he received from God. The first act ends with Ananias christening the newly-named Paul as a Christian minister followed by a relatively generic choral piece proclaiming the glory of God.

This first act deserves some discussion before continuing to the oratorio’s second act. Several typical Mendelssohn features are present and many have been previously mentioned. Because this in an oratorio, certain aspects are necessary to propel the plot along. These are present in the recitative sections. The orchestra plays an almost equal role as the singers throughout the work. The mood, whether joyful, sad, or foreboding, can at once be determined by a cursory listen to the orchestration. During aria sections, for example, the orchestra often played a scant accompaniment of one or two melodic lines that perfectly complemented what the singer was singing. The orchestra plays a vital role in providing the dramatic accompaniment for the conversion scene. Another distinctive characteristic is Mendelssohn’s use of common themes, known as leitmotifs, to unify his work as a whole unit. These themes are heard at the onset of the oratorio in the overture and return at various times throughout the movement.

The second half of Mendelssohn’s work tells the story of Paul’s travels with Barnabas as an apostle of Christ and his ensuing martyrdom. Mendelssohn starts this portion of his oratorio with an energetic choral fugue. As was standard for these types of pieces, the choir begins by singing a homophonic portion and then quickly breaks into dense imitative polyphony. This initial movement, entitled “Der Erdkreis ist nun des Herrn,” assertively proclaims God’s presence on earth. The next few movements of the piece go by quickly with a relatively small amount of action occurring. A narrator describes Paul’s travels and the Jews’ initially welcoming reactions. Throughout this portion of the oratorio the chorus sings another chorale entitled “O Jesu Christe.” Mendelssohn introduces this widely sung chorale with an imitative polyphonic choral section. After this lull in the action, events begin to happen rapidly and Paul’s martyrdom becomes imminent. Paul delivers a dynamic message to an anxious public, who then begin to worship Paul in the choral movement “Die Götter sind den Menschen gleich geworden.” Literally translated, this means “The gods have become equal to man.” Paul, enraged with these views, unleashes a scathing rebuke saying that the people “don’t know what [they] are doing.” This group of overly devoted followers suddenly changes into a frenzied mob, expressing their frustration and overall disappointment. A soprano narrator then describes Paul’s persecution by the people and a simple air sung by the tenor makes note of Paul’s unwavering devotion to God until the time of his death. The oratorio ends with the entire ensemble singing “Nicht aber ihm allein.” Like most of the other choral pieces within Paulus, this movement features extensive imitative polyphony as well as sections of homophony.

When examining this work with respect to the common musical practices of the Romantic era and the times before, one can see that this oratorio follows the precedents of the oratorio style. The oratorio’s popularity was waning. The time of Handel has already passed, and with it the unparalleled master of the genre. The oratorio at the time of Mendelssohn was not necessarily considered a viable genre in which to compose a work. It was simply out of fashion and not popular enough with the general public. Mendelssohn was seeking to resurrect this genre with Paulus.

With Paulus, I believe Mendelssohn has created a masterpiece. Mendelssohn was know for churning out works at a furious pace and the completion of this oratorio took four years from the time it was commissioned to the day it was premiered. I only mention this fact to underscore the wondrous and unparalleled beauty and passion portrayed throughout the work. I find that the most characteristic portions of Paulus is the incredible beauty of the orchestra. Whether playing simple counterpoint or a booming accompaniment for the full chorus, Mendelssohn’s orchestration always seems to be absolutely perfect. During arias and recitatives, the accompaniment is fittingly scarce and seems to ideally convey Mendelssohn’s concepts.

I especially have come to admire Mendelssohn’s compositional style in this work. Having been composed in the earlier stages of the Romantic era, one might expect the work to not express the intentions of this era at its fullest. However, I do not think that this was Mendelssohn’s intentions. He sought to compose this new work in the style of a Handel oratorio. This explains the prominent chorus sections, a typical characteristic of the Handel style. Also similar to Handel, the chorus of Paulus depicts the mood and feelings of the text. Mendelssohn’s intent of composing in a bygone musical style is a continuation of his reverence for the older styles that he alone was responsible for resurrecting.

This work belongs in the Canon. It is a compositional masterpiece of a well known Biblical figure. I would assume that this work is not performed all that often due to the fact that Mendelssohn composed another oratorio entitled Elijah. Also, Paulus tends to be somewhat circuitous and longwinded. It is almost two hours long, and Paul’s character is not introduced until the end of the first act. The opening portions of the oratorio are instead used to tell the story of Stephen. This is also a fascinating tale, but the fact that it uses up at least thirty minutes of the oratorio suggests that Stephen’s martyrdom possibly warrants an oratorio of its own. Also, not enough time is devoted to Paul’s missionary work. There is literally one single song in which Paul delivers any sort of teaching to the people. I would like to have seen Paul speak out more and deliver his messages to the people. I believe these few reasons led to this work’s relative obscurity in relation to Mendelssohn’s Elijah; however, despite this apparent lack of public acclaim, Paulus still deserves recognition as a masterpiece and a tribute to the oratorios of Handel and Bach.

In summation, I believe that Mendelssohn depicted Paul’s biblical journey with fervor and passion. There is a large degree of incredible musical material throughout the work and the chorus scenes are wonderfully overwhelming. Overall though, the work suffers from little focus on Paul’s ministry and too much focus on the martyrdom of Stephen.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Concerto for Flute and Harp in C Major, K. 299

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is considered by many to be the undisputed greatest composer of all time. His works show incredible ingenuity, clarity, organization, and overall sheer brilliance. This particular concerto for an unconventional tandem of soloists again fully demonstrates the qualities that have elevated Mozart to his lofty musical status. This work was commissioned for this specific instrumentation by a wealthy duke; however, Mozart never received any of this promised money for the work. This work seems as if it were designed to showcase the harp, an instrument for which concertos were rarely composed.

Although Mozart has been known to either set precedent with his pieces or purposely deviate somewhat from the established musical forms of his day, this concerto very much follows the form of a Classical period concerto. There are three movements: Allegro, Andantino, and Rondo Allegro. These movements are arranged in the typical order of fast-slow-fast. This concerto lasts approximately thirty minutes, and Mozart seems to be filling every minute of that time with his wonderfully inventive melodies and almost no “filler” material.

The first movement begins with a majestic statement of the theme, played by the full orchestra (without the harp and flute) with the bulk of the melodic lines being played by the strings. This opening theme in the first exposition is a strict adherence to the established concerto form. The theme is founded on short thematic ideas and heavily relies on the use of contrasting dynamic markings. The harp and flute then close out this first ritornello section with a statement of the theme followed an episode that defines the intent of this work. Because of the nature of the two featured solo instruments in this work, the episodes take on the form of a flute playing with harp accompaniment and the harp playing with light plucked string accompaniment. The soloists’ exposition is extremely important; it is the composer’s opportunity to set the stage for the soloists to shine. Mozart at first allows each of the solo instruments to play a few solo lines with the other respective soloist playing more of an accompanying role. The harp and flute often intertwine their parts. There are times when the flute would play a sequence and the harp would take that particular sequence from the flute and continuo. As is typical of the Classical period, everything is neat and precise. The melodic lines played by the soloists are often derived from scales, arpeggios, and sequence patterns. The Alberti arpeggiated bass is also in use, played by either the strings of the orchestra or the harp accompanying the flute. This episode is then followed by another restatement of the theme by the full orchestra. After the theme, the piece develops further with a minor key section that incorporates frequent key modulations. Another episode from the soloists follows that is different from the first in that the soloists get a chance to show off their virtuosity. This is followed by another statement of the theme and the appearance of a secondary theme, played by the flute with harp accompaniment only. The second theme is further developed and varied and then leads into the final solo portion of the movement. This is the most virtuosic, cadenza-like section of the first movement. The movement closes out with a final re-statement of the initial ritornello

This kind of detailed analysis demonstrates the depth and organization with which Mozart composed this concerto. Although similar in-depth analysis could be done on the second two movements, a brief description of their key elements and stylistic features will suffice to avoid needless over-analysis and repetition. The second movement, Andantino, is a slower movement. The theme is stated at the beginning by the flute and then repeated by the harp. Within this section, there is a brief modulation to a minor key. This movement ends with unison flute and string lines accompanied by the harp. This ending is yet another example of the variations Mozart incorporates into his pieces.

The final Rondo movement begins with an opening pattern that incorporates many patterns and sequences. This movement also is heavy on Alberti bass accompaniment. This movement again follows a version of concerto form with an opening statement by the full orchestra followed by the duet of flute and harp only. Mozart also creates a nice effect by having the harp and flute concurrently play a major scale a third apart. This section also features the harp the most. The piece ends with a long flute trill followed by a standard ending that incorporates a repeated I chord.

I found this work to be thoroughly beautiful. There is a delicate and dainty quality about it, perhaps due in part to the relatively quiet timbre of the two solo instruments for which the movement was written. This delicacy might also be present because of the setting in which this work was intended to be performed, namely the duke’s private chamber. I find this work to be relaxing and easy to listen to. The lines flow quite beautifully and there is just enough harmonic deviations to keep the progressions interesting.

This piece should belong in the Canon if such decisions were based on quality of the composition alone. I do not think, however, that exquisite musicianship is the sole component that determines entrance into this exclusive Canon. Because the piece calls for a rare combination of solo instruments and a unique need for an extremely virtuosic harpist, I do not think it can be included in the Canon. The Canon is reserved for the most commonly performed and best-loved pieces. From a purely aesthetic view, Mozart has created a masterpiece with this concerto that demands a talented harpist. His melodies in this piece are soaring and endearing. This piece demonstrates and supports the notion that Mozart can rightfully be considered the greatest composer ever.

Make A Joyful Noise: Selections of American Psalmody

This recording documents choral singing of the earliest American-composed songs of praise, known as psalms. Beginning in 1770, this collection encapsulates the birth of America and the seventy years that follow. These songs, sung a cappella, greatly resemble the English choral tradition due to the almost direct link these American composers had to England. The strophic pieces incorporate secular sounds and melodies into the worship service, continuing the secularization of Protestant worship music. [which begins where? Tie this back into the history we covered in 351] Several of these songs lack an attributed composer, possibly due to the lingering concept of servitude to the church. Of the credited composers, William Billings and Supply Belcher stand out because of the quality and number of their compositions.

Most composers of these tunes hailed from New England and their compositional style strongly resembles choral practices today. The first song, “An Anthem of Praise,” was written by Supply Belcher and contains many of the typical traits of the American psalmody. Belcher, similarly to most American composers of this time, did not receive a formal music education. He only practiced music as a side job and never considered it to be his main profession. This psalm maintains a 4-part homorhythmic texture throughout, while occasionally moving to the relative minor. It employs sudden shifts in texture and feel. And, as is common with several selections on this record, it ends with a resounding “Amen” cadence. Belcher is again represented on this recording with his work “Heroism.” This piece exudes a rigid quality that suggests some sort of march, not unlike the battle marches of wartime America. Perhaps of more importance is the fact that Belcher elects to emphasize his text through the use of unrelenting repetition. The modern ear could possibly perceive a good portion of this as superfluous; however, as with all music of a different time period, one must take into account the purpose and performance venue of every given piece. These psalms were sung in churches and also, when possible, outside the church setting in private worship services. So the reoccurrence of text and melody served only to aid the congregation and non-musically trained public in the singing of these psalms.

William Billings heads the list as the most credited composer on this disc. A tanner by trade without a formal music education, it is safe to say that Billings was the first great American composer of choral music. The selections contained on this disc portray the breadth of his compositional prowess. One such selection is entitled “Chesterfield.” This piece, like many of the songs of this time, succeeds with a haunting melody. The arrangement is somewhat atypical with the tenors singing the melody and the sopranos providing a descant above everyone else. Billings displays his compositional techniques here with the use of pedal point, constantly moving inner voices, and the use of the extreme high and low range. Bearing these things in mind, one could reasonably assume that this piece, unlike many of the other simpler songs, was most likely intended to be sung by a choir of trained musicians with the congregation chiming in on the tune itself. Another Billings tune on this recording is “Washington.” This, again, is technically demanding. Billings goes to great lengths in this arrangement to follow each cadence with entrances containing four points of imitation.

An interesting parallel can be drawn here to the contemporary composers in Europe. The Classical era took place in the later part of the 18th century, the time in which Billings composed much of his music. This being said, “Washington” in particular displays the newfound will to compose music in an organized manner. After these imitative entrances, Billings sets his text with a lilting quality. This is achieved with light articulation and polyphony of the highest quality. Each voice part sings a completely and almost unrelated vocal line.

Among the other fourteen pieces on this disc, a few more of these songs deserve mention due to stylistic features that categorize them as traditional American songs of praise. Billings does contribute one more song, “Richmond,” which employs shifting of key (minor to major) and feel (triple to duple) from the verses to the refrain. This concept of beginning an entirely new idea following a cadence can be seen in several other selections on this disc as well as the developing musical forms of the European Classical style. Almost all of these pieces were written in strophic form. A good example of this is “Middletown” by Amos Bull. This number contains three verses that use the same music. It is a light and joyful selection with a call-and-response concept at the beginning of each verse that concludes with the last two lines repeated for emphasis. This close adherence to form again typifies the Classical period.

Newburgh,” by Amos Munson, begins with the singing of the original German text followed by a final verse sung in English. This piece, again, uses the concept of variation after each cadence point. In this case, each phrase alternates between less densely sung unison lines and sections of intense polyphony. Oliver Holden’s “Ode to Martyrdom” contains the aforementioned imitative entrances and also alternates between a duet and four part choral passages. This piece describes the glory of martyrdom.

Personally, I find these works to be inspired and inventive for the circumstances. I think it is interesting to consider the lack of training and exposure that many of these early American choral composers received. Their European counterparts would be able to attend musical events of high quality constantly while the American composers would not have such an opportunity. Bearing this in mind, I have come to appreciate the beauty and complexity with which writers, such as Billings, could compose.

As to the relationship between these pieces and the Canon, I do not believe that they necessarily would deserve such a lofty distinction. I interpret the inclusion of a piece into the musical Canon as a tribute to the timeless beauty and overall genius of said piece. Now, these pieces are hardly masterworks on the scale of pieces by Mozart and Haydn, but given the circumstances, these works do begin to show traces of a developing American musical tradition. The American religious landscape was beginning to solidify at this junction in time and these musical works by American composers helped redefine the independence of America from Great Britain, while at the same time maintaining various aspects derived from the European Classical styles.