Monthly Archives: February 2019

Will C. Whiteout

View from the author’s back window

It snowed in Seattle yesterday, which means we had to cancel the OSSCS concert that was to take place tonight, the fourth of our season and the third in our series examining the work of Lili Boulanger.

Which is a bummer! I built this program around Boulanger’s setting of the 129th psalm. Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms was a natural pairing, then I got to thinking about other psalms, going back as far as I could and up to the present day. Here’s what we were supposed to have performed tonight:

SCHÜTZ Alleluja! Lobet den Herrn!
HILDEGAARD Karitas habundat
SHAW and the swallow
STRAVINSKY Symphony of Psalms
DVORAK Žalm 149
WHITE Psalm 46

It’s a wildly eclectic program spanning 900 years of music, performed in five different languages, but I’m telling you – it works!

Or so went my hypothesis anyway. I had prepared my pre-concert lecture to explain how it works, pointing out the many cross-pollinations that bounce around in this program. Since I couldn’t give it in person, here you have it:

Same Text, Different Worlds

There are two pieces on the program that share the same text: Heinrich Schütz’s Alleluia (1619) and the last movement of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms (1930), the text being that of the 150th psalm.

Here’s how Schütz sets the first lines, “Alleluja! Lobet den Herrn” (“Hallelujah! Praise the lord”)

And here’s Stravinsky’s setting of the same words, this time in Latin:

It’s immediately clear a) that we’re in two totally different sound worlds and b) that Igor Stravinsky has an awfully dour way with the word “Hallelujah”.

In fact, Stravinsky’s setting of this whole text is quite peculiar, and a case could be made that it’s hardly a musical setting of the text at all, and more a symphony to which words were appended.

Listen, for example, to the way Schütz and Stravinsky set the baldly evocative words, “Praise him with timbrel and dance, praise him with strings and organ”:

I’m not saying that a composer has to be literal with their word painting, but this psalm invites it brazenly, and it’s a bold choice to ignore it outright.

The irony here is that Stravinsky considered the music in this movement to be the single most literal musical depiction he ever composed, particularly the following passage, which depicts Elijah riding a fiery chariot through the sky. The horns and triplets represent the stomping of hooves:

Apparently Stravinsky was even embarrassed that he had written something so literal, which may well be, but it’s worth pointing out that this text contains not a single mention of a horse, a chariot, or the prophet Elijah.

Sing we and chant it

Chant plays a major role in this program, most obviously with the work of the 12th century mystic, Hildegaard von Bingen:

There was a major revival of interest in chant in Parisian musical circles around the time that Lili Boulanger was receiving her education (you’ll hear it a ton in Fauré, d’Indy, Franck, and Duruflé). Listen to the first vocal line of her setting of the 129th psalm with the Hildegaard in mind:

Even a composer like Dvorak, whose setting of the 149th psalm has a bright, festive, dance-like atmosphere, uses a bit of chantish writing to invoke the solemnity of his material:

Modern parallels

There are two contemporary works on the program, one by Caroline Shaw, the other by yours truly. (One of these composers has won the Pulitzer Prize in Music; it’s hardly worth quibbling over which it was.)

We’re composers of the same generation who mainly write in the sphere of tonal music, and what’s more, we both use some of the same techniques, one of which is writing in parallel harmonies.

Listen to this complete performance of and the swallow and I’ll explain what I mean:

Right from the start, you’re getting parallel harmonies – a G-flat major chord moves up to a B-flat minor chord, same voicing, all the parts moving in parallel motion. Another way of putting it is that she’s writing melodies, but instead of using single notes, she uses stacked chords.

This is something that I do a lot, but whereas Shaw’s writing (in this piece) tends towards modality, mine tends towards chromaticism, since I most commonly maintain the chord qualities with each melodic move.

[I am so sorry for that last paragraph. This is the kind of jargon that I would entirely eschew in a pre-concert lecture, but I would have extra tools to explain myself, like a piano and my insouciant charm.]

A simpler version of this is to say that, had I written the opening of and the swallow, it might have had a B-flat major chord instead of a B-flat minor chord, which would sound crunchier and less mellifluous.

Check out, for example, the dissonances in the opening bars of my piece:

Und jetzt?

Lots more could be said about this program, and it’s a shame that I won’t get a chance to present all these pieces in one evening, because I really believe they have all sorts of interesting resonances with each other.

But the wheels have been churning, and I think I’ve figured out how to scrap this program for parts, leading to many new programs, perhaps even more diverting and ingenious than this one, so stay tuned!

Culture broth

An angel has come down heaven and uploaded Stephen Sondheim’s 1994 appearance on “Inside the Actor’s Studio” to YouTube, and since I’ve given up the pretense that this space is anything other than a Sondheim fan blog, here it is:

This might actually be my favorite Sondheim interview, though it’s hard to pick because Sondheim always says the exact same things any time he is questioned. He would make a remarkably good political candidate; he is relentlessly on message.

By the way children, this is the sort of programming that used to air regularly on Bravo. It was basically ITAS, Mindwalk, and England, My England on a loop. Go ahead, click that link to Mindwalk and just imagine that playing on Bravo today. It is literally three people walking around Mont Saint-Michel for two hours talking about Systems Theory to the accompaniment of Philip Glass music. My recollection is that it ran almost every day.

As much as I despise James Lipton, I always dreamed of being interviewed on ITAS so that I could answer the famous Proust/Apostrophe/Bouillon de Culture questionnaire that he asked at the end of each episode. But that’s not going to happen, so here are my answers:

What is your favorite word?

What is your least favorite word?

What is your favorite drug?
Green tea

The sound or noise you love the most?
Gentle birdsong

The sound or noise you hate?
Open-mouthed chewing; leaf blowers, lawnmowers, motorcycles

What is your favorite curse word?
Heaven forfend!

If you couldn’t do what you’re doing now, what job would you like most?
Diction coach… although this is part of my current job, so maybe curtsey reviewer?

What job would you like least?
Football player

What would you like to come back as if you could be reincarnated?
One of those bacteria that live in liquid asphalt. I would finally be warm enough.

If Heaven exists what would you like to hear god say when you arrive?
I’m your Auntie Mame!