Today is Easter, and it happens to be Easter of the year 2016, meaning that this is the 10 year anniversary of my first large-scale professional work, an oratorio called Thy King Cometh. It’s a Purcell meets Sibelius meets Vivaldi meets Ravel kind of Broadway fantasy on Easter themes (well, there’s a Christmas section too, but if you click on the video above, it will start right at the Holy Week stuff.)
I wrote this piece to be performed by the massed musical forces of a little church in the exurbs of Chicago during Holy Week in 2006. I was working as their interim choir director on something like an 8-month contract. Looking back, it shocks me to the point of absurdity that the church’s leadership didn’t bat an eyelid when I told them – told them! – that I would be composing ALL THE MUSIC for their highest-profile services of the year.
What’s even more galling is how uniquely unqualified I was to write this piece. I knew a little about choral literature, but I was not, as they say, a churched member of the populace. I had just graduated college with a liberal arts degree from, let’s admit it, an overly cerebral university music department. My senior year was spent bathing in Schnittke, Ligeti, and Berio, and I had been banking on going straight into grad school for orchestral conducting.
I didn’t end up getting accepted to any of the masters’ degree programs that I’d applied to, and in many ways this was my first major brush with rejection (hardly my last). In retrospect, I’m glad that it happened right out of the gate, because it forced me to figure out what artistic aims really were as opposed to my career ambitions.
I think I was pretty pleased with myself for landing an actual job though, even my appointment was arranged very ad hoc when a colleague/teacher of mine had to leave on short notice. I actually made a decent little salary and I delighted in being the Golden Boy Choir Director, dressed to the nines every Sunday morning complete with gloves and hat.
But beneath the pastel shirts, I was your typical post-collegiate mess: I was depressed about the grad school thing, I still lived near my old campus, and I spent way, WAY too many nights playing saloon songs in my friend Tim’s frat house basement, cigarette in one hand, whiskey in the other. I have a vivid memory of one Sunday morning when I had to RUN out of the choir loft to the bathroom to kneel before the porcelain altar (“food poisoning”, dontcha know?)
I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but it was time for me to become a man and put away childish things.
I realize now that setting myself the inordinate task of writing so much music in such a short time was my way of accepting the responsibility of my passion for music. It meant that I would honor my relationship with music no matter what the circumstances and better myself as a person to devote myself as fully as possible to that relationship.
And so I got down to business. Many nights I slept on the floor of my office, using the handbell pads for a mattress. I researched theology, biblical history, old and new testament scripture. I cranked out movement after movement, each with a slightly different instrumentation and style, which was another big part of why this piece contributed so significantly to my development as a composer: each piece was a self-contained experiment.
I still love this music, and if I’m being honest, I think the best piece I’ve ever written is the little movement for strings and women’s choir, “And the Lord shall Deliver me” (43:04 above). But the big hits are “Crucify Him” (“Jesus on Trial”), “Thanks be to God!” and of course “Hosanna” (aka “The Triumphal Entry”; watch the 2007 recording session below:)
I’m happy to report these still get performed in churches on a fairly regular basis, and one day I hope to rescore the whole blessed thing for full orchestra.
Also, see that shirt I was wearing in the recording session? It was my favorite. I LOVED that shirt.
ClassicFM posted a photo of Alfred Schnittke’s gravestone on Facebook today. I wrote a thing about it for Brandon Wilner’s fakemusic.org in 2015. Here is a lightly edited version (doesn’t one’s prose always looks worse in hindsight?)
The Soviet composer Alfred Schnittke lived from 1934 to 1998. He was buried in Moscow; his grave is marked with a simple stone, upon which is inscribed a peculiar marking: a whole rest topped by a fermata, marked fff.
The rest indicates silence, emptiness, the absence of sound. This particular rest is a ‘whole rest’: it indicates a silence for the duration of the full bar. Above the rest sits a fermata, Italian for ‘stop’; it’s shaped like a sideways crescent surrounding a dot. In musical notation, a fermata above a note indicates that the note should be held for an indeterminate length of time. (In an orchestral work, the players would watch the conductor in order to cut off the note together).
Taken altogether then, this notation describes a long silence of indefinite measure: the never-ending sleep of the dead rendered in standard Western musical notation.
There is one additional element though, which stands in a contradiction to the above: the three f’s below the whole rest stand for the Italian fortississimo, very, very strong. This is the loudest dynamic marking regularly used in classical music.
We have at least two possible readings:
- That the absence of Alfred Schnittke leaves an excruciatingly loud silence in our world; the loss of his music is a painful maw.
- In spite of his corporeal disintegration, his spirit remains ever present, roaring, and emphatic through his music.
Because this musical marking indicates a ceaseless stream of silence, and because Alfred Schnittke cannot return to the realm of the living (though he did this very thing following his third stroke), Fake Music chooses not to reissue the work so as not to define the parameters of his—or his music’s—rest.
I’m preparing to conduct Beethoven’s 9th (the last movement, anyway) and that’s brought me full circle in terms of my blogging, because in my very first blog post, I wrote about how obsessed I was with one particular marking in the score: “selon le caractère d’un Recitative mais, in tempo”. It’s a phrase so linguistically fluid it practically wipes right off the page, combining vocabulary, grammar, and spelling from French, Italian, and German, yet it would hardly raise an eyebrow from a properly trained classical musician anywhere in the world.
But now I’m obsessed with an even tinier detail of this score: the ‘y’ in the word “Elysium”. Y? Because we love you! And because I’ve got to figure out how the singers are going to pronounce it. People wonder what a conductor actually does. Well I’m here to tell you: she makes CHOICES, honey.
In Modern German ‘y’ is pronounced ‘ü’, so if you listen to the first 12 of the video below, you’ll hear it pronounced “Tochter aus Elüsium”:
But here’s the thing: I’m not convinced this letter should really be a ‘y’ at all. (mic drop)
See, as I prepared this piece, I marked up a choral score for my colleagues, and I noticed this:
Elisium! With an ‘i’! This I had never seen before in any edition of the score, but I was intrigued, because certainly a word spelled this way would properly be pronounced Eleesium, right?
Now I had two questions: 1) how did Schiller (the poem’s author) spell it, and 2) how did Beethoven spell it? Here’s the printed page from Schiller’s collected works of 1812, Beethoven’s likeliest source for the text:
And there, adorned in all it’s Gothic splendor, ‘Elisium’ is spelled with an ‘i’.
OK, but there’s still a discrepancy between the scores, so how in fact did Beethoven spell it? Well you can have a look at his original manuscript over at the Berlin State Library Archives, and if you can decipher his handwriting I think you’ll find there’s most definitely a ‘y’ in there:
So Schiller spelled it ‘Elisium’, Beethoven spelled it ‘Elysium’ – but either way, how do you pronounce it? Well, if history be any judge, I’d say it’s pronounced the ee way (or [i] for you IPA folks out there.) Certainly this is the traditional approach – listen, for example, to Joseph Krips’ recording:
In hopes of some historiographic confirmation though, I navigated over to the German Wikipedia article on the letter ‘y’ and found this bombshell:
Noch im früheren 19. Jahrhundert war hingegen die Aussprache [i] üblich.
(“However, the pronunciation [i] was still commonly used in the beginning of the 19th century.”)
So we can be pretty confident that El[i]sium would have been the pronunciation in Beethoven’s time, so much so that ‘i’ and ‘y’ were interchangeable.
But what gives? In every edition of the poem published during Beethoven’s lifetime, the word was spelled ‘Elisium’. Whereby and wherefore did the composer come to make the alter the poet’s orthography?
This remains a total mystery to me and I welcome any insights or information. Maybe I should set up a toll free hotline. My best guess is that someone in Beethoven’s circle brought to his attention that, as a Greek loanword, ‘Elysium’ would more customarily be transliterated with a ‘y’, as the German were (and are) in the habit of doing.
But clearly Beethoven decided to change the ‘i’ to a ‘y’, so I’ll admit, I do have a lingering doubt – why would he bother to change the spelling if he didn’t intend any actual effect on the sound?
And an even better question: why is there nothing written about this anywhere?? Google was NO help. Shouldn’t someone have written, like, a 30,000 word musicology dissertation on this by now? Or wait, did I just do that? I guess so, in which case yes, I’d be glad to take that diploma off your hands, LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN INSTITUTE FOR MUSICAL GENIUSES.
What’s this? There’s color everywhere! What’s this? There’s white things in the air!
What’s this? The page scales when you change the size of the window!?
That’s right folks, it’s been seven years since the launch of www.willcwhite.com and let’s just say, granny was starting to show her age. So I called up my homegirl Stephanie Smith and hunty, she DID THIS.
Does it look super pretty? Of course it does. Does it have better fonts and graphics? Obviously. Does it stop there? No way, José. Here’s what Stephanie worked with her magical brand of wizardry:
- E-commerce: you can now purchase scores & parts of my music in .pdf format directly from this website. I’m getting the pieces up bit by bit, so if there’s something you want but don’t see, leave a comment or send an e-mail. This all goes through PayPal. Go to the WORKS page to check it out.
- Mobile compatibility. Because it’s 2016!
- My upcoming appearances and events are now listed in the right sidebar.
- I’ll be publishing a biannual e-mail newsletter that you can subscribe to.
- Ask a Maestro has it’s own dedicated page where you can post a question.
There’s also just lots of other detailed information and updates that I’ve scattered throughout the site, so do explore. And tell Stephanie what an amazing job she did on all of this! How? I have no idea! Twitter’s not her jam, so, I don’t know, go to her SoundCloud page and write a bunch of nice stuff about her music (which is totally rad btw.)
Anyway, I’m loving my new place, and you’re welcome to drop by whenever you’d like. Kick your feet up, listen to some tunes! And remember what I said about being able to buy stuff here? Well don’t be bashful about that, cause this fancy new functionality don’t pay for itself!