Yearly Archives: 2012

Chicago Symphony Extras: Missa Solemnis

The Dedicatee

In many ways, we who enjoy the music of Beethoven’s late period owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to an otherwise insubstantial member of the minor nobility.  As the sixteenth child of the Emporor Leopold II, Archduke Rudolf of Austria could be pretty well certain that he was not going to inherit his father’s title, land, or fortune; as such, he did what so many younger sons of the nobility did and went into the priesthood, becoming archbishop (and then Cardinal) of Olmütz in 1819.

Rudolf seemingly got a pretty sweet deal, because while his older brother went down in history for losing his empire to Napoleon, Rudolf began studying piano and composition with the most famous composer in Europe, Ludwig van Beethoven.

Though Beethoven complained about his obligation to give the Archduke daily lessons (sometimes lasting more than two hours), the two grew to be friends at a time when Beethoven needed friends most.  Napoleon’s wars had caused many of Beethoven’s most reliable patrons to abandon imperial Vienna for fear of losing their heads.  Beethoven had insulted, cheated, or otherwise alienated the majority of the princely families who remained in their Austrian palaces.

The Lawsuit

It wasn’t just other people’s families who Beethoven alienated.  The death of Beethoven’s younger brother Kaspar in 1815 precipitated the ugliest, most productivity-stifling event in his life: the fearsome custody battle he waged against his sister-in-law Johanna for the guardianship of his nephew, Karl.

The five years he spent engaged in litigation revealed the ugliest, least redeemable sides of Beethoven’s personality.  In the days leading up to his brother’s death from tuberculosis, Beethoven strong-armed his brother into granting him sole custody of the child on multiple occasions, only to have his brother revert his will back to co-guardianship between Beethoven and Johanna in moments of lucidity.

Beethoven’s initial reaction to his brother’s death was to accuse his sister-in-law of murder by poisoning.  When this turned out to be a dead end, he began the battle for sole custody of Karl.  He won decisive early victories against his sister-in-law in the Landsrecht, the court of the nobility.  Beethoven’s fates reversed in 1818 when he accidentally let slip in the course of a deposition that the “van” in his Dutch surname was not equivalent to the Germanic “von” which automatically conferred nobility.  As such, his case was sent down to commoner’s court, which was much more sympathetic to Johanna van Beethoven’s cause.

Though Beethoven finally won custody over Karl, his insane, possessive love took a perilous evinced itself again a few years later when the teenage boy attempted to take his own life with a pistol on a high hill overlooking Beethoven’s summer home.

The Second Mass

Though he sometimes played around with themes for decades before turning them into full pieces, the four years it took Beethoven to complete the Missa Solemnis (1819 – 1823) represented the longest sustained period of work Beethoven spent on any single composition.  Strangely for a composer who often went back and forth between projects, Beethoven did not work on individual movements and sections simultaneously; he composed it from beginning to end, beginning with the Kyrie and ending with the Agnus Dei.

This was in fact Beethoven’s second setting of the traditional Latin mass text, having written his first in 1807, the lesser known Mass in C.  Aside from obvious stylistic differences, the main difference between the two works is length: whereas the Mass in C clocks in at a respectable 45 minutes, performances of the the Missa Solemnis usually last about twice as long.

As such, Beethoven languished considerable attention on every word and phrase of the Latin text.  [N.B. the “Kyrie” is the only part of the Roman mass not in Latin; it’s in Greek.]  Let’s take as an example his setting of the phrase qui sedes ad dexteram patris (“who sits at the right hand of the father”).  Here’s how Beethoven set it in the earlier Mass in C:

And here it is magnified in every dimension in the Missa Solemnis:

The Difficulties

Beethoven rarely took into account the technical limits of the musicians he was writing for.  He was as difficult and irascible a composer as he was a human being, especially when it came to writing for singers.  The Missa Solemnis is arguably the most daunting challenge in the choral repertoire.  It’s not exactly easy for the soloists or the orchestra either.

Here is an excellent performance of the Gloria given by the august London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under Sir Colin Davis.  It’s high order music-making, but you’ll still hear the sopranos straining, the orchestra struggling, and the soloists straying from their ideals of intonation.  And yet the overall effect is, well, glorious:

I wanna be like you

Randall Thompson (not pictured above) was a fine American composer, though distinctly unphotogenic (see below), and his 2nd Symphony is a piece I’ve admired for a good long while.  There exist two recordings that I know of, one, of course, by Lenny and the other by Neeme Järvi of all people.  This is one of those piece that I fell in love with, via Lenny, in high school, and I still pester people to program it (though I admittedly have never programmed it myself.)

The piece is richly orchestrated, overtly melodic, and veeery 1930’s American.  I’ve always found something deeply familiar about the second movement, and I’ve just figured out what it is.

Listen to the second movement of Mr. Thompson’s symphony

and notice that the melody, harmony, key, orchestration and style were all lifted shamelessly by one George Bruns for the score of Disney’s The Jungle Book.

And I applaud him for it!

[Addendum: it would appear that Walter Sheets also deserves some of the blame/credit for this lift.  And for some of the best alto flute writing ever.]


It’s been three big projects in as many weeks here at willcwhite inc., all of which – I think – bring up interesting topics for discussion, but we may as well begin with the first one, which involved me revising and re-editing this piece for this performance coming up on September 22 (which, if you happen to live in Chicago, wouldn’t kill you to attend…)

This piece, the so called Fantasy on “Les Folies d’Espagne” is what I would consider my first professional work, my Opus 1, if you will.  [Ugh, you guys, should I be using opus numbers?  I go back and forth…]  Even though I wrote it over seven years ago, the upcoming performance in Chicago will be only its second performance, the major reason for which is that the score calls for prepared piano, harpsichord and portative organ, which, you try finding those three instruments in the same room!  I would have performed it myself several other times were it not for the fact that amassing all those keyboards is such a hassle.

My task in getting ready for this performance was to update the score and edit the music, on which much more below.  Some of the changes I wanted to make were based on my own long-held dissatisfactions with a bar here or there, but others were based on comments I received about the piece shortly after I had written it, in that period when a young composer proudly shops around his latest achievement and seeking approval and guidance from his elders in the field.  I showed it to Easley, who seemed to enjoy the more impish, comedic moments, but told me to change a note in the viola part to make the chorale more consonant.  Later that summer, I showed it to Claude Monteux whose basic feeling was that the piece was “really wild”, and who told me that one of the rit.s should be a subito meno mosso.  This past week, years after the fact, I incorporated both of their changes.

But now, picture this third such encounter, on a cold February day in 2006, in a small music classroom at the University of Chicago.  The quasi-illustrious composer John Eaton had come to give a masterclass at the university where he once taught, in which a small group of student composers were invited to present a recent work and receive words of wisdom from the master.  Just the sort of thing that I was looking for.  The master turned out to be a strange little man who spent the first hour of this hour-and-a-half-long seminar playing – at maximum volume on the tiny classroom’s sound system – one godawful cacophony after another from his renowned catalogue of chamber operas, the playing of which clips was punctuated only by the master’s trips to the bathroom at 10-15 minute intervals.

Finally it came time for Mr. Eaton to hear one or two of the student compositions.  A young doctoral student offered a short movement for string quartet.  This, the master regretted to say, was not a piece of music, but rather a technical exercise.  A burn no doubt, but one couldn’t help but agree.  Thinking that there would only be time for my piece if we started right then, (and in spite of the fact that I had already graduated and had weaseled my way into the seminar) I piped up next.

We listened to the whole 13 minutes of my piece, which, let’s just get it out there right now, is sort of an oddball, and certainly features a wide variety of musical styles that John Eaton had clearly worked at length to distance himself from in his own work.  The master sat there, flummoxed, for a good 10 or 15 seconds before beginning to sputter out the beginnings of various disapprobations, finally working himself up into a tizzy and shouting, “well, the orchestration’s not very good,” and proceeding to point a measure in which he could not hear the flute in it’s lowest tessitura.

I, of course, calmly accepted his criticism, but really, this wasn’t what I wanted to hear because a) I thought the piece was pretty well orchestrated (I still do) and b) when you present a work at a seminar like this, especially when pressed for time, isn’t the master-composer supposed to give a more general analysis of the big issues that the work presents?  Couldn’t he say something about the form, or the twisted mélange of styles, or all of those ridiculous keyboard instruments shoved into one piece?

In the end, his haranguing me over one minor detail at the expense of the larger picture probably said more about his opinion of the larger picture than a more direct approach would have.  But still, that’s seriously weak and not much help to a young man in search of serious criticism.

The point of this story really wasn’t supposed to be ‘John Eaton is a self-centered asshole’ (considering that he’s a composer, isn’t that basically a given anyway?)  I think it was more supposed to be about the things that stick with a young composer as he brings his first major creation into the world, but I’ve sort of lost that train of thought, so the former moral will have to suffice.

I had to edit a lot more than just an occasional viola note or tempo indication over the past couple weeks, because you see, when I wrote this piece 7+ years ago, I was a senior in college, and I was awfully precious about typesetting the scores and parts of my pieces, but I wasn’t so concerned with the practicalities of actually “reading” the “music”.  Seven years later, I’m still very precious about the visual presentation of my music – maybe even preciouser – but I like to think that I’ve come a long way in matters of clarity.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about.  What is now this:

once looked like this:

which, can you even imagine being one of the second violinists – sharing the same part, no less – confronted with those two bars?  I cringe.

It only gets worse.  For, example, there’s this monstrosity:

which now, thankfully, looks like this:

and which I freely admit is still pretty difficult to decipher, but a musician might at least have a fighting chance of figuring out what the hell is going on.

As difficult as parsing out these co-staved parts was (like separating Siamese twins, I tell you!), there’s a good 5-10 additional editorial decisions that had to be made in each of those excerpts.  Take this line

First off, there’s the matter of tuplets: should the numbers ‘5’ and ‘3’ go above or below the staff?  Traditionally, they go on the beamed side (so, in this case, below), but when I wrote this piece, I was very much in the thrall of Cliff Colnot’s rules for musical typesetting which state that dynamics are the only thing that go below the staff (I have, by and large, remained a faithful adherent to these rules.)

And then take the slur and the crescendo, which carry over from the previous system – should those begin where the first note begins or at the edge of the staff (as they do now)?  Should that crescendo be tighter so that it matches the diminuendo?  These two bars could look considerably different

but still express the exact same musical idea.

Or in this case

what’s the best way of indicating the empty space wherein a glissando occurs?  Is it worth notating that each of those crescendi starts at f and ends at ff?  Is that even an editorial question, or a compositional one?  Does it just add too much clutter to the page to include the dynamics?  And in the second bar there: there’s a trill over a tied note value.  Should there be a squiggly to show that it lasts the whole duration of the tie?

These are the questions that regularly vex music publishers and self-published composers, (or else it’s just me.)  I have a feeling that most performers never give any thought to how much time goes into avoiding those pesky “collisions” between stems and dynamics, tuplets and slurs, etc., but such things are the bane of the composer’s very existence!  Wah.

After all of this work, I really think you should go to this concert, btw.

Cold Turkey

Let me just say right off the bat, this is a great movie.  Will Slocombe’s feature film (and first attempt as a writer/director) tells the story of a fraught Thanksgiving weekend, the sort of hostile family dynamics that we’re all familiar with, but amplified and made funny-sad like you wouldn’t believe.  The picture stars Peter Bogdanovich and Cheryl Hines.

This was a tough score to write, mainly because the movie’s tone teeters perilously on the line between comedy and drama.  Often times I wanted to write music that would play the opposite in the scene: if things were getting too heavy, better to lighten the mood a little bit with some cute pizzicati.

The whole score is based around a single theme.  Here are some of my favorite cues:



Steadicam shot of the hallway

Second steadicam shot of the hallway



It’s time for my annual bout with post-Monteux depression, and for some reason it seems even more acute this year than normal.  It’s probably because I have no rebound project to dive into immediately.  In showbiz (or at least in late ’90’s East Coast high school theater parlance) we call this PPD: Post-Production Depression.  It occurs when you’ve just dedicated tremendous time and energy into a big collaborative project; when the project comes to an end, the balloon deflates, and you’re left struggling to hold on to the feeling.

There’s something comforting in PPD though, because it means that what you were doing was worthwhile, and that you were working with great people – certainly the case for me this summer.  I think a lot about the kids doing WST this summer, a troupe I was involved with from ’99 – ’02, and which gave me my first major experiences of PPD.  These kids are about to wrap up a production of “Forum”, and even though that chapter of my life is ten years behind me (cue the next depressive episode), I know exactly how they’re going to feel this weekend after the run is over.  It’s a strange mixture of relaxation and malaise, of needing to rest and needing to move at the same time; it’s amplified by like a thousand if you had a crush on someone during the production, which you might as well do.

The geography always kicks me in the butt after these summers too.  Up in Maine, the bright Northern sun comes streaming into your window at around 5:30 in the morning and you wake up feeling like you’ve already started the day.  Add to that a few breaths of the freshest air known to man, and your batteries are pretty well charged.  Which is good for someone who’s about to go play viola for seven hours, bash around a tennis ball for two, and eat and drink too much in the remaining time.  Ah, Maine.

My Summer Listening List has consisted of the following, listed in no particular order:

1) Scissor Sisters: Magic Hour (Deluxe Edition)

2) Frank Ocean: Channel Orange

3) Guillermo Klein: Carrera

4) Punch Brothers: Who’s Feeling Young Now?

5) Styne/Sondheim/Merman: GYPSY the Original Broadway Cast