MUSIC NOTES ARCHIVE
Music Notes for March 13, 2022
Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) is the world’s most performed living composer according to the tracking website Bachtrak. His music has been used in Oscar winning movies such as Farenheit 911 and There Will be Blood, and he has garnered many international accolades including eleven Grammy nominations and two wins. Around 1976 he developed a new musical technique he calls tintinnabuli (Latin for "sounding bells" which comprises two connected lines of music: a melody which often moves by step from note to note, and a tintinnabuli line which uses 3 notes of the chord of the piece. From this simple beginning he has been able to weave pieces of extraordinary beauty which appeal to diverse audiences. Pärt described the inspiration for his new technique by declaring: "I work with very few elements –with one voice, with two voices. I build with the most primitive materials – with the triad, with one specific tonality. The three notes of a triad are like bells. And that is why I call it tintinnabulation."
The organ music this Sunday is a suite that Südwestfunk in Baden–Baden commissioned for the 900th anniversary of the cathedral in Speyer, Germany. Annum per Annum (Year by Year) is dedicated to "the honor of the Virgin Mary, Mother of God, the patron saint of the cathedral at Speyer, and its founder, Emperor Conrad II, [and] in devotion and gratitude dedicated to Saint Cecilia, the patroness of sacred music, and the cathedral organist Leo Krämer." Krämer gave the premiere on 12 October 1980 on the Scherpf organ.
The principal five movements are variations on a sequentially changing cantus firmus (main tune). Each section is labeled with one of the letters K – G – C – S – A, which correspond to the initials of the five sections of the Ordinary of the Mass (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus/Benedictus, and Agnus Dei). They represent the mass, which every day "year by year" has been celebrated at the Cathedral. This Sunday you will hear the Kyrie and Credo (prelude), Sanctus (communion) and Agus Dei (postlude) along with the Sanctus from his Berliner Mass for voices and organ as the offertory.
Music Notes for June 20, 2021
In addition to honoring the liturgy of the day, the music for this Sunday (the fourth Sunday after Pentecost), celebrates three different anniversaries. First is Juneteenth (a portmanteau of June and nineteenth), also known as Freedom Day, Jubilee Day, Liberation Day, and Emancipation Day. Juneteenth celebrates the emancipation of those who had been enslaved in the United States. To honor this, in our prelude and offertory, we'll have two versions of one of the most popular songs of the Underground Railroad: "Swing low, sweet chariot." The text clearly has a secondary meaning relevant to those who were trying to escape slavery and persecution, especially in the third verse: “If you get there before I do, Tell all my friends I'm coming too.” The prelude is an arrangement by contemporary American composer Joe Utterback (b. 1944). The offertory is the famous arrangement by Harry T. Burleigh of this spiritual. In contrast to the upbeat version of the prelude, Burleigh sets it as a slow and reflective piece, concentrating on the angelic vision that will carry us to heaven: “I looked over Jordan, and what did I see, a band of angels coming after me, coming for to carry me home.”
Sunday is also Father’s Day. We celebrate this with two hymns: first, “Faith of our fathers,” which reflects upon the faith we inherit, and whose theology is summed up in the refrain: “Faith of our fathers, holy faith, we will be true to thee till death.” Second, “Eternal father, strong to save,” which casts God in a paternal role and relates to the Gospel of the Day which sees Jesus quell a terrible storm, saving the faithful disciples.
Finally, Sunday is also midsummer day – the longest day of the year. To celebrate this we sing a hymn normally only sung in the evening since its opening line is “The day thou gavest, Lord, is ended.” It is included because, read in its entirety, it speaks of the eternal sequence of day and night and how prayer and praise continue on every continent and island throughout the world, uniting Christians everywhere. The postlude, by English composer Alec Rowley, is a meditation on the text and tune presented in a gentle but colorful and chromatic setting.
1 The day thou gavest, Lord, is ended,
the darkness falls at thy behest;
to thee our morning hymns ascended,
thy praise shall sanctify our rest.
2 We thank thee that thy church unsleeping
while earth rolls onward into light,
through all the world her watch is keeping,
and rests not now by day or night.
3 As o’er each continent and island
the dawn leads on another day,
the voice of prayer is never silent,
nor dies the strain of praise away.
4 So be it, Lord; thy throne shall never,
like earth’s proud empires, pass away:
thy kingdom stands, and grows forever,
till all thy creatures own thy sway.
Music notes for May 23, 2021 Pentecost
Prelude Improvisation No. 3
Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979)
French conductor, composer and teacher Nadia Boulanger was a pioneer in her field. She was the first woman to conduct many major orchestras (including the Boston Symphony orchestra) and conducted many premieres by noted composers such as Copland and Stravinsky. She was one of the most important pedagogues of the twentieth century with an extraordinary list of pupils including Daniel Barenboim and Quincy Jones.
Florence Price (1887-1953)
Born the same year as Nadia Boulanger, Florence Price is widely regarded as the first African-American woman to be recognized internationally as a classical composer and the first to have her music played by a major American orchestra when her award-winning First Symphony was premiered by the Chicago Symphony orchestra in 1921.
Music notes for Sunday, March 21, 2021 (Lent 5)
Prelude Prelude on "O sacred head"
James Boeringer (1930-2014)
The fifth week in Lent continues our series of preludes on the choral “O sacred head sore wounded,” each matched with a verse from an English translation of the hymn for you to meditate on before the start of the service. The setting by American composer James Boeringer is a contemporary and improvisatory setting with the chorale tune in canon in the pedal and left-hand parts. The dissonance throughout represents the anguish of “death’s most fearful hour,” but dissipates in the final section to calm consonance representing the cross, not of death, but of life.
My days are few, O fail not,
With thine immortal pow'r,
To hold me that I quail not
In death's most fearful hour:
That I may fight befriended,
And see in my last strife
To me thine arms extended
Upon the cross of life.
Text: Paul Gerhardt, translated by Robert Seymour
Music notes for Sunday, March 14, 2021 (Lent 4)
Prelude Herzlich tut mich verlangen, BWV 727
J.S. Bach (1685-1750)
The fourth week in Lent continues our series of preludes on the choral “O sacred head sore wounded,” each matched with a verse from an English translation of the hymn for you to meditate on before the start of the service. The setting by J.S. Bach presents the tune in a slightly adorned fashion on a solo stop against a contrapuntal and harmonically interesting accompaniment.
What language shall I borrow
To thank thee, dearest friend,
For this thy dying sorrow,
Thy pity without end?
Oh, make me thine forever!
And should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never
Outlive my love for thee.
Text: Paul Gerhardt, translated by Robert Seymour
Music notes for Sunday, March 7, 2021 (Lent 3)
Prelude Paraphrase on "O sacred head"
J. Alfred Schehl (1882-1959)
The third week in Lent continues our series of preludes on the choral “O sacred head sore wounded,” each matched with a verse from an English translation of the hymn for you to meditate on before the start of the service. The setting by American composer J. Alfred Schehl clearly articulates the tune on a solo stop, accompanied by a pulsing triplet movement in the accompaniment.
In thy most bitter passion
My heart to share doth cry.
With thee for my salvation
Upon the cross to die.
Ah, keep my heart thus moved
To stand thy cross beneath,
To mourn thee, well-beloved,
Yet thank thee for thy death.
Text: Paul Gerhardt, translated by Robert Seymour
Music notes for Sunday, February 28, 2021 (Lent 2)
Prelude O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden, Op. 70 no. 8
Flor Peeters (1903-86)
The second week in Lent continues our series of preludes on the choral “O sacred head sore wounded,” each matched with a verse from an English translation of the hymn for you to meditate on before the start of the service. The setting by Belgian composer Flor Peeters has an eerie mysticism that reflects the vanished beauty of God during this penitential season.
Thy beauty, long desired,
Hath vanished from our sight:
Thy pow’r is all expired,
And quenched the light of light.
Ah me! for whom thou diest,
Hide not so far thy grace:
Show me, O Love most highest,
The brightness of thy face.
Text: Paul Gerhardt, translated by Robert Seymour
Music notes for Sunday, February 21, 2021 (Lent I)
Prelude Herzlich tut mich verlangen, Op. 122, No. 10
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Each week in Lent the organ prelude will be based on the Passion Chorale, a tune composed by Hans Leo Hassler around 1600, and made famous by J. S. Bach who used it extensively in his St. Matthew Passion, BWV 244. The text is based on a Latin hymn written during the middle ages, now attributed to the Medieval poet Arnulf of Leuven (died 1250). The poem was translated into German by the Lutheran hymnist Paul Gerhardt (1607–1676), and has been translated into English several times by different writers. Each week a verse will be printed in the bulletin so you can reflect on the text as part of your Lenten journey this year as you listen to the musical settings of the tune. This week we sing a different version of the words as our first hymn to show the variety of text and to remind you of the tune.
O sacred head, sore wounded,
Defiled and put to scorn:
O kingly head, surrounded
With mocking crown of thorn;
What sorrow mars thy grandeur?
Can death thy bloom deflow’r?
O countenance whose splendor
The hosts of heav’n adore!
Text: Paul Gerhardt, translated by Robert Seymour
Music notes for Sunday, January 17, 2021
The organ prelude and offertory this week are by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912), who was an English composer and conductor of mixed race birth (not to be confused with the 19th-century English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge). Coleridge-Taylor achieved such success that he was referred to by white New York musicians as the “African Mahler” when he had three tours of the United States in the early 1900s. He was particularly known for his three cantatas on the epic poem "Song of Hiawatha" by American Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Coleridge-Taylor premiered the first section in 1898, when he was 22.
He married an Englishwoman, Jessie Walmisley, and both their children had musical careers. Their son Hiawatha adapted his father’s music for a variety of performances. Their daughter Avril Coleridge-Taylor became a composer-conductor.
Although primarily known for one of the three Hiawatha cantatas, Hiawatha’s Wedding feast, Coleridge-Taylor was a fairly prolific composer whose output includes a violin concerto, a variety of chamber music, several songs and even some sacred music. His "Melody" for organ is one of a set of three pieces for the instrument published in 1898. The “melody” is heard at the outset in the top voice but migrates to the tenor range and is subject to different types of variation and harmonic changes before a truncated recapitulation quietly closes the piece. The offertory is a short anthem for four-part choir using a straightforward harmonic language that allows the text to be fully heard while giving it expression. The text is verse 10 of psalm 98: “O ye that love the Lord, see that ye hate the thing which is evil: the Lord preserveth the souls of his saints, he shall deliver them from the hand of the ungodly.”
(Information from Wikipedia)
Music notes for January 3, 2021
A New Year Carol (anonymous Welsh text)
“Levy-Dew,” also known as “A New Year Carol,” is a British folk song of Welsh origin traditionally sung in New Year celebrations. It is associated with a New Year’s Day custom involving sprinkling people with water newly drawn from a well. The song was set to music by Benjamin Britten in 1934. It became a Welsh custom that children would collect water from a well to sprinkle on the faces of passers-by while singing the carol during which they would also beg for food or money.
Washing everything at the end of the old year was a tradition many people took part in; like this they would purify the house and welcome in the new year.
The meaning of the words “levy-dew” in the original lyrics of the song is not certainly known. One line of speculation holds that the words represent the Welsh phrase llef y Dduw, “a cry to God.” Others connect it to Middle English levedy (“lady”), or to the French phrase levez à Dieu, “raise to God,” which may in turn refer to the elevation of the Host in Christian liturgy.
The chorus is about Holy Communion: “the water and the wine.” “The seven bright gold wires and the bugles that do shine” may refer to the golden strings of the harp and the trumpets of heaven. Verses 2 and 3 describe letting go of the old year and bringing in the new. The new year is welcomed through the east gate, like the rising sun, and the old year shooed from the west gate, the direction of the setting sun. “Sing reign of Fair Maid” may refer to folk mythology and golden maidens who represent the rising and setting of the sun and, therefore, the turning of seasons and years.
Music notes for September 27, 2020 by Music Director Andrew Shenton
The prelude and offertory this week are by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. Born in 1935, Pärt has the distinction of being the most performed contemporary composer for the last several years, according to the website Bachtrack.com. His music has appeared in several major movies, including Farenheit 911 and There will be Blood. Around 1976 he devised a new musical style which he called tintinnabulation (from the Latin for "sounding bells"). This style first appeared in the short piece Für Alina, which is this week’s prelude. Pärt, who is an Orthodox Christian, has composed a great deal of sacred music, ranging from short anthems to large-scale works for choir and orchestra. His setting of the Lord’s Prayer was composed in 2005 and is a simple yet elegant version for piano and voice.
Music notes for September 20, 2020
The prelude this week is the start of a carillon of bells from St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Before clocks were invented, time-standardized bells were essential to call people to worship. Sets of tuned bells were installed high in towers so the sound could be widely heard, and sophisticated mathematical sets of procedures were devised called "change ringing."
A more recent invention is a "carillonneur" who plays a keyboard that activates the bells, making it easier to play tunes (often favorite hymns) on the bells. In many places (such as Park Street Church in Boston) these bells are now electronic and played through speakers in the tower!
In the UK (and elsewhere) ringing is done by hand, one person per bell. Each bell is numbered and the sequence in which the bells are rung changes according to named patterns that can be called out during the ringing process. Some of these patterns can take several hours to complete and require both strength and concentration. The diagram below gives you an example of how call changes can be devised using several common patterns, including Whittington and Queens. More information is available in this wikipedia article.
Interesting fact: for funerals and solemn occasions the clapper of each bell can be half- or fully-covered with leather so that every (other) swing is muffled, making the sound less bright and less loud.
Music notes for August 30, 2020
I have decided to follow Jesus
Text compiled by Sundar Singh (1899-?)
Music based on an Indian Folk song
According to P. Job, the lyrics are based on the last words of Nokseng, a Garo man, a tribe from Meghalaya (Assam) in India, who converted to Christianity in the middle of the 19th century through the efforts of an American Baptist missionary. He is said to have recited verses from John Chapter 12 as he and his family were killed for their unwavering belief. An alternative tradition attributes the hymn to Simon Marak, from Jorhat, Assam. The formation of these words into a hymn is attributed to the Indian missionary Sadhu Sundar Singh. The melody is also Indian, and entitled “Assam” after the region where the text originated. An American hymn editor, William Jensen Reynolds, composed an arrangement which was included in the 1959 Assembly Songbook. His version became a regular feature of Billy Graham’s evangelistic meetings in America and elsewhere, spreading its popularity.
Music notes for August 23, 2020
Tu es petra Henri Mulet (1878–1967)
Henri Mulet was Organist at St-Roch, Paris, and Professor of Organ at l’École Niedermeyer. Tu es petra et portae inferi non praevalebunt adversus te (‘You are the rock and the gates of hell shall not prevail against you’) is the tenth and final piece in this collection, the title itself being a corruption of the Vulgate version of the words of Christ to St Peter in St Matthew’s gospel, chapter 16, verse 18. Mulet described the piece, in its separately published form, as carillon, but it is more helpful to think of it as a fairly typical example of a French organ toccata, with scintillating figuration on the manuals accompanying sinister-sounding motifs given out by the pedals. (From notes by Relf Clark © 2004.)
Music notes for August 16, 2020
A Prayer of St. Richard of Chichester L. J. White
Born to a noble family in the late 12th century, Richard of Chichester was educated at Oxford, and during a life worthy of canonization, was appointed Chancellor of Oxford University. Later becoming a priest, he lived a life of simple vegetarian frugality, and as Bishop of Chichester, Richard was instrumental in major reform to the manners and morals of his clergy. Canonized in 1262, his shrine eventually became so popular that King Henry VIII ordered it destroyed. On his deathbed in 1253, Richard is believed to have uttered a prayer containing these words, some of which have been popularized in the song “Day By Day” from the Broadway musical “Godspell”:
O holy Jesus,
Most merciful redeemer,
Friend and brother,
May I know thee more clearly,
Love thee more dearly,
And follow thee more nearly. Amen.
Music notes for July 26, 2020
This week there are two unusual music selections by British composers and writers. The prelude celebrates the feast of St. Mary Magdalene (July 22) with a setting of an unusual and evocative poem by Henry Kingsley. The Magdalene was a follower of Jesus and was misattributed as a sinful woman due to early confusion between her and other women in the gospels. In 1969 Pope Paul VI officially corrected this, however, her sinful reputation persists and was certainly part of popular culture during the life of poet Henry Kingsley (1830-1876). In his poem Kingsley therefore puts Mary at the gate of heaven with no gift other than her sin. A blackbird, a Christian symbol for the darkness of sin, intercedes with Michael to let her in (and its song is beautifully shown in the organ accompaniment). Michael does not let her in, however, in the last verse, through an almighty and beautiful swell in the music, Jesus himself comes to open the gate and let her in to paradise.
According to Malene A. Little in the Encyclopedia of Medieval Literature, The memorable but mysterious Corpus Christi Carol is one of the best-known but most difficult of the late medieval English lyrics. Early carols like this one were not necessarily connected with any particular season, but were rather songs of joy, particularly of religious joy. The “Lully, lullay, lully, lullay . . .” refrain is the aspect of this poem that characterizes it technically as a “carol.” The earliest extant version of the lyric appears in the Balliol College MS 354, the commonplace book of Richard Hill compiled 1503–36. Hill was a London grocer who delighted in lists and riddles; thus the enigmatic carol’s appeal to him is obvious. The Corpus Christi Carol has been interpreted in numerous ways. Some believe it relates to the ancient fertility myth of “The Fisher King,” which was Christianized and modified in Arthurian literature as part of the Holy Grail legend. “The Fisher King” is the story of a man who is constantly dying and never reaches death, and his ultimate redemption by the Grail Knight—a redemption suggested in the final stanza, where the Eucharist, the celebration of Corpus Christi or the body of Christ, is suggestive of the Holy Grail. That the poem is a description of Holy Communion is suggested by the “hall/That was hanged with purpill and pall,” which signifies curtains around the altar. “And in that bed ther lythe a knight/ His woundes bleding day and night” could be the communion wafer bleeding from being dipped into the communion wine. The music by Benjamin Britten is taken from a larger suite of carols and arranged by the composer for voice and piano as a gently pulsed and plaintively evocative anthem that highlights the text throughout.