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Weekly Music Notes

August 26, 2012

For prelude and communion Francile Bilyeu (flute) and Ann Boelzner (Piano) play two movements from a suite by Georg Telemann (d. 1687), a prolific German composer who was a contemporary and friend of both J.S. Bach and G.F. Handel. A suite is a collection of pieces, often dances. The Prelude is a polonaise, which, as its name would indicate, is a Polish dance. It is in triple time and has a distinctive rhythm: long-short-short-long-long-long-long, though this is sometimes disguised in the stylized settings of suites. The communion selection is an air (“aria” in Italian), which covers a variety of pieces but usually suggests a focus on a straightforward melody with uncomplicated accompaniment. – D. Boelzner

July 27, 2012

The music this morning has a heavy British flavor. As a prelude Ann will play a piece by Henry Purcell (d. 1695), perhaps England’s first truly great composer, certainly its first to gain international fame. The recessional is the well-known tune Cwm Rhondda (pronounced “coom rontha”) by Welsh composer John Hughes (d. 1932). And the offertory rendering by guest soloist Mara Smith is Ralph Vaughan Williams’s The Song of the Tree of Life. Vaughan Williams, also of Welsh origin, is well known to Anglican music as a prolific composer and collector of hymns. The piano accompaniment begins this song with whole-tone scales, which sound a bit odd because they do not have the ½ steps of our usual major or minor scales, e.g. between mi and fa in a major scale. The accompaniment also creates a sweeping effect through the use of parallel inverted triads (chords). Both devices are identified with the French impressionists Debussy and Ravel, but Vaughan Williams uses them quite differently. – D. Boelzner

July 15, 2012

The communion hymn, no. 317, opens and closes with the melody outlining a tonic triad, the three-note chord rooted on the home note of the key, in this case D major.  Thus, the chord comprises the notes D-F-sharp-A, do-mi-sol of a scale.  The tonic chord is the one that is repeated frequently at the ends of symphonies and other pieces, often in alternation with the dominant, to reinforce the key.  The explanation for the stability and power of this chord lies in acoustics.  A resonant body – string, vocal cord, etc. – vibrates at a certain frequency, but it also vibrates in even sub-lengths of half, quarter, eighth, etc. of the overall length, with each sub-vibration yielding a higher pitch (called a partial or overtone).  If you plot these over the root tone you get first the octave, then the 5th, then the triad, and the triad contains both the double octave and the 5th above.  The tonic triad thus anchors the harmony of a tonal piece because it is composed of the strongest overtones.  – D. Boelzner

July 1st, 2012

The reflection during the offertory this morning was composed by the Russian Alexander Scriabin (d. 1915).  Scriabin was a contemporary of Rachmaninoff’s and for a time studied with the same piano teacher.  His early works, of which this morning’s simple and lovely Prelude is a part, resemble Chopin’s (one of whose Nocturnes we’ll hear at communion), but he became more and more adventurous harmonically, eventually employing a lot of dissonance and even atonality (lack of the tonal center that organizes most western music).  He was a mystic and had synesthesia, the strong association of musical keys with particular colors.  He was a superb pianist and enjoyed considerable fame in his lifetime, touring in the U.S. at one point, but he was quite eccentric and was physically frail.  He died at the age of 43.  – D. Boelzner

June 3rd, 2012

This morning’s anthem is my setting of part of a prayer from the evening prayer service, one of my very favorite passages from the Prayer Book.  The prayer suggests a vigil to me, which is conveyed by an ostinato (repeated melody, from Ital. “obstinate”) played by the viola, over which there are successive variations: first a unison melody in altos and tenors, then a harmonized version in the three upper voices, then a reharmonization over the basses singing the ostinato.  The tenors then take the melody but it dissolves, leading to new text (“and give your angels charge”) and music that becomes more excited, building the texture through repeated melodic echoes to a big climax.  The music subsides and the basses take up the ostinato tune with the other voices clinging to the middle section text and melodic material, but eventually the original melody prevails and closes the piece gently.  My deep gratitude to the choir for its dedicated work and to my favorite violist.  – D. Boelzner