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To Know Christ and to Make Him Known

Weekly Music Notes

Jan. 17, 2016: “Praise, ye, the Lord of hosts”

Today’s Music: [This is a reprise of the very first GSEC Music Note, published on September 7, 2008.] The choir anthem, “Praise, ye, the Lord of hosts,” was composed by Camille Saint-Saëns, a Frenchman who was both long-lived (1835-1921) and one of the greatest intellectual prodigies music has known – he both learned to write and composed his first piece by age 3, mastered Latin at 7, was expert at mathematics and much else. In an era of showy and excessive music (Liszt, Wagner) he was elegant and classical. Our anthem, from his Christmas Oratorio, was published in 1858, a year after he became organist of one of Paris’s premiere churches. It is direct and chordal (harmonized voices moving at the same time) in two melodic sections, each repeated; the second section is heard yet again, triumphant, after the intervention of rhapsodic Alleluias. The original text was Latin (“Tollite hostias” – “Bring offerings”). David Boelzner

Jan. 3, 2016: “Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming”

Today’s Music: The communion hymn is – and the prelude is an arrangement of – the Christmas song, “Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming,” a tune from a 1599 collection of old Catholic spiritual songs, harmonized in 1609 by the German Protestant composer, theorist, and historian Michael Praetorius (real name: Schultze). He was a prolific composer, and his writings about performance practice and musical style are a primary source for scholars of 17th century music. The arrangement is in chorale style, with a chord change on most every syllable, but at the ends of the first, second and fourth phrases, Praetorius employs a device called a suspension, where one voice holds over a note from the previous chord and then resolves it, e.g. on “[ten]-der” and “stem.”  David Boelzner

Dec. 27, 2015: “Of the Father’s love begotten”

Music Notes: If the recessional hymn, Of the Father’s Love begotten, makes you think of monks in their monasteries, you are not mistaken. This hymn tune is very old – 11th century – so it is music monks have been chanting for a thousand years! It is classified as a trope, which in medieval music meant an embellished insertion into the liturgy, in this case related to the Sanctus (“Holy, holy, holy”). Tropes began as appendages but often evolved into separate chants. If you can read music, you will notice that the setting in the hymnal is metrical, set to a repetitive triple rhythm. There is considerable doubt and debate among musicologists about how chants were performed, but some believe they were performed metrically. Our rendition will be in the more conventional free rhythm of chant. David Boelzner

Dec. 24, 2015: The chorus “Hallelujah!

Tonight’s anthem: The Offertory is one of the best-known pieces of all time, the chorus “Hallelujah!” from G.F. Handel’s oratorio Messiah. What is an oratorio? In Handel’s time it was essentially an unstaged opera, rather like the “concert” versions of Broadway shows, and most of his works in the genre were dramatic; indeed, Handel’s first oratorios had been written in Rome to get around the fact that the opera houses were temporarily closed by papal decree. He began composing English-language oratorios when London tastes began to shift away from the Italian operas he had been successfully producing there. Messiah is an unusual oratorio in that it consists of reflective poetry rather than dramatic scenes with characters. Though often used as part of the Christmas celebration, “Hallelujah!” is not a part of the Advent portion, coming instead from Part II of the work, which focuses on the Passion. David Boelzner

Dec. 20, 2015: “O come, O come, Emmanuel”

Today’s Music: With all the music to choose from this Sunday, I’ll pick the oldest: the offertory hymn, “O come, O come , Emmanuel.” The text dates from as early as the 9th century, while the music is plainchant, which developed between the 6th and 9th centuries. The tune is indicated as being in Mode I (Dorian Mode). The medieval church classified eight modes, borrowing names (but not the scales) from the Greeks, which it probably imposed on an already-existing body of melodies. Dorian mode in its purest form sounds like a modern minor scale with the sixth tone raised a half-step, but where that tone comes at the top of a phrase, as it does in our hymn, it was often lowered a half-step, making the scale sound just like a natural minor scale. Modal influence can be discerned in the last two syllables of “Israel”: harmonic writing beginning in the 15th-16th century would have raised the tone on “-ra-” another half-step. David Boelzner

Dec. 13, 2015: Martin Shaw

Today’s Music: The stirring recessional hymn, “God is Working his purpose out,”  was composed by Martin Shaw (d. 1958), the prolific English composer of church and other music. In his early adulthood Shaw was a producer and conductor of theatrical works, at one point touring with the controversial and innovative American dancer, Isadora Duncan. Under the influence of a good wife he became heavily involved in church music and worked with Ralph Vaughan Williams and others on assembling hymns and carols. He was a friend and correspondent of many in the artistic world, including composers Gustav Holst and John Ireland, and other such luminaries as Albert Schweitzer, W. B Yeats, Nancy Astor, and poet Eleanor Farjeon, whom he commissioned to write the words for “Morning has broken.” David Boelzner

Dec. 6, 2015: “Meine Seele erhebt den Herren”

Today’s Music: The prelude and postlude are two different settings of the German chorale tune  “Meine Seele erhebt den Herren,” one by J.S. Bach and one composed more recently (1972). Protestant composers used chorale tunes the same way Roman Catholic composers had long used chant, as the basis of compositions. Why would a composer as gifted as Bach want to anchor a piece on a pre-existing tune? One reason was theological, to imbue the new music with a sacred association. Another reason was undoubtedly technical: composers are stimulated to creativity by problem-solving, and figuring out how to incorporate the base tune into a new work gets the creative brain working. Stravinsky once observed that the toughest compositional challenge was starting with nothing but a blank sheet of paper. David Boelzner

Nov. 29, 2015: John Francis Wade

Today’s Music: The processional hymn tune, “Lo! he comes, with clouds descending,”  is by John Francis Wade (d. 1786), an English Catholic musician who frequently lived in exile in France and is thought to have participated to some extent in the ill-fated attempt to restore the Catholic Stuarts to the English throne in 1745. The work of his we are most familiar with is his arrangement of Adeste Fidelis (“O come, all ye faithful”); he is sometimes credited with actually writing the hymn, but this is not universally accepted. He devoted much time to copying out plainchant for use by Catholics and is credited with helping to revive attention to chant in England. The harmony for our processional is attributed to Vincent Novello, who is known to have published Wade’s works. David Boelzner

Nov. 22, 2015: “Brockes Passion” by G. F. Handel

Today’s Music: The anthem is one of the choral numbers from the “Brockes Passion” by G.F. Handel. Barthold Brockes (d. 1747) was an influential German poet who recast the passion story, adding reflective and descriptive poetry, often highly emotional. Several composers did settings.  Handel’s features many arias and vocal ensembles, but relatively few choruses, and those are rather simple in style. This may seem surprising in view of the large-scale choruses for which Handel is known, such as “Hallelujah” from the Messiah, but Handel was renowned as an opera composer. The anthem is a straightforward choral setting in chorale style, phrase by phrase, with the instrumental accompaniment carrying over in between, reminiscent of Bach’s “Sheep may safely graze”; Bach was most impressed with Handel’s Brockes Passion, copying out sections of it for study. David Boelzner