Music Message for September 20, 2020 from Danny
(If you do not see the music icons/links within this post, please click on the Sep. 20, 2020 title/link above.)
“Fantasia super Io son ferito, ahi lasso” by Samuel Scheidt
“Holy Manna” arr. Wilbur Held
For this week, I thought I would take a little break from the Bach pieces, and put in something a little different. The piece I picked is by Samuel Scheidt (the composer that I wrote a note about last month when I talked about magnificats) and is based on a phrase of music from a madrigal by the famous Renaissance composer Giovanni Palestrina. The “Fantasia super Io son ferito, ahi lasso” comes from Scheidt’s book of sheet music Tabulatura Nova, which I mentioned before (but I didn’t talk about any of the secular pieces in it yet though). This piece is one of the ones in the book that works well on either the organ or the harpsichord (and I thought I would try playing it on the harpsichord this time). It also is a good piece to illustrate what mean tone temperament is if you aren’t used to hearing music played in an unequal temperament.
So, I’ll now try and briefly explain about temperaments (feel free to skip over the next couple paragraphs if you’d rather just listen to the selections this week and not think about technical things). Basically what we are mostly used to with music today is instruments playing in what is called “equal temperament.” For example, if you play a chromatic scale on a modern piano, each of the successive notes should be an equal distance from the note you just played. The fashion of using equal temperament as a default, though, is a relatively recent phenomenon when you think about the many centuries of music history. If you play that chromatic scale (meaning every note on the piano, left to right or right to left) on an instrument tuned in mean tone, some of the distances will be a lot smaller and some will be a lot larger than they would be in equal temperament. This means that certain chords will sound really well in tune and certain other chords will sound rather strange. For example, if you play a piece of music in the key of “C Major” and only use the “white keys” on the keyboard, everything will sound really well in tune. However, if the piece contains a lot of notes from the “black keys,” then not everything will sound in tune.
Scheidt’s “Fantasia super Io son ferito, ahi lasso” is a good example of what some of the “black key” notes will sound like in mean tone. There are quite a lot of chromatic passages in this piece and that means that some of the black notes stick out more than others. Another very interesting thing about mean tone is that, depending on the piece of music, you might want to tune certain strings on your harpsichord to different pitches. For example, if the piece calls for you to play E flats as opposed to D sharps, those are actually different pitches in mean tone. If you listen at around 6’13’’ on this track, you’ll hear some “D sharps” that really stick out—because they aren’t actually D sharps. Many instruments in the 1600s and 1700s (especially church organs, which were harder to tune than harpsichords) were tuned with E flats as opposed to D sharp. With harpsichords, the tuning choice is more up to the performer, and I decided to leave the “D sharps” as they were this time because there is such an anguished feeling that I get from the piece. These notes are more expressive to me if they are left as E flats.
Anyway, sorry if anything in those last two paragraphs was confusing to anyone! (And I’d be happy to try and explain it more sometime if anyone would like.) But I hope you guys enjoy listening to the piece–here it is, me playing Samuel Scheidt’s “Fantasia super Io son ferito, ahi lasso.”
And then I also have another piece (something a little shorter and snappier–and with a hymn tune in it). This is an organ arrangement by Wilbur Held of the American hymn tune “Holy Manna.” (I also included something by Held in a recent message if you look back a few weeks. He was a popular American organ composer–just passed away a few years ago at age 100.) And here are the words to the first verse of the original lyrics (we have different texts that go with this tune in our hymnal–though some of the words to the communion hymn “All Who Hunger”–761 in WLP–are a little bit similar). The original words–“Brethren, We Have Met to Worship”–were written by the Methodist pastor George Atkins in the early nineteenth century. Anyway, thanks for listening, guys!
1. Brethren, we have met to worship,
And adore the Lord our God;
Will you pray with all your power,
While we try to preach the word?
All is vain, unless the Spirit
Of the Holy One come down;
Brethren, pray, and holy manna
Will be showered all around.