Holy. holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts: Trinity Sunday

June 3, 2012 – 11:00 am

Erin Althoff and Doug Merritt, violins;
Jennifer Klich, viola; Patrick O’Neil, cello;
Timothy Olsen, organ

Mendelssohn:
Wie der Hirsch schreit (Like as the hart desireth)

from Psalm 42, Op. 42 (1837/38)

Listen to the piece here.

This piece is quintessential Mendelssohn, in all its romantic sweetness and lyricism.  It works well as a stand-alone anthem, but it is actually the opening movement of a longer work.

The longer work is one of a handful of Psalms on which Mendelssohn wrote multi-movement cantatas for soloists, chorus and orchestra. (Smell Bach’s influence here? Me too…more on that another day.)  This one, which sets the text of Psalm 42 over 7 movements, is a big one.  It’s about 35 minutes long and requires a solo soprano, a solo male quartet, and a three-part women’s chorus in addition to the full mixed chorus.  The orchestral forces required and just as big as the vocal forces—strings and a full wind section including four horns, trumpets, trombones, and timpani.  Because Mendelssohn’s Psalm 42 is such a big piece, it not performed very often—after all, if you are looking to do a multi-movement work of Mendelssohn with a full orchestra, why not just do Elijah?

For this performance (for lack of a better term) we did my own arrangement of the piece, and I would like to briefly tell the story of how that arrangement came about.  First, a bit of philosophy:

For me personally, I start from the premise that every musical performance is, by definition, a set of compromises.  I say “by definition” because I think that the first and most serious compromise occurs at the very moment of composition: that is, when the composer writes notes on page, they are already an imperfect shorthand representation of the sound that he imagines in his head.  When a performer picks up that page his job to bring his best musical knowledge to bear in rendering the notes (which are just symbols) back into sound (which is the actual thing).  This too is an imperfect and reasonably subjective process.  The context of our performance, the ability of our ensembles, and the resources we have available will necessarily determine the decisions—the compromises—that go into the process.

Now from general to specific: how did all this work out in terms of this particular piece?

The first and most obvious decision was one presented by all choral music in foreign languages.  Singing the original German is obviously closer to the composer’s intent, and one generally finds that the right vowels are in the right ranges, and the right stresses are on the right beats.  But to sing in a foreign language presents an obvious barrier to English-speaking listeners; this is an especially important consideration for music used in worship.  Singing in a foreign language can also pose a challenge to an amateur choir with limited rehearsal time.  Singing an English translation, on the other hand, can make things more accessible to the both the singer and the listener, but it can also be a significant degree of separation from the composer’s intent—especially if the translation isn’t a good one.  In fact, some translations actually create musical difficulties not present in the original.  In the case of this Mendelssohn, we elected to sing in German for a couple of reasons.  In the first place, one verse of psalm text was not that much German to deal with.  Secondly, all the English translations that were readily available were pretty awkward musically.

So we didn’t compromise from Mendelssohn’s original in terms of language, but we did have to make some compromises when it came to the manner accompaniment. Doing the piece as written—with a full orchestra—was out of the question because of the obvious limitations of space, cost, and time.  This is a no-brainer; we are used to the compromise of keyboard accompaniments for orchestral works and we accept them freely, otherwise most church and community choirs would not have access a big chunk of the great music in the world.

As it happens, Mendelssohn himself wrote a piano reduction of the accompaniment for this particular piece.  It is unusual in choral-orchestral repertoire to have a piano reduction by the composer, and this option would have provided a pretty strong claim of musical authenticity. We did not go this route, however—not only because there is no piano in the choir loft, but because we wanted a fuller sound that more closely resembled the orchestral original.  To put it another way, we wanted to choose a level and method of compromise that would best suit our particular situation.

So what we did was to have a string quartet (that’s two violins, viola, and cello) play the string parts exactly as Mendelssohn wrote them.  For the wind parts (flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, and horns) I arranged them for the organ, effectively making a keyboard reduction of just the wind parts.  In fact, it wasn’t even a matter of arranging—I just entered each instrument’s line into a music editing software program (in the case Finale) and then let the software condense them onto two staves to be played by the organist.  I found that the flute parts could be omitted almost entirely because they were usually doubled an octave lower by the oboes (and they were generally in too high a register for the organ anyway).  From there it was a matter of touching up a few things so that they “laid better” for the organist to play.

I also copied the cello/double bass part into the pedal of the organ so that it would sound an octave lower, as it would with the double basses of the orchestra.  We might have achieved a yet fuller sound if we had included an actual double bass with our string quartet, but I was already concerned about balance with our smallish choir.

Download the organ reduction of the wind parts here

This idea of the organ playing a reduction of the wind parts while a quartet (or quartet plus bass) plays the original string parts is one that has been knocking around in my head for a long time, and I don’t know to what degree of success it could be used.  In this instance, my sense is that it worked pretty well.  To those who would say, “Hey you knucklehead—that’s not what Mendelssohn wrote!” I would have to acknowledge that they are of course correct.  But from where I sit, making these kinds of careful and respectful compromises is better than leaving the music on the shelf unperformed.

Listen to other hymns and anthems
from Trinity Sunday
by clicking on the links below
(download the service leaflet here):

Batten: O sing joyfully unto God
Text: Psalm 81:1-4

Kristine Chaney, soprano; Daniele Olsen, alto;
Mark Chaney, tenor; Tim Olsen. bass

Hymn 362, Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty (Nicaea)

Hymn 324, Let all mortal flesh keep silence (Picardy)

stanzas 1 and 4 are harmonizations from Hymns Ancient and Modern transcribed for string quartet; stanzas 2 and 3 are from Gustav Holst’s well-known anthem setting of this hymn.

Hymn 423, Immortal, invisible, God only wise (St. Denio)

Hymn 397, Now thank we all our God (Nun danket alle Gott)

+  +  +

“There is so much talk about music, and yet so little is said. For my part, I believe that words do not suffice for such a purpose, and if I found they did suffice I would finally have nothing more to do with music.  People often complain that music is too ambiguous, that what they should be thinking as they hear it is unclear, whereas everyone understands words.  With me it is exactly the reverse, and not only with regard to an entire speech, but also with individual words.  These too, seem to me so ambiguous, so vague, so easily misunderstood in comparison to genuine music which fills the soul with a thousand things better than words.”

-Mendelssohn in a letter to Marc-André Souchay, 1842

 

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Hail thee, festival day: Pentecost

May 27, 2012 – Holy Eucharist, Rite II – 11:00 am

Chris Ackerman and John Crowley, trumpets;
Amy Tully, flute; Matt Ward, oboe;
Steve Kirkman, timpani

Listen to Hymn 225,
‘Hail thee, festival day’ (Salve, festa diesHERE 

Please click on the links below to hear other music from this service; download the service leaflet here

Bach: O Spirit of God, O Spirit of life

Psalm 104:25-37 (Plainsong, Tone 2)

Hymn 521, Put forth, O God, the Spirit’s might (Chelsea Square)

Gabrieli: Jubilate Deo. omnis terra

T. Tertius Noble: ‘Grieve not the Holy Spirit’

The beautiful “Grieve not the Holy Spirit of God” by T. Tertius Noble was sung by the Trinity Choir this past Sunday.  The anthem is a setting of Ephesians 4:30-32 and opens with a lengthy soprano solo that was elegantly sung in this instance by Kristine Chaney.

Listen to T. Tetius Noble’s ‘Grieve not the Holy Spirit’ here:

In our preparation of this anthem, the choir spent a little time musing about the lore and legend of T. Tertuis Noble himself, the founder of the noted St. Thomas Choir School in New York City.  First of all, the name:  what sort of a name is ‘Tertius’? And what does the ‘T’ stand for?  It turns out that the T is for Thomas, and that both his father and grandfather were called Thomas as well.  So he was the third Thomas Noble—hence, Tertius.

T. Tertius Noble (1867-1953) at the organ at St. Thomas

When Noble assumed the post at St. Thomas in 1912, he was already at the top of his profession in England.  He was the organist at York Minster and, at that time, the sanity of leaving ‘Old’ York for New York was seriously questioned by many.  When Noble’s successor at York Minster, Edward Bairstow, was asked about it he supposedly quipped that he would ‘rather go to the devil’ than to America.  But times do change: in fact, history repeated itself 92 years later when John Scott left St. Paul’s Cathedral in London to come to St. Thomas in 2004.

Aside from his edition of Handel’s Messiah (the gray Schirmer books), I would say that Noble’s most ubiquitous musical legacy is a volume called Free Organ Accompaniments to One Hundred Well-Known Hymn Tunes.  It’s one of those collections of fancy accompaniments that organists use for the last verse of hymns.  The music is okay, but I think the most interesting thing by far about the book is Noble’s preface.  It gives a glimpse into church music of that era and reveals some really strongly-held biases on the part of the author.  Here are some excerpts:

“THE practice of singing hymns in unison has been a common one for many years, especially in churches where the congregation really knows the spiritual uplift to be gained from such a custom. I recall the thrilling effect produced by some seven hundred undergraduates singing in unison at Trinity College, Cambridge, England during the services held there on Sunday evenings. It was not only the unisonal singing that moved one, but also the masterful, free organ accompaniments improvised by Charles Villiers Stanford. As his assistant, from 1890 to 1892, I came under the inspiring influence of this outstanding church musician; and ever since that time it has been my practice to encourage unison singing in all hymns, at least in one verse, or, if the hymn is long, in two or three verses.

“Since retiring from active church work, I have had the opportunity of writing down some of these organ accompaniments used in actual practice. This book is the outcome of over fifty years’ experience of congregational singing in churches and cathedrals in England, and at St. Thomas’ Church, New York City. I hope that its contents will be useful to organists throughout the country in churches of every denomination; at least they will be found useful in demonstrating what can be done in this fashion. There may be some who will challenge the changes of harmony and the free accompanimental treatment that has been used to embellish the melodies.  But I am sure that a large number of organists will enjoy the varied treatments provided, and I trust they will be considered in good taste.

Now we leave introduction and enter into commentary:

“In the playing of free organ accompaniments care should be taken to avoid thick registration. Do not use “doubles” or sub-couplers on the manuals, and play the pedal part as written, in the right pitch. The constant use of the lower notes on the pedal board becomes tiresome and should be avoided. Filling in with the left hand should be discouraged, especially in the doubling of the major third and the leading note, and, of course, the promiscuous [emphasis added] adding of the seventh in the chord.  A thick, muddy effect only causes confusion and gives no aid to the congregation in singing. Clean phrasing in the pedal part as well as on the manuals is very essential.  The poor habit of “carrying over” at the end of the lines is very tiresome; this should occur only when the sense of the words demands it.

And yet more commentary:

“Some of the hymns in this collection are of a rather sentimental type, not so much from the standpoint of the melody, but because of the poor harmonization. Many of the tunes written between 1830 and 1900 suffered because the composers, although they could write a good melody, were not able to provide interesting harmonic backgrounds, with good part writing for all the voices…such boring part writing would seem tedious even for a small choir in a village church…

“The singing of hymns by the congregation should be encouraged not only by the organist, but also by the rector or minister of the church. Indeed, an occasional word from the pulpit about this important matter will be found to be most helpful. It is hoped that this collection of additional accompaniments may likewise be useful in carrying out the Psalmist’s injunction to “sing merrily unto God our strength; make a cheerful noise unto the God of Jacob.”

T. Tertius Noble, 1946

 

Well done, good and faithful servant

Antone Aquino (1929-2012)

Since retiring to the Grand Strand area nearly twenty years ago, Antone and Margaret Aquino have been wonderful friends of the arts in general and to the music at Trinity in particular.

They met as undergraduates at the Crane School of Music (State University of New York, Potsdam) and their partnership in music and life was fixed from that point forward.  Antone was a gifted conductor as well as being a fine composer, singer, and organist.  Margaret always has been–and continues to be–a fabulous pianist with a particular love for accompanying.  Both are almost fanatical in their love of opera.  For all their talents as performers, the Aquinos are, at their core, teachers.  This was especially so of Antone—his years as music professor at Salem State College in Massachusetts were always spoken of with particular fondness and pride.

Antone vigorously rehearsing the Salem State College Glee Club in the early 1970’s

The cancer that Antone had dealt with for nearly two years had only begun to slow him down significantly in the last few months–and when death came to him on April 25, it came gently, with Margaret and their daughter Mary Margaret at his side.  Antone’s funeral took place at St. Brendan’s Catholic Church in Shalotte on May 3, and his ashes are interred in a very beautiful prayer garden on the church grounds.

On Sunday, May 6 at the 11:00 service, I played an ‘Aria’ for organ that Antone had written about ten years ago.  A manuscript of the piece was in a collection of scores that was at Trinity when I arrived.  It is a lyrical and nostalgic piece, and I was glad to add it to my repertoire and to play it in Antone’s memory.

Listen to Antone Aquino’s ‘Aria’ here:

Music from this Past Sunday

Fourth Sunday of Easter  – April 29
‘Good Shepherd’ Sunday

Please click on the links below to hear music from this service.  Download the service leaflet here

Prelude
Darke: ‘In Green Pastures’
arr. Evans: ‘Resignation’ (Hymn 664)

Moravian traditional, arr Pfohl: Jesus makes my heart rejoice
Janet Inman Haigh, soprano

Hymn 518, Christ is made the sure foundation (Westmeinster Abbey)

Psalm 23 (Simplified Anglican Chant, Robert Knox Kennedy)
Kristine Chaney, solo

Oxley: My Shepherd is Lord
Kristine Chaney, soprano; Karen Kerswell, alto

Billings: I am the Rose of Sharon
Lisa Jennings, soprano; Larry Wilson, bass

Hymn 664, My Shepherd will supply my need (Resignation)

Hymn 348, Lord, we have come at your own invitation (O quanta qualia)

William Billings: ‘I am the Rose of Sharon’

This Sunday the choir singing “I am the Rose of Sharon” by William Billings.  The anthem features a wonderfully racy Song of Solomon text set to music by a composer whose musical spirit and originality were unrivalled in his time; so I though that a few words of context might not be amiss.

Listen to the piece here:

William Billings (1746-1800) was America’s leading 18th-century composer.  A tanner by trade, he was completely self-taught in music.  He lived in Boston during the Revolutionary War era and was active in patriot circles that included Samuel Adams and Paul Revere (who engraved some of his music).  Many of his pieces have a nationalistic overtone.

No portrait of Billings is known to exist, but a much-quoted description by a contemporary diarist paints a dubious picture:

“He was a singular man, of moderate size, short of one leg, with one eye, without any address, and with an uncommon negligence of person.  Still he spoke and sang and though as a man above the common abilities.”

In his time Billings was acclaimed as a master teacher of choral singing, and he was a leading force in establishing a uniquely American phenomenon: the 18th-century New England singing school.  He published several collections of music for use in these singing schools.  Billings’s works contained music for unaccompanied four-part chorus, but they also included lengthy introductions offering instruction in note reading, music theory, vocal technique, and rules on how to run singing schools.  These volumes were not so much intended to be music collections as they were to be music textbooks with practical examples.

‘I am the Rose of Sharon’ was published in a 1778 collection called The Singing Master’s Assistant.  In addition to 63 palm tunes and 10 anthems, The Singing Master’s Assistant has a considerable amount of instructional material, including: a preface, an advertisement, 15 lessons in music, rules for regulating a singing school, a musical dictionary, a musical creed, a letter to (of all people) the Goddess of Discord.

This matter makes for delightful reading.  A few excerpts, first from the Preface:

“KIND READER, No doubt you (do or ought to) remember, that about ten years ago, I published Book entitled, The New England Psalm Singer, &c. And truly a most masterly and inimitable Performance, I then thought it to be.  Oh! How did my foolish heart throb and beat with tumultuous joy! With what impatience did I wait on the Book-Binder, while stitching the sheets and putting on the covers, with what extacy, did I yet snatch the yet unfinished Book out of his hands, and pressing it to my bosom, with rapturous delight…Welcome, thrice welcome, thou legitimate offspring of my brain, go forth my little Book, go forth and immortalize the name of your Author…

“After impartial examination, I have discovered that many of the pieces in that Book were never worth my printing, or your inspection; therefore in order you make you ample amends for my former intrusion, I have selected and corrected some of the tunes which were most approved in that book, and have added several new pieces which I think to be very good ones…”

From Lesson XIII:

“SING that part which gives you the least pain, otherwise you make it a toil, instead of pleasure; for if you attempt to sing a part which is (almost or quite) out of your reach, it is not only very laborious to the performer; but very disagreeable to trhe hearer, by reason of many wry faces and uncouth postures, which rather resemble a person in extreme pain, than one who is supposed to be pleasantly employed.  And it has been observed, that those persons, who sing with the most ease, are in general the most musical…”

From Lesson XIV:

“GOOD singing is not confined to great singing, nor is it entirely dependent on small singing.  I have hear many great voices, that never struck a harsh Note, and many small voices that never struck a pleasant one; therefore if the Tones be Musical, it is not material whether the voices be greater, or less; yet I allow there are but few voices, but what want restraining, or softening upon the high notes, to take of the harshness, which is as disagreeable to a delicate ear as a wire-edged raisor to a tender face…

“IT is also well worth your observation, that the grand contention with us, is, not who shall sing the loudest; but who shall sing the best.”

From “Observe these rules for regulating a Singing-School”:

“The Members should be very punctual in attending at a certain hour, or minute, as the master shall direct, under penalty of a small fine, and if the master should be delinquent, his fine to be double the sum laid upon the scholars—Said fines to be appropriated to the use of the school, in procuring wood, candles, &c…

“All the scholars should submit to the judgment of the master, respecting the part they are to sing; and if he should think fit to remove them from one part to another, they are not to contradict, or cross him in his judgment; but they do well to suppose it is to answer some special purpose…

“No unnecessary conversation, whispering, or laughing, to be practised; for it is not only indecent, but very impolitic; it being needless expense of time, and instead of acquiring to themselves respect, they render themselves ridiculous and contempable in the eyes of all serious people…

“Much more might be said; but the rest I shall leave to the Master’s direction, and your own discretion, heartily wishing you may reap both pleasure and profit, in this your laudable undertaking.”

Music from This Past Sunday

Third Sunday of Easter – April 22.  Please click on the links below to hear music from this service; download the service leaftlet here.

Prelude
Bender: Down Ampney (Hymn 516)

Introit
Tallis: If ye love me, keep my commandments

Hymn 413, New songs of celebration render (Rendez a Dieu)

Paraphrase of Psalm 98 by Erik Routley  (1917-1982)

Psalm 98
(Simplified Anglican Chant, Robert Knox Kennedy)

Hymn 516, Come down, O Love divine (Down Ampney)

Trivia:  The tune for this hymn was written by Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1906 for The English Hymnal, of which Vaughan Williams was the musical editor.  It is one of several tunes he wrote for that hymnal, including Sine nomine, the tune for “For all the saints.”  The name of this tune, ‘Down Ampney,’ comes from the village in Goucestershire where Vaughan Williams was born.

Titcomb: I will not leave you comfortless

Hymn 182, Christ is alive! let Christians sing (Truro)