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

 

A Beautiful Afternoon of Beautiful Music

The Poinsett Piano Trio visited Trinity on Saturday, January 28 and provided a wonderful afternoon of chamber music to an appreciative audience.  The concert (view the program here) included music by Dvorak, Grieg, and Ravel.

The members of the ensemble are David Gross (piano), Deirdre Hutton (violin), and Christopher Hutton (cello).   All three serve on the music faculty of Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina.  I was delighted to find out that Christopher and Deirdre were students at the Eastman School of Music at the same time as I was, and we enjoyed reminiscing about those days and talking about people that we knew in common.

If you missed the concert, here is a brief snippet.  It is a slow movement from a Trio by the early twentieth-century French composer Maurice Ravel, and in it you’ll hear some very elegant and lyrical playing:

Ravel, Trio in A minor: Passacaille (Très large)

For more information on the trio (and to listen to more of their music), please visit their website: www.poinsettpianotrio.com

Next Event in the Trinity Concert Series:
Hymn Festival 
Friday, February 17, 7:30 pm

Full details on that event here

Poinsett Piano Trio This Saturday

David Gross, piano; Deirdre Hutton, violin; Christopher Hutton, violoncello

Saturday, January 28, 2012 – 4:00 pm

Music of Dvořák, Grieg, and Ravel

Free and Open to the Public

The Poinsett Piano Trio was formed in 2008 by David Gross (cello), Deirdre Hutton (violin), and Christopher Hutton (piano). All three members live in Greenville, South Carolina and teach at Furman University, a liberal arts college with a strongly performance-oriented music program.

The ensemble is named in honor of Joel Roberts Poinsett, a 19th-century statesman, physician, and botanist from South Carolina. Poinsett is most remembered today as the discoverer of the Mexican Poinsettia plant, whose bright red flowers are popularly included in festive Christmas decorations throughout the world.

Click here to see the concert program; for more information, check the trio’s website here.

Music from the First Two Sundays of Advent

Click on the links below to hear music from these services. 

Advent I – November 27

Download the service leaflet here.

Erin Althoff, violin; Tamar Ben-Pazi, cello

C P E Bach: Andante from Trio Sonata in F

Hymn 66, Come thou long-expected Jesus (Stuttgart)

Bach: Zion hears the watchman singing

Advent II – December 4

Download the service leaflet here.

Peeters: Pastorale

Introit for the Second Sunday of Advent
Tone I

Hymn 59, Hark! a thrilling voice is sounding (Merton)

Psalm 85:7-13
Plainsong, Tone II

Turner: Let me love you, O Christ
text by Eric Milner-White

Hymn 444, Blessed be the God of Israel (Thornbury)

Willcocks, arr. from Palestrina: Matin Responsory
Verdun Kerswell, baritone; Mary Slaby and Lisa Jennings, sopranos

Hymn 401, the God of Abraham praise (Leoni)

Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful people

Music from Pentecost – June 12

Erin Althoff and Doug Merritt, violins; Sarah Daniels, viola;
Tamar Ben-Pazi, cello; Jessica Miller and Matt Ward, oboes;
Lisa Jennings, soprano; Kristine Chaney, alto;
Stewart Haigh, tenor; Rod Sanders, bass

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

Photo by Larry Wilson

Bach: Sinfonia from Cantata 169

Psalm 130
Anglican Chant: David Hurd

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

Mozart: Veni, sancte Spiritus, K. 47

Veni, sancte Spiritus, reple tuorum corda fidelium, et tui amoris in eis ignem accende, qui per diversitatem linguarum cunctarum gentes in unitate fidei congregasti. Alleluia.

Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful people, and kindle the fire of your love in them whom you, from separate tongues, have gathered the nations together in the unity of faith. Alleluia.

-Sequence for Pentecost

Callahan: Creator Spirit, by whose aid
sung by the gentelmen of the choir

Creator Spirit, by whose aid
the world’s foundations first were laid,
come visit every humble mind;
come, pour thy joys on human kind;

O Source of uncreated light,
the Father’s promised Paraclete,
thrice holy Fount, thrice holy Fire,
our hearts with heavenly love inspire.

From sin and sorrow set us free,
and make us temples worthy thee.
Give us thyself, that we may see
the Father and the Son by thee.

-John Dryden, 1693

Bach: Sinfonia from Cantata 156
Jessica Miller, oboe

Music from Holy Week and Easter

Please click on the links below to hear music from the various services.

The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday
April 17

Almighty and everliving God, who, of thy tender love towards mankind, hast sent thy Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon him our flesh, and to suffer death upon the cross, that all mankind should follow the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant that we may both follow the example of his patience, and also be make partakers of his resurrection; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

Hymn 158: Ah, holy Jesus (Herzliebster Jesu)

Leighton: Solus ad victimam

Brahms: Herzliebster Jesu (Hymn 158)

Maundy Thursday
April 21

Almighty Father, whose dear Son, on the night before he suffered, instituted the Sacrament of his Body and Blood: Mercifully grant that we may thankfully receive the same in remembrance of him who in these holy mysteries giveth us a pledge of life eternal, the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who now liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit ever, one God, world without end.

Doug Merritt and Logan Donevant, violins;
Sarah Daniels, viola; Tamat Ben-Pazi, cello;
Don Michner, bass

Albinoni: Adagio

Psalm 71
Plainsing, Tone ii (Lisa Jennings, Cantor)

Hymn 315: Thou, who at thy first Eucharist didst pray (Song 1)

Clausen: Set me as a seal

Hymn 171: Go to dark Gethsemane

Good Friday
April 22

Almighty God, we beseech thee graciously to behold this thy family, for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was contented to be betrayed, and given into the hands of sinners, and to suffer death upon the cross; who now liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ according to St. John

A reading of the Passion with stanzas of Hymn 168, O sacred head, sore wounded, interpolated into the reading

Stainer: God so loved the world

DuBois: ‘Christ we do all adore thee’ from The Seven Last Words

Easter Day
April 24

O God, who for our redemption didst give thine only-begotten Son to the death of the cross, and by his glorious resurrection hast delivered us from the power of our enemy: Grant us so to die daily to sin, that we may evermore live with him in the joy of his resurrection; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

Chris Ackerman and Bull Canty, trumpets;
Steve Skillman, horn; Marlon McDonald, trombone;
Charles Jennings, tuba

Hymn 207: Jesus Christ is risen today (Easter Hymn)

Mathias: Gloria in excelsis

Psalm 118
Anglican Chant by George Thalben-Ball (1896-1987)

Hymn 210: The day of Resurrection (Ellecombe)

Shephard: The Easter Song of Praise

Gallus: In resurrectione tua, Christe

Alleluia!
In thy resurrection, O Christ,
let heaven and earth rejoice.
The Lord is risen from the tomb,
who hung on the tree for us.
The disciples rejoiced to see the Lord.
Alleluia!

Hymn 208: The strife is o’er, the battle done (Victory)

Friedell: Draw us in the Spirit’s tether

Handel: ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’ from Messiah
Lisa Jennings, soprano

Hymn: Thine is the glory
arr. Robert A. Hobby

Bach: Chorale from Cantata 129