13 November 2008

Peering Past the Premiere

From November of 2005 until May of 2006, I served as Interim Choir Director of the Episcopal Cathedral in Boston, St Paul’s, across Tremont Street from the Boston Common. My service was necessarily on a part-time scale; and the lack of a permanent full-time Music Director, to manage all the traditional ‘ancillary’ musical activities at the Cathedral, was a disruption in the Cathedral’s hitherto significant contribution to music-making in Boston’s downtown area. In the few hours each week which I could devote to the Cathedral choir, there was not much to be done against the tide of that disruption.

But what I could do was . . .

The prior Music Director, Mark Engelhardt, had invited me to furnish music for a festive Evensong in 2003 (more on which, another time); so I took that as a sort of template, and told the choir to gird their loins to sing an Evensong in March of 2006.

I did not want to repeat the 2003 Evensong (although musically, I believe it will bear repetition); and so I composed a fresh Evening Service. Indeed, I wound up composing more music than I had for the 2003 Evensong; for I wanted not only to compose my own service-music chant (Preces & Responses, &c.) for the new service, but the idea seized me of composing an instrumental prelude, postlude and interludes, all musically specific to the occasion. The Evensong would be in Lent, a season during which many parishes observe a tradition of only light use of the organ (which makes the sudden ‘restoration’ of the voice of the organ on Easter morning all the more glorious). My idea was to use two trombones (one tenor, one bass) as a spare and solemn instrumental complement.

Another difference from the 2003 service, and another aspect of seasonal solemnity: I decided to set the Canticles (Magnificat and Nunc dimittis) in Latin. A difference again: we used English settings of the Canticles for 2003; and the Song of Mary I had actually written some three years before. In the early summer of ’03, then, I composed a new Song of Simeon, but ‘retrofitted’ to match the pre-existing Song of Mary (i.e., they share some musical material). For the Latin Canticles in 2006, I decided to cast them in contrasting styles.

Writing the Magnificat first, I cast the greater part of the setting as splitting the choir between the men singing a rhythmicized accompaniment role, and the ladies singing floridly in thirds (to a degree, I had the opening of Bach’s BWV 243 in view as a distant model). As I was hammering the Magnificat into shape, I don’t remember what if anything I was thinking at that time for the Nunc dimittis. Once the Magnificat was done, though, any prior thought I had taken for the Nunc, I set aside in favor of trying my hand at a modern-ish polyphonic setting. There’s a famous anecdote of someone describing a Schoenberg piece as, like Brahms only with wrong notes; I wrote a Nunc dimittis which was, from one angle, ‘wrong-note Gibbons’.

That initial performance of the Evening Service in D had its imperfections, to be sure; yet it astonishes me that we put it together as well as we did, and in such rapid order (a rushed schedule even though the composer managed to get most everything written about when he had promised it would be written).

A composer hopefully believes in his work; or, perhaps better put, hopefully the composer does his work in a way that the result continues to inspire him with pride of ‘ownership’ rather than, well, any number of less desirable reactions.

No matter how firm a composer’s belief in his work (and, who knows, maybe he could be mistaken?) it means a great deal both when an audience responds with warmth (a warmth exceeding mere politeness, though one is generally grateful for politeness, too) to the music, and when fellow musicians, whose work and quality he respects, understand and endorse his score.

Another fact of life for the composer is: as much labor, searching, and the unending task of trying to coordinate schedules both individual and organizational, as are involved in trying to arrange the premiere of music which he has written, who has measured the effort or plotted the curve to second, or third, or fourth performances? In Zappa’s trenchant phrase, “The program says World Premiere, but what that really means is Final Performance.”

There are, then no words sufficient for this composer’s delight in learning that Dutch choirmaster Nana Tchikhinashvili and her chamber choir, Moderato Cantabile, have warmly adopted my Magnificat, and have sung it several times over recent months.

One continues composing, to be sure, in spite of a variety of discouragements. And when musicians of the calibre of Nana and Moderato Cantabile adopt your music, out of sheer musical affection, there is a flame which is kept alight, and the composer is in harmony with himself. [ recording ]

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