This past Saturday, I attended South Bay Horn Day at Mountain View High School. The festival lasted from nine in the morning to nine at night, with a mix of workshops, horn choir rehearsals, and performances filling the day. It is held annually, and I only attended once before in 2013.
It was a joy to meet so many other horn players from the area and to hear the excitement in their voices as they recounted their experiences with the instrument. It was a joke instantiated in several forms and reiterated almost ad nauseam that we’ve all sold our souls to one of the most difficult instruments to play. Laughs of solidarity on this topic sounded from dawn till dusk.
Memorable performances from the day included the world premiere of a piece for horn quartet called VA 22211 and a horn choir rendition of an aria from Mendelssohn’s Elijah oratorio (“O rest in the Lord”). VA 22211, named in reference to the zip code of Arlington National Cemetery, pays tribute to our fallen heroes and explores a range of feelings from hymnal reverence to heroic fervor. The Mendelssohn selection felt to me more sacred and spiritual in an all-horn setting than in its original scoring for orchestra and soprano. Its cadential C major chord freed me of all worldly cares, if only for a few moments.
The latest flurry in the vicissitudes of my listening patterns summons the music of the church. I have created a playlist on Spotify called “Hymns” containing five ecclesiastical selections for unaccompanied chorus.
Sergei Rachmaninoff – Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom, Op. 31: XII. To Thee We Sing
Sergei Rechmaninoff – All-Night Vigil, Op. 37: II. Praise the Lord, O my soul
Eric Whitacre – Lux Aurumque
Alexander Gretchaninov – Passion Week, Op. 58 – At Thy mystical supper
Morten Lauridsen – O Magnum Mysterium
The first hymn by Rachmaninoff often seems to appear by itself on concert programs, which I assume is because it is less strictly modal, orthodox, and chant-like in character than the surrounding movements of the larger work and follows an accessible, arc-like shape from beginning to end. The second selection comes from Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil and features a call-and-response dialogue between solo voice and choir. It is more austere and modal than the first piece, but ends with a more familiar cadence into a B-flat major chord, reminding us of its author and his place in history. The descent to the low B-flat engineered for the basses awakens the passive listener.
I don’t have much to say about the other three selections, except that they are optimistic in their outlook and inspire quietude.
I am a nonreligious person, but will readily admit to the merit of the vast library of music that we owe to centuries of music-making being largely a by-product of religious worship. Emanating from the thickness of harmonies and the tensing and relaxing of cascading suspensions are the reverberations of devotion, exaltation, and humility, as pure I think as humankind as ever distilled them in non-literal forms.
About a year ago, I found myself listening to less and less classical music in my daily listening routine, replacing the late Romantic program on my playlist with a hodge podge of EDM tracks I managed to harvest from my Alesso radio station on Pandora. I’m not really sure how it happened, but I guess I was in the throes of a more… hormonal phase of music.
It was a concerning thing to be getting away from my classical predilections, but corrective measures weren’t something that could be forced. Listening to my old favorites from Ravel, Tchaikovsky, and Dvorak just wasn’t doing it for me. Anytime I plugged in my earphones, I caved in to an embarrassingly teenage compulsion for four-on-the-floor, synthed-out dance tracks.
Fortunately, discovering Arnold Bax tripped a switch in my head that has started to set my listening habits back on track. At the very least, I’m indulging these days in a far more balanced musical diet.
On my flight to Thailand in December, the in-flight entertainment console at my seat was playing as background music a piece by English composer Arnold Bax. I hadn’t heard of Bax before, and as I sat there browsing the Action & Adventure category of movie selections, I stopped to take note of the piece’s harmonic language and use of orchestral color. It was exactly the kind of early 20th century writing that I’ve come to love and obsessively seek out. (Not the atonal writing of Schoenberg and co., as should be obvious, but the fusion of Romanticism and Impressionism that labored on in the attic of the classical household through the mid-century.)
The piece was Bax’s Morning Song, a short, 8-minute fantasy for piano and orchestra (its resemblance to a piano concerto deepened my initial curiosity). It features a playful opening melody that dances along throughout the piece with treatment from various voices.
I look forward to exploring and discovering more of Bax’s music. His life spans a period of time that is nearly coincident with Rachmaninoff’s — they lived to about the same age and were separated by about ten years. So far, I’ve found no evidence to believe that they knew of each other, but they seem to draw from many of the same influences.
For not terribly compelling reasons, I am trying to get my score for My Name is Richard Rozen printed and published semi-professionally. When I wrote the music a year ago, I didn’t put much effort into typesetting the sheet music properly, because I would be the one performing the work, and honestly I had a lot of it memorized anyway. Now I’m paying the price in hours spent poring over the manuscript, tweaking margins and spacing, adjusting page breaks, and adding rehearsal letters. Figuring out the right way to format copyright information has also been a burden.
In all of this, I take for granted how nice it is to have a tool like Sibelius. Even then, I still feel like I’m cheating the age-old art of music printing.
I have to write a piece for flute, horn, and percussion by early August. Effectively, by August 1. Let this be my written commitment to getting it done. I’ll get it done if it kills me. The creative process has me on my knees at the moment, but I know that as long as I hack and toil away at the notes, they will arrange themselves in some acceptable fashion on the page. Keep producing.
It’s been over three years since I last opined here. It is troubling to think about how much time has passed, since I don’t think I’ve been particularly productive as a musician since then. In that time, I’ve written essentially just two pieces and who knows how many 8-bar phrases of vapid melody that will never make it farther than the inside pages of my sketchbook.
The first piece was an andante for horn and piano, which may be my only mature work at this point, and the second exists more as a short suite: incidental music for a small play performed in Palo Alto.
Let’s hope this is all just par for the course in the evolution of a distracted artist. Anyway, this is what I look like now, after three years of withdrawal from the blogosphere:
To the longtime readers, I owe a listening recommendation. For an accessible modern composer, check out Allan Stephenson and his Concerto for English Horn.
The No. 3 (C-minor) etude from Rachmaninoff‘s first set of Études-Tableaux, Op. 33 was omitted from the original publication and released posthumously. I haven’t read anything that explains why, but it probably has something to do with one of its melodies making an appearance in his fourth piano concerto, written some fifteen years later. Continue reading Just Add Orchestra
There’s something about a composer’s fifth. Beethoven, Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Bruckner, Mahler, Sibelius. All of their fifth symphonies have become somewhat defining in their legacy as composers and are the pieces we’re told to approach first if not yet familiar with their music. They remain some of the most performed symphonies in the repertoire, and they all boast daunting, large-scale forms. Continue reading There’s Something About a Fifth Symphony
Sergei Rachmaninoff is remembered for the Paganini rhapsody, the two middle concertos, a prelude in C-sharp minor, and sometimes, a vocalise. The portrait painted by this “Best Of” compilation is of a man who procured steadfast melodies and unrelenting sentimentality till the day he died. Beyond these works too, you won’t find much that deviates from this pattern. Relatively speaking, he didn’t have eras or periods of stylistic evolution like, say, Stravinsky. Continue reading What Rachmaninoff Did for Russian Music