Max Derrickson

Writing Music Program Notes for Over 20 Years

January 2

Happy Birthday, Eric Whitacre!
(January 2, 1970 – )

American composer and conductor Whitacre has been writing solid, in fact, beautiful, pieces for chorus as well as orchestra and wind ensembles, for several decades.  He’s wonderfully talented and he’s adventurous: he’s known for his “Virtual Choir” projects, where voices from around the world are brought together online to sing with each other in a choir.  His music leans on tonality and fluidity. (See more of my music writings at www.MusicProgramNotes.com, or see my LinkedIn profile).  In lineage with the choral tradition of Palestrina, featured yesterday in the January 1 LinkedIn post, here is Whitacre’s Lux Aurumque (2000):

More Happy Birthday, Whitacre!

… a particularly beautiful orchestral piece by this soulful composer: The River Cam:

January 1

Happy Unknown Birthday, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina!
(c. 1525 – February 2, 1594)

Once upon a time, music history books taught that Italian composer Pierluigi (born in Palestrina, near Rome), was the “Savior of Church music.”  It’s a long story, but not particularly accurate.  But Palestrina is as great a composer as any to be the first Birthday composer of the year.  What Palestrina certainly did do was greatly improve (and to Bach and Mendelssohn, to name but two great composers, Palestrina perfected) the handling of Renaissance polyphonic sacred music – using techniques that had tremendous influence over composers to follow… for centuries.  One such technique was the handling of dissonant notes and resolving them as quickly as possible.  Another – that the flow of music should not be static but fluid.  Western music owes a lot of its ideas to Palestrina.  And his beautiful music tells us why.  (See more of my music writings at www.MusicProgramNotes.com, or see my LinkedIn profile). 

Here is a bright and glorious Gloria by Palestrina:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BSo8rRn-vEA

Contrapunctus IX, “alla duodecima,” from The Art of the Fugue, BWV 1080

Johann Sebastian Bach
(Born in Eisenach, Germany in 1685; died in Leipzig, Germany in 1750)

Contrapunctus IX, “alla duodecima,” from The Art of the Fugue, BWV 1080

As Bach’s life entered into its last decade, he renewed his interest in keyboard music and especially counterpoint, or the way in which fugues are made and how musical themes can be manipulated.  In this decade he began his ultimate offering to musical counterpoint – a series of fugues and canons all derived out a single musical theme – The Art of the Fugue, which he worked on for 10 years until his death, but left incomplete for it to be gathered, titled and published in 1751just after his death by his son Carl Phillip Emmanuel Bach.

The Art of the Fugue may well be Bach’s seminal work and contains 14 fugues and four canons, all in D-minor, and arranged in increasing difficulty.  They are, as Bach historian Christoph Wolff observed, “an exploration … of the contrapuntal possibilities inherent in a single musical subject.”  That “single subject” is disarming in its simplicity but is a gold mine for Bach’s 18 forays into forging musical matter.  Instead of calling them “counterpoint(s),” Bach preferred the Latin word “Contrapunctus.”  Number IX (9) is a study of turning that simple subject into a new derivation and into a double fugue (two themes treated as a fugue at the interval of a twelfth, thus the subtitle “alla duodecima”).  Bach then adds the original “single subject” fugue theme into the mix as an additional subject.  Always a masterpiece, this Contrapunctus becomes especially spirited and extremely powerful when performed by a brass quintet.

Sonata 1 in F minor, Op. 65 – Finale. Allegro assai vivace

Felix Mendelssohn
(Born in Hamburg, Germany in 1809; died in Leipzig, Germany in 1847)

Sonata 1 in F minor, Op. 65
– Finale. Allegro assai vivace (in F Major)

By the early 19th Century, the organ had become one of the most sophisticated machines on earth, becoming more facile, and containing more registers than ever before.  Enticed by its capabilities, composers wrote great works for it during the Romantic period, including Mendelssohn.

Among his many talents, Mendelssohn was one of the early admirers and scholars of “early” music.  Indeed, were it not for Mendelssohn’s (and some of his friends, such as Schumann and Brahms) efforts, some of Bach’s great works may have been lost to the ages.  The musical craft of those great masters who came before him clearly informed Mendelssohn’s work – although certainly capable of Romantic bombast, Mendelssohn preferred the intellectual styles of Mozart and Bach.  A splendid organist and renowned as an early music scholar, Mendelssohn was commissioned in 1844 to write a series of Voluntaries (such as we heard earlier from English composer John Stanley).  Mendelssohn, instead, wrote six full multi-movement organ sonatas.

The sonatas are no small feats as compositions – rich in melody and grace, and demanding for the soloist.  The Finale of Sonata No. 1 is a wonderful moment of Romantic Mendelssohn meets the Baroque: […] a whirlwind of beauty that is soothing and filled with charm.

Concerto for Organ and Orchestra in F Major, Op. 4, No. 5 (HWV 293)

George Frederic Handel
(Born in Halle, Germany in 1685; died in London in 1759)

Concerto for Organ and Orchestra in F Major, Op. 4, No. 5 (HWV 293)
1. Larghetto
2. Allegro
3. Alla siciliana
4. Presto

Between 1735-1736 Handel composed four English Oratorios that were each premiered in Covent Garden in London: Esther, Deborah, and Athalia in 1735, and Alexander’sFeast in 1736.  However, they faced stiff competition from other opera companies in town: Oratorios alone weren’t going to be enough to fetch audiences.  Handel, therefore, widely celebrated as the greatest organist of his day, created six concertos for “Chamber Organ and Orchestra” to be played as interludes between various sections of these four Oratorios, and to show off his own prowess on the organ.

His virtuoso talents certainly helped promote sales at Covent Gardens, but the music that Handel wrote for himself to perform in these great concerti is some of the great music of the Baroque.  True to Handel’s talent as an organist and composer, the solo parts are exquisite and the orchestra parts enchanting, and as far as we know, it was Handel who here invented this pairing of organ with orchestra in the concerto form.   

Concerto No. 5 was written in 1735 for the revival of Deborah and is one of the great works of its time.  The opening Larghetto is a soft and gentle thing of beauty, mostly played by solo organ.  The bright and crisp Allegro is followed by the “Alla siciliana” which is […] Presto is a lively way to show off the technical prowess of the organist and conclude this all too brief and beautiful masterpiece.

Voluntary No. 1 from Ten Voluntaries, Op. 5

John Stanley
(Born in London in 1712; died in London in 1786)

Voluntary No. 1 from Ten Voluntaries, Op. 5
1. Adagio
2. Andante – Trumpet voluntary
3. Slow
4. Allegro

In Baroque England, the organ was very much of part of Christian worship services and composers became especially keen on using the different stops (specific sets of pipes and sounds) available on an organ.  One such stop that particularly captured the imagination of the great British composers was the “Trumpet” stop, which, like a trumpet, belted out loud and clarion-like sounds.  It even created, in a way, its own genre of music called the Trumpet Voluntary – the Voluntary was the music played before and after the service, often either improvised or written to sound extemporaneous.  The form had multiple movements, one of which typically featured the organ’s Trumpet stop. 

Even though English organist and composer John Stanley went nearly completely blind at about the age of two, he nonetheless became a virtuoso organist by age 9 and at 17 was the youngest student to ever attain a Bachelor of Music degree from Oxford.  He was so prolific and talented that Handel, who spent a good deal of his life in London, travelled to hear the younger Stanley play the organ.  So accomplished was Stanley, in fact, that when Handel died in 1760, Stanley took over several of Handel’s musical duties.  Stanley’s music was excellent, too – melodic and crisp and well crafted, such as his delightful set of Ten Voluntaries from 1748, from which we will hear the first of the set.  Its Trumpet Voluntary (Andante) movement is especially joyful and regal.

Prelude and Fugue in E Major

Vincent Lübeck
(Born in Padingbüttel, Germany in 1654; died in Hamburg, Germany in 1740)

Prelude and Fugue in E Major

By the 18th Century, long after the organ’s first appearance as the hydraulis, the pipe organ was well established with its wind bellows and distinctive-sounding pipes that have continued as the modern organ, and organ music was especially cherished in Germany.  It was a blossoming of organ virtuosity. 

Although recently rediscovered, the German Baroque organist and composer Lübeck was, in his long life, famous as both performer and composer.  Unfortunately, little of his music survived his lifetime, in part because a fire in his church of long employ destroyed many of his manuscripts.  But judging from the extraordinary keyboard pieces that did survive, music historians believe that Lübeck was one of the great virtuosos and composers of his day.  He also played on one of the great organs of his time housed at his church in Hamburg.

Lübeck’s brilliant Prelude and fugue in E Major is a great example.  Not only is it technically demanding, it’s also bright and joyful.  The Prelude opens with very fancy footwork almost right off, but rings through in beauty and stateliness.  It’s a fantastic way to begin an evening of organ masterworks.

“I Got a Home in dat Rock” and “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands”

Margaret Bonds (Arranger):

“I Got a Home in dat Rock” and “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands”

Those beautiful and emotionally-charged Spirituals that today are considered something between folksong and worship songs were created by “Negro” slaves of the American South.  They captured the slaves’ devotion to Jesus, their Savior, and they often described, in veiled terms, their agonies and hopes for a new life – not only in Heaven but for freedom now.  Some songs are strongly believed to have had double meanings as incitement to slaves to run away or infused with coded messages.  It’s no wonder that these extraordinary songs often send chills through our spines, so wrought are they with desperation, urgency and hope… and beauty  Frederick Douglas wrote: “Every tone [of a Spiritual for me] was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains.”  Nothing in music can really compare to a masterfully sung Spiritual.

Spirituals were invented by Southern slaves on American soil.  To be sure, they incorporate some musical elements brought over with them from Africa, but by and large, Spirituals were truly the first American music, and Czech composer Antonin Dvořák was one of the first musicians to recognize these great songs, along with the indigenous music of the America’s First Peoples (American Indians), as America’s bona fide “folk” music.

Margaret Bonds (1913 – 1972) was a virtuoso pianist and composer, and one of the very few Blacks to attend the Chicago University and the Julliard School… not to mention achieve post-graduate degrees in music.  She was a gifted Classical composer, but also cherished the value of Spirituals as important musical expressions.  She also had an uncanny talent for arranging, and thereby arranged a fair number of the great spirituals for voice and Orchestra to bring this powerful genre to even wider audiences: her versions of “I Got a Home in dat Rock” and the (now) wildly popular “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” have become standard fare, in fact, iconic American songs, since their publications.

“Sometimes I feel like a Motherless Child” and “I Want to Be Ready”

Harry T. Burleigh (Arranger):

“Sometimes I feel like a Motherless Child” and “I Want to Be Ready”

Those beautiful and emotionally-charged Spirituals that today are considered something between folksong and worship songs were created by “Negro” slaves of the American South.  They captured the slaves’ devotion to Jesus, their Savior, and they often described, in veiled terms, their agonies and hopes for a new life – not only in Heaven but for freedom now.  Some songs are strongly believed to have had double meanings as incitement to slaves to run away or infused with coded messages.  It’s no wonder that these extraordinary songs often send chills through our spines, so wrought are they with desperation, urgency and hope… and beauty  Frederick Douglas wrote: “Every tone [of a Spiritual for me] was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains.”  Nothing in music can really compare to a masterfully sung Spiritual.

Spirituals were invented by Southern slaves on American soil.  To be sure, they incorporate some musical elements brought over with them from Africa, but by and large, Spirituals were truly the first American music, and Czech composer Antonin Dvořák was one of the first musicians to recognize these great songs, along with the indigenous music of the America’s First Peoples (American Indians), as America’s bona fide “folk” music.

Black singer and composer Harry T. Burleigh (1866 – 1949) knew Czech Nationalist composer Dvořák well.  In fact, Burleigh was one of the first Black students to attend the newly created National Conservatory of Music in New York which was headed by Dvořák.   It was Burleigh who introduced him to Spirituals, and, as the story goes, elements of Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony were inspired by those Spirituals that Burleigh sang to the rapt composer.  Burleigh would go on to be an important voice in shaping the next generation of Black classical musicians, like Margaret Bonds, and was paramount in both composing art songs and Spirituals, as well as arranging them for “Classical consumption.”  The bittersweet “Sometimes I feel Like a Motherless Child” and  the eternally hopeful “I want to Be Ready (or “Walk in Jerusalem, jus’ like John”) in Burleigh’s harmonization put these small masterpieces directly into the American Songbook. Burleigh single-handedly brought the Spiritual into the Recital Hall, and in doing so began a tremendous appreciation for a truly American music.

Three Spirituals

Three Spirituals:
1. Steal away (Arr. Charles Callahan)
2. Were you there (Arr. Mary Beth Bennett)
3. Great Day (Arr. David Schelat)

Those beautiful and emotionally-charged Spirituals that today are considered something between folksong and worship songs were created by black slaves of the American South.  They captured the slaves’ devotion to Jesus, their Savior, and often described, in veiled terms, their agonies and hopes for a new life – not only in Heaven but for freedom now.  Some songs are strongly believed to have had double meanings, such as Steal away (to Jesus), heard tonight, as incitement to slaves to run away.  It’s no wonder that these extraordinary songs often send chills through our spines, so wrought are they with desperation, urgency and hope.  Frederick Douglas wrote: “Every tone [of a Spiritual] was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains.”  Nothing can really compare to a Spiritual masterfully sung by the human voice, but if any instrument could approach the gravity and power of these great works, the mighty organ is the one to do so.