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Tag Archives: Medieval

Michael Colgrass (b. 1932) has distinguished himself as an innovative composer and a dedicated teacher of the creative process of composition.  He started his career as a jazz drummer in Chicago and New York, studying composition all along.  That is where he has made his mark, with commissions from prestigious ensembles all over the English-speaking world and a Pulitzer Prize among many other awards under his belt.  He currently lives in Toronto when he is not touring the world teaching middle- and high-school teachers and their students how to compose.  To see deeper into Colgrass’s fascinating life, check out the blog related to his autobiography, or visit his website, or watch the Emmy-winning documentary that his son made about his music.  Or, for extra kicks, see his Wikipedia biography.

Colgrass wrote Old Churches in 2000 on a commission from the American Composer’s Forum.  From the score:

According to composer Michael Colgrass, Old Churches is one of the most challenging pieces he can remember writing. His goal was to create music that was interesting, expressive and challenging, yet playable by students in the early stages of performing on their instruments and who are also unfamiliar with modern music techniques.

His solution was to write a work based on Gregorian vocal chant with unison melodies. Playing in unison helps student musicians feel more confident, and allowed Colgrass to copiously double the melodic lines. The tempo is slow; the phrases are all in quarter and eighth notes, and the harmonies are simple. Some easy graphic notation and chance techniques are employed, such as pitches played without rhythm, and a murmuring effect that simulates the idea of voices echoing in monastic churches. Colgrass hopes that Old Churches is a piece that conveys emotion at the same time it makes young bands sound good.

Old Churches uses Gregorian chant to create a slightly mysterious monastery scene filled with the prayers and chanting of monks in an old church. Gregorian chant is ancient church music and that has been in existence for over 1500 years. The chant unfolds through call and response patterns. One monk intones a musical idea, then the rest of the monks respond by singing back. This musical conversation continues throughout the piece, with the exception of a few brief interruptions. Perhaps they are the quiet comments church visitors make to one another.

Old Churches as performed live by the Detroit School of the Arts Wind Symphony:

What does Colgrass mean by Gregorian chant?  Here is a shining example, complete with pictures of an old church, sung by a soloist:

So many avenues are available to explore Old Churches: GIA publishes a downloadable study guide for the piece.  Colgrass featured it front and center in his 2004 Midwest Clinic presentation  about middle school bands: the handout is here.  Old Churches has dedicated write-ups at the Wind Repertory Project, the American Composer’s Forum, and Hal Leonard.  It was also featured in a master’s thesis (pdf download) at Kansas State University.

Iowa native Reber Clark (b. 1955) has made his name as a trumpeter, composer, and arranger in many different musical genres.  He set the traditional French Hymn of St. James for band sometime before 1998 as a pet project.  According to Clark:

Hymn of St. James is a composition for band based on the hymn, “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” from the Liturgy of St. James (4th Century) translated from Greek to English by Gerard Moultrie, 1864, which is set to a traditional 17th century French carol melody.

Over the years, many people have asked me about the origin of this work.  I was raised in the Episcopal Church and this was one of a very few hymns that fascinated me from a very early age.  The melody always haunted me and, having the opportunity to write a piece completely unfettered by money or time constraints, I decided to utilize this childhood memory.

The setting depicts the words of each verse of the hymn. The melody is played in its entirety four times and is descriptive of the hymn’s four verses.
The two-bar marimba solo at the beginning represents silence.
The first time the melody is played it is descriptive of the hymn’s first verse.  The strong tertian first statement is concrete and straightforward as the first verse is strong and firm in its faith.
The tonal ambiguity of the second statement suggest (sic) the paradoxical, mysterious poetry of the second verse: “King of kings, yet born of Mary”, “Lord of lords in human vesture”, etc.
The militaristic style of the third statement describes the “host of heaven” and at Circle 94 the cluster that fades in an A major chord coincides with the lyric: “as the darkness clears away.”
The fourth, and last , statement’s attempt at a “celestial” quality coincides with the fourths (sic) verse’s celestial descriptions.
The key of the original hymn is D minor, or possibly D aeolian, but six measures from the end a D major chord was chosen to signify the inevitability of good. Tritones, 6 before the end, question all that has come before, with a final answer given on the final D major eighth note.

Watch Peter Boonshaft and the Austin All-City Band play Hymn of St. James.  For some comic relief, listen to the audience comments as it goes on:

The choir version as sung by the choir at Kings College, Cambridge:

Read up on Clark’s band setting of Hymn of St. James at C. Alan Publications and Reber Clark’s blog  You can find out more about the original hymn at the Center for Church Music.  The version of the lyrics that Clark used are as follows:

Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
And with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly minded,
For with blessing in His hand,
Christ our God to earth descendeth,
Our full homage to demand.

King of kings, yet born of Mary,
As of old on earth He stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture,
In the body and the blood;
He will give to all the faithful
His own self for heavenly food.

Rank on rank the host of heaven
Spreads its vanguard on the way,
As the Light of light descendeth
From the realms of endless day,
That the powers of hell may vanish
As the darkness clears away.

At His feet the six wingèd seraph,
Cherubim with sleepless eye,
Veil their faces to the presence,
As with ceaseless voice they cry:
Alleluia, Alleluia
Alleluia, Lord Most High!

Reber Clark has a bio at C. Alan Publications, a website devoted to his music, and a blog which is mostly devoted to his thoughts about new movies.

Conductor Leonard Slatkin described Ron Nelson (b. 1929) thusly:  “Nelson is the quintessential American composer.  He has the ability to move between conservative and newer styles with ease.  The fact that he’s a little hard to categorize is what makes him interesting.”  This quality has helped Nelson gain wide recognition as a composer.  Nowhere are his works embraced more than in the band world, where he won the “triple crown” of composition prizes in 1993 for his Passacaglia (Homage on B-A-C-H).  An Illinois native, Nelson received his composition training at the Eastman School of Music and went on to a distinguished career on the faculty of Brown University.

Nelson himself provides a program note for Homage to Machaut, part of his 1983 Medieval Suite:

Medieval Suite was written in homage to three great masters of the Middle Ages: Leonin (middle 12th century), Perotin (c. 1155- 1200), and Machaut (c. 1300-1377). These are neither transcriptions of their works nor attempts at emulating their respective styles. Rather, the music served as a sort of launching pad for three pieces which draw on some of the stylistic characteristics of music from that period, e.g., repetition of rhythmic patterns or modes, modules of sound, proportions that produce octaves, fourths and fifths, use of Gregorian chant, syncopation, long pedal points where a sustained tone regulates melodic progression.

Homage to Machaut evokes the stately, gently syncopated and flowing sounds of this master of choral writing. The movement consists of a statement with two repetitions, each with different instrumentation. It closes with the same chant and instrumental textures which opened the suite.

Homage to Machaut was first performed March 18, 1983 at the National Conference of the College Band Directors National Association by the Western Michigan University Symphonic Band, Richard J. Suddendorf, conductor.

An unnamed band led by an unnamed conductor in a fine version of this piece:

Homage to Machaut at the Wind Repertory Project.

Ron Nelson’s website.

Ron Nelson on Wikipedia.

Guillaume de Machaut on Wikipedia.

Now for some context, an original Machaut vocal work: