Thursday, December 17, 2015

Fugue in Royal David's City

I've mentioned again and again that I tend to be most interested in composing when I'm building on something familiar. I need to get over this, because I think it's less about an inability to create good melodies and more about lazily taking advantage of the cachet that an existing melody carries. I don't just mean that I don't think listeners will believe in my tunes; it's more that I don't believe in them myself until I've lived with them for a while. (As I've often remarked, the world of classical music trades on this kind of cachet all the time. The famous tune of Beethoven's 9th is about as undistinguished as can be, but we don't tend to hear it that way because it carries so many strong associations from within and without.)

Perhaps getting over this hangup would make a good New Year's Resolution, but for now, I continue to find inspiration in Erica Sipes' ongoing musical advent series (see yesterday's post), in which she plays piano settings of well-known Christmas tunes. I was thinking it would be fun to try my hand at such a setting, but I'm also old-fashioned, so I decided to make it a fugue. I find the fuguing process to be fascinating because, though there are some very standard signposts to hit, the form invites the subject to find its own path - which is another way of saying, I didn't expect this to come out at all like it did.

The subject is based on the very Anglican "Once in Royal David's City," which is the traditional opener in the legendary King's College Lessons & Carols service. Honestly, I used to think of this as a pretty dull melody, but I've heard and sung to Nathan Skinner's inspiring orchestration at the Park Street Church Lessons & Carols for many years, and it has grown on me, especially the way in which Nathan harmonizes the downbeat of the final verse as a I 6/4 chord instead of the standard I, creating a wonderful sense of forward momentum. (You can hear the interlude leading into the final verse starting around 7:00 of this video from last Sunday evening. Wife of MMmusing is sitting first chair cello, Daughter of MMmusing is playing in the first violin section, and I'm standing there singing in the congregation - but I won't say where. The interlude also features a series of imitative entries, which suggest a fugal texture.)

Though my little fugue (started and finished on the same day) begins fairly properly, I do indulge in some parallel fifths and unprepared modulations along the way because...well, fugues are really about freedom, not rules. I wish my piano was better tuned here (perhaps yesterday's Beethoven banging didn't help), but I'm still pleased with the outcome:

2017 UPDATE: New recording with [virtual] organ.

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