Thursday, January 25, 2018

Missing links

I've written a few times before about the task of finding suitable organ postludes (and preludes) for Sunday morning services. The search is in itself a search for how it is that musical sounds can acquire meaning, and since my blog subheading promises "musings on music, the mind, meaning, and more," I might as well pause to consider what this means.

Some common ways to choose a meaningful postlude, from specific to general, are:

1. Play something based on a familiar hymn tune. Big bonus points if that hymn tune is the recessional hymn which immediately precedes the postlude. (e.g. this goes well with this.)
  • The text-based associations of the hymn will naturally make the music sound like it's about the same kind of thing. The Lutheran tradition in which J.S. Bach worked offers a seemingly endless supply of chorale-preludes like this, although there's only a limited number of Lutheran hymn tunes which show up regularly in my Episcopal church.
  • Here's one example of many postludes I've written based on a hymn tune. Blog post.
2. Play something that's motivically connected to the recessional hymn.
  • The most perfect example of this is perhaps Bach's St. Anne Fugue, which is actually not based on the famous hymn tune ST. ANNE, but it sure sounds like it is!
  • Sometimes I'll visit to see if I can find something that starts with the same few pitches as the closing hymn. This once led to a fun Sunday of all Scarlatti sonatas! (I believe it began when this search connected this spiritual with this sonata.)  
  • See also footnote below.*
3. Play something in the same key as the recessional hymn. At least it will sound kind of like there's a logical connection from one to the next.
  • As I discuss below, using a key as a signifier of meaning is kind of arbitrary, but it's a kind of arbitrary I like.
4. Play something which has motivic or other stylistic connections to music featured elsewhere in the service (such as the prelude or a choral anthem).
  • This past summer, with choir on hiatus, I had a pre-July 4th All-American prelude-offertory-communion-postlude lineup of Ives, Copland, Barber, and Beethoven's Variations on God Save the King My country 'tis of thee. I also had Sundays of all-Bach, all-Mozart, all-Scarlatti, all-Ravel, and all-Shostakovich!
5. Play something that creates an atmosphere in keeping with the end of the service, taking into account the church season, etc. This usually implies playing something festive as congregants head back out into the world, though some times of year might call for something more subdued or pensive.

6. Play something - and hope it doesn't sound too random.

~     ~     ~
So, this past Sunday I found myself somewhere between #3 and #4. It happened that the two scheduled choral anthems, by Tchaikovsky and Ippolitov-Ivanov, were both in the Russian orthodox style. I had paired the anthems more or less for that purpose, and so it occurred to me that maybe I could find a postlude to match. I also knew the recessional hymn, John L. Bell's Will you come and follow me?, was to be in a lilting F Major, so my ideal target was: Russian Orthodox in F Major.

But the truth is I don't have a large collection of organ music, and the Russians aren't really known for their organ rep, so I cast my net a bit wider. Somehow, I stumbled on the IMSLP page for Rimsky-Korsakov, perhaps remembering his famous Russian Easter Overture. I didn't find any organ music, but I did find a set of six piano fugues - fugues almost always sounds churchy to me - and, lo and behold, one of them was in F Major. It looked festive and playable, so I went ahead and scheduled it.

When it came time to prepare for church, I quickly realized what I surely already knew in my heart: this fugue doesn't sound remotely Russian Orthodox. In fact, it doesn't sound particularly Russian at all. It's actually very much in a Bach-ian style, but I do like Bach, and it turned out I really like this fugue. Here's a synth recording I made that gives you a sense of what it might sound like on an organ. (You can also hear it at the 7:20 mark of this recording.) Note that in this score, the three individual voices are notated in open score without any of the composer's dynamic markings or articulations. 

Definitely not Russian Orthodox, but in happier news, the lilting compound meter (which just means the beats divide into a triple feel) matched up surprisingly well with KELVINGROVE, the hymn tune we'd be singing right before. (KELVINGROVE is based on a Scottish folk tune which originally does not have a triple feel.)

In the end, because I enjoyed the unlikly affinity between tune and fugue, I cheated a bit and introduced the fugue with the opening motif of the hymn tune, and I also snuck in a final reference near the end. Like so:

That's right, I had the audacity to re-write one measure of Rimsky-Korsakov's little-known fugue, which is kind of a topic in itself: changing a given artwork for contextual reasons. But I'm not going to go any further defending that idea for now, other than to say that it helped the music do its job on Sunday. Obviously, as a fan of mashups and the like, I find it very gratifying to link two otherwise unrelated works to each other. This idea that everything can be connected is its own kind of search for meaning. And, as a happy accident, I came to know this delightful fugue I wouldn't otherwise have known.

As for whether grafting the hymn tune onto the fugue made the postlude more meaningful, I think that's a judgment call, but I actually do this kind of thing at least 4-5 times a year. The point isn't necessarily to make listeners consciously believe that the postlude was written to go with the hymn, but rather to establish a continuity, a sense that the one follows logically (and thus, meaningfully?) from the other. The strongest connection really comes from the shared key, and this is admittedly a pretty arbitrary signifier, especially given that there's a magic button on my organ that allows me to transpose pretty much any postlude to sound in the same key as the final hymn.

However, transposing a postlude is something I don't often do, except in some cases where the postlude is explicitly based on the closing hymn; as a general rule, I like to stick to the idea that a composition was intended for a certain key and will likely sound best there. Honestly, I'm happy to have that constraint as I look for music. I'd likely never have found my way to this particular F Major fugue if I hadn't intentionally limited myself to that key. (I wrote a few years back about how a search for a postlude in D-flat Major led to a crazy burst of creative activity inspired by a Bach fugue.)

In a lighter vein, here are a couple of other postludes in which I've played with curious ways of connecting the music to the community:
  • NFL Pachelbel - Since the home team was playing in the Super Bowl last year, I infected a Pachelbel toccata with a little NFL on Super Sunday. (Looks like I'll get to reprise it in two weeks as the Patriots are headed back to the big game!)
  • When our church was putting on an afternoon talent show based on a 50's Rock'n'Roll theme, I did this to poor Vivaldi. Read more about it here.

* Actually, after I'd written most of this post, I was looking for a postlude for this coming Sunday in which the final hymn tune is WOODLANDS. (You can hear this tune, with Wife and Daughter of MMmusing in the orchestra, at the 33:30 mark here.) As the tune begins with three A's leading to a D-A-B, I first plugged A-A-A-D-A-B into and got nothing. However, as those first three A's serve as a single pickup gesture, I then searched for A-D-A-B and realized there's a close connection to the finale theme of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 5. As I said above, I do like Bach, so on Sunday I'll be playing some sort of organ reworking (probably condensed) of that movement. I hope that means something.

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