Friday, April 5, 2024

Preluding and Fuguing

Only a couple of days before Christmas, I mentioned using a "make myself write a fugue trick" by submitting a title for a work that did not yet exist for the Christmas Eve service leaflets. I suppose this trick works because it's very easy to commit by email to doing something, and I know that once the paper is printed, I will have successfully backed myself into a corner. It's even possible that I have done this in the past because it's easier in the moment to commit to writing something (which ultimately will take a lot of time) than it might be to find an alternative piece to play. I might be saving myself 10-20 minutes in the moment even though this will likely cost me many hours of work on the other end. Not a good interest rate, but still genuinely appealing to the true procrastinator!

Once again, after looking at this year's draft for the Easter Vigil leaflet, I knew I wanted something different for a slow/fast pair near the end of the service. The final hymn was to be We know that Christ is raised (#298 in The Hymnal 1982), sung to Charles V. Stanford's stirring tune ENGELBERG. So, before I even gave it much thought, I was signing on the dotted line to play a Prelude on Engelberg and a bit later a Fugue on Engelberg. All that was left was....well, the hard part of manufacturing notes.

I'm actually not going to go into too much more detail here about these new pieces and am choosing not even to reveal much of the scores, in part because both feel a little unfinished, even though I think they served their purposes well. (The prelude was needed during a quiet time before the final hymn; the fugue immediately followed that hymn.) However, I thought it was worth pointing out a cool trick I stumbled on (or did I?) for writing the prelude. 

First of all, ENGELBERG is a really outstanding tune, very singable and featuring climactic Alleluias at the end of each verse. I actually think a historical disadvantage this tune has is that it is perhaps used too often with too many different texts. It apparently appears six times in the 1904 edition of Hymns Ancient and Modern, and it appears three times in The Hymnal 1982. This can make it seem a bit generic when matched up against another famous stirring tune which also begins after a strong downbeat and also ends each verse with Alleluias, but which is very strongly associated with only one text. Still, it's a good sing:

I improvise quietly around hymn tunes pretty regularly, and though I would like to be much better at this, I felt pretty confident I could devise a simple plan for a nice, quiet, reflective prelude. I was sitting at the organ to see what I might come up with, and within just a few seconds, a little noodling had given me the idea that the first fifteen notes of the melody could be sped up into an ostinato pattern. (An ostinato is basically a musical figure which is designed to be repeated many times, "obstinately" one might say - at least in this case!) Here is the opening of the tune and then the ostinato figure it generates:

To be honest, there's not much more to this prelude, as I just added a simple ascending pedal line to the bass part and kept both repeating (with occasional variation) while a middle voice slowly works its way through the tune. It is quite repetitive, but it is designed more for quiet liturgical function than concert use, so I'm OK with that.

[Quick Confession Time: Although I do take some credit for devising this ostinato structure, I had remembered in writing this post that I had once looked at a large-scale organ Fantasia which Stanford wrote based on this tune. I think I even faked my way through parts of it before. In looking it up now, I only now remembered that Stanford, after introducing the tune in quarter notes in the pedal, immediately adds an improvisatory sixteenth note figure for the hands which certainly anticipates what I ended up doing, though he doesn't quote the tune as explicitly. It is somewhat likely that my subconscious memory of this passage helped to "inspire" my approach.]

The fugue is a pretty straightforward three-voice affair with quite a few modulations in a short time. The fugue subject uses only the first ten notes of the tune, although the closing Alleluias are referenced in the flexible countersubject material. [Fugue begins at about 3:05.]

Hopefully at some point I will post more polished versions of both, but here's what we have for now. Happy Easter!

P.S. And, of course, let's add this to the list: MM Hymn Fugues - YouTube

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