Click here to see the conference booklet, and read the keynote speech below.
To speak, to sing, to play
I’m an organist, but when I play, I’m a storyteller.
Sound tells a story.
I recently had to slow down due to an extended illness. My physical energy was depleted, but my imagination was in high gear. I began to go to art museums to see one painting. Or two. The limited physical activity was a necessity, but I found that when I left the museum, the painting(s) stayed with me. The more I sat, the more the paintings said to me. It was quite remarkable.
I’ll tell you about two such paintings. During the time of my illness, I went to visit a Winslow Homer exhibit at the Clark Art Museum in Williamstown, Massachusetts. I sat in front of a piece that was familiar to me, Perils of the Sea. I remembered seeing a part of this particular painting in a music textbook from many years ago. It told of a painting within a painting, sort of like a concerto grosso. At least, I think it was a music textbook. I only know that my memory kicked in and I crossed a bridge toward my younger self who liked the study of rain hats. I sat in one place because I didn’t have the energy to walk around.
Perils of the Sea was painted in 1881 when Homer lived in the village of Cullercoats near Tynemouth on the Northeast coast of England on the North Sea. In 1864 the Tynemouth Volunteer Life Brigade (TVLB) was formed. These volunteers exist to this day. You can follow them on Twitter. They average about 120 calls per year and work with emergency services. There is a museum in Tynemouth dedicated to the lifesaving history of TVLB, along with artifacts and so forth. But in 1881 Winslow Homer captured these volunteers in an image he created using watercolor over graphite on cream wove paper. These simple materials were used by Homer and others such as John Singer Sargent and Edward Hopper. I’ve always been drawn to this painting process because the smooth and rough surfaces of paper, graphite lines and shapes and the ephemeral qualities of watercolor are such an expressive intersection. I sat for about forty-five minutes in front of Perils of the Sea and observed the gray water churning and tossing. I saw a mute sky above an indistinct horizon that told of a storm not ready to give up its performance any time soon. The famous picture within the picture showed the rain-slicked hats of the volunteers negotiating a rescue plan. Between the uprights and crossbeams of a wooden fence at the pier five volunteers stand together, the leader gesturing to an unseen target.
Above the coastline in front of the wooden fence, two women stand in profile. One of their faces is unclear, but the other has sharp features and a frightened gaze. Both postures are anxious. The central figure has a coat hastily thrown over her red hair. She holds the coat over her head by grasping the lapels. The sleeves of the coat dangle uselessly. Why isn’t she wearing the coat? Why has she thrown it over her head? Her apron is flying in the wind. She obviously left her home in haste. Her dark eyes are searching for something beyond the edge of the picture.
I continued to stare at the painting when the color started to speak. I saw three tiny dots of red peeking from under the jacket covering the central women. I looked closer. They were indeed there; scarlet buttons on a vibrant blouse. The blouse can be seen in a reproduction, but the tiny dots cannot. There was a present tense dynamic that happened because I was in front of the original piece itself. The three dots signaled a back story which came flooding in to my mind. I imagined a frenzied dance in a kitchen between two lovers. In the painting she clutches the jacket, her lover’s jacket, which in turn embraces her with empty sleeves. He is there but not there.
While learning Libby Larsen’s Aspects of Glory I spent as much time listening to it speak to me as I spent physically practicing the piece. The first movement Wuldor had a story that needed to be uncovered before it could be told.
“Now we must praise the Guardian of the kingdom of heaven, the might of the creator and his purpose of mind, the work of the father of glory, as he, the eternal Lord established the beginning of every wonder.” -Caedmon’s Hymn
Wuldor is the Old English word that eventually became our word for “glory.” Libby Larsen quotes the Caedmon Hymn under the title on the opening page of the piece. It speaks of praise for the “Guardian of heaven.” Caedmon himself was apparently an illiterate sheep-herder who was despondent after not being able to contribute a song at a gathering. That night the poem came to him in a dream which he later recited to others who wrote it down. It is a work of praise.
The opening chords stand in contrast to the pale, fleeting two notes of c major on the first beat of m. 4. The opening chords exchange A and A flat, with tritones in the right hand and D Flat major and d minor chords in the left. The suspension; D-F, D-E, C-E is the quiet three-step secret after the opening chords and the loud/soft contrast.
- “Praise God” Two monumental chords break the silence to open the piece, the second chord being twice as long as the first as if saying “Praise God”.
- “from whom” A quiet third chord sounds after which the modest C-E chord reveals itself
- “all bless-ings” Three ascending six-voice chords
- “flow” A restatement of the opening chord at m. 5
Did I hear the Doxology?
Well, yes and no. In between the chord pillars in Wuldor are flying and plunging sevenths, tritones and semitones. The chords teeter above the staff (“Praise God”), then drop a fifth before plunging down the canyon wall of a seventh at m. 3(“from whom”). At the bottom of this chasm there is a slur indication, a kind of musical rope to climb back up to the familiar A-E Flat tritone at m. 5(“all blessings flow”). You don’t exactly hum the tune in the loud bits of this movement.
Instead, the words come in on a bridge called Old Hundredth.
Many Protestant churches sing the words of the Doxology (“Praise God from whom all blessings flow”) to the psalm tune Old Hundredth. In Wuldor the recognizable part of Old Hundredth doesn’t come up until m. 27 on the softest sounds on the organ. We have to get through the crashes at the beginning first. There are a few chords that act sort of like an introduction before the tune arrives in long notes. The tune is really there, but in a clever long note disguise. Old Hundredth is the bridge that brings the shapes of the opening to life. Up through the end of m. 26 Wuldor almost speaks the words to the Doxology. Really. I didn’t understand the whiplash of the opening until I started to speak the words. “Praise G O D from whom all blessings flow.” When Old Hundredth comes in at the end of m. 26 I hear it as the first of two mystical quotes. But the first mystical quote is interrupted by the agitated return of sevenths and semitones. The second mystical quote is softer with the tune in the middle. Mystical turns to mystery. The tune goes underground. I spent a long time searching for the tune and its shapes.
In Perils of the Sea the volunteers inhabit the painting within the painting. They are conversing about the job they are about to do. The women on the other hand are doing something entirely different. They don’t speak since the third member of their party is only represented by an empty jacket. The jacket does not belong to the woman, but was the thing she grabbed when she left her home to protect her from the storm. The jacket holds the shape of the owner. The owner is present and not present at the same time. The volunteers discuss a strategy, but the relationship of the woman and her absent lover are at the center of this painting. She clutches the lapels, but the sleeves of the jacket have embraced the woman many times. Around both groups is a powerful storm that brings them together. Both groups are searching for something, but their searches take on different shapes.
The part of Wuldor that has always fascinated me is the trio at m. 49 which begins when the second mystical quote bows out. I began to understand what was going on at m. 49 when I saw that the words to the Doxology themselves were the source of the material. The jagged eighths and sixteenths say “Praise God from whom all blessings flow” in the hands and feet. (no small task for the organist) The praise here is on the move, especially the F – F# in an upper voice at mm. 59-60. Then the pedal comes marching in. The trio returns. This section keeps moving on. “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.”
And then, as if from a distance, parts of the tune crown the “Praise God” chords that appear as a single voice at m. 83 and again at m. 85. The mystical quote grows up as the tune integrates itself into the big shape of the piece. The integration is kind of a lull in the storm before the next march.
The march of glory and the jagged trio combine as Old Hundredth shouts in m. 97 with “Praise God” chords. Playing B Flat to B at that moment is a move for the record books. It is just all out breathtaking to play those two chords. It moves again (“Praise God….from whom……all bless-ings…”). And then without warning, the ancient chant Veni creator spiritus sings on the softest sounds on the organ and is answered by a quote from Old Hundredth before Veni creator sings again.
All through Wuldor power and strength is built on the twin “Praise God” chords. They stand as their rocks and crags are illustrated by deep plunges and daring climbs. As I play I march on those chords, I climb them, I fly from them as the piece moves forward. But within that strength the sinews of the tunes connect those chords. They begin as quiet tunes on sweet sounds, a place to take a breath. The strength is felt from both near and far, from the highest to the most inward of voices. The crashing chords and sweet tunes are a picture within a picture in a dynamic relationship of praise and glory.
- My Home in Glory
Oh! Glory, Oh! Glory, Oh! Glory,
There’s room enough in Paradise
To have a home in Glory!
As much as Wuldor speaks, My Home in Glory sings. The old tune appears six times and tells of earth and heaven. The tune growls and croons. A dreamy, distant, expressive solo at the beginning descends to turbulent middle voices which mix with scales, arpeggios and choral textures before dropping them all in favor of a reprise of the opening solo. The tonal center moves from C to C#. The “Praise God” chords are softened to “Glor-y” and played on the flutes, sometimes as trills. I personally love to sing and in this movement I can be an alto, a tenor or a bass as well as soprano.
The red hair, the vibrant blouse and scarlet buttons in Perils of the Sea tell the story of a relationship. In six appearances, using six different textures and tonal colors, the tune in My Home in Glory sings about the highs and lows of a relationship as well. At the start is a solo in the soprano, then one in the bass. There is a thick texture, then high clusters followed by low arpeggios and double pedal. In every appearance of the tune the organist sings new words with new colors. In addition to being sopranos, altos, tenors and basses, the organist plays all the textures of the orchestra in one movement.
I feel kinda close to heaven when I play the third variation at m. 51. The tune sits on top of open clusters. I can just sit there and sing. Then the “Glor-y” trills arrive again in the alto before the tune starts its slide to earth in the fourth variation. Playing the scale slide down to low C is like being on the playground.
Eighth note chords in fourths are the sinewy links that connect all the parts of this movement. They snake along, moving and stretching. In the fourth variation the eighth notes move around like a merry-go-round. The texture is thick with double pedal. There is a lot of air moving through the instrument. On top of it all the tune sings with the wind in her hair.
At the end of the movement the chords are dropped in favor of a single, pensive alto voice. The eighth notes move around again, but slower and accompanied by repeated middle Cs on the Principal 8’ in the pedal.
To the glory of God!
Wuldor speaks, My Home in Glory sings, but Tambourines is a one-woman band.
The main tools are two rhythmic figures:
Tambourines = quarter note, eighth note quarter note (T theme)
Glory of God = three eighth notes followed by a dotted quarter (GOG theme)
The tools are accompanied by the following: eighth note arpeggios, chords, staccato and legato articulations, even and odd meters with a common eighth note and dynamic contrast. This movement jangles like that one-woman band crossing the street. Wherever she goes a party follows.
After the introduction the staccato 5/8 T theme appears in the pedal before it travels to the soprano. The legato GOG theme cascades down the manuals and pedals in 6/8. Following the first appearance of T and GOG eleven events expand both of these as they appear forward, backward and upside down. This movement clatters and clangs.
The simple tools in this movement are in constant motion. Sound is the principal goal here and lots of it. It is a playground for the instrument and the player. When you think of it, the organ setup is kind of like a one-woman band with everything in arm’s reach. Audiences want to watch organists reach, twist, push buttons and change manuals really fast. Libby Larsen took that one step further. She added a Langston Hughes poem and came up with a raucous Tambourines!
Embertides by Hilary Tann
John Singer Sargent used transparent and opaque watercolor over graphite on paper in his 1910 painting La Biancheria (The Washing). In this painting green grass and yellow leaves on untamed foliage surround laundry hanging on several clotheslines and bushes creating shapes and lines. Parts of the painting actually have no paint. Instead, the sheets and linens are not painted themselves but are shaped by the surrounding color. Each piece of laundry has a different surface. Color encircles the laundry. The laundry encircles the shapes within. There are no figures in this painting, but the painting is full of inviting embraces. The laundry was put there by human hands that are not present at the moment of the painting. However, this laundry will be used again after it has been warmed and dried by the sun. There is an expectation for the future in this image.
Hilary Tann’s Embertides invites us to inhabit, to wear Veni sancte spiritus, the 11th century plainsong sequence for Pentecost. We circle round the seasons of the year and the liturgical days associated with them: Advent (Winter), Lenten (Spring), Whit (Summer) and Michaelmas (Autumn). Parts of the chant are quoted in each section. By the end of Michaelmas (Autumn) we have heard from each part of the sequence. The chant itself embraces all the movements while the hymns within give an individual shape to each. Instead of giving us the chant to hear once again, in Embertides Hilary Tann gives us the chant to wear as we move from season to season.
In the first movement, Advent (Winter), Veni Emmanual of the great “O” antiphons for Advent, is paired with the second phrase of Veni sancte spiritus. “Ven-i” is set to the first two notes of the piece, then repeated and repeated again as an invitation. When I first heard Advent performed, I almost literally heard the piece sing “Come In.” (“Ven-i”) The short quote from Veni sancte spiritus speaks of the “radiance of your light.” The end of the quote is folded into the “Veni” figure from the beginning. This same embrace happens twice more, once with another quote from Veni Emmanual” and at the end of the piece with a sub-octave. There is figural counterpoint that puts the small range of the “Veni” figure against large seventh leaps and cascading thirds. The “Veni” figure is expanded to half notes spread over two measures to imitate bells that urge us to “Come in.”
In Lenten (Spring) there is a restlessness that doesn’t cease until the very end of the piece. The opening gives us a four-note ascending figure whose tonality is immediately altered by the four-note figure following in the left hand. The chant tune quotation from Veni sancte spiritus is longer than the quotation heard in Advent and has a larger range. This quote has an E octave compass. The last quotation heard at the end of the movement is much the same as the first, except that it appears down one step, in D. In between these long chant quotations, shorter quotes are melodically expanded, changed, altered, interrupted. They’re restless. The hymn tune, Old Hundredth (Praise God from whom all blessings flow) is present, but the phrase of the hymn in its entirety appears only in inner voices. The phrase is there and not there. In the shapes of the washing in John Singer Sargent’s painting the absence of paint is just as dynamic as the colored surfaces. The absence of the recognizable hymn tune in the soprano allows the tune to shape rather than lead Lenten. The shapes themselves are joined in lively counterpoint. Thematic scales rain down from every voice. Scales that change enharmonically in counterpoint with lithe arpeggios are all harbingers of spring. They enact the text from Veni sancte spiritus which speaks of the “Greatest comforter, sweet guest of the soul.” The piece ultimately ends on an open D chord crowned with a quick D/E Flat/D flourish.
The breathlessness of Lenten slows to reflect the heaviness of mature crops in Whit (Summer). In Whit the music wants to stay where it is, to invite the listener to sit awhile in the midst of its aural embrace. In La Biancheria the color embraces the subject which in turn embraces a multi-faceted interior. The interior is largely absent from view. Anything could be there. Whit begins as a unison A is followed by three, four, five and six-voice chords moving in contrary motion in the hands before resting on a six-voice open chord to allow the tune to come in on a 4’ stop in the pedal. The contrary motion opens the arms of this piece as we move deeper and deeper into the harmony. The tune appears with the third part of the phrase first (“of your faithful”) followed by the second (“fill the inmost heart”). The first part of the phrase (“O most blessed light”) is the last to appear. The tune twists in the breeze to let us experience it in different ways. This first phrase of the chant moves in winsome imitation from the soprano to the alto to the lowest voice of the texture. It is such a beautiful moment and so satisfying to play. It is a summer breeze in music. The tune and the accompaniment move organically from unison A. The light descends to us and we receive the light with open arms. Then we’re back to the “veni” figure from Advent before moving again in contrary motion, adding stops and moving toward a faster tempo to a quote from Come, Holy Ghost (by John Henry Hopkins). The tempo slows and the original registration returns in a gesture of gratitude. The chant appears with the phrases intact (“Without your grace there is nothing in us, nothing that is not harmful”). The hymn returns (“Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire”). The final descents in the lower two voices move away to reveal the unison A from the beginning.
The final movement, Michaelmas (Autumn) is harvest and dance, harvest and dance, harvest and dance. 5/8 moves to 3/8 and back again before the hymn tune Picardy is heard on a warm registration (“Christ our God to earth descendeth”). We dance again, Picardy interrupts, we repeat the alternation three times with shorter and shorter phrases until the bells from Advent ring. The upward seventh from that first movement is now crowned with another third before the bells ring once more. Veni sancte spiritus is played on a cornet registration beginning on F# (“Cleanse that which is unclean, water that which is dry” followed by “the sevenfold gifts” and “Alleluia”). The dance/hymn alternation begins yet again followed by the sequence quotation beginning this time on B. The final hymn quote (“Our full homage”) is somber and expressive. We take up the dance for the final time, the bells ring and the movement ends with a final “Alleluia!”
My illness forced me to stop, look and listen to things that were passing me by. Listening to paintings, and I do mean listening, gave me a chance to hear what they were saying. When I sat with Embertides, Hilary Tann helped me see, and I do mean see, the many surfaces of an ancient chant by surrounding it with hymns, bells, dances, breath. John Singer Sargent took something as lowly as laundry, surrounded it with color and line to create shapes that will come to life when the pieces are taken down, worn and used. Ordinary things become extraordinary when we stop, look and listen.