Thea Musgrave ‘Song of the Enchanter’: A Magical Whirlwind

Good day, readers! I am very excited to share with you a composer who I believe is absolutely fantastic – Thea Musgrave. Her surprisingly short orchestral work, Song of the Enchanter is what today’s blog is based on and my it is such a treat! I hope you’re sitting comfortably as we’re about to go on a magical musical journey into Thea Musgrave’s world.

Thea Musgrave was born in Scotland in 1928 and she began her higher education at the University of Edinburgh (her home town university). As an ever-flourishing composer, Musgrave developed her technique so much so that she earned her place at the prestigious Paris Conservatoire. She was a pupil under the absolutely fantastic, Nadia Boulanger. In her youth, Musgrave worked with some of the biggest names in the 20th Century, for example Aaron Copland. In the early 1970s she became a Guest Professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. At this point in her career, Musgrave was shaping an incredible prominence in both British and American contemporary music.

Musgrave has also won a plethora of awards and grants for her works, and also her work with gifted, young composers. 2002 saw Musgrave awarded a CBE from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth. Her works span from opera and chamber music, to large-scale symphonic works, usually based around a prominent text. She has also worked with some of the most prestigious opera companies and orchestras from around the world (most notably: New York City Opera, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Los Chamber). Breaking away from (the now ridiculous) conventions of women not composing or conducting, Musgrave did both (incredibly well) during her most active years, and because of this she has gained a lot of respect within the musical world.

In honor of her varied scores and career, which has spanned a whopping 60 years, the BBC presented Total Immersion. This event saw three concerts of Musgrave’s work performed and recorded at the Barbican in a single day (February 15, 2014). Her compositions have consistently pushed boundaries and projected a wealth of dramatic situations that are conveyed vividly through her music. She has also written a fair few concertos from instruments such as the Viola, Horn and Clarinet. Her instrumental works, and the stories behind them, certainly set her up for a colourful career in opera composition. Her works such as The Voice of Ariadne (1972) and Mary, Queen of Scots (1977) are still popular today. Musgrave is often described as one of the most exciting contemporary composers in the Western world.

Song of the Enchanter was composed in 1990 and it was commissioned by the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra. The work honoured the 125th anniversary of Jean Sibelius’ birth. The premiere of this work was on February 14th 1991 and was conducted by James Loughran. The work is strangely short, spanning out to around 5″ in total, but within this short time, Musgrave has incorporated so much. This is how the original programme note reads:

“It is based on an episode from the Kalevala, the great Finnish epic, where Väinämäinen, the hero-God, has fashioned a magical five-stringed instrument from the bones of a giant pike. Orpheus-like, he plays upon it and enchants the people. All listen and all weep, their hearts melted. Even Väinämäinen weeps and his tears ‘bigger than cranberries’ fall into the clear waters of the deep blue sea. A sea-bird dives down to retrieve his tears – they have ripened into pearls.”

Something that I find incredibly evocative and intriguing is the use of the word “Enchanter.” This word has a wealth of different connotations that it leaves the work incredibly open for subjective interpretation. As an example, my first thoughts of an enchanter is a magician-like, wise person who bears other-worldly powers. Alternatively, an enchanter could be the bearer of great beauty, charm and genius. It really is up to you about how you interpret this piece – how exciting is that?!

The work is orchestrated for:

  • 2 Flutes
  • 1 Oboe
  • 1 Cor Anglais
  • 1 Clarinet in Bb
  • 1 Bass Clarinet
  • 2 Bassoons
  • 2 Horns in F
  • 2 Trumpets in Bb
  • 3 Trombones
  • Harp
  • Pianoforte
  • Timpani
  • Percussion (suspended cymbal, vibraphone, 3x bongos, bass drum, 3x tom-toms and tam-tam)
  • String Orchestra

The work is bursting with an atmosphere that is hard to describe in words, other than it sounds pretty magical! The score is also of interest as there are some fascinating techniques that arise near the end of the work (more on those a bit later!).

The piece begins, and subsequently sustains, a swirling figure which is played by the winds. The strings at this point are quite static, and the harp plays some glissandi ever other bar. There is a prominent feeling of swelling, which is emphasised by the dynamic shifts that Musgrave has written into the score. Crescendos and decrescendos play a large part in this. A melodic framework is then built into the upper strings, which carry this for some six bars or so. The percussion and piano embellish this to create a glimmering effect on top of the rather mysterious, yet shimmering melodic cell. This idea is taken further, and varied to create a sequence of atonal(?) melodic cells.

The next section is rather interesting both to listen to and on the score. The strings take a very static position and the upper strings act as the foundation of this section. The wind and brass are all given pitches and a basic rhythmic structure. From here the it is up to the player (or perhaps conductors) digression as to what order and how often these parts are played. This creates a very unknown part of the work, where each time it is played it is going to be different. It seems that here, Musgrave has dipper her toes into ‘chance music’, which is something that Steve Reich was a pioneer of (see my last blog for more on chance music!). There is a lot of written text on the conductors score from Musgrave with instructions with how to play certain parts of this section. Underneath this chaotic score, the harp is playing constant glissandi, ranging from the top to the bottom of the strings. The notation on the score is a single wavy line, which suggests that Musgrave is intending for a constant swelling sound to support the ‘ad lib’ wind instruments.

Moving on from this section, the final part of this piece acts as a somewhat recapitulation to the first section of the work. Similar themes come back to the forefront of the work. There are, of course, some interesting variations, especially the addition of some colourful chromatic scalic runs. The ending to the work is quite abrupt and strangely placed, which adds to the running themes in the work. The enchanter’s tears have moulded into pearls and there ends the piece. One should remember some of the aspects of the story when listening to this works as it can help with some vivid interpretation.

Thea Musgrave is such a fantastically skilled composer that I heartily recommend, as her music is so very diverse. Her career has stood the test of time and at the golden age of 88, she is still active in her music making. A whirlwind of a piece in homage to great Jean Sibelius, I think he would have loved it!

“Yes, I am a woman; and I am a composer. But rarely at the same time.” (Musgrave, c.1980)

Happy Reading!

 

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Steve Reich ‘Piano Phase’: Simple Complexity

The idea for this blog came up today as I was trying to find the best music to listen to whilst trying to read for one of my MA modules. I recently have reignited my love for Steve Reich and I began listening to his work Piano Phase, which strangely got me very motivated to finish my reading. I then realised I have yet to write about Steve Reich so this is also a fantastic excuse to write about a composer I find overwhelmingly intriguing.

Steve Reich is a pioneer of a movement in contemporary music usually referred to as ‘minimalism.’ As the title suggests, minimalism is essentially art music that has minimal musical material. Reich, with other composers such as Philip Glass and John Adams, came through in the public sphere as prominent American minimalist composers. Usually with this branch of music there is a steady tempo or drone, constant harmony, and gradual progression. From this both ‘Phase Music’ and ‘Process Music’ came into fruition as full forms of music. Process Music is essentially when a work has strict rules as to how it is played (for instance Piano Phase) or it has extensive notes from the composer outlining how the work should be performed. Phase music differs slightly and is more about the addition of phases and the shifting of phases, which essentially can give you an echo effect in the music. The idea of Phase Music was made popular by Reich and his tape music. He began slowing and then speeding up the main motifs of the work to create a pattern which can then be overlapped, replicated and shadowed through the medium of other instruments, tapes or live recordings. Minimalism encompasses the simple, conventional theme and turns it into a very complex-sounding work which utilises repetition, tempo changes and conventional diatonic phrases.

Reich has had an incredibly successful career from playing a major part in the evolution of modern classical music. He has been acclaimed the “greatest living American composer living” which is a pretty big deal! He has influenced a wealth of different composers, performers and writes, including John Adams, Michael Hedges and Brian Eno. John Adams said this about Reich and his music:

“For him, pulsation and tonality were not just cultural artefacts. They were the lifeblood of the musical experience, natural laws. It was his triumph to find a way to embrace these fundamental principles and still create a music that felt genuine and new. He didn’t reinvent the wheel so much as he showed us a new way to ride” (2010).

When Reich’s minimalism phase was at its height, he composed the work aptly named Piano Phase. Composed in 1967, the piece was originally written for two pianos (or piano and a tape). This piece is a landmark in Reich’s career as it was one of his first attempts at his phasing technique. Before Piano Phase, Reich composed works such as It’s Gonna Rain which use the phasing technique. However the major difference is that these earlier compositions used a tape, so they were not necessarily performed live. Piano Phase was written with the intention to apply this phasing technique into live performance. It took Reich quite some time to show and prove that a musician can phase live with serious and intense concentration. As Reich did not have two pianos at his disposal, he recorded the foundation part on tape, and then played around the main motif on a live piano to play mostly in sync with the tape, but also slightly out so that he could begin to literally construct this composition. Before ending with the two piano composition, Reich also made a similar composition called Four Pianos which was also premiered in 1967. However, the original two piano version proved to be more effective, so that is the more famous and pursued of the two compositions.

Piano Phase can last between 15-21 minutes and it is essentially two identical lines of music, which begin playing synchronously, but soon they slowly become out of phase with one another. They become out of sync by the slight speed increase of one piano. Although the piece sounds very repetitive throughout, you can dissect this piece into three main sections. The first begins with both pianists playing a rapid twelve-note melodic figure in unison. The notes played are E F# B C# D F E C# B F# D C#. The motif is based around this semiquaver cell and is grouped 4X3 to create the pulsating feel. Once one player begins to speed up the notes begin to clash as whilst the first pianist is playing an E, the second is playing an F# and so on. This then creates a sea of different rhythmic variations of the main melodic theme. In simple terms though, this piece is essentially three simple motifs, repeated at different speeds to create the musical illusion of there being some really complex variations of the motif. Of course, playing this live would require the utmost precision and concentration. This process is repeated until it has gone full cycle and the pianos are playing in perfect unison once more.

The second section can be identified by one of the pianists fading out, leaving the first playing the original twelve note melody alone. The motif is slowly changed into an eight-note motif, which is now grouped 2X4. There is a distinct feel for this new eight note motif once the second pianist returns, and thus the phasing process begins once more, fulfilling 8 cycles. At the end of this section (measure 26), one pianist fades out, leaving the eight-note melody playing.

The third and final section of Piano Phase is perhaps the most simple in terms of the fundamental motif. There is a change in meter to 4/8, where a melody built out of four notes is created. There are only 4 pitches here (A B D E), instead of 5-7 pitches. This final section sees the last phasing process happen before the pianos return in unison at the end of the piece. It is marked on the score ad libitum for how many times the cycle is played, and on the score it says between 8-60 times.

Piano Phase is a perfect example of music as a gradual process. Reich mentions the idea of change in the process via ‘by-products’ (the variations within the phases). The superimpositions form sub-melodies which are born from echo, resonance, tempo and the subjective perception of the listener. One of the main attractions to this piece is the rhythmic ambiguity of the piece in general, as it starts off simple, and yet it grows into this incredibly intricate piece of music. It is fascinating how these patterns occur in phasing, you may have noticed that the motif is played symmetrically in the first section, which results in identical patterns. This is due to the crossover in the process, which led to this pattern occurring. As you can imagine from how difficult this work is, it is not performed live that often. Although, since its premiere in 1967, it has been famously performed in 2004 and 2016. The performance in 2016 caused quite a stir due to it being disrupted in the first few minutes by some audience members who started clapping and shouting and thus putting the ensemble off track. 

Piano Phase has also been scored for two marimbas, which the idea of one being an octave below the other in performance. After the premiere of this work, Reich went on to compose works using the same compositional techniques such as Violin Phase (1967) and Drumming (1971). I am a massive lover of Steve Reich’s music and I find his thought processes incredibly intriguing. As aforementioned, I found this piece whilst looking for the perfect study music, and this has done a good job thus far. If you’re ever in need of some ‘concentration music’ I highly recommend the works of Steve Reich, they really keep you on your toes! I hope you have enjoyed this blog and of course the piece! Soon I shall post another delight for you all to savour!

Happy Reading!

Recommended Recording:

 

Eric Whitacre ‘When David Heard’: Choral Catharsis

Hello dearest readers, it’s nice to be back! I am now in my second week of my Musicology MA and boy is the pressure on already! So sadly blogging has taken a bit of a back seat. I will try to write when I can though! I want to share a work with you today that I myself have only recently been made aware of by one of my housemates. This work, by the ever-popular choral musician and composer Eric Whitacre, has touched me in a very special way, and I have waited until the right time to write about it. So this blog is on Eric Whitacre’s incredibly beautiful work, When David Heard.

Eric Whitacre was born in Nevada, 1970 and from a young age he studied the piano intermittently. He later got into a band, where he played the synthesizer, and it was at this point that Whitacre aspired to be a rock musician. Just before going to university, it is worthy of note that Whitacre could not read music and was not formally classically trained. However, once at university (Nevada, LV) he undertook formal training and later took a degree in Music Composition. Whitacre was also an avid singer, and he claims that the first full-scale work he sang in was Mozart’s Requiem and that completely changed his life. He studied choral conducting with David Weiller and composition with the Ukrainian composer, Virko Baley. His relationship with Weiller was very strong, and his first professional setting of Go, Lovely Rose, was gifted to Weiller. Whitacre then studied for a Master’s degree at Julliard. He graduated in 1997.

After the raging success of his work for wind orchestra – Ghost Train, Whitacre pursued a full career in composition. Since this point, Whitacre has been incredibly successful. He has composed for the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus as well as working with top musicians such as Julian Lloyd Webber, The King’s Singers and The Tallis Scholars. Whitacre has also won a wealth of awards for both his conducting and his compositions. Most recently in 2016, Whitacre was appointed Artist in Residence with the LA Master Chorale. One of the biggest original projects that Whitacre has carried out was his ‘Virtual Choir’. He was inspired by a female singing one of his choral pieces, and from then he began a test run of two different choral pieces – Sleep and Lux Aurumque. These videos went viral and amazingly they included around 180 singers from over 13 different countries.

Eric Whitacre is now a household name and his success has flourished over the last decade. His style of music is recognisable and he uses slightly unconventional techniques without segregating a whole herd of people in the process. A technique that Whitacre is praised for is his use of indeterminacy (leaving the musical work to chance or to the interpreter’s free choice). This leads to music being performed in different ways, which thus can shed new light and colour onto works. Whitacre also often incorporates aleatoricism which is the process of chance in music. This technique is different to improvisation, with Stockhausen being a lead figure in aleaoric music. Throughout his compositions for different kinds of ensembles, Whitacre uses a mixture of rhythms, compound meters and unconventional chord progressions. Especially prevalent within his choral music, Whitacre’s style is known for its atmospheric and ‘sound world’ kind of style. Another aspect of his style which is prominent in most of his works is the use of pandiatonic (the use of the diatonic scale, without the limitations of functional tonality. Pandiatonic music uses diatonic notes freely in dissonance and usually incorporates unconventional chord progressions) clusters. The growth in these clusters are heard through Whitacre dividing the voices up from 4 parts to as much as 20.

When David Heard was premiered in 1999 and the work is one of Whitacre’s longer choral works, totalling about 17 minutes in duration. Interestingly, this work is based around a single line of text from the King James Bible; II Samuel, 18:33:

“When David heard that Absalom was slain he went up into his chamber over the gate and wept, my son, my son, O Absalom my son, would God I had died for thee!”

Whitacre claims that this work is the most deeply emotional and personal piece he has ever composed. The back story to this piece is ever so sad, as it was written for a dear friend who had recently lost his teenage son in a car accident. 3 months before this in 1998, Whitacre was commissioned to write a piece for Dr. Ronald Staheli’s choir, who were about to embark on a tour to Israel. There was a tradition of composers setting the text from When David Heard. The text is from the old testament and represents the grief felt from Kings who have lost their sons. Whitacre claims that Staheli was a king to him, so he decided to set this text for him. The work took around 15 months to complete, with Whitacre saying he built structures and then tore them down, and built them back up and so on. By doing this he was able to grasp the essence of what this text means to someone going through that kind of grief. This work is born from a place of pain and suffering, although it presents great beauty at the same time. Staheli conducted the premiere of the work in 1999 with his choir the Brigham Young Singers. The piece is dedicated “with love and silence” to Dr. Ronald Staheli.

 

 

Due to the nature and intentions of this piece, I am not going to walk through it. I believe this work has a level of dignity that needs to be respected. However, one section I do want to make you aware of is the textural and chordal build up from 1:20-2:33. This section is my favourite, and I am sure you’ll hear why. The build up and layering of the voices (which split into many parts at the end) is phenomenal and the repetition of the phrase “my son” is so breathtaking. Whitacre then builds up the phrase in cluster chords, which soon resolve to this heart-stopping open chord. The first time I heard this I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, I felt so emotional, even without knowing the intentions of the piece. Every time I listen to this I cry, hell I’m blubbering writing this now! The way that Whitacre creates these build ups is very clever as when the peak and climax is heard, we are completely with him and feel the consequences twofold. Whitacre then cleverly strips back all of the texture and writes a solo for tenor voice. From this point onwards the music is emphasised through dissonances and resolutions, unimaginable textures and timbres and interesting and unconventional meter changes. Honestly, this is one of the most wonderful works you will grace your ears with, I still revel in its absolute beauty.

I have only pointed out one section, but this is at no detriment to any of the other sections as it is all fantastic. The way Whitacre writes is with such tenacity and dignity that he is able to create these other-worldly soundscapes which are just breathtaking. I urge you to listen to the work in full to fully appreciate the intentions of the composer. I absolutely adore this work and I listen to it often to ease any pain I may feel. I do hope you have enjoyed this work and blog, I’d love to know your thoughts on it!

I will hopefully write another blog soon!

This blog is dedicated to the person that showed me this wonderful work – Katie Williamson. Thank you for sharing this piece with me, it is truly wonderful – just like you!

Happy Reading!

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