Friday, December 08, 2006

A Christmas Project

Three years ago, something inspired me at Christmas time to begin writing a Christmas piece. I usually don’t get “into” the Christmas Holiday Spirit until Christmas Day itself, if I’m lucky, given the incessant barrage of commercialism that is commonly mistaken for Christmas these days (when someone says “don’t you wish Christmas could last all year long,” I look at them and say in my best curmudgeonly graveltones, having seen Christmas ornaments for sale in mid-September and hearing Christmas carols in the stores in mid-November, “don’t you think it does already?”). In past lives, after spending the 4th of July weekend orchestrating Christmas carols for symphony concerts and then programming WITF’s Christmas music by mid-October when the listings still appeared in the magazine – different times, now, different deadlines – I was pretty much sick of Christmas by the time Black Friday even showed up on the horizon. I still get out my Bah Humbug scarf, but this year I was wearing it a week earlier since, for all intents and purposes, the shopping season that is the equivalent of Lent had likewise begun earlier.

So last week, sorting through some papers piled up on the piano, I found the sketches I had begun that Christmas Day of 2003 and wondered what possessed me to do this and then, just as quickly, abandon it. This was not, like “The Christmas Carillon” of the mid-80s, a collection of familiar carols I’d arranged: it was my own version of what would become “The Christmas Story.” Having just seen the Waverly Consort’s medieval version of “The Christmas Story” again (at Gretna Music’s Leffler Chapel performance on Dec. 2nd), it occurred to me I should come back to this and see what I can make of it. I have been wanting to get back to writing something vocal or choral again after several years of purely instrumental and largely abstract music – the scene from Aeschylus’ The Persians not likely to materialize – and certainly, ‘tis the season. Plus, I needed to take a break from the violin and piano “Blues” piece: it was just getting to me, after a while. It’s done, mostly, but I’ll get back to it in January.

Another reason, not to be taken too lightly: my upstairs neighbors had moved out last month and the apartment is still empty. So before new tenants arrive, I have this rare opportunity for an expanse of quietude that I should take advantage of, getting some serious work done on a new piece. Even though it was inconvenient to take vacation time on short notice, I was able to work out a week off, much of which can be spent composing. I set about reacquainting myself with these three-year-old sketches.

One of the things I liked about them was the different texts and overlapping elements of the story. Given my preference for arch-forms and subdivisions according to the Golden Section, there was not much needed to convince me to consider taking this up again: there are seven sections around the central panel that would basically be a meditation on the Holy Family and the text, possibly, “Hodie Christus natus est (This day Christ is born)” – bounded by the Gloria of the Angels and the visit of the Shepherds on one side, then by the visit of the Three Kings and the scene at Herod’s Court on the other side. The Nativity scene and the Birth of Christ (“O magnum mysterium”) is balanced on the other side of the graph by the Slaying of the Innocents (reworking the same material as the lament on the death of the children, “Vox in Rama”). The opening segment for Advent, covering the Annunciation of the Archangel with its “Ave Maria” and “Magnificat” is balanced by the concluding “Nunc dimittis,” St. Simeon’s prayer when Jesus is presented at the temple (“Lord, lettest thou thy servant depart in peace”). It’s all very neat, reminding me of an icon screen in several panels, self-contained musical images of the story, complete with the narration of an Evangelist (in the old Baroque sense of the term).

If I could map out the structure with its various details, I could then “fill in the notes” at a later time, the way a painter might outline the figures and their placement in the foreground before going back to paint in the details of the background, the features of the faces, the colors of the clothes and so on. With any luck, if I can get the Advent portion done before Christmas, work on the Nativity and the Shepherd and the Holy Family’s panels ON Christmas, sketch out the Kings by Epiphany (first week of January) and then the conclusion (later in the month, perhaps), I might be able to have enough to go on to get the work done before summer, not that it might be ready to perform at Christmas 2007. On the other hand, considering I could just as easily do one segment per year – or every three years, the way it’s been going – I’m only hoping I can get it to jump off the drawing board before another decade has passed...

It’s scored for fairly light forces – so far, at least: I’m thinking primarily in terms of organ, since I’m not inclined to get into a large chorus-and-orchestra piece, here. While the Evangelist appears throughout and would ordinarily be a tenor (I’m wondering about using different voices at different segments), there are two incidental solos in this opening section: a high soprano who would sing the wordless “angel solo” that is counterpoint to the recitative describing the appearance of Gabriel to Mary; and a mezzo who then sings the Magnificat in Part 1 (I’m not sure if these solos will continue with any crucial roles in subsequent sections or not). It is primarily a work for chamber choir and so could be done in a church as part of a concert or a non-liturgical service.

The narration becomes one layer with the voice of the angel (wordless) and then the men’s voices singing a chant-like Ave Maria (the angel’s words), three layers in all. Having mapped out the text’s syllables according to the Golden Section (and not surprisingly discovered that each of the texts I’d chosen so far divide fairly well according to these natural proportions), these were then mapped onto the overall structure of the piece, placing certain points to match the individual texts’ structures and arranging them in such a way the climaxes of the Evangelist’s narration (“Behold, a virgin shall conceive”) and the first verse of the “Ave Maria” coincide on the word “Jesus” in a luminous E-flat major triad. At this point, the Magnificat (in English in the mezzo solo) begins and at the climax of the first verse, the women’s voices begin singing the second verse (in Latin), so the two overlap, each continuing under the narration. At the end of the segment, the men’s voices return with the Doxology, chanted to a progression of four triads that will include all twelve pitches before cadencing on E-flat.

While my basic language may not sound traditionally tonal (I’ve posted about this before), it will, at points, open up into standard major and minor triads, though not used in the traditional tonal ways. My “tonic” and “dominant” keys are tritone-related, so the E-flat Major of the opening is answered by the A Major of the central panel. Just as Bach or Mozart might have worked with musical symbolism, I’ve chosen these two keys for the trinity of flats or sharps in their respective key signatures: coincidentally, the birth of Jesus will occur in pure, unadulterated C Major (without sharps or flats, a kind of virgin key, if you will) like a burst of light; the death of the Holy Innocents will focus around a darker F-sharp minor (three sharps). That, basically, is my tonal scheme, before the final segment’s return to E-flat Major.

Unfortunately, it took longer than I had hoped to do what I thought might be fairly mechanical mapping. It was like each text was suddenly fluid and I could expand or contract them proportionally according to how well they might place on the framework. So many possibilities! It was like writing out the rhythms and textures of the piece before even thinking about a specific pitch, finding out how much space between this text and that text, or where this overlap should begin and what the organ might be doing here or there (thinking in terms of “gestures”).

This was finished on the third day of my vacation which has, unfortunately, turned into a kind of half-sick/half-working holiday as I try to rest my back after Thanksgiving’s move and try to get rid of the headaches that have been bothering me for the past week. It has been difficult to concentrate, even though I was only working a few hours in the morning and then a few hours again in the evening. Today, finally getting down to the last basic preparatory phase – what collection of pitches will be the basic source-set for the notes that go onto this framework? – nothing satisfactory was coming up and everything else started acting up until I found myself annoyed by, for instance, the ticking of a clock in another room, the refrigerator running out in the kitchen, the neighbor Doberman barking incessantly (honestly, he’ll bark almost constantly for 20 minutes and then take 10 minutes off, just like a union break, off and on for most of the day) and the rushing sound that is probably only the blood flowing through my head.

Looking at the notes I’d written three years ago to open the piece, they didn’t seem (pardon the pun) pregnant enough, lacking developable ideas and not creating the relationships between pitch-sets I would like to have, now. Ironically, what I had was similar to the opening chords of Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron, one of my favorite works, that magical sonority that begins the opera with the Voice of God out of the Burning Bush. By reworking my two chords, prefacing the arrival of the Archangel, I managed something closer to Schoenberg’s sonority, more by way of homage rather than plagiarism. This may have created a greater pressure than I needed because everything from here on out couldn’t measure up to the homage. Finally, I had to put the pen down and go do something else. Tomorrow is another day.

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