Dealing with Randall Thompson’s Choral Music

“Thompson has been largely dismissed in academic circles as an amateurs’ composer, but this categorization belies the technical challenges present in many of his works. Detractors have cited the popular directness of such works as Frostiana and the sentimentality and jingoism of The Testament of Freedom, but these are not characteristic of his style in general. Notwithstanding such criticisms, his choral music has been more widely performed than that of any other American composer up to his time; in 1968 the Alleluia was the best-selling choral work in the USA.” —Fredric Woodbridge Wilson (From Grove)

Randall Thompson, in his 1946 inaugural address at Princeton, wrote that “a composer’s first responsibility is, and always will be, to write music that will reach and move the hearts of his listeners in his own day.” A nationalist, he was an advocate for fostering a non-European American musical sound. He insisted that composers find inspiration in “our own genuine musical heritage in its every manifestation.” His second symphony certainly displays this attention to tunes reminiscent of the United States. That work sounds like a mix of musical ideas from Chadwick, Dvořák, and Still. His extremely obscure early piano sonata employs a healthy amount of chromaticism. Despite the mastery of his instrumental music, his often less interesting choral music is quite popular. Some of his earlier choral works, however, like the Odes of Horace, are actually interesting and worth some study, in addition to being beautiful. Continue reading Dealing with Randall Thompson’s Choral Music

C. S. Lewis on Beauty

“The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing, for they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”

—C. S. Lewis, from The Weight of Glory

I love this explanation, even after reading it several times. The more we get stuck in the notes and the how of music, the more likely it is for us to forget the power of music. Music’s power is not in its notes, but in what the music suggests about our nature, which we cannot really understand using language. Music gets us that much closer, but not because of it itself, but because of something much more ineffable than it.

Monteverdi Bass Part Book

This season, BREVE is doing a concert of Monteverdi’s music, including both sacred and secular music. Since we are doing Monteverdi, the music is rather available online, particularly in the original part book formats. I was originally reading straight from the old part books, but getting tired of the crude printing, I opted to draw out all of the music in Illustrator.

The final product is something quite nice.

The entire hour of music for me is only eight pages, or four sheets of paper. I used the original large block initials for each part and had Illustrator auto-trace them into cleaner vector images. I also replicated as exactly as possible all of the spelling conventions and abbreviations, including ampersands, m/n tildes, and long s’s. All of them are copied exactly from part books except for Cantate Domino, which I could not find anywhere online, so I just converted it from a modern edition.

This is the first time I have typeset an entire concert folder into this system of notation. To me, it is not only much more elegant, but also more enjoyable. I feel a kind of intimacy with the music that I didn’t have when reading it from a score or from round notes. Having no bar lines also helps a lot with text stress, like in the “Confregit” section of the Dixit Dominus. Reading it with the added bar lines in a modern edition will tempt singers to sing “CON-fre-GIT re-GES” instead of “con-FRE-git RE-ges.” This book is satisfying to sing through.

Cornelis Boscoop’s “O God wilt myn salveren”

The extraordinarily obscure Dutch composer Cornelis Boscoop wrote some lovely music that I haven’t heard sung or recorded. In a search for some nice old Dutch language choral music, I ran into this figure on IMSLP, which has surprisingly made available both a set of part books and a nineteenth-century score transcription of his fifty psalms (1562). I couldn’t find a recording of this anywhere, so I entered the first song into Finale to hear it. It is a setting of Psalm 68 (modernly Psalm 69 it seems), called in an older Dutch, “O God wilt myn salveren.” Here is the Finale playback file from that. Feel free to follow along in this score.

The music is actually quite lovely to have been so strongly forgotten. Boscoop was a predecessor to Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck at his church, the Oudekerk in Amsterdam.

The words are thus:

O God wilt myn salveren,
het water compt my aen,
het liden wil my deren,
heel laten te gronde gaen.

Seer diep bin ick gesoncken,
verdruckt van een tempeest,
ick riep, myn worden cloncken,
als ick was seer bevreest.