By Brenda Portman
FANFARE-TOCCATA ON “WACHET AUF, RUFT UNS DIE STIMME” – BRENDA PORTMAN
Composed in 2021, this setting of a well-known Advent chorale was premiered in December 2022 by Carolyn Craig at Christ Church in New Haven, CT, and was also featured on the Amplify Female Composers Advent Calendar Project. It combines a bold fanfare opening with a pedal solo section and then a virtuosic toccata, in which you might also hear another tune that is commonly associated with Advent if you are listening closely.
WIE SCHÖN LEUCHT’ UNS DER MORGENSTERN – SAMUEL SCHEIDT
Samuel Scheidt was one of the earliest significant German composers for the organ. He studied with Sweelinck in Amsterdam and spent most of his life in Halle, Germany. He is most known today for his Tabulatura nova (1624), a three-part collection of organ works, whose publication was an important event in the history of organ music because it used a new, Italian-style keyboard tablature (i.e. staff notation) as opposed to the older German style of alphabetical tablature.
The eight-part variation cycle Wie schön leucht’ uns der Morgenstern (theme + seven variations) was not found this collection but rather in a single manuscript from Leipzig dating to around 1646. Its form and scope are similar to the chorale variations found in Tabulatura nova, and it would have been a logical addition to the collection had it been written by that time. Scheidt’s mastery of counterpoint is evident, and each variation is a little more elaborate than the one before, making use of a variety of tone colors on the organ. The chorale melody is slightly different than the one we know today, but it is close enough to be recognizable.
WIND + UNWIND – AD WAMMES
Ad Wammes is a Dutch composer with an eclectic background. He has studied piano, composition, and electronic music, played keyboards for the symphonic rock group Finch, composed music for 5 Sesame Street albums and 35 serials on Dutch television, and now concentrates more on concert music. His organ solo piece Miroir (1989) brought an international breakthrough and has been played by organists all over the world.
Composed in 2016 in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Piet van der Steen as organist at St. Gertrude’s Cathedral in Utrecht, The Netherlands, Wind + Unwind explores the concept of a gradual rhythmic “wind-up” at the beginning of the piece and “wind-down” at the end, with many unique, energetic, and toe-tapping rhythms in between. The concept extends not only to the tempo but to the texture as well: it is built in rhythmic layers, beginning with one and increasing until there is one layer for each foot and at least one per hand, resulting in a complexity that is daunting to the performer, yet very enjoyable for both the performer and the listener.
FOUR SHORT PIECES – RACHEL LAURIN
Intermezzo: This is the second movement of the Sonata in F, Op. 7, composed in 1985. Laurin considers the five-movement sonata mostly as a training work, and although the entire score would have needed a huge revision in order to become available, she has always kept a sentimental attachment to this specific movement. The whole Sonata was premiered by Jacques Lacombe (at that time a young prodigy of the organ, now a great internationally-renowned conductor) in 1985, during the summer series at St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal. Dedicated to “Mon cher Maître Raymond Daveluy,” it was written in gratitude for all that she owes to this great Canadian master of the organ and composition, and the generous gift of his time and expertise during her student years and beyond.
Chromatic Fugue on a Well-Known Theme: This fugue comes from a set of three chromatic fugues, commissioned by Earl Clark and composed between 2013 and 2014. In her fugue writing, Laurin had the expressed intent of proving that she could take just about any theme and turn it into a fugue, and that it could be a “fun and creative challenge” instead of a burden. In this example, the fugue subject is a surprising choice, yet immediately recognizable from organ literature, and it certainly does seem to achieve her fugue-writing goals.
Berceuse à Pierre: Composed in 2011 for Laurin’s godson Pierre Leduc, the main theme of this lullaby follows the rhythmic element of the traditional French text “Dodo, l’enfant do, l’enfant dormira bien vite….” It was premiered by the composer at the baptism of Pierre, October 8, 2011, in Montreal.
Omaggio Festivo: When St. Stephen’s Lutheran Church in White Bear Lake, MN invited Laurin to write a “charming and celebratory piece” to honor the twenty-five-year tenure of their organist, Cindy Bittner, she inquired about Cindy’s musical experience and personal tastes. She was informed that one of her favorite choral works was Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Mass in G Minor and therefore decided to quote freely from the very first notes of the Kyrie. The “Omaggio Festivo” (a festive tribute) is in rondo form, consisting of a recurring refrain alternating with verses. The refrain is written as a majestic chorale whereas the following verses provide contrasts with their toccata-like character. The three verses may suggest to the listener three different stages of life: the first one illustrates the lightness and recklessness of the early years of one’s profession; the second one describes the busiest period of life with its hectic race against time that passes by so quickly. Finally, the third one – a little fugato based on the opening motivic material – illustrates the period of maturity, still full of energy, but more organized. This third verse, through its rhythm of a jig, provides a new energetic drive to the last statement of the refrain where the majestic chorale is infused with the spirit of a dance. The ascending chords of the coda might also represent the coming years with exciting challenges and new heights that remain to be reached and explored.
REVERIE – WILLIAM GRANT STILL
William Grant Still (1895-1978) has often been referred to as the “Dean of Afro-American Composers.” He was the first African-American to conduct a major American symphony orchestra, the first to have a symphony performed by a major orchestra, the first to have an opera performed by a major opera company, and the first to have an opera performed on national television. As a teen he showed great interest in music, taking violin lessons and teaching himself to play the oboe, clarinet, saxophone, double bass, cello, and viola. He went on to study at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and composed almost 200 works, including nine operas, five symphonies, four ballets, over 30 choral works, and many art songs, chamber music, and works for solo instruments.
Reverie is hauntingly beautiful, with a sense of melancholy and longing, and it is a wonderful opportunity to explore the color palette of the organ. It was composed in 1962 and premiered by Robert Pritchard at Pasadena Presbyterian Church in Pasadena, California.
EKKLESIA: SEVEN BIBLICAL TONE POEMS FOR SOLO ORGAN – BRENDA PORTMAN
Commissioned by Martin Ellis of Portland, Oregon, Ekklesia (2021) was the result of a request for a piece of music that would respond to the Covid-19 pandemic and provide a way forward from the anxieties, frustrations, and uncertainties experienced by friends and colleagues in the world of church music (but of course not limited to just church musicians).
Ekklesia is a term that encompasses the community of all believers in Christ – that is, all denominations, all languages, all nationalities – who are called to represent the kingdom of God and to be a light in the darkness of this world. This cycle of short tone poems for solo organ is based on seven Scriptures that reveal clues about the true identity and purpose of the Ekklesia, providing meaning and direction in the midst of the challenges that we face. In a world filled with pain and suffering, we must look to Christ, our Hope, for the anointing to bring restoration where there has been devastation, beauty where there were ashes, and gladness where there was mourning. (Isaiah 61).
Three hymn/chant melodies are used, in II (VENI EMMANUEL: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel), III and VII (THE CALL: Come, My Way, My Truth, My Life), and IV (VENI CREATOR SPIRITUS: Come, Holy Ghost, Our Souls Inspire). These three are linked in that each is a prayer inviting God to come and bring redemption, peace, restoration, light, love, joy, strength, grace, anointing: ultimately, all that leads to abundant life. The rest of the musical material is original, intended to illuminate the corresponding Scriptures.
I. “…but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.” (Isaiah 40:31)
Beginning quietly and somewhat mysteriously, the concept of “hope” is expressed through sixteenth note figures played on 8’ stops, seeming to bubble up gently from the ground and never gaining too much intensity. The “renewal of strength” is signified by the chorale-like section in the middle, which grows slightly into a cautious sense of triumph before subsiding into the sixteenth notes again, leaving us with hope and anticipation.
II. “They will be called oaks of righteousness, planted by the Lord, so that he may be glorified.” (Isaiah 61:3b)
A strong, sturdy theme opens the piece, depicting the people of God as foreseen in Isaiah 61. The prophet declares that after they experience healing and restoration, they will be able to stand firm as “oaks of righteousness” that will bring glory to God. An oak tree reaches high into the sky but also has deep roots so that it cannot be easily moved; likewise a person who has been healed and restored by God is like the man in Matthew 7:24-25, who built his house (life) on the rock (Christ) and is able to withstand the trials and temptations of this life because his foundation is firm.
The middle section employs the tune VENI EMMANUEL, in reference especially to the first verse: “O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appears.” The people of Israel were scattered and exiled, and yet Isaiah decreed that they will be restored and once again rejoice because of their Savior. The prophetic parallels for the times we are living in today are not difficult to see.
III. “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32)
The beauty of truth is illustrated by lush string stops, and a solo registration of flutes 8’ & 2 2/3’ illustrates the clarity of mind that truth brings. Undulating chords on the string stops alternate with embellished phrases of THE CALL on the solo registration. Throughout most of the piece, a “D” can be heard as an anchor for the harmony, but also for the idea of being held in bondage by sin or deception. At the end of the piece, the “D” is liberated and there occurs something like a takeoff into the sky, rising in every feature of the music: pitch level, dynamic level, and tempo, representing the freedom that comes through knowing the truth, which can be found in the Word of God.
IV. “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” (Luke 3:16b)
When the Holy Spirit came on the disciples in the form of tongues of fire on their heads in the book of Acts, they were empowered with boldness to preach the Gospel, and they were endowed with spiritual gifts, one of which was the ability to speak in tongues (other languages) so that the Gospel message would not be limited in its reception. This piece is fiery and unpredictable like the Holy Spirit, and bold like the gifts of the Spirit. The chant VENI CREATOR SPIRITUS can be heard in the pedal, a prayer of invitation undergirding the wildness of the toccata-like figurations. God invites us today to be consumed with his holy fire and to welcome the Spirit into our lives to receive boldness and power for fulfilling our calling, whatever that may be.
V. “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden.” (Matthew 5:14)
Theme: LIGHT IN DARKNESS
The image of an ancient city on a hill, at night, with bright lights illuminating it for all around to see, was the inspiration for this piece. It begins with a trumpet call, as if a watchman is sounding an alert. The ensuing figurations alternate between irregular sixteenth-note figures and steady eighth-note punctuations suggestive of the many lights dotting the skyline. This metaphorical city, which cannot be hidden because of its elevation and its brightness, is to represent the Ekklesia, which has now been restored, set free, and empowered by the Holy Spirit, shining brightly in a world of darkness and bringing hope to others who are still in bondage.
The juxtaposition of the 8’ trumpet stop on one manual and an 8’ flute combined with the Cymbale on another manual is an unusual combination meant to sparkle or shimmer in a quirky sort of way. A chorale-like section comes towards the end of the piece, representing the strength and solemnity of the hilltop city, standing alone and immoveable despite the darkness around it.
VI. “Those who believe will do even greater things than these…” (John 14:12b)
In John 14, Jesus promised his disciples that if they had faith in him, they would carry on the work he had begun. We live in a time that is ripe for healing miracles, and indeed, in pockets of the world, such miracles are taking place. Prophets within the last century have declared that these things will increase to become another “great awakening,” perhaps within our lifetime. Faith is depicted in this piece as something slow and steady, always present and ever growing. The piece is in the form of a chaconne with a seven-bar ground bass, which is stated four times. It begins quietly and serenely and grows in intensity with each statement, ending powerfully.
VII. “…our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”
Scriptures refer to the Church as being the bride of Christ, which God is preparing to “occupy” the Earth until he returns, and to spend eternity with him. Through the indications in these chosen Scriptures, it is clear that he does not want a weak, damaged, or sinful bride, but instead one that is strong, radiant, and glorious. With the theme of “glory,” it hardly seems fitting to end this cycle with anything other than a toccata.
We return to the hymn melody used in the third piece, THE CALL. In the three verses of the hymn, the writer names nine different titles for God: Way, Truth, Life, Light, Feast, Strength, Joy, Love, and Heart, with an invitation to come. As we ponder the meaning of these seven Scriptures and the journey each of us is on, may we make room in our lives for each of these attributes of God and allow his glory to be revealed in us.
–Notes by Brenda Portman