Music Appreciation: Jabberwocky by Sam Pottle

Jabberwock as illustrated by John Tenniel

Jabberwock as illustrated by John Tenniel

As we turn to autumn and the stores have filled with pumpkin-flavored everything and Halloween costumes, I thought we’d listen to some music befitting the season. There’s no shortage of seasonal music in the non-pop music world, so I imagine I’ll have plenty to keep me busy for as long as I write this blog.

Many of you are familiar with Lewis Carroll’s (Charles Dodgson) poem “Jabberwocky,” which first appeared in his novel Through the Looking Glass. It’s full of wonderful nonsense words, and parodies English scholarship and heroic poetry. There have been any number of derivative works resulting from this one poem, but we’ll focus on a choral setting by Sam Pottle. Along with doing a lot of songwriting for “Sesame Street,” Pottle co-wrote the theme to the “Muppet Show” – one of the best TV theme songs, ever. I guess that helps explain why I like “Jabberwocky” so much! (Tangent: if you haven’t seen the Muppet version of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” do it now. Totally worth it.)

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The piano starts with a bouncy accompaniment firmly in the key of E major. The full choir enters soon thereafter, the opening jumps in the melody reminiscent of horn calls signaling a hunt. At 0:17, the women break out into beautiful three-part harmony, followed by the men in unison with the piano, the tonality shifting a bit out of our happy key of E. The choir finishes out the verse with a neat chord progression that brings us back to E (0:25-0:28). At 0:30, did you catch the small “ping” of the triangle? What else might appear throughout the piece?

The second verse takes on a more ominous tone as we hear the first warning about the feared Jabberwock (0:32). While the women’s part at 0:40 is the same cheery bit at in the first verse, the addition of the men’s voices add weight to the words. Descending chromatic lines between the men and women (and the addition of a baby rattle) further warn us of the “frumious Bandersnatch,” with a final severe warning at 0:55. Brrr!

We return to the horn-call melody for the third verse, the hero taking up his sword in preparation of battle. This time Pottle changes up the women’s line, keeping the same tonality but changing the melodic content (1:07) and adding a glockenspiel for effect. The men echo the women, both groups coming together in thought at 1:14. They think some more. They finish the verse with what must have been a very profound thought, given the seriousness of the tone at 1:25.

A roll of the tambourine and deep tremolo in the bass notes of the piano warn us that danger is near (1:32). We also shift into C minor, the piano playing a similar, but scarier, version of the original accompaniment. The percussion also shifts – now we hear a drum and cymbal as well as the tambourine.

At 1:38, the men bring a different melody into the fourth verse, one that fits with the menacing tone of the accompaniment. The women join in, the drum accentuating what must be the footfalls of the horrible beast. We hear a modified version of the chormatic theme from the second verse, this one whirling about twice as fast (my guess is that the Jabberwock is twice as scary as the Bandersnatch!).


“One, two! One, two! And through and through the vorpal blade went snicker-snack!” We’re in the heat of battle now (2:03). The percussion (now including a ratchet) starts going crazy. Snicker-snack! Everyone holds a mostly-B♭ major chord, the tremolo E in the left hand of the piano giving what should be a triumphant chord a lot of tension (2:15). The choir cuts off as we hear two beats from the piano and percussion. Then silence.

The piano regroups, continuing in a series of two beats at a time, but softly and on a different chord. The choir comes in softly at 2:27 with the open fourths and fifths we heard during the battle scene. As our hero leaves the scene, he gains strength and energy, taking the motif upward chromatically toward home (2:35).

The hero arrives home, both in key (E major) and to his father (2:49). We hear the original piano accompaniment with added percussion. The father’s theme also returns, this time asking if his son was successful (2:54). The women (Mom? Sisters?) are all “Ah!” and “Ooh!” at the tale. Everyone then joins in for the women’s motif, rejoicing that the Jabberwock is no more! At 3:05 we think we’re going back to the chromatic theme, but we don’t. This is a celebration, after all! Whee!

We return to the original theme just as we return to the words of the first verse (3:15). The percussion join in the revelry. Instead of having to warn of the Jabberwock, the group continues to celebrate (3:34) using an effective alteration between C major and E major. The choir and piano belt out heroic-sounding chords as they finish the piece. Ta da!

Whew! After that perilous journey, I believe I’m ready for a nice cup of tea and a crackling fire. Look for my next post around Halloween – I have a great piece picked out for the occasion!

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Music Appreciation: O Filii et Filiae by Volckmar Leisring

Freising Church

The pipes of the organ in a church in Freising, Germany.

Back to the choral world for a bit for “O Filii et Filiae” by Volckmar Leisring. I’ve spent a fair amount of time with this piece lately, so it seems fitting to talk about it here. There doesn’t seem to be much information online about Leisring. He lived from 1588-1637, he’s German, and he was a composer and pastor.






“O Filii et Filiae” is considered an antiphonal isorhythmic motet. “Antiphonal” relates to two ensembles (in this case, choirs) performing alternately to each other, with occasional parts together. Motets were popular vocal forms in the Medieval and Renaissance ages, with the isorhythmic form developing during the Renaissance. This form is defined by a repeated rhythmic pattern. I think you’ll easily pick out the repeating rhythm in this piece.

The Latin lyrics celebrate Easter:

O filii et filiae
Rex celestis! Rex gloriae!
O filii et filiae
Christus surrexit hodie!

Roughly translated, it means “O sons and daughters, the king of Heaven, the king of glory, Christ is risen.”

As you listen to the piece, pay attention to the interplay between the two choirs. They do a great job of balancing between the two, and when they arrive at the “Allelujas” it’s seamless.

Two things I love about this piece are the chord progressions and the bits of syncopation (i.e. 0:33-0:35). Despite the joyous lyrics, this piece isn’t cemented in a major key. Taken on their own, the “Allelujas” are mostly minor plagal cadences (what we think of as the “amen cadence“) that just repeat quickly, unlike using it as the final end of a hymn. However, Leisring uses a perfect cadence when we reach the final time through, going from an E major chord (the fifth of our key) to a glorious A major chord (the tonic, or “home base,” of our key). By ending on A major, instead of minor, we get to hear an example of a Picardy third. This was a technique used often in earlier music to end a piece that was based in a minor key. Instead of ending on that minor chord (in our case, it would be A-C-E), the composer raised the third of the triad to make it major (A-C♯-E).

Don’t be scared off by the theory, though; just enjoy the beautiful piece Leisring composed!

After hearing this piece a number of times over the years, I realized it would transcribe beautifully for our local horn ensemble, the Cor Corps. So I did it. They premiered the piece for me in April, 2015, and I couldn’t be happier with how they performed. Please have a listen! As you can hear, we took the piece at a much livelier pace than the choir above, but I like it.

And now for a shameless plug (because if I can’t do it on my own blog, where can I?) My horn transcription, both the sheet music and the audio, is available for purchase at Sheet Music Plus. And why should the horns have all the fun? I’ve also done transcriptions for 4 horns/4 trombones and mixed brass ensemble (2 trumpets, 2 horns, 2 trombones, baritone, and tuba).

Thanks for reading – see you next time!

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Music Appreciation: The Earth Adorned by Waldemar Åhlén

Ah, spring! Finally! The Chicago area had a brutal February, so we’re chomping at the bit

Hut in Sweden

Springtime in Sweden

for some nice, sunny days. Today it reached 50°, and it felt fabulous! Heck, we were beaten down to the point where 30° felt positively balmy, so most of us are welcoming spring with wide open arms.

The promise of warmer weather brings me to our next piece, “The Earth Adorned” (Sommarsalm, or Psalm of Summer) by Waldemar Åhlén. I sang this way back in high school. I immediately loved the beauty of it and it has stayed with me ever since.

It’s been a bit tricky to find much info on the composer. He was Swedish, living from 1894-1982. He was a church organist, teacher, and composer; his compositions included piano sonatas and choral music. He did not embrace modernity in music, an attitude that is reflected in this piece.

“The Earth Adorned” is a hymn, presented in standard SATB harmony (soprano, alto, tenor, and bass), with some parts occasionally diving further. Like most hymns, it is in strophic form, meaning that each verse is sung to the same melody. Contrast this with the previous choral piece we discussed, and you can hear the difference.

The lyrics talk about flowers and animals awakening after winter, celebrating all of God’s creation. And even though the grass, flowers, and even our human flesh fades away, God remains.

From out the wood, the birds now sing
And each its song now raises,
To join with all the universe
In voicing thankful praises.
With hope and joy their songs employ
A rapturous exultation
In praise of God’s creation

translated by Carolyn and Kenneth Jennings

I wanted to highlight the second verse, because in the YouTube video it is sung in Swedish (well, I’m assuming it’s Swedish since I don’t speak the language).

The piece begins with a lovely melody in the sopranos, with other parts providing harmony. The harmony is not overly complex, just soothing. At 0:23, it feels like we will hear a repeat of the first phrase, but the harmony shifts a bit around 0:29. This gives us a clue that we’re not simply repeating the first phrase, but providing the second half to it. The melody changes at 0:33 to conclude the first four lines.

At 0:43 the melody changes character, opening with a large leap (from E up to D, almost an octave). The phrase continues to build in range and volume, with a glorious chord at 0:54, the climax of the piece. From there, the melody works its way downward toward the end.

The second verse is sung by a soprano soloist, with the rest of the choir singing their parts on “ooo” instead of also singing the lyrics. The third and final verse is sung with the full choir all singing the lyrics.

This was a short post today, but I’m sure my lack of words won’t detract from the beauty of Åhlén’s piece. Now go outside and enjoy the sun!

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Music Appreciation: She Walks In Beauty by David Foltz

After an extended tour with the band through Middle-earth, I thought it would be nice to change gears and listen to some choral music. Up next is “She Walks In Beauty,” based on the poem by Lord Byron (1788–1824) with music set by David Foltz (1911 – 1992). It was published in 1952.

Drawing of an abstract girl by ractapopulous

Abstract girl by ractapopulous on Pixabay.
CC0 license

Lord Byron (George Gordon), described by the Poetry Foundation as “[t]he most flamboyant and notorious of the major Romantics,” wrote “She Walks In Beauty” in 1814. The woman to whom the poem refers was a cousin of Byron’s, seen one night at a party wearing a mourning dress.

It’s a bit harder finding info on David Foltz. He was briefly the conductor of the Wichita Choral Society (1959-196X), but I’m not having much luck finding anything else.

(The sheet music is available from Sheet Music Plus. Your purchase supports the blog!)





First, I’d like to present the poem. Note as you listen that the composer takes a few minor liberties with the text, deleting some words and phrases and adding or substituting others.

She walks in beauty, like the night
   Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
   Meet in her aspect and her eyes;
Thus mellowed to that tender light
   Which heaven to gaudy day denies.


One shade the more, one ray the less,
   Had half impaired the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress,
   Or softly softly lightens o’er her face;
Where thoughts serenely sweet express,
   How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.


And on that cheek, and o’er that brow,
   So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
   But tell of days in goodness spent,
A mind at peace with all below,
   A heart whose love is innocent!


The musical setting of the poem is “through-composed,” meaning that each stanza or verse gets its own melodic content. We’re much more familiar with “strophic form,” where each verse is sung to the same melody (think about most any hymn, folk song, or Christmas carol you’ve ever heard. They’re strophic).

Another thing you’ll notice right away is that this piece is a cappella (without instrumental accompaniment). It was written for SATB (soprano, alto, tenor, bass). Some parts divide throughout the piece; for example, half of the altos sing one note while half sing another. This opens up more harmonic possibilities – instead of just four notes (SATB), the composer can use up to eight. Or more, really. There’s no law saying a composer can’t divide the sopranos into six parts, though I’d question the sanity of doing so.

The first stanza begins in the key of E major, more or less, and alternates between time signatures of 3/4 and 4/4, several measures for each. The choir starts softly for the first couple of lines, then builds towards the climax of the first stanza. Foltz uses some wonderfully squishy chords as we climb toward the word “bright,” which is the highest note in this stanza. Many chords in Western classical music are based on triads, the easiest to recognize consists of the first, third, and fifth notes of a scale (for E major, that would be E-G♯-B). Foltz likes to add sevenths and ninths in there as well ( i.e. D♯ and F♯). He also adds several suspensions throughout the piece, which means one of the notes of the chord begins on the note next to it before resolving to its proper pitch.

Listen to how beautifully the sopranos sing that high G♯ on “bright” (0:25). It just floats up there! After that, we begin to descend towards the end of the first stanza. We don’t go directly there, however. The chord on “eyes” (0:38) is lovely, but unsettled; we can’t just leave things there. We have one more slight ascent, then back down toward a traditional (and satisfying) “authentic cadence“, ending on a solid E major chord. (The cadence link has a good definition and example, but for a quick-and-dirty example, think of the “two bits” part of “shave and a haircut, two bits”)

The second stanza begins with what you think will be similar to the first (0:58), but right away it demonstrates that we’re not in the strophic realm. He repeats the merest bit of the upward motif, but changes the soprano note by one half-step (C♯ to C♮, 1:07). Just that one change helps lead into the next line of the stanza. What’s interesting to me is that this is where he changes key – not at the beginning of the stanza. Now we’re in C major, more or less. This section is in 4/4, and stays put for a while. Foltz also gives the tempo indication of “a little faster” here (1:10).

We feel a bit of turmoil, and although the line keeps rising upward, the choir actually decrescendos and slows down after “waves,” despite reaching ever higher. Our natural tendency is to get louder as our notes go higher. Foltz goes counter to this, having the highest note of this stanza also be the quietest of the piece (marked ppp, or pianississimo – very soft; 1:21). Once again I’m very impressed with how the sopranos achieve that.

The “softly” line also brings yet another key change, this time to A♭ major (more or less). We remain quiet through that line, then build a little – but not too much – during the next line. The stanza finishes with a decrescendo down to pianissimo (pp), yet not as soft as the ppp that happened at the high point of this stanza.

The third, and final, stanza returns to the key of E major*. It may seem an odd transition at first, but it does have some theoretical sense behind it. If anyone remembers way back when I analyzed Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” the term “chromatic mediant” may sound familiar. It describes a certain way two keys are related. In this case, you have to think of A♭ by its enharmonic name, G♯. The notes E, G♯, and B make up the basis of an E major chord.

Anyhoo, we’ve begun the third stanza (1:50). We’ve also reverted to 3/4 time for a bit. While the melody is different from the beginning of the piece, Foltz uses some of the same chords which lend familiarity to the ear. At 1:58-2:07, he presents a nice series of chord changes beneath repetition in the soprano line. The composer indicates “slowly” there, which helps bring out that sequence. We finish out that line with a nice descent into an E major chord.

From there we start growing, both in volume and upper range. The melody leaps up at 2:13, coming down just a little bit, then leaps higher for a similar phrase (2:18). The other voices also creep upward. Although the altos have some downward movement, they ultimately end up higher than they were before. The music changes back to 4/4 and continues to crescendo to the climax of the entire piece, with the first sopranos hitting a high A – the highest note in their part. They lower just a bit to an F♯ for the loudest chord (marked fff, or fortississimo; 2:29). After that, the group comes down in volume and range, ending in a whisper of an E major chord.

This particular setting has been a favorite of mine since I first sang it in high school. I hope you enjoyed it, too!

* you know the drill


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How to Listen to the Ethereal “Salvation Is Created” by Tschesnokoff

It’s possible that composer Pavel Tschesnokoff never heard his glorious choral piece, “Salvation Is Created (Spaseniye Sodelal),” get publicly performed.

Photo of Suzdal, The Kremlin, Church

Suzdal, The Kremlin, Church
photo by Mariss
(CC0 license)

Tschesnokoff composed the piece in 1912, but the Russian Revolution of 1917 lead to a period of strong anti-religious sentiment in the Soviet Union. Public displays of religious material were banned, churches were demolished or expropriated, and bishops and priests were executed.

Fortunately for the music world, Tschesnokoff’s masterwork survived.

The lyrics are simple and short. The English translation is as follows: “Salvation is created, in midst of the earth, O God, O our God. Alleluia.” (source:

First, just close your eyes and listen. Don’t even think. Absorb the sound.  We’ll discuss the piece after you’ve listened to it once.


Simple Is Beautiful

“Salvation Is Created” illustrates that music doesn’t have to be complex to be good. There are no “weird” chords, no crazy clashes like in Three Shanties, no funky time signatures. It was written for  six-part unaccompanied choir, with four male parts and two female parts (soprano, alto, tenor 1, tenor 2, bass 1, bass 2, commonly referred to as SATTBB).

This piece’s form (like a blueprint or roadmap) is also simple. Two primary themes, followed by a coda. The two themes are repeated, followed by a modified coda (the modification is designated with an apostrophe).

Here are the landmarks:

Theme A: Beginning
Theme B: 0:55
coda: 1:34
Theme A: 1:53
Theme B: 2:32
coda’: 3:11

The men start the piece, somberly and a bit hauntingly, in B minor. Then the women repeat the phrase, one octave higher. The basses drop out, focusing our attention upward.Then the clouds part, the sun shines in, and we hear the radiant tones of the sopranos singing praise Click To Tweet

Then the clouds part, the sun shines in, and we hear the radiant tones of the sopranos singing praise in a more joyous-sounding D major (Theme B). Listen for 1:09, where an unexpected chord change gives just a bit more oomph to the piece. The theme tapers down toward the first coda, where we transition back to B minor, anticipating the second statement of Theme A.

Theme A and B repeat (because, honestly, who wouldn’t want to hear that again!) If you missed the “oomph” chord the first time, you can listen for it again at 2:46. This time the coda keeps us in D major, finishing the piece with quiet optimism.

What makes this piece so amazing?  It’s hard to say. The long melodic lines certainly play a part, as do the chord progressions. The change between the end of the A section and the beginning of the B section gives me chills. When good sopranos sing that D up to the high A, it just soars. Simply beautiful.

I do want to put in a plug for another recording as well. The group is excellent, and listen to that bass! Wow! Thanks to Andy Pease’s post for highlighting this version.

My first introduction to this piece was in college band. There are a few minor changes for the band version (i.e. key is in C minor and E♭ major). However, it’s just as effective with instruments as it is with voices. Enjoy!

(Shameless plug: I arranged this piece for my clarinet choir – have a listen or purchase the sheet music)


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