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!
Alleluja!
O filii et filiae
Christus surrexit hodie!
Alleluja!

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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