orchestra (2008) 8′

published by Sweet Child Music

  • commissioned by Philip and Eleanor Hopke for the Orchestra of Northern New York

Organal Dances had an unusual genesis. In 2005, I approached the Orchestra of Northern New York with a proposition: I would donate a “commission” of a new piece as a fund-raising silent auction for the orchestra, in which the person who bid the highest would get to tell me what kind of piece I should write. The scope of the piece would depend on the amount of the winning bid, and the proceeds would be a gift to support the orchestra. The whole idea was somewhat of a gambit; I didn’t know whether anyone would be interested in bidding a lot of money just to make suggestions about an abstract piece of music. Ironically, there was a tie for the highest bid; so I ended up writing two pieces for the orchestra, garnering twice the amount of money for them. Organal Dances was the first of the two pieces.

When I first met with the donors to discuss what kind of piece they wanted, they immediately stated: “OK, we know what we want. We’d like a piece titled “Fanfare and Gavotte,” and we’d like it to feature tuba, tambourine, and organ.” My facial expression must have betrayed my bemusement, and they both then laughed; OK, they were joking. After this humorous introduction, we started talking about the types of music that they like, etc. They wanted something big and bright, but in a minor key (or modal); it should also be melodic and approachable in style. We also discussed the instruments that they like; tambourine and the brass instruments were indeed high on their list. I eventually realized that perhaps they really weren’t joking all that much at the outset after all.

I thought it would be fun (and funny) to try to come as close to their original tongue-in-cheek request as I could, so my first idea was that the piece would indeed start with a fanfare, followed by a gavotte that features both tuba and tambourine. This then led to structuring the piece as a set of short dances, in the manner of a Baroque dance suite. But unlike Baroque dance suites, these dances are connected in a single movement without pauses. The dances are: Intrada (a processional fanfare); Gavotte (moderate tempo); Sarabande (slow and stately); Minuet (moderate waltz tempo), and Gigue (fast and lively). Another modern twist on the traditional dance suite form is that the opening fanfare theme of the Intrada returns in a modified version as the theme of the Sarabande, and again as a countermelody at the end of the Gigue, thus unifying the piece as a whole.

But what to do about the organ? It is highly impractical to incorporate organ into orchestral pieces (despite famous exceptions by Saint-Saens and Strauss), and I’ve never enjoyed composing for organ, so it was out of the question. However, I realized that I could incorporate a little bit of humorous wordplay into the title. “Organum” is an early musical style dating back to the 10th-13th centuries. The salient feature of organum is that the various musical lines move primarily in parallel motion; it also also rooted in modal harmonies. The parallel motion and modal harmonies of organal style soon became unifying elements within my piece, helping to tie together the variety of the donors’ suggestions.

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