MWM: Grechaninov for tenor and brass (2 of 2)

This post continues from here and describes some of the process of my work with text and music.

The source file for my transformational work with Grechaninov’s Nunc Dimittis (ca. 1913-14):

I had only an edition of the composer’s original:  Rafael Ornes’s engraving of an English setting by N. Lindsay Norden, available here.  It included Norden’s English text, which I seriously doubted would have been Grechaninov’s choice, notwithstanding that this neo-Romantic composer finished his earthly years in the U.S. and was buried in northern New Jersey.  (He didn’t move to the U.S. until 1939.)  Since the chordal, choral style were in keeping with the Grechaninov choral music I had already heard and sung, I had no reason not to assume that the Norden sheet music was a strong facsimile of the original, composed some 100 years prior.

Arranging the music, frankly, was no big deal. 

This type of chordal, chorale-like music is a sonic world in which most trained musicians feel quite at home.  Both art and science are involved, however, in the arranging.  One has to know such things as

==> the makeup of a typical brass ensemble that could be assembled in most places (facilitating repeat performances)

==> the ranges of the various brass instruments employed, considered alongside the range and power-spots of a typical baritone or tenor voice

==> how a flugelhorn or cornet sounds on a concert Bb³, not to mention how two of them sound on that note in unison

==> how many of each chord tone makes for a good voicing (is a combination of 1st horn and 2nd cornet good here? or do I need one more 5th in the chord for that perfect sonority?)

Key:  The choral original was in E major, but E is not a great key for low brass intonation, and it’s even worse for trumpets/cornets/flugelhorns.  So I moved the key down to Eb, which is much better for all concerned.  The vocal melody has an exceptional range—an octave and a 7th—so there is no wiggle room for bad choices of key . . .

. . . if it were pitched s a half-step or step lower, chances are no one would hear the opening notes that lie low in the voice’s range

. . . on the other hand, if it were any higher, the melodic climax would be untenable.

I made choices for doubling, leaving out certain instruments here and there.  I also made choices viz. dynamics, not always following the original, because changing the sound-producing medium sometimes indicates such adjustments.

In working with the text, though, there were some more complex choices to make.

One choice was to include the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) symbols in the first text line.  These symbols are familiar to most trained singers; my own IPA familiarity had been hibernating for decades, but I do still own a couple of reference works that helped to refresh my memory.  This seemed more clear and also lent credibility in the context of the kind of singer that might perform this work, than trying to spell things in awkward letter-combinations like noohn ah-paw-loo-ace.

Below are a few items that represent some additional choices I made:

Nothing is perfect in the science-informed art of matching words with musical line.  For νυν απολύεις | nun apolueis, the natural accent in the second word falls on the 3rd of 4 syllables, yet the musical line has the accent on the 4th. In this case, I let the music win out.
Here, the agogic accents favor the Greek words εἶδον (“see”) and ὀφθαλμοί (“eyes”), the first syllable of the substantival (noun-like) adjective σωτήριόν (“delivering” or “salvation”), and the possessive pronoun σου (“Your”).  These accented-syllable choices, seen in the 3rd-line English interlinear, only sometimes correspond with the actual Greek accents.  My decisions sometimes led to inner struggle and were based in part on the vowel sounds for the singer:  for instance, “oph” and “sou” are more pleasing for singers to accent or sustain than “moi” or “τή | (tay).”  The “longer” Greek vowels such as ω (omega) also sometimes merited more musical emphasis, at least in this piece.  Incidentally, it’s a hassle to type IPA symbols (the 1st line of text)!
Here in the penultimate melodic peak (and in the ultimate climax 8 mm. later) the pitch focus is on the word λαῶν |laon (“peoples”), which seems more true to the original text than the Norden English translation that repeats the word “light” 3x.

It seemed best to display the phonetic spellings on the top since few would be able to read the Greek, although I definitely wanted to give the actual Greek text for sake of drawing attention to historical, ancient scriptural texts.

The work with the text lines consumed considerable time and provided a good deal of vocational and spiritual fulfillment, as well.  All of this constituted an effort to occupy my mind and heart in a sphere in which musical, spiritual, and textual passions intersect.

I’ve posted more excerpts from the score and edition notes (notes for the conductor and other performers on both the musical and textual aspects) here on this page, and I’ve also appended three paragraphs that are currently set to appear in the College Band Directors National Association CBDNA Report.  The April 2015 premiere of this piece, by the way, was not entirely satisfying, mostly due to acoustic issues and lack of rehearsal time in the performance hall.

Caveat lector ex compositor:  This is a niche piece, unlikely to generate broad interest because of the subject matter and the Greek text, but I sincerely hope other performances will occur.  I plan to advertise it to a few institutions that I know would generally share such interests.


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