May 20, 2003
Vol. III, No. 16
"O Solo Mio"
The church where I play employs a solo vocalist for Sunday services rather than a choir. The soloist's name is Jenny Lynn Stewart (see Community Links below) and each Sunday morning before the service we rehearse her solo selection. Actually, I prefer the expression "put together" rather than "rehearse" and with good reason. During the week leading up to our rehearsal, Jenny works on the solo with her regular piano accompanist while I work on the accompaniment alone at the organ. When we get together on Sunday morning we have about 20 minutes to "put together" a cohesive piece of music.
Jenny and I first run through the solo once or twice to get a sense of where we are and what the final product will sound like. It's Jenny's first time singing the piece with the organ and it's my first time playing the accompaniment while hearing the vocal. Fortunately, we're not exactly starting from scratch each week because I know Jenny's voice and her singing style, and feel comfortable with the organ and accompaniment. After the initial run-throughs, we focus in on any tricky spots that need attention. Finally, one or two more run-throughs and we're usually ready for the service. My biggest issue along the way is registration, which I like to leave until that morning and work out during the run-throughs but overall this system has served us well.
Each week, we spend some portion of the rehearsal discussing the composition of the solo. When a solo is well composed, there's not usually much to discuss beyond how much we like it and the fact that it's well done. Other times we find ourselves using that time to solve some puzzling aspect of the solo. It may be a particular phrase that has us wondering whether it's poorly composed or whether we have some obstacle blocking our understanding of the composer's intent. Another time it may be an arbitrary dynamic marking in the accompaniment, indicating an increase in volume for no apparent reason. It may even be an entire piece that feels ambiguous whereupon the discussion might lead to such questions as why the composer wrote the solo the way he or she did or why he or she wrote it at all.
A good example of this was the solo for this past Sunday, "Sing Unto the Lord" by Peter Cornelius. In rehearsal Jenny and I both felt it necessary to ignore to a certain extent what the other was doing because the melody and accompaniment seemed to have so little to do with one another. This is, of course, dangerous for two musicians performing together but especially for the one accompanying. After a couple of run-throughs, the song wasn't quite gelling so we had a discussion. To begin with, the piece didn't feel self-sufficient, didn't seem to want to stand on its own. We suspected that it might be because it was part of a larger work, "A Song Cycle, Our Father, Nine Sacred Songs." Perhaps the composer failed to focus on this particular piece as much as on the whole work. Maybe the song was never meant to be performed alone. There's nothing wrong with that but it was something we took into consideration.
Based on the text, Ps. 30, one might assume that overall the tone of the song would be fairly happy, joyful. Strangely, the mood of the song sounded kind of "sad" however there was one phrase that made absolute musical sense. In a very programmatic way, "after weeping in the morning is joy" went from Eb minor to the dominant and then to Eb major. The text following that phrase was "Thou hast turned my sadness to dancing." Dancing, hmmm…. Yes, the accompaniment was in three. There was a recurring halting rhythm that sounded like a sort of stately dance.
So the piece could be summed up as a waltz-like accompaniment with a melody flowing freely over top. This small bit of understanding, having some way of looking at the piece, was enough to enable us to bring it together and make it work. It gave the piece a unifying factor, a springboard of sorts from which we could launch to a new level and make the song come alive. We focused on keeping the piece upbeat and light and emphasized the three-ness of it and in the end it all worked out well.
These kinds of experiences don't always have such a happy ending but they do serve to remind us of how great a composer J.S. Bach was. There's nothing arbitrary or ambiguous about his music. There's no filler. He paid attention to every measure, made every note count. When it comes to interpretation, there's no guess work involved. If you're playing the notes, you're making music. Not that it's simple music; it's just thoroughly musical music. Even at his most abstract, Bach makes sense musically. You can discuss registration and articulation all day long but Bach's music stands up to any interpretation, as history has shown.
As musicians, the essence of our job is to take a piece of music and make music. Sometimes what we're given to work with makes our job more challenging. Thankfully, sometimes what we're given to work with makes our work sheer joy.
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Added is Jenny Lynn Stewart's website, ManhattanDiva.com. Drop by the Community Links page to see the favorite websites of the BACHorgan.com community.
Added is the College of Music at the University of North Texas.
Have a great week!
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