Through some friends, in 1999, I happened to meet the eminent British conductor/composer, Sir David Willcocks. Then almost 80, he took me and a friend on a brisk walking tour of King’s College, Cambridge University, that left us scrambling to keep up — all the while telling anecdotes of his time as a student, teacher, and Director of Music at King’s College.
During a return visit in 2010, I was able to visit him once again at his home in Cambridge. Although that visit was short, we spent a good portion of it talking music. After giving me an impromptu lesson on the execution of phrasing in psalmody, he showed me a proof of a piece he submitted to Oxford University Press, his publisher.
The song was “You Bring Me Happiness.” He sat down at the piano, played through it, and explained that it was one of a few songs he wrote as a soldier during Word War II. The song, arranged for piano and SATB chorus, evokes tenderness in a “jazzy style,” and is reminiscent of something from a British music hall, complete with a big piano glissando at the end.
He also wrote the words — although, while I was there, he kept trying to attribute them to his daughter Anne, who was also there and kept insisting he wrote them all. At one point, while showing me the proofs, he mentioned that he has a reciprocal arrangement with his friend John Rutter: Rutter would check his proofs and David would check Rutter’s.
With the support of David’s family, particularly from his son Jonathan, also a composer of note, we are happy to premier his song in the United States. This song shows another side of this legendary musician.
When searching for composers we know, who wrote music that might surprise us, John Philip Sousa was one of the first names I thought might have something interesting for our spring concert. Thankfully, he did not disappoint, and thank God for the Internet! What used to take me weeks, with the help of libraries, librarians, and telephones, came together in a matter of hours: a fairly definitive list of Sousa’s works, going back to his early years.
It turns out that long before “Stars and Stripes Forever,” long before The Sousa Band and its 15,000 concert performances, the “American March King” tried his hand at sacred music.
The “Te Deum in B-flat” was written in 1874, when Sousa was only 20 years old, the same year he was discharged from the Marine Band. It is scored for SATB chorus, organ, and soloists. There isn’t a great deal written about it, but given the text, I imagine it was intended for a church service or some sacred event.
At times, the piece reminds me of a series of exercises in traditional harmony. The tunes are strong and the progressions are inevitable, for the most part. In my mind, there is not a lot of foreshadowing in the music of his great career that followed, but there are some unmistakable sounds of the Victorian era.
Sousa probably wrote it at a time when he was playing violin in theatre orchestras. He did a great deal of work in musical theatre and, he wrote about 250 songs and fifteen operettas during his career, hence his experience with writing for voices.
The last performance of the “Te Deum” I found was at Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania in 2006, under the direction of music director, Fred Hooper. Our performance will be the Midwest premier.
Most people know of Peter Schickele through his alter ego, PDQ Bach (1807-1742?), the apocryphal and humorous “twenty-first of Johann’s twenty children.”
This fascinating work shows off Schickele’s skill as a composer of choral music, and provides a fantastic showcase for a pianist. It also shows off the Singers in unusual ways, using voices to create rich textures, mellifluous lines and unexpected rhythms. The music is serious and demanding, but is not without flashes of Schickele’s humor, too.
I had the privilege to premier the piece in the Midwest with the William Ferris Chorale in 2002, with the composer present. Some of the singers who performed it then are part of MTS now. We are also able to bring back the excellent pianist Justin Kolb, to reprise his performance — we’ll ask Justin to contribute his thoughts in a future note.
Reflections on concerts, composers and music...