Tuesday, October 31, 2017

50 Years Later, a Musical Seed Sprouts - special audio included!

Red rose
(Post by tenor, David Rain)

Why would a novice composer choose such a treacherous path?

Why create a new arrangement of one of the most popular and beloved German Christmas carols dating back to the 1600s?

Here’s why.

It began in the 1960s, when I was a boy chorister with the Christ Church Cathedral choir in Vancouver. Each Christmas we would sing the English version of “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen”  – “Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming” – and I instantly fell in love with the piece.

This classic, timeless arrangement by Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) is perfection personified. He took some of the most beautiful religious poetry ever written (Mary’s birth to Jesus symbolized through the blooming of a floweret on a rose), and he presented it in the simplest of ways, with a melody that repeats itself three times each verse.

But with a small twist.

In the middle of each verse, there is a line where the altos sing a little 3-note rising figure that takes them (for a magical moment) above the sopranos! It is without doubt one of the most brilliant strokes of genius in all of music, and a passage that every year brings smiles to the faces of altos around the world at Christmas time.

I’ve had a longing to sing this piece for many moons now. And so, when Pierre Massie, the director of our Stairwell Carollers, announced that our 40th anniversary Christmas season was going to be an all Canadian program, I knew what I had to do.

If I was going to sing “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen” come Xmas 2017, I’d have to compose my own arrangement!

Here is a taste of that arrangement from a recent rehearsal...

I also knew that there was no point in updating the Praetorius version – it remains a classic and I believe it should be left untouched. I would have to create my own vision of this piece and see where it took me.

It then came to me in a flash that somehow, at the very beginning of the piece, I needed to create a musical image of a rose slowly coming into bloom. And from that one thought came the idea of an opening “mantra” like incantation on the words “Ein Ros” ; a combination of both longing and awe in the singers’ voices at the emerging of this beautiful creation. It seemed appropriate to have the mantra grow into an ever more complex chord built up by a rising major 2nd figure in all the parts – “doh” to “re” – as these are the first two notes of the famous melody itself.

From there, I wanted to have the singers start the first verse altogether in unison, with the purest of sounds, and then suddenly break out into simple harmonies, attempting to hearken back to an era even further back in time than Praetorius. Back to the 15th century, when the anonymous melody that he had used was likely composed. Thus, the use of open 5th cadences, and the fauxbourdon effects for the women in the 2nd verse, and for the men in the 3rd verse.

Then, I played a small trick on the altos: I delayed their famous 3 note pattern rising above the sopranos until the final verse, when it would have the most effect.

Speaking of the altos, it was with them in mind that I lowered the key signature of this piece, to bring out the richer tones that they have when singing at a lower pitch. This explains the E major tonality that I had chosen for this arrangement, to give it a deeper, richer sonority than the F major that Praetorius had used and that everyone is used to.

Lastly, the difficult puzzle of how to end such a piece. I felt it best to return to the “Ein Ros” mantra of the opening, a kind of cyclical effect. Only this time, the choir finds it hard to just stop on the B major chord as they did in the intro. Instead, the sopranos are carried away and keep on singing their rising pattern until they reach a high F#, which in solfege is not the “do” but rather the “re” of the E major tonality.

With this somewhat unusual, unresolved ending note in the sopranos, I needed then to find just the right combination of notes in the other parts to bring the final chord to a harmonious close – and that could also reflect both the simplicity and the complexity inherent in a rose, and in the nativity story itself.

And as a final touch, not planned initially, I decided to pay special homage to Praetorius, by both beginning and ending the piece with his famous rising 3 note figure on the words “Ein Ros”: first, as a brief intro for the women, preceding the mantra; and then at the very end (with a special nod to my first tenor buddies), as a rising 3 note figure that they get to sing up high as a solo, thereby completing the harmonies to our final chord.

Pierre, as usual, was a huge help in mentoring me on this compositional journey. And I’d also like to acknowledge my three German speaking friends – Siegurd Weber, Friederike Knabe and Christoph Hoeller – all of whom provided valuable feedback to me along the way.

And it was Christoph, a Stairwell Caroller bass who is also our choir’s vice president, who let us know, at our first rehearsal of “Es ist ein Ros”, that in fact there are several different versions of the text that are used by choirs in Germany. And there exists a healthy debate around whether the “Ros” in the text refers to Jesus (a Protestant interpretation) or to Mary (a Catholic interpretation).

Fortunately, as Christoph pointed out, the version we are singing is both Catholic (verse 2) and Protestant (verse 3), so we’ve covered all our bases, or should I say basses.

As it was with the Rideau Carol last year, I can’t describe the beautiful feeling of seeing and hearing for the first time how Pierre and my fellow choir members are bringing this “musical child” to life. I am really forward to singing this in November and December, and I hope the risk I took was worth it, and that Michael Praetorius might be smiling down on us just a bit from wherever his spirit resides.

On a sad ending note, while I was in the midst of composing “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen”, I learned that an old high school friend of mine from Vancouver, Robert Linsley, had died tragically when hit by a car while cycling in Kitchener-Waterloo. I have thus dedicated this piece to Robert’s memory.

David Rain

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Holly :)

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