Pachelbel Being Goofy

I’ve often heard (and hoped it to be true) that Reformation-era and post-Reformation-era music saw no distinction between the solemn and the exuberant. The music laughed when it talked about death and bubbled and joked when it talked about repentance. Occasionally I’ve had a glimpse of that in recordings (particular examples are McCreesh’s recording of Praetorius’ Kyrie from Polyhymnia Caducaetrix or Bach’s Gottes Zeit with Gardiner). This seems particularly prevalent in the Lutheran tradition, the one that famously took a German love song and out of it gave us the hymn tune that we know sing “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” to.

But sometimes I question that as a sort of Chestertonian exaggeration. It’s just too good to be true. After all, you listen to recordings of a great deal of this Renaissance or early Baroque music, and it just doesn’t strike one as all that fun, or funny, or exuberant, or jolly. I look at the music itself and see the potential for a radically different interpretation, one that stresses the comic and maybe even comical, but it certainly isn’t commercially recorded that way very often. (The market couldn’t handle picturing the Reformers as smiling singer dudes.)

And then sometimes I’ll stumble upon music whose downright goofiness is just too overwhelming to ignore. This time, interestingly, the music I found is almost impossible to find recorded, even though it is by Johann Pachelbel, the same who composed the famous Canon in D. He wrote for organ a set of partitas on various hymn tunes, including hymn tunes we still sing (“O Sacred Head,” “At the Lamb’s High Feast We Sing,” “What E’er My God Ordains Is Right,” and even Psalm 42, “As the Hart, About to Falter”).

First, this music is pretty easily sight-readable and is clearly designed to fit the hand in such a way as to make going fast really easy. But, more than that, it’s just impossible not to laugh at some of this music, and not just because it sounds funny to our ears. To any ears, I’d say, taking a tune you know well and doing this and that with it is just funny. But some of the decisions Pachelbel makes are just horrid: he takes a quite cheerful major-key tune and tries creating a chromatic lament out of it. The result is disaster. Never have I run across a pre-19th century composer using chromaticism in this major-key sort of way (not that chromaticism doesn’t appear in the major key, but he’s clearly employing the chromaticism of pathetic lament, which to my knowledge is quite peculiar in this context). But Pachelbel was a smart guy. He must have known that the disparate genres came into conflict and produced some sort of humorous effect. You don’t just throw in a slow chromatic counterpoint underneath a fast-paced tune and expect the whole thing to come off with a straight face.

All these partitas run along similar lines. Exactly when they start donning their most serious garb, they become goofiest. And perhaps this is exactly why this music hasn’t been recorded (widely, at least): the market insists old music must be either garish and crude (like the Newberry Consort) or as solemn as a coffin (Tallis Scholars, Oxford Camerata, basically all Baroque organists). But the two can’t coexist. The market is, you might say, functionally Roman Catholic when it comes to Protestant music: life is divided between the profane and hyper-sexualized on one side and the sacred and hyper-spiritualized on the other.

I have no doubt that, had I lived at the turn of the 16th to the 17th century, I would have been a prude. I would have been scandalized by all the composers I now idolized. But I hope I would have had the good sense to recognize that they were not, so to speak, marrying foreign wives and converting to Baal (Ezra 9), but were in fact asking their wives to convert and then marrying them (Deut. 21:10-14). And I hope I’m being objective and not prudish when I say that I can be in no way so generous in describing Chris Tomlin, Matt Redman, Hillsong, and the rest.

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Eco Describes Organum

Eco in The Name of the Rose describes near the end the monks singing Sederunt principes in organum, probably much like this example here.

“On the first syllable, a slow and solemn chorus began, dozens and dozens of voices, whose bass sound filled the naves and floated over our heads and yet seemed to rise from the heart of the earth. Nor did it break off, because as other voices began to weave, over that deep and continuing line, a series of vocalises and melismas, it—telluric—continued to dominate and did not cease for the whole time that it took a speaker to repeat twelve ‘Ave Maria’s in a slow and cadenced voice.And as if released from every fear by the confidence that the prolonged syllable, allegory of the duration of eternity, gave to those praying, the other voices (and especially the novices’) on that rock-solid base raised cusps, columns, pinnacles of liquescent and underscored numae. [Not sure they would still be in use, but I don’t know for certain.] …Until that Neptunian roiling of a single note seemed overcome, or at least convinced and enfolded, by the rejoicing hallelujahs of those who opposed it, and all dissolved on a majestic and perfect chord and on a resupine neuma.

“Once the ‘sederunt’ had been uttered with a kind of stubborn difficulty, the ‘principes’ rose in the air with grand and seaphic calm. …Now the choir was festively chanting the ‘Adiuva me,’ whose bright a swelled happily through the church, and even the u did not seem grim as that in ‘sederunt,’ but full of holy vigor.”

Particularly incisive on Eco’s part, I think, is how this music is so dynamically clever. The drama of the music is simply the word. How exciting the word “adiuva” can be, when elongated! The vowels themselves portray some sort of story arc. The phrase sederunt principes will go from loud (e) to soft (u) to brighter (i) back to loud (e) and, as he says, the second a will be quite the dramatic surprise in adiuva.

Why I’m Encouraged by Pop Music Trends

An acquaintance of mine, a semi-well-known actress, apparently ran into Kanye West and talked with him for a bit. (I feel famous.) He told her that his latest big project is coming up with a way to release a song along with all the tracks and mixing that went into it. In other words, he wants to change the music scene so that whenever any artist releases a song, all the tracks are released as well and can be brought up in a sequencer. You, the recipient, can then perform a musical lobotomy on the song: you can take out Kanye’s voice and put your own in, or change one of his loops, or put in your own percussion. Or you can just mess around with plug-ins and make it all sound like the chipmunks going hip-hop. And that’s just an anecdote—I hear and see this idea gaining ground all over the place and have even seen a few examples. Everyone’s becoming a producer these days.

Over on the other side of the popular music world, it seems these days like everyone is wearing a vest, plaid, learning guitar, and singing with a raspy voice. Many people lament this, that somehow alternative and folk rock is turning into something anyone can do. Oh, and, if you didn’t catch it, that is a bad thing. Somehow the fact that Mumford & Sons can be reproduced by any group of four guys with some musical talent is a detriment to them.

I think not. What we’re seeing is the collapse of a system of music that will, after its demise, be considered probably the most bizarre ever. It’s a sort of game: whereas all your ancestors enjoyed music by actually doing it, you enjoy music by listening to other people doing it. Whereas popular music used to be a communal activity that everyone engaged in, popular music is now anything but popular: it’s utterly professionalized. The melodies are so unsingable even the singers need autotune and only the talented perform karaoke. So we listen to other “talented” people perform and think that we’re enjoying music ourselves through them.

All that is ending. To borrow Marxist language, we have alienated the human impulse to music from ourselves, but that is not a tenable situation in the long run. It’s like putting a cap on a pressure-filled pipe, and it must burst. Sooner or later, we’ll just decide to stop listening to other people enjoy music and we’ll start to actually enjoy it ourselves. And then I think we’ll realize just how bizarre we were for about 60 or 70 years there in the 20th century.

So, for my money, Miley Cyrus’ performance was encouraging. Kanye West is encouraging. Everyone becoming the next Mumford is encouraging. We’re seeing the old way of doing popular music die away (some say twerking, some say death throes…) and an older way resume. Increasingly, humans are becoming musicians. They’re butting in on the musical act, because the musical act is an impulse God put in us. And that doesn’t mean that there won’t always be those who are better poets or better musicians than the rest, but what a difference it will make to have an audience of musicians to listen to them.

Learning Bach Experiment

“As an organist and keyboard player, Bach had studied everything he could lay his hands on, from very old repertories—his library eventually contained three copies of Elias Nicolaus Ammerbach’s Orgel oder Instrument Tabulatur of 1571 and a manuscript copy of Frescobaldi’s Fiori musicali—to works of German, French, and Italian masters from the previous generation, to compositions by his own contemporaries.” Christoph Wolff, Bach: The Learned Musician

Bach’s Organ Stops

“To all this was added the peculiar manner in which he combined the different stops of the organ with each other, or his mode of registration. It was so uncommon that many organ builders and organists were frightened when they saw him draw the stops. They believed that such a combination of stops could never sound well, but were much surprised when they afterwards perceived that the organ sounded best just so, and had now something peculiar and uncommon, which never could be produced by their mode of registration.” Forkel, in Bach: the Learned Musician, Christoph Wolff.

Enough Weepy Choir Music

You know, I can’t tell you how excited I get hearing a newly composed sacred choral composition hot off the press, written in the slow, modal style of Pärt or MacMillan or Whitacre. Fast, upbeat, cheerful music with texture and forceful rhythm and gripping harmony—it just doesn’t fit Christian texts, you know?

It was great the first time Pärt did it, but it makes me wonder, what happens when someone commissions a sacred song with more than one verse of the Bible in it? Given how long it takes Whitacre to get through one verse, I’d need some popcorn. Imagine what would happen if Whitacre decided to set three verses of Paul from Romans 5. I might have to bring a little ethanol eco-friendly stove with French press, a “shade-grown, ethically-produced third-world roast”, and maybe a tent and sleeping-bag too, just to keep me going. I don’t know, over the course of four verses, what emotional turmoil I’d be in by the end or how many Kleenex boxes would be trashed. If he ever set five verses, why, undoubtedly the length would justify his choir unionizing. Maybe in between certain teary-eyed pan-diatonic chords he could allow for lunch and bathroom breaks.

But, hey, if composers of sacred texts decide to cheer up any time soon, maybe we could actually not make it sound like the world has just experienced nuclear war. Maybe even get through one verse of the Bible in a record-breaking 15 seconds of music and be upbeat about it too. But, hm, I think you have to be a reform Jew to compose with that much regard for the text. It’s unlikely reformed Christians or classical Protestants would ever think to be text-centered and joyful in their music.