Tango Toccata on a Theme by Melchior Vulpius (2001)
Tango Toccata resulted from a commission from the San Diego Chapter of the American Guild of Organists for the Region IX Convention in 2001; it is published in Bridging the Centuries: The San Diego Organ Anthology (World Library Publications). Charles Rus gave the premiere performance during the San Diego convention. The piece is based on a chorale tune composed by Melchior Vulpius in 1609; the tune appears in the German Lutheran hymnal (Gesangbuch) as #333, with the text of a hymn of praise. The tune is first introduced in the piece as the basis for an unusual toccata that includes both rapid passagework and punctuating chords. A lyrical section follows, in which the tune is colored with two different modal centers while the thematic material of the melody continues with the same pitches. The tango is the next event, and the melodic material of the tune is ideally suited to treatment in this dance form. Embellishments gradually develop the dance section into the final toccata, where the tune appears in the pedal and the hands move in rapidly repeated chords.
Fantasy on “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” (2002)
Karen Larson Black, professor of organ at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa, commissioned me to compose a new piece in honor of the sesquicentennial of Wartburg College. The piece was commissioned in memory of the Rev. Henry J. Kurtz and funded by Harold Kurtz as a tribute to his father. The work was premiered by Karen Black as part of a commemorative organ recital on May 25, 2002, during sesquicentennial celebrations at the college.
The piece is a set of continuous, transforming variations on the well-known chorale known to us as “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” After a massive opening statement derived from a signature motive in the hymn, the work begins with a multi-voiced fugue based on the contour of the chorale tune. The fugue builds to a cadenza that leads into a toccata based upon the inversion of the tune. At the point where a toccata might be expected to gain intensity, the texture dissolves into swirling passagework in ever-decreasing registrations. The chorale tune is then, finally, presented in a treatment reminiscent of Distler’s transparent, energetic textures, spiced with mutations and reeds. A sudden, hushed interlude leads to a lush setting of the tune registered in strings and celestes. The serpentine fugue subject makes an appearance that leads the music into a pedal solo followed by a fanfare-toccata driven by syncopated chords above the tune, which appears in the pedal part. In all, there are five variations.
Herzlich tut mich verlangen (O Sacred Head, Now Wounded) (1997)
This chorale prelude was commissioned by John Ferguson of St. Olaf College for the publication A New Liturgical Year (Augsburg Fortress) and subsequently also used in the Lent anthology by the same publisher. The chorale melody is carried by the pedal part (at 4’); the manual parts create a dense background of undulating sound revolving around motivic segments of the chorale tune, especially the descending four notes that signal the theme.
I Pange lingua (1995)
II Ubi caritas (1996)
III Victimae paschali (1997)
Retablos is a cycle of works based upon Gregorian chant themes: a triptych of pieces that are intended to be as independent as they are interrelated. The cycle can be performed as a whole, and each individual piece can be performed by itself. The musical materials in this set are derived from non-tonal modes incorporating flamenco modal patterns. The term retablo refers to a painted altar screen in a church; thus, the title suggests possibilities for Biblical symbolism and tone painting.
Pange lingua opens with an improvisatory, virtuosic introduction that moves quickly into a driving dance propelled by shifting meters and strong accents. The dance dissolves into an ethereal centerpiece, only to return with added intensity in the form of a toccata-like expansion of the dance rhythms in flying chords that preserve and develop the shifting accents and meters. The piece evokes the chant’s references to the “glorious battle; the triumph of the victim” and the tribute to Christ as “Redeemer.” Ubi caritas begins with a foreshadowing of the chant theme in a hushed pedal line, answered by a lush chord progression. A lyrical presentation of the chant follows, with hypnotic ornamentation of the melody eventually bringing the work to its central dance, which recalls the 5/8 meters in Pange lingua. The lyrical opening recurs as a transition into a fortissimo ostinato-based wall of powerful chords above the ornamented version of the chant, carried by the pedal part. The work closes with another reference to the opening material, setting again the mood of mystery and contemplation. This work expresses the serenity found in the chant’s message about love, charity, and the presence of God. Victimae paschali has an ominous, powerful opening statement, with double-pedaling and large, extended chords in the manual parts. A subito piano entry on strings and celestes allows the chant to enter in the pedal (4’). This gentle section develops until there is a rich, full-textured passage including all three chant themes presented in contrapuntal juxtaposition. The next section is an Argentinean dance with the chant as its melody; the dance leads seamlessly into a very slow and hypnotic progression in the manual parts over a development of the inversion of the chant melody in the pedal part (8’ reed). The sudden, startling appearance of a powerful toccata initiates an inexorable drive that continues to build in intensity. The final section is an evocation of massive bells, with tolling chords in the manual parts and a flying pedal ostinato. A grand broadening and thickening of the harmonies over double-pedaling makes the final statement. Tone painting in this work could be described by a quote directly from the chant’s text: “Death and life have contended in that combat stupendous: the Prince of life, who died, reigns immortal.” This final piece was commissioned in honor of Marilyn Mason’s fiftieth anniversary as a faculty member at the University of Michigan; it was premiered by Janice Beck at the 1997 Annual Conference on Organ Music at the University of Michigan.
Home Suite Home: Across America with the Pipe Organ (2002)
I New York: The Principal City (to John Ferguson)
II Flutes for San Francisco (to Phyllis Stringham)
III Cajun Strings (to Michael Barone)
IV Chicago Reed Blues (to Anthony Baglivi)
V Tango for Tucson: It Takes Tutti to Tango (to Wayne Leupold)
This work resulted from a commission from Wayne Leupold to produce a piece that would demonstrate a large organ. The piece took the form of a five-movement organ symphony representing different regions and musical styles of the United States. There is an optional dramatic narration that offers spoken tributes to the five regions. Four movements are related to four families of tone, and the final movement is a full-organ finale. Movement I is based on the hymn tune “Foundation,” and it is a fanfare-like opener meant to suggest the sophistication and influence of New York. Movement II is based on San Francisco revivalist jazz, movement III evokes Cajun fiddling, movement IV is Chicago blues, and the final work is a large tango in celebration of my home city. The dedications honor people who have been influential in my career as performer and composer.
- Pamela Decker