Understanding Idioms

There is a point where a composer needs to understand the music they use to compose a piece. When Brahms wrote his Hungarian Dances he understood the folk music he was emulating. Dvorák not only understood the Slavonic folk music used version of Slavonic Dances, he also understood the music idioms Brahms was using so Dvorák music creates a comparible, compatible set. Bartók used Eastern European folk music as inspiration as well, but with a much different effect on the music. Still, the underlying understanding of the folk music is appearant. Michael Tippet was a fan of gospel music, negro spirituals and jazz, feeling these idioms would replace European folk music as the inspiration for future generations of composers. While I agree, I am not convinced Tippet truely understands the idioms of these forms of American folk music.

On Saturday, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Gennadi Rozhdestvensky and the Edinburgh Festival Chorus performed Tippet's "A Child of our Time." The piece is an oratorio based around the events of Herschel Grynszpan's shooting of a German diplomat in Paris, 1938. This act created the impetus German needed for Kristallnacht, which ultimately lead to the holocaust. Much of the music is based on Negro Spirituals. While some of the music is directly referenced, with hymns like "Steal awa, steal away, steal away to Jesus", "Nobody knows the Trouble I see" and "Go down, Moses", other original pieces of music are done to retain the flavor of the spirituals. The Tenor's aria "I have no money for my bread" is one example.

As a collective whole, Tippet manages to keep the piece together with a consistent sound. Unfortunately, Tippet opted to directly utilize some Negro Spirituals without really understanding the idiom, rearranging the spirituals to fit his over all piece but not retaining their unique flavor and yet not venturing far enough away to be something unique. He therefore fell into a trap of creating something that doesn't quite sound like Negro Spirituals and yet, doesn't sound like something else either.

The stresses in gospel music can't be defined as coming on the up beat or the down beat, or the even beats or odd. The stresses in gospel music tend to flow, both with the words and with the underlying rhythms. It is the mutating stresses that give gospel music some of it's unique character, and what makes some hymns gospel music and other's simply not. When a gospel hymn is performed with stresses in the wrong places, the music feels more ridgid than it should. Even if the stresses are in the right places, but not done with either a slight hesitation or anticipation (again, depending on the situation) the music feels clumbsy or stiff.

The performance on Saturday night had very much this kind of feeling. The solo vocal work by Nicole Cabell (soprano) and John Tomlinson (bass) were amazing with some exceptional moments by the Edinburgh Festival Chorus (Christopher Bell as chorus master). But overall the piece failed to bring to life the feelings of Negro Spirituals or of gospel music. Perhaps the best example of this lack of understanding of the idiom is in the piece "Nobody knows the trouble I see." The words of the original are used, but the rhythm is changed. The original had a swing feel, but in Tippet's version the rhythm is straight. You could suggest it was the performance and not the music that changed the rhythm, except that the rhythm of the trombones accompanying the chorus forces the music into a straight rhythmic pattern. It felt as if it wanted to be gospel music and just don't know how to get there.

The difficulty with writing in any particular style is understanding the nuances of the idiom. When we're asked to write a Haydn or Mozart pastiche, a solid understanding of their music is necessary. Fortunately there is a great deal of study of their styles of music, so understanding it in an analytical way is possible. Much of American folk music is done by the "feel" of the music. The indepth study of it hasn't happen yet (to my knowledge). So, in order to really write in this style, composers need to almost grow up with the music, so the writing of it is as much internal as it is technical. Michael Tippet obviously had a real love for the style. What he didn't have is a real understanding of the idioms.


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