Greg Bartholomew CCMC ChoralNet Composer of the Month, April 2012
Date: April 10, 2012
The Composers of Choral Music Community ChoralNet Composer of the Month for April 2012 is Greg Bartholomew.
This month’s installment has taken me a while to finish. I started out asking myself the question: “Why would a conductor choose one composer over another?” This is no small question. There are so many reasons. Among the drivers for repertoire selection are: familiarity with the person or their work, a catchy title or text that speaks to the conductor’s spirit or more practically, their programming needs and often the sheer beauty or expressiveness the composer is able to invoke.
I then tried to apply that to this month’s composer. Why would I, or more to the point, why should you give the works of Greg Bartholomew a look? I am happy to say that there is one paramount reason for doing so: Greg is a master craftsman.
Quality craftsmanship is the catalyst for marketing choices for all that are serious about their subject area. A young homeowner may buy cheap tools to do a job around the house but a professional mechanic buys quality tools that last. When you buy a car, do you improve your chances of getting a quality vehicle by checking the car facts or reading reviews from reputable sources? In the music field, how much did the concertmaster for the New York Philharmonic pay for his violin? The stuff of what makes a great performance includes using quality well-crafted repertoire.
The quintessential element that separates choral composers from instrumental composers is of course, text. How a composer handles that text speaks volumes to the quality of the work. Greg handles text extremely well. Word painting and variety are the two trademarks of his work. He is not afraid to tackle texts that few other composers would dream of setting. In his SATB “To a Locomotive in Winter” he set a Walt Whitman poem that is about as complex a text for composing as they come. Here are the opening 4 lines of the 25-line poem:
“THEE for my recitative!
Thee in the driving storm, even as now-the snow-the winter day declining;
Thee in thy panoply, thy measured dual throbbing, and thy best convulsive;
Thy black cylindrical body, golden brass, and silvery steel;”
As you see, there is not much to build a standard phrase from but plenty of opportunity to propel the text. "To a Locomotive in Winter" is available through the Composition Showcase http://choralnet.org/view/306612 on ChoralNet. Click here for the entry, control-click (Mac) or right-click (PC) here for the PDF and here for the sound file.
I will look at two of Bartholomew’s works in depth: “The Tree” and “The 21st Century (A Girl Born in Afghanistan).” I will be looking mostly at word painting in the first example and variety in the second. You may want to open up the score to “The Tree” and follow along with me.
The Tree may be purchased through the Composition Showcase on ChoralNet. Click here for the entry, control-click (Mac) or right-click (PC) here for the PDF and here for the sound file.
Greg chose a text by the 19th Century American poet Jones Very for this work. The poem speaks of love in all four seasons, using the changing appearance of a tree to allude to other loves. Throughout the piece Greg enhances the text through the use of various forms of word painting. I will be putting this under the microscope, looking at the minutia measure by measure. When completed please watch and listen to the piece with all of these insights in mind.
mm 1-5: This phrase begins mezzo-piano and crescendos on the text “thy swelling buds” to show the early spring growth.
mm 6-9: A staggering of entrances and rhythm differences on the text “and one by one” give the feeling of a plethora of leaves unfurling in quick succession.
mm 13-15: A crescendo on “they knew that warmer suns” shows warming air.
m 20: The chord is a tonic triad missing the third on the word “cold” to give an empty feeling.
mm 21-25: The text is “And when in darker growth.” Greg uses just the men’s voices to give the darker feel.
mm 27: Greg uses the first eighth notes in the piece to show the busy activity of the “early robin’s nest” made in spring but now covered by growth.
mm 29-33: “I love to lie beneath thy waving screen” is treated with an eighth/quarter syncopated motive and a crescendo/decrescendo to show the waving motion of the branches. Greg slows this “summer” section down 10 beats per minute to show a more relaxed summer pace.
mm 34-40: The pitches rise to the highest level anywhere in the piece in S, A and T on the words “summer’s heat” and is accompanied by a crescendo.
mm 41-45: The autumn begins here with a little faster tempo. The text “And when the autumn winds have stript thee bare” is stripped down to just the men’s parts.
mm 45-49: This is my favorite example. First off, Greg sets a changing meter of 2/4, 3/4 and 4/4 to get the word accent on the first beat of each measure to come out how it would be spoken. The 3/4 precipitates the first word in the measure lingering a while longer than the other preceding words. This allows the 4/4 measure to contain straight quarter notes to show the meaning of trodden, as if walking through the snow. Even though the word is “untrodden,” taking into account that this is just a moving moment in time, it allows the listener to see the walk through the snow in order to appreciate the beauty of the undisturbed white crust.
mm 49-55: “when naught is thine that made thee once so fair” ends with the altos crossing higher than the sopranos. Bringing out the inside part speaks to a hidden or inner beauty.
mm 56-62: The text reads: “I love to watch thy shadowy form below” This is another brilliant move. The word “shadowy” m 58 in the soprano and tenor is followed by lower pitched “shadowy” in m 59 in the alto and bass. Another “shadowy” comes a full measure later to show the elongating of the shadows in winter. The word “below” has a higher pitch on the first syllable and a lower pitch on the second.
mm 63-70: This is the longest sustaining image I see in the piece. It begins with the text “though I love to look” as a melody in the bass. Above their heads are the S, A and T in long durations as if they were large bare branches over the head of the narrator. This image continues or is repeated in the next few measures. The text continues: “through thy loveless arms” a little louder. Then “I love to look above on stars” with a big crescendo as if looking up to see the heavens through the empty branches. The branches are kept empty by using the same rhythms, no busyness or changing counterpoint. “Star” is the high note, loudest and most accented in all the piece, placing it high in the sky.
mm 71-74: There is a decrescendo bringing us back to Earth.
mm 73-End: On the text “when most we need their love” the final three notes use long durations moving together in an unusual cadence: VI7 iv7 i9 in first inversion giving the feeling of love not quite fulfilled. Brilliant!!
I realize that much of the imagery I see in this piece has to do with my own experience and perspective. However, an excellent composer like Greg Bartholomew weaves meaning into the poetry with every word he sets.
Here's the video:
Next I wanted to investigate the other question I have about Greg’s work: How does he set those marathon long texts in a way that is musical and holds the attention of the listener? The answer includes all of the word painting found in “The Tree” but relies largely on variety. "The 21st Century (A Girl Born in Afghanistan" is for SATB divisi, a cappella. It includes nine tempo changes and frequent changes in dynamics, texture, meter and character. To me it is what Aaron Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait” would have been like if set for choir instead of for orchestra and narrator. It is a bit architectonic in that the motives from the A section return at the end to give the listener a taste of familiarity. Beyond that, it is through composed.
As we looked at the minutia in the score of “The Tree,” for “The 21st Century…” I would like you to listen to the video and pay attention to the cornucopia of variety that Bartholomew provides the listener.
Section A begins with the tenors singing the introduction of the speech in a declamatory style while the rest of the choir sings “ah” emphasizing the dignity of the man who is speaking and the formal setting of the speech in front of the Nobel Prize Committee.
0:31 Interlude and Section B. This section sounds like a laid back anthem or simple octavo with soft dynamics. The meter changes from 4/4 to 6/8 to 2/4 and back to 4/4. The text says “Today in Afghanistan, a girl will be born. Her mother will hold her…in these basic acts of human nature, humanity knows no division.”
2:02 Section C. The text says “We have entered the third millennium through a gate of fire…” Bartholomew lights the fire with fast, syncopated rhythms and stronger dynamics.
2:44 Section D Is in chorale style with most of the music flowing homophonically and homorhythmically. There is a little imitative polyphony at a slow tempo.
3:36 Section E is characterized mostly by differences in articulation. At 3:50 the tenors have a legato melody while the rest of the choir sings like bells.
3:59 Section F. A little later at 4:05 a dialogue happens between the men’s and women’s sections, completing each other's sentences and then at 4:22 the articulation changes to be detached.
4:39 Section G. This begins a much more legato style with slower rhythms and more imitative motives. The dynamics remain very soft until 5:30. At this point, the text “We can love” is treated with crescendos to emphasis the crux of Kofi Annan’s speech: “We can love what we are without hating what we are not. “
5:59 Section H (A1). The last section begins like the first with text from the original address to the audience. It ends very softly and reflectively on the text “The girl born in Afghanistan today, is just one test of our humanity. But it is the only test that matters.”
Through variety and word painting Greg infuses his works with strength and power. They are works that will last. They are works that can be pulled out and performed again and again.
Greg has been named the 2012-2013 Composer in Residence for the Cascadian Chorale which is located just outside Greg's hometown of Seattle, WA. This means that several of Greg’s works will receive performances in the upcoming year. These are the pieces that are tentatively scheduled:
The world premiere of "Moon Man", for December 8-9, 2012, concerts entitled "A Light in Winter"
"Three Gnostic Poems" (complete), for March 16-17, 2013, concerts entitled "Flights of Fancy"
"A Girl Born in Afghanistan", for June 1-2, 2013, concerts entitled "Far from Home"
I asked the ensemble’s director about how he and Greg formed a reciprocal relationship. Here is his response:
So when the stars are aligned just right it would seem that there is yet value in sending our scores to conductors. It helps that Greg and Gary work in the same city. Building relationships with conductors that share something in common seems to be a good path to travel. The ensemble’s website is here: www.cascadianchorale.org
Greg's 2007 work “An Open World” recently received its Northwest premiere by the Portland Vocal Consort under the direction of Ryan Heller. This is the first piece in a series based on the poetry of Greg’s father Fletcher LaVallee Bartholomew. The set is called “Three Gnostic Poems.” Greg’s father was an aviator and a bit of a philosopher. He gained some insights into the workings of the universe while up in the air looking back at the world. This piece is unusually delectable for the flavor of a son bringing the words of his deceased father back to life. Would that we all had such an opportunity. Bravo!
Greg Bartholomew’s works have been performed all over the English speaking world and continental Europe. He composes both choral and instrumental music. Greg is a semi-finalist in the 2012 American Prize for Choral Music Award and received one of the first Silver Platter Awards for repertoire in the CCMC Composition Showcase. Greg's music is available through his website www.gregbartholomew.com.
Please peruse the scores available on ChoralNet in the Composition Showcase http://www.choralnet.org/view/306612. About 100 pieces are currently available by 30 different composers. This service is unique on the internet. Composers are only allowed to post a few of their best pieces, ensuring that all you will find are quality works. It is provided as a service for ACDA and ChoralNet members free of charge.