Sound Theology by Colleen Butcher

Cantus Firmus

Everything needs a foundation. Trees only grow tall, their branches and leaves reaching toward the skies, because of the stability of their roots.

In the 13th century, composers began using a technique that became known as cantus firmus. A low melody of long notes was used to ground or “weight” the overall composition, allowing the other voices to unfold or “float” above. In addition to providing a structural element to the music, the grounding melody creates a foundation that influences the harmonic structure as well.  By creating a progression of long notes, the composer has the freedom to improvise in the upper melodies, changing the tonal center frequently or slowly. The music can adapt to the text, carefully reflecting the emotions and the setting. read more…

Matching Vibrato

This week’s playlist highlights the string quartet – the ensemble arguably the crown jewel of the chamber music genre – two violins, viola and cello.

Joseph Haydn is often credited with developing and promoting the string quartet, in the mid-1700s. Haydn’s compositional techniques and format were expanded by the two other masters of the Classical Period: Mozart and Beethoven. Together, these three composers wrote over 100 works for string quartet! This massive output set the pace for those who came after, as virtually all of the major composers of the 18th through 21st century have composed works for these four instruments. read more…

Diversity in Unity

In French, the word ensemble means “together, with one another, or combined.” This week’s music features examples of diversity together: ensemble.  

In particular, a wind ensemble is a combination of difference unified. Wood and brass, single reeds, double reeds, metal mouthpieces, curved and straight shapes, all connected by individual breaths, to create ensemble. Other ensembles, like the brass groups in last week’s playlist, bring together different members of the same family of instruments. But the wind ensemble combines instruments from different families: flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and french horn. These distinctions require a different kind of attention to playing together, and they define the sound of the ensemble. The players are not focused on their differences, however. Their energy goes into the music. Despite the diversity of their instruments, they create harmony, together. read more…

Elusive but Essential

There is an intangible quality that develops when those involved in a group have built connections and rapport through working together in all conditions, over an extended period of time. These connections are often created through times of difficulty or diversity, as musicians (or people in general) learn to listen with intention and defer to one another for the good of the whole. Diminished when one person in the group tries to be more prominent that the others, but enhanced when each one understands how they fit in a unified whole, this quality – elusive but essential – is called ensemble. Ensemble is more than getting along with each other and playing well together. It is a mysterious element that, in the best ensembles, creates something that is more than the sum of its parts.

During the season of Lent, the playlists will explore different varieties of chamber music: each week a different musical combination and an opportunity to identify the nuances of superior ensemble. Instead of turning inward to focus on our own, individual Lenten discipline(s), these musical examples will help remind us of how much we need each other, as we travel toward Holy Week. One practice we can explore is to be purposeful about creating and enhancing the ensemble of those with whom we will share the Lenten journey.

The sound of one person singing sola voce (a single voice) or a cappella (without accompaniment) may be lovely, but a single voice can never create harmony. Ensemble develops when a small group of people commit to the process of experimenting, submitting, wrestling, discovering, and remaining, together. They continually demonstrate the willingness to invest in each other and the group. Aside from the foundational elements of tempo, tone quality, and dynamics, each group member must learn to anticipate the exact moment of release of air into the instrument, synchronize vibrato, match articulation, trust their section, and play their own part with confidence. These are some of the subtle, but essential, qualities of ensemble that you will hear in the music over the next two months. read more…

The Week Between

Each season of the liturgical year is like a room full of beautiful artifacts and experiences that we spend a number of days or weeks exploring. As we move from room to room in this narrative house, we must pass through various doorways. The connections between seasons are sometimes referred to as hinge Sundays because they help us swing freely between one season and the next.

Transfiguration Sunday and Ash Wednesday act as hinges between Epiphany and Lent. The contrast between these two events could not be more stark: mountain top to the dust of earth, glory to repentance, external wonder to internal reflection. In order to navigate these major transitions, the liturgical designers have shaped the week between Epiphany and Lent so that we have time to move from one place to another, from one emotion through to the next. Sometimes the shift comes quickly, as does the daily shift from Good Friday to Holy Saturday to Easter Sunday. But the shift from Epiphany gives us a full 10 days of movement, from the last Sunday of Epiphany through Transfiguration Sunday to Ash Wednesday. Instead of a quickly swinging door, we have a longer hallway to traverse as we move from one room to the next. read more…