Princeton Symphony Orchestra’s concert on Sunday, October 9, will feature the world premiere of “Is it enough? Perhaps It Is,” a piece commissioned by PSO from London-born composer Julian Grant. Grant, who is best known for his operas and chamber music, now splits his time between Princeton and New York. His partner, Peter Lighte, holds a PhD in East Asian studies from Princeton and has taught Chinese history and philosophy as well as being founding chairman of J. P. Morgan Chase Bank China. They have two daughters.
The October 9 concert takes place at 4 p.m. in Princeton University’s Richardson Auditorium. Below, Grant discusses the origins and inspirations behind his new work.
As a jobbing composer, I am often asked to do things outside my comfort zone, and one learns to deliver the goods. But when a tussle with J.S.Bach found its way to me, I hesitated a little — it felt a bit like asking a minnow to take on Moby Dick. But I reasoned that many composers and musicians have taken him on in many ways. Mozart and Beethoven transcribed his music for strings; Liszt, Busoni, and Siloti made virtuoso keyboard transcriptions; and Gounod added a soupy melody to the first prelude in The Well-Tempered Clavier and made a hit tune: “Ave Maria.”
Bach surfaces on the Romantic symphony orchestra via Elgar, Respighi, Schonberg, Webern, and Stravinsky, and conductors Leopold Stokowski, Henry Wood, Otto Klemperer, Dmitri Mitropulos, and Eugene Ormandy. Andreas Segovia transcribed works for guitar, JSB was jazzed up in the 1960s by the Swingle Singers and Jacques Loussier, and a whole festival entitled Swinging Bach took place in Leipzig 2000, devoted to recreations of his music. Furthermore, Bach himself was a prolific re-arranger of his own work, and, indeed, poacher of many other illustrious contemporaries’ notes.
The Princeton Symphony Orchestra initially asked me to orchestrate the brief Bach chorale “Es ist genug” (“It is enough”) that Alban Berg quotes fully in the closing section of his Violin Concerto. It is Berg’s piece that will follow mine in the PSO’s October 9 Viennese Reflections concert. “Sure,” I said, “but it will be a mighty short opener. The chorale lasts only 50 seconds!” So, I was asked to “have my way with it” and take 8-10 minutes doing so. A rather more ambitious undertaking.
The very first book I was required to buy as a green and nerdy music student was Bach’s 371 Harmonized Chorales and 69 Chorale Melodies with Figured Bass edited by one Albert Riemenschneider, an American musicologist. This tome inspired terror in us neophytes, as it was the basis of our training in harmony and voice leading. These chorale (hymn like) melodies were well known to the congregations of Bach’s time, and he used them in his cantatas and passions, arranging them so the public could join in with the familiar melody, harmonized by the choir and instruments. We students were given the melodies and told to harmonize them in Bach’s style, and then compare them to his versions. Intimidating to say the least, but I was in good company. Beethoven himself said that the name “Bach” (brook or stream) was inappropriate, “Meer” (sea) would have been more suitable for someone regarded as the great consolidating foundation of the western musical tradition and its supreme technician.
The melody of “Es ist genug” has caused much comment, as the first four rising notes are all whole tones which overshoot the customary major scale, and it outlines a “forbidden” musical interval, known in earlier times as the “diabolus in musica,” since used in Western music of later periods to convey unease and disruption. But Bach, of course, did not write the melody. I did my research, and unearthed the original — a six-part motet by Johann Rudolf Ahle (1625-83), a predecessor of J.S. Bach’s at Muhlhausen, a prosperous city since medieval times. His version is simple and straightforward and I quote it in the first half of my piece, before playing with Bach’s version. Compared to Ahle, Bach’s harmonization is unexpected, with, at one point, a sliding chromatic bass that could almost be floating jazz chords. This was one of the chorales that we studied in depth, as an example of how Bach transcended his own rules and conventions. We were not permitted to imitate such extravagances!
There is a satisfying symmetry in Ahle’s melody. It balances the first four ascending whole tones with four final, almost identical descending pitches which loom large in subsequent musical literature, as a symbol of farewell. The last falling three notes — (the same as the opening of “Three Blind Mice”) surface as the opening gesture in Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 26 in E-Flat Major, Op. 81a “Les adieux” with the word “lebewohl” (farewell) spelled out, each syllable attached to a note. Later, Mahler was to use and abuse these three notes to terrifying effect in the first movement of his Ninth Symphony.
What struck me after queuing up behind all these illustrious predecessors was the power of the cadences, points where the music comes to rest, sometimes as an “Amen.” There is colossal certainty about them, as if to bolster Lutheran faith, banishing all doubt. I found them both impressive and impassive, particularly from a 21st-century vantage point, where musical language offers no such certainty. Hence I emphasize these cadences and cast them as mighty buoys that stand out in a sea of ambiguity. Bach’s inner parts have a life of their own and dominate the piece as it proceeds, blossoming into some long breathed, almost symphonic melodies. In fact, once well stuck into a certain passage in the alto part, I realized that there was enough material here to generate an entire symphony. The eight-minute piece concludes with a hard won affirmation of the final cadence and weaves the final notes of the chorale into an extended, fading sunset farewell.
I felt this concluding passage was very personal when I wrote it. How strange then, that most of the notes you hear there are not my own!