Thursday, May 30, 2013

A Needed One-Off - Bruce Simonds's Prelude on "Iam sol recedit igneus"

As someone who has spent a good amount of time digging up unknown great works, I have spent much of that time in search of the answer to a simple question: what do people need from music?  Many other questions orbit this one, such as: why do people gravitate towards some musics and not others, and what do the differences between people's tastes say about us?  Is there any point in believing in any one standard for excellence?  What does music accomplish for us on a scientific level?  While there are a ton of answers for all these questions I still find myself asking, and I'm often surprised at how I can come to need certain pieces.  And one such piece that has taken the hand of my psyche is a largely unknown organ piece from the mid-20's, something I never thought I'd utter.

One area of Western music I'm not much of an authority on is sacred music, and the organ is Christianity's chosen instrument (aside from the human voice, of course).  It's impossible to talk of organ repertoire without having most of your material coming from the church, and because I find a big chunk of sacred music I've come across to be purely functional I haven't done too much independent listening into either church or organ rep.  I most likely wouldn't have heard of today's piece, or its composer, if I hadn't been researching another figure entirely: Robert Russell Bennett, Broadway's most famous arranger and the author of two astoundingly good orchestral pieces, Abraham Lincoln: A Likeness in Symphony Form and Sights and Sounds: An Orchestral Entertainment.  I'll get to those guys later, as well as the piece I was searching for in the first place, his inventive and haunting Organ Sonata.  The CD I'd loaned out, David Britton's Organo Deco, featured the Sonata as well as five other organ works that Britton felt reflected the Art Deco spirit (all performed on a Deco-styled organ from the late 30's).  While the other works aren't much to write home about (such as Leo Sowerby's very early Comes Autumn Time, which sounds a lot better in its orchestral version), one other work has stuck with me for quite some time: the Prelude on "Iam sol recedit igneus" (1924) by Bruce Simonds, a Yale professor and concert pianist.  This is one of two works he wrote for the instrument, and as far as I can tell the only things he ever published.  Organ music, much like guitar music, is largely written by its performers, and it's not uncommon (especially in a sacred music setting) for a performer to contribute only a work or two to the rep before retreating from composition.  In the case of Simonds, not only was he an interloper, but the piece is actually pretty wonderful.

The piece takes inspiration from an inner verse of the chant "Lux Beate Trinitas", and "Iam"'s title translates to, "As fades the glowing orb of day" (or "As now the sun's rays declining" as the CD booklet tells me).  The sacred prelude tradition goes way back (with Bach's 371 chorale preludes a staple of music theory classes), though I feel this piece as being a more extended study than the name "prelude" allows for, stretching for more than ten minutes.  It takes the sunset cue from the text and sprawls, with a lush, hallowed intensity, across the subconscious.  In my Gardner Read article I talked about how a reliance on extended, resonant simplicity can invade our inner space, taking us into a different state of mind.  I'm not sure Simonds was really a composer (the small inconsistencies in the score tell me he wasn't a professional), but if he wasn't it's all the more remarkable how the Prelude accomplishes this effect in spades.  He relies on few elements, largely a central theme derived from the chant itself, and slowly develops and resets it through a fine, quiet drama.  A simple structure reveals itself, whereby different castings of the theme envelop distant and progressively mounting quotes from the chant.  Simonds knows organ colors very well, using stops and writing density to effortlessly achieve his arc.  And as much control is evident in the piece this is music written from and for the heart.  There is no larger technical device present; it's all a sung dream, a cathartic close to a universal day.  There's no need to explain anything; you know it already, and it surrounds you.

As I said before I'm no expert on organ music, and this piece may be fairly run-of-the-mill in comparison to its more impressive cousins.  I'm also not Catholic, and so I can't speak for the religious significance of the chant or this setting.  I do know this piece's staying power, if only for me personally.  I've come to need it in a small way, and it's a need that's impossible to put into words.  It's something of a given that defending music with words is partially a lost cause, and this isn't any truer than with a seemingly artless piece like this.  It certainly isn't really artless, but rather has the illusion of artlessness.  I am referring to a quote by the composer Leland Procter (husband of Alice McElroy Procter), here talking about his first symphony: "Art is most perfect when it ceases to be art - when there is an impression of artlessness.  I do not underestimate the importance of artfulness or craft, but the greatest impact is achieved when the craft of musical composition is relatively inconspicuous, except to the analyst."  I've come to appreciate this philosophy more and more, as that's where the appreciation of music springs from in the first place.  I'm also reminded of Clarke's Third Law, an oft-repeated statement on the future of science that states: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."  The implication is that technology's ultimate goal is to become invisible, allowing for purely intuitive living and doing.  I've come to realize that the greatest composers are those that have achieved a level of craft where they no longer think of how they compose, and simply do as they were born to do.  Simonds's Prelude isn't a "how" piece - it's a pure emotional statement, an epiphany at the gloaming of the mind's eye.



  1. Regarding your penultimate sentence saying that the greatest composers are those that have achieved a level of craft where they no longer think of how they compose, and simply do as they were born to do: it's never just raw talent, though. The best artists have studied, broken things down, analyzed, reconstructed, and learned from the masters before them; and then, putting all of this knowledge into action and finding the truth in it, they can let their own truth flow out in the closest to perfect form. And when it is true, it is seamless, apparently artless, certainly guileless.

  2. Of course; I never meant to say that they never had to work hard to get to that level of craft, and the hard work can pay off spectacularly.

  3. This is substantially after the fact, but I only just now read your article about a favorite composition, the "Iam Sol" prelude. My first organ teacher was David Britten, and he communicated his enthusiasm for that piece to me many years ago. I have performed it several times since then. You might be interested to know that here is an even more atmospheric and drop-dead gorgeous recording of it on an album called "Organ Music of America" on the Gloria Dei label, played by David Chalmers. Organ recordings simply do not get any more beautiful than this.