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  • Writer's pictureJackson Harmeyer

55. Learning Gregorian Chant and the Genesis of My Organ Symphony, Op. 22

St. Francis Xavier Cathedral in downtown Alexandria

On Wednesday, February 11, I returned to singing as part of a choral group for the first time in nearly ten years. I had last sung with the St. James Camerata in summer 2006 before turning away from performance in favor of a thorough, independent study of classical music. Now though Maestro Joshua Zona of the Rapides Symphony Orchestra had started a Gregorian chant group and was excited to recruit me as a member. Calling our group the Schola, rehearsals would be Wednesday nights downtown at St. Francis Xavier Cathedral and, once a month, we would sing at Sunday mass. We had a small group for our February rehearsals and first service on Sunday, March 1. The group got even smaller afterwards, but also grew more concise. The past two months, we have had only four singers: Maestro Zona and myself plus Professor Eamon Halpin of LSUA and guitarist Daniel “Razzy” Carter. All four of us have particular and very different strengths where music is concerned. Eamon is a trained singer with years of experience whereas Daniel is a talented blues guitarist and popular singer, although he has never had formal voice training and readily admits he cannot read music. Occasionally we have also been joined by Nick Lena, who is the organist at the Cathedral and, like me, a recent NSU graduate.

At our first rehearsal, Maestro Zona provided us with an informative packet about reading chant notation—neumes—and we discussed concepts. I did not find the music particularly difficult and the neumes made perfect sense once we knew how to read them. The chant had a special character, and singing in unison reinforced that somber atmosphere. We also experimented with adding drones, sometimes sung by one or two members and at other times played on the organ. Pastor Jim Ferguson visited with us the morning before our first mass, and even with our small, still-learning group, we seemed to carry the church. Our next performances were at the Good Friday service on April 3 and on May 10 for Mother’s Day Mass. On Good Friday, our smaller group sang the Crux Fidelis and, for Mother’s Day, we sang a polyphonic setting of Esurientes implevit bonis by sixteenth-century composer Orlande de Lassus; we also learned a Gloria for Mother’s Day. This would be our last performance for the spring as Maestro Zona has now left for Pennsylvania where he directs a summer music festival. I look forward to resuming rehearsals in the fall though!

Kyrie eleison in modern neumatic notation

This experience singing chant has really opened-up the world of early music for me. I have always struggled to maintain interest just listening to medieval chant and Renaissance polyphony, but, now that I have a feel for the sound world and phrase structures of chant, I feel I understand the music much better and can enjoy it more fully. The experience has also inspired me to compose a new piece for organ based on chant. At our rehearsal on Wednesday, February 25, Maestro Zona took us up to the choir loft of the Cathedral where he could play around on the organ. A quick repeated motif that he played from one of our chants got me thinking about doing something similar in a new composition. That was the week that the Shreveport Opera was in town, but after they left Friday I spent my entire weekend composing. The current piece—likely a finished movement of a larger organ symphony—is based on a Kyrie chant we had sung. Like any Kyrie, it is in three sections (Kyrie–Christe–Kyrie), although the sections are more interconnected and expansive than a traditional Kyrie. There are a few different strains within these sections, so the overall formal outline can be diagramed as:

  • Kyrie I: Introduction of chant line – Fast/melisma-based I – “Kyrie”-based – Fast/melisma-based II

  • Christe: Introduction of chant line – “Christe”-based I – Fast/melisma-based III – “Christe”-based II – merger of “Kyrie” and “Christe” material

  • Kyrie II: Introduction of chant lines – “Kyrie”-based

The first version I created on Friday, February 27 was constructed as a Baroque organ mass in which the organ and chant choir could alternate verses. It was a scheme familiar from François Couperin’s organ masses. Saturday and Sunday though, I abandoned this layout in favor of a more integrated, organ-only composition in the manner of a nineteenth or twentieth-century organ symphony. This new version is much more fluid—perhaps even confusingly so for first time listeners. Throughout there are continuous references to the chant material. While the busy melismas are often quoted directly, I setup pitch charts for the initial “Kyrie” and “Christe” music so that sequences are shuffled and scattered, like in my more chromatic referential compositions but also many works preceding those. Often multiple versions of the same chant quotation are layered on top one another with different modal centers and at expanded or contracted rhythmic values. Different quotes can also run into each other such as in the merger of the “Kyrie” and “Christe” material shown in the outline above. I enjoyed having an existing melody with which to work, and I made good use of the leap intervals which could quickly identify each motif. I also made frequent usage of the B-flat pitch class—the only accidental used in the original chant so its creators could avoid the tritone. E-flat also gained special significance in my composition as a way to provide a close dissonance to the tonic D. The final chord is D major as opposed to D minor, although the positive resolution is not unexpected thanks to the mood of the music preceding it.

One of the many organs I saw in Germany two summers ago

The finished movement lasts about six minutes, and, with reference to the chant idiom it draws on, my Kyrie is modal. Not unlike the First Movement of the Suite for Solo Guitar, Op. 21, however, that modality is tenuous, and there are moments of extreme dissonance where that stability seems to collapse or become irrelevant. I find the structure and texture of the Kyrie much more complex than the Guitar Suite though. The first three movements of the Guitar Suite all fall into easy ternary layouts and are relatively homophonic; the Kyrie, although also ternary at its most essential, is richly interwoven like Jazz Cats, Op. 20 or the Third Movement of the Piano Trio, Op. 18. The chant motives work as multiple references to provide an aural structure which tames something more complex, although not openly chromatic like in these preceding works. Whether this still constitutes referential music or simply the development of multiple themes as composers have done for ages shall be debated in my next post. As with the Guitar Suite, the lack of a more chromatic idiom might also call referential music into question.

The Kyrie movement was complete by Thursday, March 5. The following week on March 13, I started a second Sanctus movement, but I have not been back to finish this one yet. As I move away from the organ mass idea and closer to an organ symphony, I am not sure that further movements will be drawn from the Mass Ordinary or if they will instead integrate other chants. The Organ Symphony, Op. 22, as I have tentatively designated it, will probably take a standard four-movement plan before the composition is complete. When I feel fully-comfortable with the piece, I would like to share it with Maestro Zona and also Marie Durham, the organist at St. James Episcopal Church who played my Organ Prelude in A minor, Op. 15 No. 1 back in summer 2012. I would certainly like to hear their opinions on my new Kyrie.

JSH 15.05.14

About Jackson. Jackson Harmeyer is a music scholar and composer. He is a graduate of the Louisiana Scholars’ College—Louisiana’s designated honors college—where he completed an undergraduate thesis entitled “Learning from the Past: The Influence of Johann Sebastian Bach upon the Soviet Composers.” He has followed classical music around the world, attending the BachFest Leipzig in Germany, Colorado’s Aspen Music Festival, and many concerts across Louisiana and Texas. Resident in Alexandria, Jackson works with the Arts Council of Central Louisiana as Series Director of the Abendmusik Alexandria chamber music series. He also writes the program notes for the Rapides Symphony Orchestra. As his day job, Jackson serves as Operations Manager of TicketCentral.


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