Monday, 30 May 2016

Lili Boulanger “Pie Jesu”

General text

Pie Jesu Domine,
Dona eis requiem. (×2)
Pious Lord Jesus,
Give them rest.
Pie Jesu Domine,
Dona eis requiem sempiternam.   
Pious Lord Jesus,
Give them everlasting rest.

Text in Boulanger’s setting.

Pie Jesu Domine,
Dona eis requiem
. (×2)

Fig 1
Pie Jesu Domine,
Dona eis requiem
Pie Jesu Domine,

Fig 2
Instrumental section 1, eight bars

Pie Jesu
Dona eis requiem

Fig 3 Un peu anime.
Pie Jesu
Dona eis
sempiternam requiem.  

Fig. 4 

Pie Jesu Domine,
Dona eis requiem.

sempiternam requiem.  


This is Lili Boulanger’s last work, written as she was dying at the early age of 25 from Crohn’s disease. In my view the use of sempiternam requiem in the second half may be taken as the focus point, eternal rest, both as a personal and universal entreaty.

Garbriel Fauré’s setting is by far the best known of Pie Jesu settings, this taken in conjunction with the fact that Lili Boulanger was a pupil of the composer may easily colour one’s judgement into hearing relationships which in fact do not exist. There are superficial connections but these are so slight that close examination makes the kinship all but invalid. The one area of similarity that holds is in the setting of the words, not note for note similarity of rhythm but in their general contour, and even in this respect the rising phrase in fig. 1 from Pie Jesu Domine (G A flat B flat C) to Dona eis requiem (A B flat C D flat) makes clear the urgency of the appeal, this is not emphasised in the Fauré.

The term urgency may suggest that there is more tension in this music than there is, in reality the music is designed to articulate stillness. Take the opening phrase of 12 beats, it forms a rise and fall in thirds by chromatic movement, producing a classic ‘bell’ shape. Place this in context with the string F, G flat, F rise and fall we have tension and resolution with the G flat at the apex. I hear the harmony as outlining G minor to B flat (second inversion) to E flat9 and back in a hypnotic set of repetitions, not a million miles from the Satie-like motion of the Gymnopedies. Readers who are intrigued by this use of static figures may wish to follow up a similar outline which can be heard in the opening of the “Old Buddhist Prayer” where the harmony is a distinctive as the Pie Jesu but less chromatic.

The rise and fall figure saturates the whole score and once one’s hearing is directed towards the feature is becomes the main focus of the instrumental writing. This design is not slavishly followed, sometimes the movement is in the form of an ostinato (at figure 1) which evolves to the only genuine repeat of a bar as a chord structure, seen over bars 15 and 16 to “Pie Jesu” at f dynamic one of only two such markings, the remainder of the music being predominantly in the p – ppp level. The second dynamic highpoint is in the transition to the pedal note section which marks a significant section change in the music.

Where there is progression in the music it is gradual and often chromatic, e.g. the opening F, G flat, F figure (marked fig. x in the manuscript) gradually evolves first in groups of three pitches then two to create a sense of momentum up to the first high point (on D) which marks the change of texture with the pedal A flat. The music example given shows how the strings create momentum through gradual stepwise rises and then dissipate the tension at the close with the ostinato rise and fall outline.

When I first examined the score I considered the rehearsal markers as well placed to show the changes in the section, sectioned which are beautifully dovetailed to make the music as seamless as possible. Taking a crotchet count of the sections seemed to give a symmetrical outline

Opening to 1      48 beats

1-2                          60

2-3                          78

3-4                          60

4 to close             48 + final sustained chord of 4 beats

However, close inspection of the changes showed a different pattern, again starting with 48 beats

48 / 60 / 42 // pedal A flat 36 / pedal D 36 / transition 24.  4/4 section 24 + 24 + final bar.

Counting in groups of 6 this gives:

8 / 10 / 7 / 6 + 6 / 4 / 4 + 4 / closing sustained bar, which gives 25 groups of six for the first half and 24+ for the second, so the pedal points arrive at the halfway point of the work, marking the repeat of “Pie Jesu”.

The pedal points dominate the final part of the music, moving from the D pedal (including the transition) through C to G where the ostinato D, E, F, E provides an ambiguous ending.

The final part to consider in this overview of the work is the vocalist’s melody, which is not truly melodic in any sense. I am certain that many listeners who appreciate the sweet tones of several other works titled “Pie Jesu” will find the melody puzzling and the first rise on Dona eis from G through D to G flat where is rings out against the adjacent F natural almost alarming.  In truth the vocalist’s part is very bare, sometimes reflecting on the melodic development of the strings, but more often arising from the harmony created by the oscillations in the accompaniment. The very closing bars on A-men are the most clearly melodic with the D, E, F, E, D shape partly decorated (and clearly heard in the ostinato in the bass).

As with all composers who die young we wonder about the directions their music may have taken. The both the linear and chord formations in this work indicate an interest akin to the non-progressive harmonies that were to influence a number of later French composers, and it clearly shows characteristics that were to be of significance in the second half of the 20th century.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Repetition and brainworm

The series of blogs on repetition and brainworm can now be read on PDF at

Saturday, 21 May 2016

Some composing outcomes when using O1 and O2 scales

In today’s blog we would like to share some correspondence via e-mail. The material is tidied up a little for clarity but essentially it follows our reactions to writing some (very different sounding) music based on symmetrical scales. We hope that this, and the links, may offer some ideas for further music, and if you do use these scales we would love to hear of your experiences in using them.

(Nurtan’s mail).

I would like to share some thoughts on using the O1 and O2 scales covered in some detail in our blog. (see links below).

Dealing with these particular scales, which were new to both Ken and myself, was like ploughing an unfamiliar field. In order to prepare ourselves for the exploration we required some perspective of the origins of the material. Historically the O1 and O2 scales were first examined when we were trying to understand the methods, scales and sonorities used by Frank Bridge in his Piano Sonata. While they belong to the general class of symmetric scales, these O scales have a cyclic property that results in an abundance of whole tone, whole- half tone, half tone chords. The concurrent melodies have an open chord feeling and relationships that have intriguing sonorities. In addition, as explained in the technical blog on the O scales, they are compactly interchangeable which makes them very useful tools for modulation and creating transitions. The property that facilitates modulation also creates an ambiguity. This can be advantageous in generating an impressionistic sound, but disadvantageous as well. For example, the notes required for a strong cadence or plagal cadence are not in any one O scale. This leads to either to revert to tonal writing for last few bars or define a new cadence that has similarities to the plagal as it is in the 3rd movement of my piano quintet.

My aim was to use the method and the scales in a substantial composition with more than one or two short movements. This is, of course very useful in finding out capabilities of the scales. I chose a piano quintet for several reasons, most important ones were:

a) I am familiar and experience in writing string quartet and piano pieces that are ones both substantial and complex

b) A piano quintet provides for similar and very different voices. This will help to understand the behaviour of the scales under varied sound colour.

c) The different timbres are not too varied – as in an orchestra – to distract attention from the task at hand.

My composition method is very straightforward. I plan a composition, write the music and work out some of the sonorities on my piano. In this case, this process did not change. I made a general sketch, wrote down the music, tried out some sonorities with the piano and edited the manuscript as I went along. The revisions and changes were not excessive. The sonorities did not sound any different than any other 20th/21st century music. However, it felt and it still feels that it was and is different in many aspects, especially in modulation.  Probably, the closest feeling is dabbling with colours without an idea of what to do and at the end coming up with a painting. On the other hand, it is not aleatory like John Cage or Jackson Pollock, it seeks to place motion and stress in the right places using a different harmony. But it is hard to say how that harmony is different. For the most part it sounds like a collection of open chords.

I was thinking about this in conjunction with the Japanese music reviewed in a recent blog. Many of the Japanese concepts are wholly different in practice palette, but the basic response is the same. It is only the composer using the same colours as anybody else to come up with a statement that is individual, universal and Japanese or Welsh or English or whatever all at the same time.


Ken’s reply:

Here are some thoughts regarding the O1 and O2 scales. When I composed with them I started to familiarise myself with the possibilities, filtering out collections and groups of events (as you say they are rich in references to other styles and periods). Knowing that these could be called on to create contrasts with contemporary figurations was useful, particularly as I have been exploring how we react to having a different musical context thrown at us.

As the scales have internal symmetry I made a great play of the notion of formal symmetry – “as below, so above” thinking. There is an obvious danger here in that one could end up with very static, and possibly unappealing progressions and little to offer contrast for the listener.  In order to create interest I wrote the two scales in contrary motion (O and R) crotchet for crotchet, this produced a number of interesting results and more importantly sounded coherent, particularly as the scales land on unisons on occasion and this makes for interesting phrasing.

There are limitations as regards the manipulation of these scales (transposition in particular) but the wealth of references and colour in the chords makes them very easy to work with whatever style you normally use. After a short while one can improvise with these scales and I am sure that jazz players would find them of some interest, they fall under the hands with relative ease, and your comment regarding modulation should create interest for performers of that style.

Nurtan is working on a larger scale composition with symmetric scales, the latest of which is on G+ and sound cloud, this link will take you to the first of the movements:

One of my works using the characteristics of symmetrical scales is Rehearsal Room Memories:

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Music and the incubation period.

You listen to an A section, then the B section, then the A section returns; is it the same as the first A or different? Each note is the same and usually in recordings and performances these days the music is very close to being identical. The element that changes is us, our mood is coloured by the B section. Each and every additional passage added will alter the way we perceive the preceding music.

There are pieces of music that repeat the same units of music over and over again, these are less good for engaging our minds in the business of thinking about relationships between sections. In fact repetitive music can be very good at disengaging us from such activities. But do I go to a concert or put on a CD to become involved in a dialogue with myself about structure, or come to that any other thought that happens to occur? I don’t set out to do this, but I also know that it takes a great deal of discipline to engage without internal disruption from that “little” voice. Occupying our senses visually helps whether it is a visual scene as in a ballet or opera or a visual stimulus as in a score.

When a B section comes along it interrupts the flow of the A section. We know from psychological research that as long as the interruption is resolved it will capture our interest, only when the disrupted flow is left without resolution do we find the activity unsatisfactory. Psychologists have also shown that interruption is far from a negative effect on memory, it can aid retention. It would seem that the Classical composers used their observation of audience reaction well in their designs. We also know that taking time away from one type of engagement aids our view and comprehension of the activity on its return. The repeated music is now in need of reprocessing or reviewing.

This procedure of changing our emotional state is so well used that citing an example is largely unnecessary but the first movement of Beethoven’s fifth does well to illustrate the use of repetition. Listen to the second subject and experience how it works to lead us back into the motto figure, we cannot help but anticipate an increase in the tension, and we are not disappointed, if we ask “why have we gone back to the beginning” we have somehow disengaged ourselves from the music.

If the change of section creates a new perception of old material what happens if the change is progressive and more subtle? Holst’s “Egdon Heath” provides an excellent example of this type of writing where we respond more to the alterations of tempo and timbre than melody. This work is a truly remarkable composition, the opening is based on a collection (later transposed) which in atonal classification comes as 014679. This exotic scale may be thought of as a combination of two augmented fourths a semitone apart and a fourth (C’/G, D/G’, F/B flat), this makes sense when listening to the flutes that follow with the upper parts in parallel fourths A/D, F/B flat, E/A, and the lower in rising major thirds. Combined these give three chords (repeated) that form one of the most distinctive and beautiful sounds in British music. The quality of these harmonic progressions played out as contrapuntal lines makes for considerable contrast with the pentatonic melody (over a stepwise diatonic scale) which arrives after the rapid movement of figure 2. The You Tube recording with Adrian Boult supplies a score with rehearsal figures:

This is a remarkably good performance and one of my favourites despite its age.

It has taken Holst close to five minutes to arrive at this melody, played on the trombone and brass to emphasise the change. The fact that Holst was a trombonist might suggest that this has a particular importance in showing the effect of the previous music on the composer. The mood of the brass theme changes as the viola and strings take over the theme and later the oboe (the harmony again remarkable on the entry of the oboe. This is the return to the exotic scale formations and with the repeat of the oboe melody it is the haunting and bleak character that is intensified. The music that follows is based on open harmonies and is one of the most brilliant pieces of orchestration, but the play between moods carries on with short rhythmic passages gradually giving way to longer periods of darker textures. Even the use of dotted rhythms to add a dance element to the melody makes little impression on the darker side of the music. We have a third repeat of the contrapuntal music (with a wonderful sweeping scale figure) before the climax, where the brass theme repeats but at a subdued level, this music is not loud, it gains its potency by repetition. If you examine the final chords (played over open fifths G/D) you will notice the repeat of the very static oboe melody, but you may miss the fact that the closing bars form the 014679 formation.

The composer’s judgement concerning the use of repetition has changed considerably over the history of Western music, its importance altering between each major period. In the 20th century its use has been polarised between subtle and palpable. Whichever route the reader chooses to select if or when composing it is important to recognise that an A section can never be the same twice.

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Et Exspecto Resurrectionem Mortuorum - Olivier Messiaen
After discussing the power of musical cues in previous blogs I came by chance across Olivier Messiaen’s score of Et Exspecto Resurrectionem Mortuorum written in 1964. Reading through the score made me think about Messiaen’s use of references instead of the pitch and rhythm structures which had occupied me before. The cues are there from the start with the title which translates as “And I wait for the resurrection of the dead”.

In the introduction to the work Messiaen paraphrases passages from Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica concerning the resurrection. As this blog is examining cues and their effect on listeners there is a necessity to understand some of the views regarding the concept of resurrection, particularly in societies like my own in which religious belief and reading is on the decline. I shall endeavour to make a very brief summary:

The raising of the dead plays a central role in Christian belief which states that Jesus died and rose from the dead. Jesus’ resurrection shows the possibility that some or all of us may be reborn in the future. Will both Christians and non-Christians will be resurrected? The conventional thought is that it is for all, but the type of resurrection may be different for believers and non-believers.

One may say with some assurance that Messiaen belonged to the believers, and it is from this angle that one should consider the first of these cues. The titles of the five sections are secondary cues to the title, here they are in French and English:

"Des profondeurs de l'abîme, je crie vers toi, Seigneur: Seigneur, écoute ma voix!"

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.
Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
   to the voice of my supplications!

"Le Christ, ressuscité des morts, ne meurt plus; la mort n'a plus sur lui d'empire."

Knowing that Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him.

"L'heure vient où les morts entendront la voix du Fils de Dieu..."

Verily, verily, I say unto you, The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and they that hear shall live.

"Ils ressusciteront, glorieux, avec un nom nouveau -- dans le concert joyeux des étoiles et les acclamations des fils du ciel."

The following two translations are mine as the text is a combination of partial verses.

They rise, glorious, with a new name - in the joyous concert of stars and the ovations of the sons of heaven.

"Et j'entendis la voix d'une foule immense..."

And I heard the voice of an immense crowd

The fourth quotation deserves a little closer examination, if we take the passage as a whole we have God the architect speaking from a whirlwind:

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?

Tell me if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements – surely you know!

Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone,

When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted their joy.

For me this reference addresses the whole process of creation which is also reflected in the art and music of man. I am sure that the knowledge of this extended reference is intended.

It won’t have escaped the attention of most readers that the term voice recurs both as personal (hear my voice) and as represented by the voice of Christ.  The quality of the voice changes between pleading and joyous. Do these cues suggest that the music is to take on a (particular) vocal character? Connections have been made between the melodic material of Et Exspecto and plainsong and for those interested in learning more of the correlation of the two I would recommend the commentary by J.H. Rubin at

On a more immediate and less intellectual level there is a vocal character to the music despite the use of the augmented fourth and major 7ths and minor 9ths. In its intention it has similarities to the main melody of “Stone Litany” by Peter Maxwell Davies though the treatment is more homophonic in Messiaen’s hands. A second difference between the composers is that Messiaen permits himself repetition of phrases or parts of phrases while Maxwell Davies’s melody undergoes continual variation. Though two themes are marked as plainsong based there are a number of unmarked phrases which carry the same musical design and these appear throughout the work.

Returning to the use of the term voice it is evident that there is an extension of the human voice to the sounds and style of organ technique, and this is further adapted to the winds of the orchestra. The suggestion of organ tones is blended with a vast array of percussion (including 3.5 octaves of tuned cowbells). A short historical deviation from the main work offers some thoughts on the selection of timbres, Messiaen had received a commission to write a work for three trombones and three xylophones, in contemplating how to make use of the ensemble he came to associate the trombone with an apocalyptic sonority which took him into revisiting the text dealing with the Apocalypse, the Book of Revelations. The text of Revelations leads us from the trombone to the trumpets

And the seven angels had seven trumpets

And one can imagine that the connection with fanfares is made, so we have in the opening movement a 20th century fanfare with short phrases (often of 7 notes) in a ‘super-human’ (in the sense of extending the range and timbre of the) voice.

What of the percussion? In the blog on cues I referred to the use of previous music and its forms as a stimulus to both expectation and denial, while familiarity with a wider group of musicians and their style helps consolidate our acceptance of the sound world explored in the composition. The percussion orchestra is a development of the gamelan sounds experienced by Debussy and links Messiaen through to Boulez, they make a link with the East and proclaim the universality of the music. The percussion also brings in the qualities of sound, noise and the gradual movement to silence which provides the 20th century character to a music strongly related to the past.

Just in case these cues are insufficient to stimulate particular pictorial images while we listen Messiaen offers further notes to each of these quotations shown above, some reflect more recent scientific outlooks as understood by the composer, this is on the 4th section:

"Our time of scientific precision, at the time of the theories on the expansion of the universe one perceives that the Bible always told the truth, that the number of stars are really "innumerable”.

Some parts are more religious and poetic:

The …bells and cencererros, the Hallelujah chorus of trumpets with its halo of harmonics, symbolise one of the qualities of the “glorious body”.

And as the informed listener might expect reference is made to bird-song “its joy and gift of agility.”

For Messiaen bird song and human song is all part of the outpouring of praise for God as the following quotation indicates:

“Plainsong Alleluias, Greek and Hindu rhythms, permutations of note-values, birdsong of different countries all these accumulated materials are placed at the service of colour….The sound-colours in their turn are a symbol of the Celestial City and of Him who dwells there.”

Messiaen’s Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum was initially commissioned to commemorate the war dead. If time permits the reader it may be of interest to compare Messiaen and Britten in their responses to similar commissions; for Messiaen, a devout Catholic, death is followed by everlasting life and this is to be celebrated. Britten makes his focus the pity of war and his cues both in text and word painting direct us to emphasise different considerations.

When following Et Exspecto with a score it is possible to focus on the details of pitch and rhythmic organisation and get embroiled in the kaleidoscopic changes of material. There are so many layers of linear formations subjected to ever varying rhythmic changes set within passages of percussive sounds and silence. Take a step away from the detail and we have music which flows, sometimes slowly or very slowly and sometimes with great rapidity. This is a characteristic of non-progressive harmony intensified by the absence of a regular pulse. The use of a constant beat does occur in Et Exspecto but it is retained for the final movement and appears in the percussion, the 6 gongs beating out semiquavers against the 3 tam-tams crotchets. Its restricted use provides the energy for a powerful conclusion. The melody in this section moves in steady crotchet and minims with the minims coming at the end of relatively short phrases, it is a modern view of organum, and very effective in its simplicity.

Moving further out again and the passages form very clearly defined sections of alternating textures, and in the fourth movement for example these take on a mirror formation. (ABACABACABA) Once we are at this macro level the music is simple and direct.

Are the cues for the audience alone, or are they a stimulus for the composer, or both? Could the work stand on its own without any other references? My view is that it could, but having been introduced to the cues it is impossible to forget that knowledge and now it is integrated into my understanding of the whole work and the man and his music.

The music may be heard at: