Examples of Culminative Setting in my Music

Most of my work so far, other than writing my quartet, has been exploring various avenues of literature on musical borrowing, such as that of Burkholder on the music of Charles Ives – see: The Uses of Existing Music: Musical Borrowing as a Field (Burkholder, 1994). This got me thinking about how I have used existing music in my own compositions in the past.

While I have obviously been concerned with Simpson’s ‘modelling’ in recent works (like my ‘in progress’ 4th Quartet), the most significant example I could think of is my ‘Culminative Setting’ (essentially a backwards theme and variations where the theme is developed before it is stated) of Old Hundredth in Sabachthani (2015) for Brass and Organ.

I remember an early draft quite clearly stated the theme near the beginning of the work which my tutor at the time suggested was a bad idea and that I should restrain myself and save it for the end – which I did, and was certainly for the best! While the allusions to the hymn tune are by no means subtle throughout the (35 minute) piece, and large chunks of the theme are stated in altered ways (most notably in minor/diminished variants), the first full statement of the tune (in its proper, major key form) comes at bar 550, 28 minutes into the piece. 3 minutes later we hear the proper harmonisation of it as well in tutti orchestration, although the ending is cut short as the coda takes over – itself a minor version of the tune in 3/4 instead of 4/4. Those two moments fit in the narrative of this programmatic work (a rough setting of the St. Matthew Passion) as Jesus’ final moment before his crucifixion and his resurrection. More on Sabachthani later in the post.

Another example of culminative setting in my work is in the introduction of my Introduction and Allegro on a Theme by Bruckner (2021). While it is somewhat cheating to use this example – as the theme appears at the end of the introduction, rather than the full piece – the entry of the theme was in fact as much a revelation to me as the composer as it is to the listener. The work started out without any conscious borrowing from Bruckner, however as I wrote I became more and more aware of an earworm. It had begun to seep into the music resulting in unintentional paraphrases of Bruckner’s tune throughout the music I had written.

Paraphrase of my ear worm.

Only once I had discovered what the ear worm was (a chord progression from the end of first movement of Bruckner’s 9th Symphony), was I able to contextualise all I had written by including it at the end of the introduction, and answered my question of “what next” in the rest of the piece.

The first statement of Bruckner’s theme, right at the end of the Introduction.

Sabachthani (2015) for brass and organ

The brief for this work, written in 2015 for brass players from the Oxfordshire Festival Orchestra was a long, programmatic setting of the story of the St. Matthew Passion using material from the hymn tune to All People that on Earth do Dwell Old Hundredth (below).

Source: Old 100th – Greenville Presbyterian Church | Greenville, SC

After the earie introduction by the horns, the first hint at the source material comes in the trumpets at bar 9 – an altered fragment from the bass line at the beginning of the hymn; a motif that has a very prominent role throughout the work.

The first hint of the tune itself comes, rather obscured, in the organ pedals that plays the descending part of the first line very slowly from bar 24 to 52 which is then immediately followed by the end of the phrase played by the trumpet. This leads to the location of my original statement of the tune (that my teacher suggested was obscured and saved for later) of which only the first 4 notes remain in the trombones before shifting to an awkwardly harmonised version on the organ under the loud fanfaric music of the brass – also largely made up of fragments of the source material.

The opening of the first line of the tune make up the majority of fragmentary and melodic material of this section with the bass line motif regaining prominence at bar 96 before a rhythmically altered statement of the tune in an plainchant-like manner at bar 102, passed amongst the instruments.

Perhaps pre-empting the treatment of the final statement of the tune mentioned in the introduction, this plainchant-esque version too is left incomplete as the final phrase recedes into a textural ostinato in quite different character that starts the new section.

This new section features a dark, minor/diminished version of the tune, fitting for the section titled ‘tyranny’ (depicting King Herod, I believe – its been a while since I wrote this!) appearing both in quicker, fragmentary motives – like the horns here.

And the full statement of that rather menacing version of the theme in the lower brass at bar 143.

At bar 169, after the death of the tyrant, a rare use of the end of the hymn tune in the trumpet introduces a new calmer section.

This is answered by the tuba and horn stating an altered version of the tune in call and response.

A more lively, rhythmic section follows featuring only brief nods to the hymn tune, such as these two variants of the opening line in the trombones, as well as frequent uses of the bass line motif and descending passages suggesting the opening phrase.

At Christ’s baptism, the music is once again dominated by the bass line motif, but this small nod to the tune pokes its head above the texture in high trombone at bar 216.

A return to the menacing, minor/diminished version of the tune follows this extending the opening descending phrase with muted timbres in 5/4. Following this is an abstract section of resolving tritones, representing the avoidance of temptation by the devil. From this emerges a lyrical version of the tune in the high horn and tuba which is a pretty complete version of the tune but with a significantly altered rhythmic structure at bar 261.

This is an extended section that briefly returns to the darker material before gaining in energy again through compound metres and recalls of the bass line motif from the beginning. The trumpets call the start of a new section with this version of the theme.

From this, the trombones build yet another ostinato on simultaneous statements of various fragments of the tune.

This builds to one of the climaxes of the first half of the piece as the horns belt out the rising three notes at the end of the first line under a simultaneous statement of the first half of that line in the trumpets.

Following this is quite a disjunct section from a rhythmic perspective featuring the full tune in this rhythm in the tuba, harmonised above by (and therefore, obscured by) the first trombone (pictured) at bar 374.

The first half of the piece ends with an awkward, group of stab chords and horn screams that for some reason I did not provide a programmatic note for…

The second half begins with the two highest trumpets playing a variant of the minor tune over loud chords from the rest of the ensemble.

The organ player then pounds out the minor version of the theme in octaves in the pedals on his own at bar 428.

After one of the final few truly violent sections that followed, the absolutely killer (for the players), sustained trombone pulsing chords (at 40bpm) begin at bar 499 over which a solo flugel horn plays a paraphrase of the minor version of the hymn tune – a version that remains particularly prominent in the remainder of the work. The organ then plays its own, strange version of the opening line on its own.

After the supper comes Jesus’ arrest which throws the music into violent spirals. This is immediately followed by the first (and only complete) statement of the tune in its original form (minus harmonisation) in the organ part above the horn landscape from the opening as Jesus spends his last moments accepting what is to come – his crucifixion.

The music depicting the crucifixion returns to the sludging trombone chords featuring a new tune setting the phrase ‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani’ from which the piece gets its name (‘my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’).

Old Hundredth does not return again until His resurrection at bar 610 (other than a brief hint in the flugel tune from earlier). This time, the tune is properly stated, complete with harmony and trumpet fanfares.

It is not a full quote however as it is cut short as he prepares for his ascension with a new version of the tune which repeats almost until the end of the piece.