Early American Tunes (2001)
Commissioned by Grigg and Helen Fountain
Published by Augsburg Fortress.
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- Middlebury (Southern Harmony)–3′
- I Wonder–3′
- Resignation (Southern Harmony)–3′
- Wondrous Love (Southern Harmony)–5-6′
The Early American Tunes were written in honor of organists Grigg and Helen Fountain. Grigg was for over twenty years the beloved choirmaster and organist at Northwestern University’s Alice Millar Chapel, where as an undergraduate I sang in the Chapel Choir. An inspiring conductor and teacher as well as a brilliant player, Grigg encouraged my early efforts in composition, frequently asking me to arrange music for services, making the oratory of the chapel (the “prophet’s chamber,” he called it) available for me to work in, and even offering the occasional organ or conducting lesson in return. I was introduced to the shape-note hymns of Kentucky Harmony and The Sacred Harp by Grigg, who is a southerner by birth, so American tunes seemed an appropriate homage.
The collection begins and ends with chorale variations, with melody chorales—the tune is clearly stated in a mostly unadorned form—as the internal movements. The three variations of “Middlebury” each place the tune in a different octave. It emerges first from a polyphonic texture, ascends “to the skies” for the middle verse, and settles in the pedal, surely conducted by stately rhythms to the close. A wandering flute player (possessed by the blues) circles around the tune of “I Wonder.” She receives no certain answer to her questions, for the music ends with an arabesque on the subdominant. “Resignation” was a particular favorite at Millar Chapel, and in this melody chorale the descending thirds of the accompaniment complement the ascending triads of the tune. Three searching, toccata-style phrases preface “Wondrous Love.” Abundant figuration is woven from the threads of the tune, first in sixteenths with the tune in the tenor, then in triplets, with the tune keening away on a 2′ pedal stop. The final verse treats it in free imitation, and a return to toccata style brings shouts: “Wondrous! Wondrous!”