Basic Noise

Writing an organ symphony

"The Hymn of the Pearl" was written over a period of about eighteen months. This is the story of how it came into being and the process of it's creation.

Discovering ancient texts

In 1999, the blockbuster movie Stigmata (about a Catholic priest investigating the case of a young girl who is involuntarily affected by the phenomenon) began a new wave of public interest in biblical history, stemming from the fact that the film made strong references to passages from the Gospel of Thomas which, until that time, was largely in the domain of scholars. What impressed me most in the months following its release was the wealth of information that suddenly became available on the subject of "lost" gospels and Gnostic writings, and how the re-evaluation of ancient scripture became a more acceptable thing to do. I had been aware of the Synoptic Sayings Source Q since my college days and was intrigued by the possibility that such a text might exist and prove to be so revealing. So when I purchased a commentary on the Gospel of Thomas and read, "These are the secret sayings which the living Jesus spoke and Dydimus Judas Thomas recorded", I decided to begin a collection of short musical commentaries on each of the 144 sayings in the Coptic version of the Gospel.

Any music which takes a text as its source of inspiration is a natural expression of a composer's affinity with the subject matter, but to write music about words as powerful as these was something new and exciting. The Secret Sayings of Jesus (for organ and reader) is an ongoing work-in-progress, although further investigation into other early Christian writings eventually led me to discover the Acts of Thomas, where we find the beautifully poetic story of a soul's journey and ultimate redemption; the Hymn of the Pearl (or Hymn of the Robe of Glory) on which I have based my symphony.

Getting started

Having composed various collections of shorter pieces and become familiar with structuring works on a small scale, it was my father (suggesting I should attempt something larger) who prompted me to write the first few notes for what was to become The Hymn of the Pearl. After completing a page or two it seemed that the ideas were going nowhere and that I needed to begin something else. The result was a piece which began as a scherzo movement. It had more about it to develop and was certainly going somewhere. I persevered with it through to completion, incorporating some harmonic ideas from the recently abandoned composition and giving it a strong arch-form structure. I soon realised that it would not stand on its own as a satisfactory piece of music because, in my mind at the time, it had no reason for being. I thought that it would work better with an accompanying movement or two to contrast and balance the themes. Rather like a bird laying its eggs before building a nest, I had written a central, pivotal movement which needed to be supported, so I called it Intermezzo.

Moving on to stage two

Taking the melody of the Intermezzo, turning it upside down and giving it a new time signature enabled me to easily created a piece that was essentially a pale reflection of the same music. I intentionally chose to limit the amount of melody used so as not to make it overly long at a slower tempo. The choice of form came after looking at slow movements by other composers and deciding that the melody was best suited to song-form (as found in the Suites of Vierne and Duruflé) leading me to complete the Cantilene. By this time I had completed two pieces which, while being closely related to each other, still needed more development by way of additional movements. It was at this point that the notion of a symphony first came to mind. As this much had been achieved already, there seemed no good reason not to continue, except for lack of motivation.

In search of inspiration

Whenever I write a new piece of music there is always a sense of adventure in setting out to produce something that will, over time, evolve into a very different finished work from the ideas which I may have had at the start.

The greatest disappointment in writing comes from having a pre-conceived idea of the finished piece of music. No composer or artist who puts pen to paper with a clear image of the end in sight is being true to himself. The very notion excludes the process of creativity by assuming that the work has been instantaneously sculpted in the mind, leaving only the work of a scribe to notate it. What is pre-conceived however, is an impression of desire; the creator's self-imposed standard by which he will attempt to prove himself. There is no harm in allowing a germ to spread as all germs will. That is to say, by simply taking a small musical idea and giving oneself the freedom to doodle with it, a formal structure of some description will naturally emerge, sparking other ideas and leading the composition along a path of its own.

No matter how high my aspirations have been at times, there has been no creative impetus without a good reason to do something. Work on any new piece must be continuous if the end is ever to be in sight (no matter how slowly one works) and for this reason it is important to know why you are composing at all. Usually it is enough to simply want to do it. When the desire to write music occurs, you please yourself in some way by fulfilling your intentions. More usually however, there is an underlying reason - either a fascination with a subject, the possibility of a performance or a rare commission. Occasionally I have come across people who seem to write music only because they can. These people have a regard for what they do which is beyond what they are actually capable of. Sadly this means that the result (the music they write) is simply no good at all or highly pretentious. Showing off by writing music is never to be condoned - the listener can tell, although the title of a piece can sometimes give this away. After all, a piece does not have to begin with its title. Better that it does not. Rather, the nature of the title is a reflection of the music that has been created naturally instead of being made to fit.

Inspiration found

The motivation to continue with the symphony was threefold. Firstly, the dedication of the work to my teacher, mentor and friend, Nicolas Kynaston; secondly, the discovery of the text of the Hymn of the Pearl which fitted the existing movements like a glove and would mould the remaining parts; and thirdly, an opportunity to perform the work in a concert at Westminster Abbey.

Completing the composition

I had previously experienced the benefit of writing music "out of sequence" with my Suite in memoriam for two trumpets and organ, and Somerset Scenes for violin and organ, where the ideas formed in the later movements (which were written first) paved the way for the earlier movements (written last) thus, in a strange way, giving the running order a sense of progression. I had thrown all my cards on the table with the Intermezzo and Cantilene, so now I had to arrange them in groups for the remaining pieces.

The first eight bars of the Cantilene featured a bass line which nicely resembled a Passacaglia theme. A long phase of writing different variations on that theme soon began, and by piecing them together in various ways to form a collage that sounded strong and organic, I found gaps that needed to be filled and some variations that could be discarded all together.

An Adagio movement followed which almost exclusively uses the "pearl" theme (as I call it) which had been composed prior to the Intermezzo.

At this stage of completion it was obvious that the completed symphony was going to last far in excess of the time allowed for the Abbey performance. I therefore welcomed the recommendation of my father to perform just the last two movements, saving the rest for a later date. This meant that the final movement (the first movement) could benefit from more time being spent on it to ensure its success in setting the scene and paving the way ahead. The Prelude to The Hymn of the Pearl became a sonata-form movement (as planned) with a long introduction for-shadowing the end of the Passacaglia. The introduction used exactly the material that had at first been put aside, and developed into a main theme which had been initially conceived as a motive in the Adagio. The Hymn of the Pearl - Symphony for organ was completed in September 2005 (nearly eighteen months after it was begun).


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© 2012 Martin Stacey