My title, Syntagma, has several meanings. As this piece is intended to celebrate the magnificent Opus 55, come to us through the time-honored art of organ building so alive in the craftsmanship of Taylor & Boody, I thought it fitting to take the title from Michael Praetorius’ scholarly masterpiece, Syntagma musicum (1619). On another level, syntagma, from the Greek meaning arrange together, is a linguistic term for a syntactic unit consisting of a set of phrases in a sequential relationship to one another, which, in my mind at least, describes the isorhythmic technique I used to compose this piece.
As Opus 55 asks of a composer an exacting approach, because of its “intoxicating” Meantone temperament, exquisite voicing, restrained proportions of the divisions, short octaves, and subsemitones, I could think of no better way than through the music of Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck. The piece is composed in four sections, all imbued in some way with my experience of the music of Sweelinck. The first section is an ecstatic, rapturous exploration of a descending chromatic phrase, my “syntactic unit,” based on Sweelinck’s most famous work Fantasia crommatica. At the end of the opening section the chromatic figure is in retrograde to create a seemingly endless rising chromatic line – a psychoacoustic illusion known as a Shepard scale. A slow, contemplative section follows. The third and fourth sections derive their material from transcriptions I made from a mid-seventeenth-century Anglo-Flemish manuscript formerly known as the “Novello Organ Book” in the Osborn Collection at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale. The third section is based on a joyous piece from the manuscript entitled Trompett Sup…Regall and the forth and final section is based on a fragment of a Sweelinck echo fantasy that appears as a hymn verset towards the end of the Osborn manuscript.
It has been a humbling experience to compose this piece as I witnessed the building of Opus 55. I wish to thank everyone at Taylor & Boody for their limitless patience and encouragement, Kendall Crilly for bringing light to the Osborn manuscript, James David Christie for introducing me to the Fisk instrument at Wellesley College, the staff at the Institute of Sacred Music, and finally, Martin Jean for his musicianship and his faith in our collaboration.
Commissioned by the Yale Institute of Sacred Music from the Robert Baker Fund for New Sacred Music
in three sections
06 Jun 2007: Performed by Martin Jean at the Marquand Chapel, Yale University, New Haven, in USA
05 Feb 2009: Performed by Martin Jean at The University of Kansas, in USA
20 Feb 2009: Performed by Martin Jean at St Mark’s Cathedral, Seattle, in USA