Monday, January 23, 2006

Let us all sing a happy song!

The next tray in the musical steam-table that is "Mostly Short Pieces" is:

SAMUEL WEBBE's "Glorious Apollo", a glee from 1784

It's hard to imagine, now that we have fine programming like "Lost" and reruns of "Designing Women", that men used to get together, regularly, to sing.

For fun.

These groups - catch societies, glee clubs - were basically bunches of guys who got together at the local tavern to drink and sing. Catch societies existed to facilitate this drinking/singing: members pooled their money to buy booze and sheet music. Over time, these clubs commissioned a fair body of partsongs which now fill thick, hardbound books in music libaries.

These pieces - catches, glees, canons - were designed to contrapuntally interesting but still easy enough to be singable after five or six beakers of punch. Samuel Webbe had a knack for them: he won lots of medals from the Catch Club of London.

(A 'catch', if you were wondering, is a form of canon that often has the cool trick of revealing a secret message when all the polyphonic lines have entered- a lyric from one line filling a pause from another to string together a bawdy sentence.)

"Glorious Apollo" is apparently one of the best-known glees. (I add 'apparently' because I've never really delved into modern glee culture to make a serious study.) It's a simple choral piece in three-part harmony. All the lines have almost identical rhythms (occasionally somebody gets a weak-beat passing tone to provide interest) and there are no rests. Presumably, everyone just cuts the end off the cadences' whole notes to take in a lungful of air, or sneak breaths as they go. Depends on the level of inebriation, I suppose.

Harmonically, "Glorious Apollo" never departs from rock-solid F Major. The closest Webbe comes to modulation is the occasional secondary dominant in the lead-up to a half cadence. The chords are pure Common Practice, too- I, V, lots of diminished first inversion viis, and the occasional ii or IV. Sometimes a neighbor tone is used to create a little dissonance, but this is always resolved immediately.

This is three-part harmony, so I guess Webbe was taking pains to create rich, full-sounding chords without the benefit of the extra inner voice. In this sense, it's an interesting study of how a composer can alternate three-tone chords with two tone chords (i.e. one pitch of which is doubled) to vary the harmonic texture.

Structurally, this glee is a sort of big binary form - A-A1. The second section differs from the first in some tweaks to the melodic lines, which are necessary to accomodate the new verses, and an overall faster tempo indication. The first half of the piece is 'Con spirito' and for the repetition Webbe kicks it up with 'Piu Allegro'. This seems like a good, simple way to add interest without making significant changes to melody or harmony that would constitute 'development' and so require a recapitulation. Of course, the scheme hardly qualifies as 'binary' in any meaningful sense, but sometimes you've just got to slap a name on something.

Within each of the two sections, Webbe has an interesting scheme of:
A (solos) (forte)
A (full chorus) (still forte)
B (full chorus, ending on dramatic fermata) (pianissimo)
C (solos) (piano)
C (full chorus) (forte now)

This is pretty nicely done. Even though the music is boilerplate late 18th century harmony and melody, the constant alternation of loud/soft and solos/full chorus in the repitions are good, fundamentally interesting musical effects that are easy for amateurs.

Now that I think about it, the greatest boon to contemporary amateur choral music would be the re-introduction of booze. People like to sing in public, as karaoke shows, but it's only really fun after a few drinks. In America, group singing is confined to the national anthem and - who wants to relive this with their pals on Saturday night? - masses of grade school children sitting indian style and mewling out 'America the Beautiful'. So, what do we need?

Liquor. And new catches, about popular topics like presidental incompetence or heroes of NASCAR.