“ Interestingly, the work that tried to please the least was the most compelling. Hayes Biggs’ piece Ave Formosissima harkens back to the dance-mad, melismatic and slightly raucous music of the Middle Ages. But the score, with its zig-zagging lines and pungent dissonances, is genuinely contemporary.”—New York Times
“ A Consuming Fire, a short, zesty trio by Hayes Biggs, led off the evening. The piece is framed by some engagingly angular rhythmic writing, with a lyrical nougat at the center.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“ [The] most convincing and coherent performance [was] Hayes Biggs’ homage to his composer/pianist colleague Eric Moe, E.M. am Flügel, a short piece with romantic gestures and echoes of Berg and Stravinsky.”—Aufbau
“ The Mass for All Saints would be an exciting challenge for those choirs skilled in precise intonation and rhythmic agility. Biggs writes with knowledge of and respect for the expressive capabilities of the human voice.”—Choral Journal
“ Hayes Biggs’s wedding motet Tota Pulchra Es, here being sung for the first time, impressed by its quiet solemnity and neat working of its expressive opening motif: not empty fanfares but a reminder of the seriousness and privacy of love.”—New York Times
“ Mass for All Saints by composer Hayes Biggs releases shadows transformed into tendrils of light by the arabesque of the vocal line. Contrapuntal procedures are used to their utmost expressive effect. [It] is a work of a melodist of talent in the manner of Puccini, or better yet, Respighi.”—La Liberté
“ The Biggs song, Northeast Reservation Lines, is a real party piece... the sneakiness of the changes, the liveliness of the music and the verve of the performance worked handily... a potential recital hit in the vein of Bernstein’s I Hate Music cycle.”—The Village Voice
“ All the works tried a return to tonality typical of the decade; the most successful made the return oblique and ambiguous. Hayes Biggs’ O Sacrum Convivium took off from the motet of Tallis, yet it handsomely reconfigured early modes in a modernistic scheme of free tonality.”—New York Times
“ Hayes Biggs’ To Becalme His Fever... is a vivid evocation of anxiety, fits and repose. The language embraces pointillistic colors, romantic lines and prickly episodes when the demons hover. Biggs claims a forceful and subtle dramatic hand, along with a keen command of instrumental resources.”—The Plain Dealer
Happy New Year to all from Bronxville! As I write this, another Christmas season has come and gone, and I have this week returned to my teaching duties at Manhattan School of Music. Some of you may recall reading last year about my tradition of composing musical Christmas greetings. You may also remember that they tend to be late. Very late.
I had hoped to have this musical missive completed within what would at one time have been referred to as “the Octave of Epiphany.” In liturgyspeak, an octave refers to the first eight days of a solemn feast, while in music the term octave refers to the distance in a diatonic scale (such as major or minor) between, say, middle C and the next note above (or below) it that we also refer to as C. The “eightness” implied by the word octave has to do with the fact that there are eight notes in a diatonic scale, if you include the repetition of the first note of the scale at the end. (Sticking with C major for the moment, think of the eight white keys on the piano keyboard from C to C of which that scale is comprised). In the liturgical calendar, the Octave of Christmas extends from December 25-January 1. In a manner roughly analogous to that in which the first and last notes of the musical octave have the same letter name (e.g., C, or D, or B-flat), the first and last days of the liturgical octave fall on the same day of the week. From my smattering of reading on the subject, I have been able to garner that, in 1955, Epiphany, as observed in the Roman Catholic Church, was by papal decree rendered octaveless, and that, as of 1969, Christmas and Easter are the only remaining major feasts to continue the tradition of octaves. Even if there still were official recognition within the Church of the Octave of Epiphany, however, any possibility of my finishing the piece within that time frame was likely doomed from the start, particularly given what I set out to do.
In a departure from my usual practice, this greeting has turned out not to be a complete, self-contained piece. It is the ending of what I hope will eventually be a complete setting, in the original German, of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Mariä Verkündigung (The Annunication to Mary), from his cycle of poems concerning the life of the Blessed Virgin. Perhaps the best-known settings of these poems are the ones for soprano and piano that Paul Hindemith composed in 1923 and then revised extensively in 1948. I had thought, even as early as last year that I might try to write the entire setting, which I had begun in a condensed, quasi-piano/vocal score, intending to score it for chorus with chamber orchestra. I had had the idea for the tune that forms the basis of the canon of the last section for some years. Things were so hectic at Christmastime last year that I abandoned any thought of bringing the piece to a satisfactory close, and chose instead to set a verse of Henry Longfellow’s “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” for unaccompanied choir. This year, after struggling with it for several days, I decided simply to write what I knew would ultimately be the real ending of the piece, a setting of the very last line of the poem: “Dann sang der Engel seine Melodie” (“Then the angel sang his melody”). Further delaying things, I decided to abandon the piano/vocal score after a certain point, since I knew basically what the underlying harmonic progression was to be, and needed to imagine more fully the instrumental colors in order to continue.The excerpt is scored for a chorus that, by the conclusion, has split into six parts, as well as a nineteen-piece chamber orchestra. Another caveat for those reading the score: when I finally do get around to dealing with the rest of the poem, it is clear that, depending on the dimensions of the opening sections, the proportions of the music could very well change, resulting in a final section that is rather more expansive than the present one.
I love this poem because of the way Rilke brilliantly and sensitively captures what is so unnerving to Mary in her encounter with the angel. It isn’t the fact that an angel has entered her room that is so disturbing to her, but rather the profound intimacy of that meeting, in which the angel (traditionally presumed to be Gabriel), is presented as youthful and beautiful of countenance—as a handsome young man, basically. After he bends down before her, they look into each other’s eyes and are both startled by the enormity of it all.
I’m sorry to say that if you want to print out the pdf, you will need legal-sized paper, because it’s a full score. As a person of a certain age, I also regret to say that those of you who also fall into that demographic will find your reading glasses necessary.
Enjoy, and have a wonderful 2014!