“You should compose a piece for the family to play at Christmas”, my husband Ed said to me a few weeks ago (actually it was November 10, I have documented evidence, I’ll get to that later, not that it really matters).
Well, it may not have been those very words, more like words to that effect. The “should” may have been a “could” or a “how about”. The “should” may be what my brain did to myself.
Ed may just have been thinking about something fun for the family to do together in the holiday spirit, in addition to the traditional caroling sing-a-longs and 1000 piece puzzles. Or he may have also been thinking about the fact that the last piece I composed was the viola piano duet for his birthday, and the last piece before that was the previous year’s piano viola duet. It might not be such a bad idea to compose something, anything, again.
What kind of piece would I write for the family that we would be able to play together, or even get the family to get together and play together? I furrowed my brow and started asking Ed all sorts of logistical questions possibly designed to derail this idea before it set root, but in actuality painting myself in a corner in which I would answer the questions myself and the conclusion would be foregone.
Would this piece just be for the usual instrumentalists in the family, or would it attempt to rope in everyone? The latter solution would be more logistically complex, but surely more inclusive and fun.
My mother will be joining us in Wisconsin for the holidays. My mother is an opera singer – retired officially but just when she thinks she’s out they pull her back in. Ed’s mother is also an experienced enthusiastic soprano. Hmmm…
Ed and I were at a play when he raised the question. Before we were back in the subway on the way home I had scribbled some notes for a seasonally angelic, perhaps corny, but still pretty vocal theme for sopranos. There they are in the page from that day’s NYTimes, because I always take along the Saturday crossword puzzle for Ed and me to do together on the subway.
A simple tune with plenty of internal repetition for easy instant sight singing (chord modulations in the accompaniment will add extra variety). In traditionally kitschy but still pretty parallel thirds; what the Germans like to call “Schweineterzen” – pig’s thirds – not sure why exactly “pig” but I like the comical way the phrase denotes harmonies that are generically fatty and juicy and common and popular and, let’s face it, just plain good. And relatively easy to sing instantly.
I’ll call the whole piece “Divertissement in the Snow”. That’s nicely seasonal. Winter Wonderland pop meets Classical Capriccio. Not aspiring to highbrow quality but family fun.
Ed plays viola and his sister plays violin/fiddle professionally. The three of us often sight read classical trios together. Ed’s father also accompanies family singing on the piano (and had done so more regularly before I usurped his place). So let’s have some four handed piano playing with viola and violin rounding out a sturdy instrumental accompaniment. Ed’s father’s part in the upper register will be very “sleigh bell-y”.
Best to have violin and viola double the main soprano melody initially, to boost sight reading confidence for everyone involved. But also better give the strings some solo obligatos to shine in the limelight during the repeats. Ed actually prefers not to be in the limelight, which is why his more extroverted sister will carry the melody lines and he the harmonic support. That’s the tradition between violins and violas since time immemorial anyway. (Never mind that Ed’s viola part turns out to be as demanding as the violin part, harmony or no. That actually isn’t the tradition between violins and violas. Oops.)
So this means I am already writing for five or six separate parts, depending on how one counts the harmonizing sopranos. That still leaves several family members that would be present (and eager or willing or able, or not, by varying degrees). Ed’s sister’s husband and son and daughter perform with her in a folk band in Alaska, so I or Ed’s sister should be able to rope them in easily enough. Best group them together as a vocal unit to which Ed’s sister’s mother-in-law and any other aunts or cousins of varying degrees and removals who unsuspectingly find themselves in the vicinity can be included in a way that maximizes performance fun and not performance anxiety.
Therefore, as my dear departed high school music teacher Steve Hepner used to say to me: “KISS! Keep It Simple, Stupid!” The group singers would get a simple vocal accompaniment figure when the sopranos are taking the lead in the A section. Something that would work as well sung as spoken if need be. But in the B section the group singers get to take the lead. Something wintery and silly and tongue twistery and easy to learn. Ed’s sister’s musical family will anchor the vocals and pull any errantly present and musically terrified bystander along for the ride on the melodically stomped and skated snow and ice. As long as everyone is basically performing together in rhythm, actual pitches are incidental to the effect. Steve Hepner taught me the term for that too: heterophony.
Meanwhile the musically ambitious sopranos get to try some adventurous accompanying obligatos in the B section, adding snow covered “brrs” and ice skating “weeees” for variety. In those ubiquitous Schweineterzen. Possibly harder to sight sing as the shivers and whoops escalate but I can challenge my mother and mother-in-law a bit. It’s the ideas that count here more than the precise notes anyway. As long as the “brrs” and “weeees” just become ever more enthusiastic and wayward, we’re good.
Finally I came up with seasonally cheeky names for the varying musical groups:
The maternal sopranos shall be “Angels on High”.
The more earthbound group of hummers, whooshers, snow-sloshers and ice-slippers shall be the “Halldeckers”.
Ed’s dad and I playing four handed at the piano shall honor turtle doves by being the “Two Turtlenecks”. (Ed’s dad will very likely be wearing a turtleneck, and so I better make sure I am too.)
Ed’s sister shall be “Violenceslas”.
Ed shall be “Violullay”, concluding the carol allusions.
Yesterday I composed “Divertissement in the Snow”. I share the first page below. But I still have to do additional proof reading and editing before I print out the full piece and its individual parts for best communal playing (and stocking stuffing).
Heck, while I am at it I may make stocking stuffers out of little booklets of the three “Holy Land Carols” I accidentally wrote myself in spite of my aversion to Xmas carols when I composed my Mark Twain musical. I mean, how many times can the family sing the same old tired carols year after year after year around the solstice tree? Time to enforce I mean encourage some new musical traditions, right?
After all, isn’t this the kind of thing that should be expected in the holidays when a secular composer joins the family? The Elders should count themselves lucky I waited 25 years to spring this on them… And when they complain I can legitimately blame their predicament on Ed. It was his idea after all.