In front of me, blazoned in black vivid, was a note-to-self: “Poulenc’s Intentions, My Intentions, The Cathedral”. This was my work space for 10 days over the Christmas holidays as I re-orchestrated Poulenc’s Gloria from 31 separate instrumental parts to 8.
During my first year at Auckland University I had my first introduction to his music. I worked as an instrumentalist for the Opera Factory’s performance of Poulenc’s Les mamelles de Tirésias (The Breasts of Tiresias). At the time, I found it utterly nonsensical. I will never forget the moment Thérèse’s breasts turned into balloons and floated away. Click to View (from 43:35) https://youtu.be/6b-DzA_ZXs0?t=43m35s
Since then, I have always thought of Poulenc as refreshingly eccentric. What I’ve come to love the most however, is his raw use of instrumentation. Although the quantity of instruments required to perform Gloria is whopping, his textural density is not overly muddy. Instead, it tends to be fairly stark and spiky. Similar to Stravinsky, his timbral combinations are often quirky, a little crass, yet immediately accessible.
I would much rather have worked with the full orchestration, of course, but the expense of such a large force is crippling. Plus, it would never have worked in the proposed acoustic.
The starting point for my reduction was the organ. This was the first time I had written for pipe organ, and I would like to thank Michael Fletcher (Director of Music, Sacred Heart Cathedral) for his advice on this. Michael took me on a tour inside the organ at the Sacred Heart Cathedral. It’s easy to forget that behind the first visible row of pipes, there is an awe-inspiring, slightly claustrophobic, realm of pipes that all have different physical qualities to them. Some of the pipes were smaller than my pinky, and some were trapped inside a box with vertical wooden shutters to enable the dynamics to swell from soft to loud. Click to View https://youtu.be/j7LjHfX5JSI
Michael helped me to understand the timbral variations an organist had to play with, while alerting me to its muddy and overwhelming potential.
Pipe organs are by nature, not percussive. Poulenc’s Gloria most certainly is. To top it off, our concert venue, the magnificent Cathedral of St Paul, has a reverberation totalling 7 long seconds. For performers, this acoustic can be very forgiving, yet it strips away the clarity. Subtle nuances are lost in the wake of previous sounds. This is why I reluctantly added another keyboard instrument, the piano. I was able to assign the piano more rhythmic functions, such as the imitation of pizzicato (plucking) strings, whereas the organ was assigned more sustaining functions, moments of grandeur and special effects.
All was going wonderfully until Michael pointed out that the organ was most likely flatter than the cathedral’s piano. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of that! By this point, I had already completed most of the reduction, and removing the piano would in essence take me back to square one. Out of exhaustion and stubbornness, I decided to stick with it. It was comforting to note however that the piano part was written very percussively with little sustain. Thus, there was little opportunity for notes to conflict with those around it as they didn’t hang around for long enough. Plus, against the majority, it’s far better to be sharp than flat.
The first day this got put to the test, was the dress rehearsal in the Cathedral. While the ensemble was tuning to an A, our pianist, Ludwig Treviranus played an A too. Simply horrific. However, once the piece got underway, I barely noticed. Phew!
The reduction also included a single violin, flute, horn, trumpet, and trombone. To complete the ensemble I included timpani. Percussion instruments like timpani are in my opinion, impossible to imitate with other instruments. Take the reduction of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana for example. Here the whole orchestra is reduced to just two pianos whereas the percussion parts are retained. It’s very effective. Click to View. https://youtu.be/iN_iJnlN1gI?t=1m29s
In my next post, I’ll share some reflective thoughts on our “Colossal Chorale” concert that included the Gloria reduction featuring Wellington City Organist, Douglas Mews, and star soprano, Rachel Alexander. Also, I’ll let you in on our plans for our “Africa” concert at the Wellington Zoo.