Passacaglia for String Orchestra
for string orchestra
Commissioned by the Tenafly (NJ) High School Orchestra, James Millar, Music Director.
In several sections, “optional celli divisis” are offered to accommodate orchestras with smaller numbers of violas or basses.
Among the many musical interests I enjoy exploring over lunch with my colleague, Jim Millar, the Brahms symphonies constantly rise to the top, particularly the final movement of the Fourth Symphony, an orchestral passacaglia. When accepting Jim’s commission for a new work to be performed by the highly advanced orchestra he leads in beautiful Tenafly, New Jersey, I chose the “passacaglia” form for inspiration and structure
A passacaglia is “a continuous variation based on a clearly distinguishable ostinato that normally appears in the bass but that may occasionally be transferred to an upper voice” (Harvard Dictionary of Music). As usual, Brahms cracked the code on inventiveness while remaining perfectly faithful to the parameters of his chosen form; his passacaglia is set in a strict triple meter, with an 8-note ground bass cast 30 consecutive times in strict 8-bar format before yielding to a rousing Coda. While I begin with the 8-note / 8-bar format as well, and ultimately cast a few of the variations in triple meter, I also take some liberties with the concept, exploring various keys, tempi, meters and textures. The 8-note ground bass shows up over 8 bars, but occasionally compressed into 4 bars and/or expanded unevenly over 16 bars, all concurrent with the 8-bar structure.
Importantly, I wanted to pay tribute to the town of Tenafly in this piece, and chose to do so through the inclusion of a two musical signatures. To that end, the piece takes much of its melodic material from the following motifs:
- Tenafly element #1: The “cantus firmus” (or as my AutoCorrect says it: “Cactus Firms”) is an 8-note theme that launches with a rising 10th. Why the 10th? Well, I did a little research. An old NYTimes article says that in 1688, Dutch settlers named the town ''Tiene Vly'’ which means “10 swamps.” So, there it is. The “ten” in Tenafly is no accident! So, the 10th becomes the work’s signature interval, and appears throughout in various guises. Nerdy? Oh yes.
- Tenafly element #2: Early attempts to set “Tenafly Diner” to music were futile. So I resorted to the town's zip code of 07670. Specifically, I translated this into scale degrees, with 0 being the “wildcard” so I treated it like an “8”. The net result a theme based on the pitches/scale degrees 8-7-6-7-8.