Chorale-Overture for Organ and Orchestra

Commissioned by the Seattle Symphony to open its 100th Anniversary Season, Chorale-Overture for Organ and Orchestra received its premiere by that orchestra on September 18, 2003 under the baton of its music director Gerard Schwarz.

This work, as with so many of my compositions, weaves together multiple strands of formal structure and musical content. It is an overture, with clearly distinguishable sonata form (exposition of contrasting themes, followed by development, followed by recapitulation), but it is also a chorale prelude (which embellishes a hymn tune phrase by phrase). It can be heard as absolute music (i.e., without any extramusical connotations), but it also contains programmatic symbolism (ideas portrayed by the music which are beyond the music itself). It is occasional music, written originally for a specific moment, but it also has a larger field of vision, stretching back to the past and reaching to the future.

The chorale on which the overture is based is an original hymn which is characterized by harmonies built in fourths and fifths and is in the unusual tonal center of E-flat Phrygian (bearing seven flats in the key signature!). This hymn, for which I wrote both words and music, was a centennial ode which expresses gratitude for the accomplishments of a century as well as hope and expectation for the those of the future.

The overture contains two principal musical ideas. One, introduced by the organ, consists of six chords (the first chords of the Chorale) which suggest the contour and the immense size of Mount Rainier, an impressive sight for all who have had the opportunity to see it. Every time this motive appears it is heard in different colors and registers, just as each time we glimpse the mountain the varying influences of light and cloud give it a different appearance. The other main idea, given mostly by the orchestra, introduces the overture and furnishes the material for both the first and second themes of its sonata form; therefore, structurally speaking, this sonata form is monothematic. But this unity is especially desirable since all throughout the short work the chords of the Mountain motive are extending themselves, phrase by phrase, into an eventual full-throated statement of the Centennial Hymn by the organ. This is answered and embellished with final reverberations of the opening motive in a triumphal gesture by both organ and orchestra.

Program Notes by Samuel Jones