My father, Paul Bullard, was a landscape and portrait painter, and on family holidays he would sit and sketch, sometimes with me by his side, filling my music manuscript paper. As a child, I used to think that his task was easier than mine: all he had to do was to put on paper what he could see in front of him, whereas on the other hand I had to imagine a whole sound world, hearing music in my head, and then put it down on paper. Of course that wasn’t really correct: what I didn’t realise was that his task was to re-present the view in front of him in pen and ink, or oils, and not merely copy it: in other words it was an equally creative process to composing.
So what my father was doing, I suppose, was looking at an existing object from a different angle, ‘arranging’ it for pen and ink, and that just got me thinking about the way that composers often do that too. At the moment I’m reading John Eliot Gardiner’s book ‘Music in the Castle of Heaven’ and guided by that I’ve been listening to some of J. S. Bach’s cantatas. In most of these, Bach takes a well-known melody and re-presents it, embroidering the material in a myriad of ways. It wasn’t a new idea of course: composers had been doing it for hundreds of years, but Bach’s skill and variety in transforming the ‘known’ material, both in his choral works and his organ Preludes, is breathtaking. And ever since, many composers have loved to re-present the old with the new in the same way. And so when I came to write my recent Advent cantata, I found myself using the traditional hymn ‘O come, o come Emmanuel’ as a starting point – turning its phrase shapes into recitatives, and using it as a slowly moving melody in some voices against more decorative singing in the others, so that although the hymn is never sung in its complete form, it permeates the whole work and, I hope, gives the listener a sense of security and comfort. In a similar way, my Christmas cantata ‘A light in the stable’ uses the ancient hymn ‘Of our Maker’s love begotten’ as a melodic basis throughout, as well as using a number of Christmas carols, concealed in the background as well as in the foreground.
So it was a happy coincidence that at the time I was writing these cantatas I was asked to contribute to a new organ series: ‘Oxford Hymn Settings for Organists’ or OHSO for short. The first two volumes of these, Advent and Christmas, and Epiphany, are published (by OUP), and there are more to come. Edited by Rebecca Groom te Velde and David Blackwell, they bring together an impressive range of new works from UK and US composers. They make a fascinating collection of short preludes for use in church services and organ recitals: each composer responds to their chosen well-known hymn or carol in a different way, creating a different mood and colour. Some present the melody in slow moving notes in the pedals while the hands weave brilliant toccata-like passages above: others gently conceal the melody in the middle of the texture, while others give us several verses of the melody, each with different harmonisations and registrations. Still others take each phrase of the melody in turn and develop it, perhaps presenting it grandly with big chords, or treating it contrapuntally, one hand copying the other, and a few simply take a fragment of the melody as a starting point and take it in a completely unexpected direction! There are 58 pieces by nearly twenty composers in the two books, and each one is different in its approach and character, each looking at the melody on which it is based from a different angle.
I learnt a lot about writing for the organ when composing my pieces for this series – and now have learnt still more by seeing the variety of the musical offerings of my composer colleagues near and far!