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ClassicsOnline Home » BOLCOM, W.: Gospel Preludes, Books 1-4 (Hand)
William Bolcom, named ‘2007 Composer of the Year’ by Musical America, has written in many genres. His Gospel Preludes, based on hymns, are amongst his most fascinating and compulsive works. Bold, brilliant, sometimes bizarre, but always hugely enjoyable, the Preludes vary widely, sometimes adorned by jazzy chords and rich swing, sometimes exuding tour-de-force brilliance or—when the music is quiet and reflective—possessed of a mesmeric reassurance. The GRAMMY® Award-winning Naxos recording of Bolcom’s Songs of Innocence and Experience is available on 8.559216–18.
By Jeff Simon
The Buffalo News
William Bolcom (b. 1938)
Complete Gospel Preludes
In 1979 the Dallas chapter of the American Guild of Organists commissioned William Bolcom to compose some new organ music for the sixtieth anniversary of the chapter. Bolcom responded with three Gospel Preludes, based on recognizable hymn tunes, which were so well-received that three more books were commissioned.
Bolcom’s music draws on many influences, including jazz, gospel, cabaret, as well as a more atonal idiom. Often his music switches between these idioms freely, creating a pastiche that is uniquely American.
 What A Friend We Have in Jesus!
Bolcom clearly states his intentions for the Gospel Preludes with this opening setting, What A Friend We Have in Jesus! Mostly jazz-influenced, with pockets of outright atonality, the hymn is first set in gigantic, dissonant right-hand chords, sounding like a full-throated gospel choir. This alternates with a quieter presentation of the melody, much like a soloist taking over the hymn for a verse.
 La Cathédrale engloutie (Rock of Ages)
Bolcom seems to have drawn inspiration from the words “Let the water…” from the hymn’s text. After a direct quotation from Debussy’s La Cathédrale engloutie, (which was itself inspired by the legend of an underwater cathedral that occasionally rises) the waters slowly begin to churn, and in due course the hymn tune surfaces out of the shocking dissonance. Eventually the tune recedes, and there is a return to the sounds from the beginning.
 Just As I Am
The prelude Just As I Am features three verses of the hymn, each preceded by a short, harmonically ambiguous section. The first verse is a straightforward presentation of the hymn tune in the soprano. The second verse again features the hymn tune in the soprano, but now accompanied by the hymn tune in canon in the lower voices. The third verse is a compositional tour-de-force, with the hymn tune in the soprano, in canon in the tenor, and in inverted canon in the pedals. The hymn seems to pour out of every part of the organ, before slowly petering out.
 Jesus Loves Me
The simple children’s tune Jesus Loves Me is initially set in a quasi-baroque style before opening up into a more lush texture.
 Shall We Gather at the River
Shall We Gather at the River is by far the most bizarre (and fun) setting of the Gospel Preludes; Bolcom is again inspired by the image of water. A trickle of water runs through the entire piece, serving as a backdrop for snippets of the hymn tune. Something like a marching band suddenly interrupts the texture to present the hymn clearly, and is rudely cut off one note before the end of the hymn, finally dissolving back into the water-motive.
 Amazing Grace
Amazing Grace is the longest Gospel Prelude, and the only one in variation form. After a brief introduction, the hymn is presented in theatre organ style, with jazzy chords and dramatic pauses. The second verse barely references the hymn, and instead concentrates on creating a cool and graceful texture. The third verse presents the tune in the pedals, accompanied by a canon in the upper voices (beginning with a quotation from Bach’s Canonic Variations on Von Himmel Hoch). The fourth verse is a call-and-response, which eventually develops in the fifth verse, a triumphant setting that gradually becomes quite dissonant. This fades back into the music of the beginning.
 Jesus Calls Us; O’er the Tumult
Jesus Calls Us; O’er the Tumult is an exceptionally peaceful setting; each phrase of the hymn is preceded by a quiet accompaniment. When the hymn tune is present, the prevailing key is F sharp. The intervening accompaniments, however, have always-shifting tonal centers, making each return of F sharp major a welcome and reassuring respite.
 Blessed Assurance
The mood of the previous setting is quickly tossed aside by the bold proclamation of Blessed Assurance. After an early climax, the hymn is accompanied by an ostinato, which slowly winds the hymn down, and we find ourselves in murky territory, reminiscent of La Cathédrale engloutie. This leads directly into the next Prelude without pause.
 Nearer, My God, to Thee
Nearer, My God, to Thee starts in a very odd place. The music is confusing and without center. This confusion serves to dramatize the eventual appearance of the hymn tune.
 Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child
Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child is dedicated to Marvin Gaye, who had recently been murdered by his father. The unvarnished anger of the beginning eventually relents, and a jazzy ostinato appears in the pedals and left hand. When the tune comes in, however, it is harmonized in increasingly ugly, dissonant, and grating chords. The second verse is more mournful, but eventually the anger seeps through again. The ending is helpless and unresolved.
 Sweet Hour of Prayer
Warm and inviting, Sweet Hour of Prayer clearly presents the tune in the soprano, accompanied by chromatic voices.
 Free Fantasia on ‘O Zion Haste’ and ‘How Firm a Foundation’
This final Free Fantasia on ‘O Zion Haste’ and ‘How Firm a Foundation’, the only Gospel Prelude featuring two hymn tunes (and the only one that does not end quietly) sums up everything we have heard thus far. The first half is strange in the extreme, and ends with slow, low, dissonant and quiet chords. Out of this fog comes the upbeat and swinging second hymn tune. Bolcom, in a stroke of genius, sets How Firm a Foundation in asymmetrical 5/4 time, and this extra beat (the original is in 4/4 time) somehow sounds exactly right.
Special thanks to Elizabeth JL Davenport, Dean of Rockefeller Chapel, University of Chicago; Tom Weisflog, University Organist; and Ericksen, Christian and Associates, organ tuner.
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BOLCOM, W.: Gospel Preludes, Books 1-4 (Hand)