Crunchy harmonies

If southerners communicate by telling stories, I confess that I communicate by telling stories, supplemented by the frequent use of colloquialisms.

When writing in a scholarly manner, I always attempt to use the highest possible grammar and the most correct punctuation. However, having a conversation with me is an entirely different matter.

Throughout the years, I have gratefully received compliments about my own performances ranging from “You played so beautifully” to “You done good, son,” the latter of which is usually followed by a pat on the shoulder.

Which is the higher compliment?

Music is comprised of consonance and dissonance. Most often the dissonances give way into the consonances, but sometimes the dissonances land and stay for some desired effect.

I maintain that, at least with choral textures, Peter Hallock was a master at landing dissonances.

Crunchy harmonies or moments, as I colloquially called these dissonances.

Prominent Episcopal musician Peter R. Hallock (1924-2014) was organist/choirmaster of St. Mark’s Cathedral, Seattle, from 1951 to 1991. A lifelong resident of Washington state, Peter was widely known among Episcopal musicians as a composer, organist, liturgist and countertenor.

Perhaps his most significant contributions to church music are The Compline Choir at St. Mark’s and The Ionian Psalter. (“Ionian” refers to 16th-century Ionian mode, known today as a C major scale.) 

The Compline Choir became famous by singing the Office of Compline (“night prayers”) on Sunday nights at 9 p.m. at St. Mark’s Cathedral; during the 1960s through 1980s, this service drew upwards of 500 people each week, filling the pews and sitting on the cathedral’s stone floor, while twelve singers sang plainsong chant accompanied only by candlelight and incense. 

In April 2014, after a long illness, Peter entered Hospice care on Holy Saturday. He lived throughout Easter week but died on the Second Sunday of Easter, April 27, 2014.

When doing a little personal research for writing this week's blog, I discovered in our records here in the parish office that my very first NOTES: Liturgy and Music blog entry was posted for the Third Sunday of Easter, May 4, 2014. I wrote about The Ionian Psalter as a way to introduce Peter’s music and its unique sounds to our parish congregation.

As a young Episcopal musician, I became acquainted with Peter’s psalter and was captivated and fascinated by his compositional style. While not always easy music to learn, these setting work in the liturgy every time without fail.

From time to time, I would call Peter at St. Mark’s Cathedral with questions about how to use his psalter settings. He always received my calls and was most gracious, helpful, and encouraging.

In The Ionian Psalter, the congregation sings a refrain or antiphon, and the choir sings the psalm verses. The antiphon is always lined out with an introduction that clearly indicates exactly what the people are to sing.

In my experience, there are composers whose music always works. Peter’s settings always work. They are sensitive, effective, and completely devoted to their texts, making them perfect vehicles to convey the message of the text.

My favorite moment in all The Ionian Psalter is Peter’s treatment of the opening phrase of Psalm 22, the psalm appointed for Good Friday and other occasions in the lectionary. His open-chord treatment at the end of the phrase “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” with its haunting dissonance, is sparse and spellbinding.

In our parish, we rotate all manner of psalm singing traditions: responsorial plainchant, fully congregational settings, combinations of congregation and choir or cantor.

This Epiphany season, we will be using The Ionian Psalter. Be sure to pay close attention to the specific choral treatments of each phrase; they are not by accident, I assure you.

In addition to his psalm for this Sunday, which is the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, the Parish Choir will sing Peter Hallock’s anthem, “The Baptism of Christ” for the Offertory anthem at 10:30 a.m. Again, Peter has produced a most effective setting that employs both English and Latin texts simultaneously.

Indeed, I am most grateful for the wealth of liturgical music that is now Peter’s legacy and his perpetual gift to us.

Learn more about The Compline Choir tradition here.

Listen to The Ionian Psalter setting of Psalm 22, sung by members of the Bach Chamber Choir directed by Carl Crosier (1945-2014), with whom Peter Hallock founded his publishing house Ionian Arts in 1986, by clicking here.

Photo credit: Katherine Crosier. Used by permission.

Posted by Dr. David Ouzts at 16:46