The Philosopher’s Stone (1995)
Thomas c. duffy
This composition sings the praises of the South Shore Conservatory on the occasion of its twenty-fifth anniversary, 1970-1995. The title refers to the medieval Philosopher’s Stone, an imaginary substance sought for by alchemists in the belief that it would transform base metals into silver or gold. The compositional techniques used herein show great concern for the properties of numbers, symmetry and symbols, much in line with the concerns of the medieval alchemists. The specific compositional technique employed here is soggetto cavato(carved subject), the 16-century practice of carving a musical subject out of the vowels (and even consonants in this piece) of a title or sentence and transforming them into a melody by means of the solmization syllables of the Guidonian hexachord (or German/ Latin nomenclature). Using this technique and other number/pitch equivalence formulae, the following secrets are contained within the music: 1. S=Eb and H=B in German nomenclature; 2. Ut=C in Latin solfeggio syllables; 3. Fixed do system 1=do=C, 2=re=D, etc. Thus, musical motives are made as follows: South Shore Conservatory=SSC=Eb Eb C; 25 (years) = 2 & 5 (fixed do) - re and sol=D and G; 1970 and 1995 (fixed do) = C, D, B, C and C, D, D, C; Silver and Gold= AG and AU (periodic table of elements) AG=A & G; AU = A and Ut (C).
As well, the Silver Bells motive from the carol Canticle of the Bells, is used in transposition to form the contrapuntal background to the other motives in the opening section.
The composition appears as a rough rounded binary form. The first section’s fanfares house all of the carved subject motives. This section is briefly recapitulated at the end. Both the first and third section stand as tribute to the 25th anniversary year, 1995.
The middle section reflects the state of the country when the Conservatory was founded in 1970 (a year that saw the escalation of the Vietnam War, the Kent State killings, and tremendous societal upheaval). Here again the composer relies on ancient compositional techniques. The simple melody present by the woodwinds is the ancient folk tune, L’Homme ArmŽ, The Armed Man. The words that accompanied this simple tune translate from Medieval French into: The armed man is to be feared; everywhere it has been proclaimed that everyone should arm himself with an iron coat of mail. Its presence here represents the martial atmosphere of the United States in 1970. Mimicking the overall form of the entire composition, this middle section is in three partsÑthe first two being instrumental settings of L’Homme ArmŽ. The third part contains the setting of L’Homme ArmŽ as the cantus firmus (tenor) sung by band members. Around this cantus firmus are three contrapuntal lines drawn from a Latin Mass by Guillaume DufayÑspecifically the Agnus Dei. The original Latin words accompanying this section are: Agnus Dei qui tollis peccata mundi miserere (nobis)ÑLamb of God that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy (on us). Thus, the most popular war hymn of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries is transformed into the basis for a plea to God for mercy and peace.
There are carved subjects identified above throughout the work and one in particular that has not been identified here. One might have fun trying to trace the metal motives throughout, SilverÑAGÑ GoldÑAU (AC), and those silvery sections where the silver and gold mallet instruments are used to produce an instrumental glitter.
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