Suites for the Holidays
Exploring the feasibility of arranging The Nutcracker Suite for hammered dulcimer had been in the back of my mind as an "I'll get-to-it-someday" project for several years. While Stephen Bennett's remarkable recording, 'The Nutcracker Suite for Guitar Orchestra,' was undoubtedly an inspiration, the folk-dance quality of Tchaikovsky's work seemed to suggest 'hammered dulcimer,' and two movements ('Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy' and 'Russian Dance') had been a part of my repertoire for a while. After a 2007 holiday concert, my wife suggested I record a Christmas CD, and the time for said exploration was at hand. The shorter movements all fell into place quite readily. 'Waltz of the Flowers' was a more ambitious undertaking but came together after rewriting the guitar part for DADGAD tuning. The 'Overture,' with fast chromatic runs apparently only playable by a hammer-wielding cephalopod, loomed as a seemingly insurmountable obstacle while I arranged and recorded the rest of the CD. A second transposition attempt, to the unbeatably hammered dulcimer-friendly key of G, finally proved to be the charm. The two already-learned performance-repertoire movements are the simplest arrangements - just solo hammered dulcimer. The remaining movements all use some overdubbing of one or more additional dulcimer parts, acoustic guitar, and in one case ('Arabian Dance') a tapped, heavily-reverbed, sand-filled plastic egg. A number of different striking surfaces were used on the hammers for varying effects. Listeners who are very familiar with the Suite will notice some differences in the key transitions (or lack thereof) between movements, since three of them had to be transposed to render them more dulcimer-friendly. The 'Mostly Carols Suite' is an assortment of traditional melodies from the rich repertoire of European carols, with one original composition thrown in (hence the "mostly" qualifier). No attempt was made to be faithful to geocultural origins when combining tunes into medleys; instead, pairings were made solely on the basis of musical considerations. Perhaps the most curious marriage of the lot is the 'Wexford Carol / Watching for Santa' medley, in which the haunting melody of an old Irish carol leads into my mellifluous first attempt at composing a Christmas novelty tune (the title of which harkens back to a childhood memory). The "Mostly Anthems Suite" is comprised of three serious Christmas compositions, all of which have carol associations. The refrain of 'Gesu Bambino,' an early twentieth century anthem by Italian-born organist Pietro Yon, is based on the hymn 'Adeste Fideles' ('O Come All Ye Faithful'). 'Lo How a Rose,' now familiar as a hymn setting by Michael Praetorius, originated as a 16th Century traditional German carol. 'Noël Grand Jeu et Duo,' a French baroque organ piece by Louis-Claude d'Acquin (technically not an anthem since it was an instrumental composition), was based on a traditional French carol tune. The same noël, transposed to a different key, was the basis for a very similar organ composition a generation later by another Frenchman, Claude Balbastre. The recording closes with 'Suite for Winter,' a tribute to the stark beauty of the season. 'Largo,' borrowed from another suite (Antonio Vivaldi's 'The Four Seasons') is among the most simply stunning melodies in all of classical music. 'After the Ice Storm' was written following a winter storm which had left the tree branches sparkling diamond-like in the morning sun. Completing the suite is the quiet repose of Gustav Holst's 1906 setting of 'In The Bleak Midwinter.'