Variations on a Southern Gospel Tune



by Monte K. Pishny-Floyd


What’s in a title? Variations on a Southern Gospel Tune: what is the genesis (pardon the pun) of this title? So what’s a Jewish guy like me doing writing a piece based on an old Christian Gospel tune? Partly it has to do with my culture. I am from Oklahoma originally, although I’ve lived in Canada more than forty years, long enough to have become almost civilized. My home “town,” Oklahoma City (OKC), used to be described as “two skyscrapers surrounded by Baptists.” It has long since outgrown that ancient joke, but it harbours a truth: Oklahoma has a far larger percentage of Evangelicals among its population than any other state. Being Jewish, or even, for example, Catholic, put one in a minority. Being from a transplanted Czech culture (“Pishny”) put one in another minority. However, the minorities from which my own roots emanate were also quite assimilated and intertwined with the more dominant culture, which was in those days as now distinctly “Gospel”-based.


Further, I am by no means the only Jewish composer to write a work on a Christian subject: one has only to think of, for example, Bernstein’s enormously great Mass, much of the music of such as Mahler and Mendelssohn, and of course those marvelous holiday songs “White Christmas” and “Easter Parade” by Irving Berlin, which I would put right up there with any of Schubert’s songs for artistic quality—beautiful stuff! Such works transcend specific cultures, and belong to everyone’s cultural inheritance—I hope this is true of my own work which you will hear on tonight’s SSO concert. (This will be the first performance of Variations on a Southern Gospel Tune by a professional orchestra.)


My Variations on a Southern Gospel Tune (VSGT) has a long history. It was more than a half-century ago that I first heard the beautiful and powerful tune upon which I based my variations sung. I will have more to say about that, below. When, in about 1963, a fellow music student asked me to write a short set of variations for her to perform on a recital, I immediately thought of this tune, because it is so easy to recognize but so rich in potential. I wrote a short set of variations for piano—these were not performed publicly at the time (only for a piano class). However, I later—much later—expanded them into an extended set of variations for the piano, some of them very difficult, and dedicated it to my wife, Annette, a well-known Canadian pianist. She performed it in many venues, including recording it for a CBC broadcast.


I had long envisioned orchestrating it, and two factors combined in the early part of this century to bring that about. In 2004, our oldest daughter, Amy, became President of the Fort Bend Symphony Orchestra (as well as a member of the cello section) in the Houston, Texas metro area. Shortly thereafter, the conductor, Dr. John Ricarte, asked me to become Composer-in-Residence. I agreed, and there ensued nearly a decade-long happy relationship between myself and this fine community orchestra. During this time Dr. Ricarte left to focus more on other musical duties, including a school string program that has now long been highly successful. His successor, Dr. Héctor Agüero. not only wished to continue the relationship I had with FBSO, but in the fall of 2008 commissioned me to write a work for the orchestra. I readily agreed, and began planning the project.


Unfortunately, in May of 2008, my beloved cousin, Mike Farrow (November 4, 1932-May 30, 2008) had died of Mesothelioma. Then on November 22 of 2008, shortly after Hector asked me to write a work, my next-door neighbour and one of my best friends, Mike Wilson (b. 1940), died, also of cancer. This combination of circumstances led me to conclude that my long-planned orchestral version of VSGT would be the appropriate work to memorialize these two people so dear to me, and several others as well.


Initially VSGT was to be for orchestra with harp, and I created a version with harp. However, less than a week before the first performance, the harpist resigned, and so I created a different version (two measures longer, by the way) for orchestra with piano. Annette, my wife, got into the act, learned the piano part literally overnight, played it the next day at the dress rehearsal, and the work was given its world-premiere on June 7, 2009, by the FBSO with Dr. Agüero conducting as scheduled. It was, I am happy to say, a real crowd-pleaser. I will say that I intended it to be one of my more accessible works (because of the more community-oriented orchestra and its constituency) without compromising my own principles and standards. I believe I have achieved that balance with this work. It has since been performed in Saskatoon by the Saskatoon Philharmonic Orchestra, George Charpentier conducting, and given a very special performance by the Brazosport Symphony Orchestra (BSO) in Lake Jackson, Texas, with Dr. John Ricarte conducting on February 23, 2013.


There was a standing ovation at all three concerts, which of course pleases any composer or performer, but at the Lake Jackson BSO concert of February 23, 2013 things got even better. This was special, because Annette and I were the featured guests of honour at a BSO weekend in Lake Jackson. The theme was “Young at Heart,” and Annette was the guest pianist. Indeed, Annette has been the pianist in all the performances of my work to now and is looking forward to sitting in the audience and hearing the whole thing for the first time when the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra (SSO) plays it. For me the nicest thing about the BSO concert was that, since it happened to be Annette’s 71st birthday, as soon as the applause had died away the orchestra launched into “Happy Birthday” with Dr. Ricarte conducting the audience who stood and sang “Happy Birthday” to Annette. At intermission, the BSO served birthday cupcakes—all of this surprised both of us, especially Annette. It also made us happy several of our children and grandchildren were present at the Lake Jackson concert.


For VSGT I took a cue from Sir Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations, and put the initials of beloved family members and friends on each of VSGT’s sections. The entire work is dedicated to the memory of “the two Mikes,” Mike Farrow and Mike Wilson. The Introduction bears the initials “D. M.,” for Daniel M. Rahm, my late father-in-law, a solid, salt-of-the-earth highly-respected refinery foreman and rock of his Southern Baptist Church; the Theme is “for H. & L.,” known to us as “Uncle Hank & Aunt Lela Rahm,” staunch Methodists, successful farmers/investors, and generous benefactors of charities throughout the Garfield County region of northern Oklahoma including the city of Enid. Variation I is “for B.H.,” namely, our own Bob Hinitt, a dear friend of mine, a Sorbonne-educated gardener and theatrical set-builder whose annual Christmas displays on Wiggins thrilled so many Saskatonians for so many years—and always benefited his favourite charity, the SPCA; Variation II is “a musical sketch of Mike Farrow,” and is in the lively “Black Gospel” style; Variation III is “a musical sketch of Mike Wilson,” and is in an “Appalachian-Southern White Gospel” style; Variation IV bears the indication, “J. J., Magister Musicae De Facto,” implying that one of my closest friends in Saskatoon, the late Jack Johnson, more than proved he deserved the master’s degree that fate and departmental politics denied him; Variation V. has the indication, “for G. H. F.,” which is for my Uncle George Hunter Floyd, a “Wounded Warrior” of WWII, and in this short variation which is nothing but marching drums. I envisioned the phantom that had been Uncle George (nicknamed “Tag”) marching across a silent battlefield still smoking from the struggle; Variation VI is marked “for E. S.,” for my first best friend, Eddie Strickland, whom I met in the summer of 1944 when we were both still two years old. We were friends until his death about a quarter-century ago. Eddie was haunted by “demons” from a tragic childhood accident in which his younger brother died—but after Eddie married into a very Catholic family (which caused idle chatter in our old mostly-Protestant neighbourhood) he seemed quite happy until his untimely death in a late-night motorcycle accident. I believe to the end he was “haunted” by those “demons”—the “Dies Irae” setting expresses my own deepest feelings about him and his end; Variation VII is labeled “M. C.,” for Irish-born Dr. Mary Cronin, also Catholic, a brilliant educator, and one of our dearest friends. I could not help but think of her name, “Mary,” and the symbolism of her calming spiritual effect on the wrath of the “Dies Irae,” which calm leads into the “N’awlins” style Gospel Blues funeral march of Variations VIII-X: Variation VIII is “for V. and R.P.,” for my Aunt Vivian and Uncle Roger Pishny, wonderful people, Roger being also a gifted musician who, when I was young, introduced me to many great organists and their playing when they came to OKC; Variation IX is “for C.O.,” which stands for “Cousin Otto.” Otto Norman was a businessman, but also a musician who played his last New Year’s dance in 2004 with his group “The Pacemakers” at age 90 and died in 2008; Variation X is “for E. & A.P.,” which is in memory of my Aunt Ernesteen and Uncle Anton Pishny—Anton, with Ernesteen’s help, for many years did something in OKC similar to what Bob Hinitt did here: an annual Christmas display. Anton played Santa Claus to many people over the years with the help of the lady we knew at Christmas as “Mrs. Claus”—my Aunt Ernesteen, the fantastic Earth-mother cook who tried her best to make me permanently overweight. Without pause, Variation XI, the Coda, concludes the work. It bears the note, “for G. M.,” referring to Annette’s Mother Rosalie Rahm, whom we all knew as “Grandmother” or simply, “G. M,” the wife of “D.M.” She lived to be 91, and was the one to whom we all turned for both wise counsel AND her incredible sense of humour. She was a deeply-committed Southern Baptist (and as she said, “a lonely Democrat in a nest of Republicans”) who was open and welcoming to people of all faiths and ethnicities.


All of these good people, and with them many, many stories, are imbedded in this work of mine, part and parcel of its fabric. It occurred to me that this is, in a very real sense my musical equivalent of Thornton Wilder’s deservedly-famous play, “Our Town.”


I first heard the tune, “I will arise and go to Jesus” sung by people from rural southern Oklahoma, not in a Black Gospel style but in an Appalachian style as upbeat and fervent as the Black Gospel style. I was captivated then and since with the simple strength and emotional power of that tune, which I refer to in my music’s title as a “Southern Gospel Tune.” “Gospel Music” per se has more to do with the style of performance than the tune actually being sung. Some of the variations in my work are—for me—like musical snapshots of these two (among many) Gospel styles. For example, Variations II and III allude to, respectively, the Black Gospel style with built-in “hand-clappin’” and “foot-stompin’,” and the Appalachian/”Southr’in Okie” Gospel style with various vocal “swoops ‘n’ catches” in the singing (here, left to the strings).


My Variations on a Southern Gospel Tune, more than any other work I have ever written, grows out of my Oklahoma cultural roots. Oklahoma is a state where cultures were and are in conflict. For example, part of the state prior to the Civil War had been the Cherokee Nation, the Creek-Seminole Nation, and the Choctaw-Chickasaw Nation. After the war, it was Indian Territory until statehood in 1907. More than 30 Native American tribes live in Oklahoma, nearly twenty percent of the population is of Native American ancestry, and state license plates for decades now have proclaimed Oklahoma to be “Native America.” Not only that, when I was growing up our state was as rigidly segregated (until post-1954) vis-à-vis Black/White as South Africa’s Apartheid. On top of that, another form of almost-equally-stringent de facto segregation was Protestant/Catholic. Many Protestants/Catholics did not mix socially, and quite often parents of one faith would not even allow their children to play with children of the other faith.


All of this is interwoven in my mind and in my work. I have subtly slipped in a symbolic musical reference to the Protestant/Catholic conflict beginning with Variation I, in which the main tune, “I will arise and go to Jesus” is combined with the “Dies Irae” (“Day of Wrath”) from the old Latin Catholic Mass. Here “Dies Irae” is quiet; it reaches its full wrathfulness and terror in Variation VI, where its immense inner energy and musical force is unleashed.


The following Variation, VII, tempers “the harsh decree” with mercy and love, and the work concludes with an extended excursion into the Gospel Blues idiom, a sort of “N’awlins” type sound, coming to full fruition in Variation X. It is my take on the traditional “N’awlins” Dixieland march to the cemetery, and the work concludes with an ethereal, transcendental Coda which uses another tune associated with the words “I will arise and go to Jesus.” As IF it was actually being sung, the melody leaves the text and tune unfinished: “…no turnin’ back, no turnin’….” as the music fades—over a bass note from the depths of eternity—into silence.

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