“Little Apple” - The Russian Sailors' dance for organ
2018 has been a dry year for me compositionally. Inspiration comes and goes. But what I deem one of my crowning achievements is the piece I completed this year – writing this currently in November, it is the only piece I’ve completed this year.
The roots of this piece lie in my time still in Bayreuth, where I completed my Bachelor of Music. The Lutheran Stadtkirche was receiving a special guest for one particular Sunday: the Bishop of the evangelical Lutheran church in Moscow, and I had the privilege of playing. To spark some inspiration, I found several folk and popular tunes on Youtube, but the most striking discovery of the evening was the performance of some dancers performing to a tune popularly known in Russia. The video in itself was amazing to watch, but the music even more astonishing; to know that I’ve been oblivious to an entire culture of amazing Russian music.
The melody originates from the ballet Красный Мак (“The Red Poppy”) from Reinhold Moritzevich Glière, a Russian composer of German and Polish descent. Within the ballet it is actually entitled “Dance of the Sailors of the Soviet Ship”. The title “Little Apple” and the rest of the various lyrics were given to the tune during the Russian Civil War and have no connection with the tune’s original source.
I began this piece just like any other fugue of mine: usually there’s a spark of motivation, but my composer’s mentality is very boring: I appreciate Bach, I love counterpoint, and I’ve restricted my views of composition to a box of rules and limitations. I barely made it past 50 measures (halfway through a development) when I became bored; unsure how to proceed, how to fix what traps I’d fallen into, how to break from the stagnant repetition of timbre. Here came the first huge pause in the writing process.
At some point I recalled something said to me by Dr. Sarah Schmalenberger, professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, where I worked as a vocal accompanist or many years. She and I were discussing famous works and she relayed a brilliant truth: all of the great works of famous composers are those that bring something new, even if they’re composed within the composer’s style; the great fugues of Bach are not (necessarily) “textbook” fugues. With this wisdom mind, I decide to take my fugue in a different direction: I’ve hit writer’s block? Let’s mimic the original work and throw in some variations.
Theme and Variations is a “style” that I’ve not explored very much, and I don’t know why. But this was the influence I needed to keep going: to keep things different, to change the timbre, the tempo, the pace, the colors, the registers. From utilizing the string registers to a flashy obligato soprano line, from a manuals-only variation to one that is practically an etude for the pedals; finding my way through modulations and styles, I finally bring the piece to its climax; a Neapolitan chord in B-flat Major and slide back into A minor. The development now complete, and onward to the end.
The piece, with several long pauses in the process, took about one year to complete, which is for me somewhat embarrassing. But I’m proud of it, I enjoy playing it, and despite its difficulty I hope that others can appreciate it too, even from just a musical theory perspective. It was premiered on 18 May, 2018 at Pilgrim Congregational Church in Duluth, Minnesota, and the European premiere was during my first concert in Munich Cathedral (München Frauenkirche) on 11 July, 2018.
The video of the Munich recording of this piece can be found here.