Angel Trio, Musical Confession on Seven Tones

Cantate Domino canticum novum qui mirabilia fecit…

(Psalm 97)

The “birth” of a new composition for each composer is of twofold significance: first, exploring the secret parts of the mind and its internal world of imagination, and second, revealing the intimate part of the composer’s personality to the audience. Being the communicative link between the composer and the different levels of individual and collective reception, every new composition deserves full respect and willingness to accept the composer’s ideas, mental states, feelings, messages and knowledge.

The well-known California composer and pianist, Dr. Deon Nielsen Price, reveals herself, her nature, her internal imaginative life and insight into her art through her music. Highly educated, intellectual, provocative, she follows a powerful musical intuition, and searches for compositional satisfaction in the genre of mostly chamber and vocal music. In observing the ensembles and instruments for which she has written, as well as the titles of her compositions, we may follow her inclination toward chamber music for small ensembles,2 and above all, a profound tendency towards intimate vocal lyrics as the initial clue for understanding her colorful ideas.

Therefore, her new work Angel Trio for violin, cello and piano occurs as the logical continuation of previous compositions. It is conceived as part of a larger music project called Angelology which includes such works as Angel Quintet for flute, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon and Angel Serenade for chamber orchestra. Angel Trio was commissioned by the Los Angeles Alumni Chapter of Mu Phi Epsilon (the international professional music fraternity) and dedicated to its members. The celebration of the organization’s 75th Anniversary on March 12, 1994, which took place at the California Yacht Club in Marina del Rey, presented an excellent opportunity for the premiere performance of this trio. Despite a less-than-optimal concert space, the quiet and pleasant surroundings provided a suitable aura for its performance. Within the salon’s intimate atmosphere, every movement added to the work’s spirit and held the large audience attentive. The members of the Trio, violinist Mary Lou Newmark, cellist Marilyn Harris and pianist Deon Nielsen Price, presented a very professional performance, and despite the lack of proper concert space arrangement, produced a balanced delivery. One still wishes a repeat performance in a recital hall for a better hearing of the profound and subtle musical ideas.

Angel Trio is a composition that may be analyzed from various aspects, the most important of which is its compositional technique. However, according to Dr. Price, the general idea to which the title of the work refers “is an appeal to several famous angels identified in various religions of the world, in behalf of the inhabitants of the City of the Angels (el Pueblo de Los Angeles)” and it is dedicated to the members of Mu Phi Epsilon, who are “angels” of music. Then again, the same title gives one an opportunity to speculate about another possible idea of the composer, one of more spiritual significance, i.e. music as a device of unification and understanding among people, and more profoundly, communication between cosmic powers and the human soul, as in a similar way, the angels were the beings intermediate between God and the human race. Significantly, the basis of the composition is a generous idea which is presented in four movements and three interludes as follows:

Astarte, Queen of Heaven:
Lend us your Womanly Attributes
Cherubic messenger #1
Raphael, Divine Physician: Heal us with your Warmth
Cherubic messenger #2
Gabriel, Keeper of Spiritual Wisdom: Make us Wise
Cherubic messenger #3
Moroni, Ancient Prophet of the New World:
Trumpet the Good News from the Pinnacle of the Temple

As a composition, the trio is very clearly defined. It is based on the specific vector number 0236711 (i.e. C D Eb F# G Ab B) as explained in M. Lloyd Tew’s Tables of Pitch Combinations and Corresponding Interval Contents, 1968. This harmonic vector number basically dominates the entire trio. Numerical organization of musical material is not a new idea; however, the results obtained in this piece certainly are. Practically applied, the abovementioned harmonic vector number appears as a linear scale which is the same as harmonic minor with a raised 4th degree. It plays, essentially, the role of a tone row or freely used tonal series which executes the harmonic and melodic parameters of the compositional structure. The melodic aspect of the work becomes thematic and also serves to form the harmonic and contrapuntal development (See Ex. 1).

The model for this linear scale has offered Dr. Price numerous compositional possibilities, and she uses them astutely. Arnold Schoenberg has claimed that the “tone is the material of music,” and therefore has to be artistically respected with all its qualities and effects.3 His statement is very applicable in the case of this composition’s seven chosen tones. It is the key to understanding the Angel Trio.

Without abandoning the framework of the chosen seven tone order, Dr. Price has not only created a balance between harmonic and melodic elements, but has also obtained the formal unity of the entire cycle. The common tone row entity has created the impression of using monothematic principles thorough the entire composition.

The first movement of the trio titled Astarte represents the Semitic goddess of sexual activity, fertility, maternity, love and war.4 The movement symbolizes the birth and growth of something new and has a distinctive female character. As an unceasing perpetuum mobile with continuous movement of quintuplets, it introduces the general mysterious spiritual atmosphere of this work. The essential seventone order presented as harmonic C minor with raised 4th degree (see Ex. 1) lends itself to various creative possibilities. From a melodic point of view, the most effective intervals are the augmented 2nd (Eb up to F#, Ab up to B), diminished 3rd (F# up to Ab), augmented 4th (C up to F#) and augmented 5th (Eb up to B). Harmonically speaking, the prevalent structures are quartal and quintal, and appear in the following ways:

  • chords which arise from the separate linear movement of the three instrumental parts;
  • simultaneous intervals of 4ths, which in the interrelationship between instrumental parts create chord structures;
  • triads in large extension, usually composed of perfect and augmented 5ths.

The first movement is presented as a freely constructed ternary form. The A section contains three main elements:

  • quintuplet figures moving throughout the entire section;
  • linear pizzicato lines in the string parts, mostly consisting of intervals of a 5th in combination with a diminished 3rd;
  • contrasting espressivo cantabile in an alternating movement of minor and major intervals. In a few bars all the elements appear together (see Ex 2).

The B section is very melodic in character and intensifies the rhythmic movement of eighth notes as a contrast to the quintuplets of the first section. The reprise is shorter, and only reminds us of the atmosphere at the beginning of the movement

The second movement, Raphael, is different in character. As one of the seven archangels in the Judeo-Christian belief, Raphael, whose name in Hebrew means “God hath healed,” was said to have healed this earth when it was defiled by the sins of the fallen angels.5 Alluding to this, the movement is much more decisive, energetic and determined in its rhythmic parameter. Filled with definite contrasts and mutation of its other musical parameters, the movement also contains some extended instrumental techniques such as sul ponticello in the violin, approximate pitches in the cello part and plucking and strumming of strings inside the piano (Ex. 3).

Ternary form is the general framework of the movement. Predominant elements of the first A section are brisk, expressive upward passages in a combination with sharp, rhythmic triads. A transitive, romantically meditative cantabile between the A and B sections has been written with “Brahmsian” inspiration. The B section is moderately aleatoric and contemplative. Contrast is attained by changing the tone row on C to the tone row on F#, giving the string ensemble an ancient archaic aura while the piano is treated in harp (or perhaps Greek lyre) fashion. The violin plays muted flageolet tones in a quartal run of eighth notes with the animated string pizzicatii similar to the sound of a kithara6 giving further substance to the allusion of antiquity.

Gabriel is the title of the third movement which is a sublime lyric confession. This is an appropriate mood, for the role of Gabriel in the Bible was a messenger of Divine comfort, wisdom and acquiescence. The movement, therefore, aptly has the form of chorale variations. The theme has the vocal qualities of a calm hymn-tune. It is subsequently exposed in each part of the ensemble, and then, throughout the four variations where it is developed in the style of the vocal chorale tradition. The moderate use of polyphony implies the presence of counterpoint, including the techniques of imitation, inversion and sometimes canonic relationship between instrumental parts. Nevertheless, the homophonic basis of the chorale accompaniment is seldom abandoned.

Looking over previous titles in the work of Deon Price, it is evident that the chorale has been a frequent inspiration for her compositions, suggesting that the chorale style well represents her lyric talent and expresses it in a most appropriate way.

The final movement Moroni, the name of Mormon’s son, indicates the powerful ending of the cycle according to the prophet who announces the Time of Change and a New World. The “trumpet” motif, as an anticipation of the News, is symbolically represented by the upward quartal motive in a dotted rhythmic pulse (Ex. 5).

The marchlike style is very appropriate as a final movement of the cycle. Full of energy, it indicates the belief in an indispensable existence of the cycle of Change. However, there is no Faith without Doubt. The contrasting mystical middle section of this ternary form is based on muted flageolet-notes in the violin and cello, organized in an alternate movement of triplets. The main interval used for the entire movement is that of a 4th, both as a melodic and as a harmonic element. Based on the same tonerow principle in E, this march gradually progresses into a dramatic and dynamic final culmination.

Very interesting is the role of the interludes. They appear as solo parts in the style of a cadenza and also announce the character of the movement which is to follow.

Cherubic Messenger #1 for solo cello and Cherubic Messenger #3 for solo violin are both composed in a very similar manner, that of a scherzo. Actually, the third interlude appears as a variant of the first one, and uses the principles of retrograde inversion. Unlike the main movements which have quartal and quintal harmonies, the interludes are based on tertial harmonies, and, generally, follow the roots of the major triads. This gives them a tonal flavor. The staccato articulation, including the grace notes, gives these interludes an originality that implies humor and a “devilish” playful challenge (Ex 6).

Cherubic Messenger #2 for solo piano is a subtle lyrical interlude with an improvisatorial character. It announces the lyrical culmination of the cycle, the Chorale Variations. As in the previous two interludes, this one is also based on a major triad and gives one an impression of tonality.
* * *

Arnold Schoenberg has said, “There exists no definition of the concepts of melody and melodic which is better than pseudoaesthetics. Consequently, the composition of melodies depends only on inspiration, logic, sense of form and musical culture.” 7 In the instance of Dr. Price’s work, the sense of form and the character of the melody is the primary source of musical expression. Thanks to the tone nucleus of the composition (harmonic minor with raised 4th degree), the work is united from two aspects: the melodic, all the melodies emerging one from another as in a causalconsecutive process; and the harmonic, harmonic structures usually being based on quartal or quintal relationships, as a logical consequence of the intervallic relationships within the tonerow.

In this work, it is hardly possible to consider the formal structure and construction in a classical manner. The composition does not possess the contrasting periodical thematic and harmonic relationships found in the classic style. Nevertheless, we can try to find common features in the character of the movements, comparing Angel Trio with the sonata cycle. The first movement marked as Allegretto grazioso, with its character of perpetuum mobile is appropriate as an opening movement; the second (Agitato) reminds one of a scherzo; the third movement (Espressivo) plays the role of a slow lyrical movement; the final Allegro is an energetic march. The short ingenious interludes link all the movements of the cycle in a creative whole

It is really a great skill to know how to organize the dramaturgy of a composition despite the permanent use of an unchangeable musical code of seven tones. That is the skill of an experienced composer and above all, the art of a real musician. Dr. Deon Price knows how to adjust the instrumental colors in a chamber ensemble, how to achieve the melodic authenticity and how to use innumerable rhythmic possibilities and combinations. In Price’s Angel Trio the intellectual dimension and knowledge of composition are in a remarkable way connected with infallible tuition and romantic strength of expression. It is a creative product of the musician-artist, who feels the needs and knows the right direction in the development of the musical idea.

Sanya Shoilevska
as published in the ILWC Journal, October 1994

1. Sing to the Lord a new song, because he has done wonderful things…
2. In the field of instrumental music, Dr. Price has written solo, duos, trios, quartets, quintets, and music for string or mixed chamber orchestras.
3. See also Arnold Schoenberg Harmonilehre (Vienna: Universal Edition, 1922), 2.
4. See also Encyclopedia Americana: International Edition, Vol. 1 (Danbury: Grolier Incorporated, 1987), 546.
5. See also Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, ed. by F. L. Cross (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), 1158.
6. Ancient Greek plucked string instrument of the lyre type.
7. Arnold Schoenberg, Structural Functions of Harmony (New York-London: W.W. Norton &a,p; Company, 1969), 194.

Sanya Shoilevska was born on June 26, 1964 in Skopje, Macedonia in Southeast Europe. A musicologist and award-winning pianist, she has a joint Bachelor of Arts degree in Musicology and Piano, and a Master of Arts in Musicology from the Faculty for Music in Skopje (1991). Soloist and chamber musician, she also studied piano at the Ecole Normal de Musique “Alfred Cortot” in Paris, and in Groznjan, Slovenia, and Nice, France. The author of a Catalog of Macedonia Music Artists, she has been employed since 1989 at the Academy of Arts in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia as a research assistant in musicology. At present she is in Los Angeles as a visiting scholar and a doctoral candidate doing research for her dissertation under the mentorship of Professor Emerita Dr. Beverly Grigsby from California State University, Northridge. Contact address:Sanya Shoilevska, 1745 N. Wilcox Ave, Apt 227, Los Angeles CA 90028. Tel (213) 469-9638.