Music for Harpsichord

My grandmother, Gertrud Roberts, was an internationally known harpsichordist. She was also a composer and prolific keyboard teacher. Her instrument is a truly unique work of art. Made by the American harpsichord builder John Challis, it was further enriched by a painting on the inside of the lid by the Paris-born artist Jean Charlot, who lived in Hawaii and was a close friend of my family. The harpsichord was donated by my mother to the Honolulu Museum of Art and has been beautifully restored. Information on the restoration of the instrument can be found at the following link (the lid painting is being restored separately):

To celebrate my grandmother, the instrument, and its donation to the Museum, concerts were given in November of 2013 by Chamber Music Hawaii featuring Tresemble. I am truly honored to have been asked to write music for these performances. I worked on two different pieces: The first is a set of variations on "Bist du bei mir" for harpsichord, oboe, and cello. The second is a piece for solo harpsichord which uses stochastic procedures for pitch generation. The variations were beautifully performed on the concerts by Tommy Yee, Scott Janusch, and Joanna Morrison. I am deeply grateful to them for both their expert guidance and their superb artistry.

My program note for the concerts:

Variations on “Bist du bei mir”

Composed by Daniel Morse, based on material by Stölzel and Bach

Duration: approx. 8:30

One of my earliest musical memories is the sound of my grandmother’s harpsichord. As a child, I took piano lessons from her, but was always more drawn to the rich, percussive sound of the harpsichord. I remember many times when I would wander into her music room to experiment with all the wonderful registration pedals and the variety of sounds they would produce! My visual memory of the instrument is very strong as well, particularly of the Charlot painting inside the lid. The Charlots were dear friends of my family; indeed, I owe my very existence to them, as my parents first met at a party at the Charlots’ house.

The connection between the harpsichord and music of the Baroque era is obvious. However, the musical basis for this piece was actually suggested by my mother. Quite some time ago, I offered to write a piece for her and asked her to suggest the type of piece and the ensemble. She suggested what I ended up writing here: a set of variations on the aria “Bist du bei mir” for the ensemble of oboe, cello, and harpsichord.

A typical “theme and variations” piece begins with the theme, which is then developed throughout the variations. I decided to turn this design on its head. The piece opens with music that is quite distant from the theme, a rhapsodic solo for harpsichord which explores the richness of the various registrations available on this particular instrument. The whole ensemble then enters briefly, bringing the first variation to a close. The next variation is much sparser, featuring an atonal theme in the cello, which is based on a 12-tone row derived from the original “Bist du bei mir” melody. The next variation is much longer and further develops the cello theme, but also introduces a complex isorhythmic texture in the harpsichord. The harpsichord here is playing on the upper keyboard, using the “buff” stop, which produces a sound similar to a lute or nylon-string guitar; this registration is perhaps my favorite on the instrument. As this variation continues, we hear the oboe take the aria melody in long tones, similar to the way Bach would introduce a chorale melody over a dense polyphonic texture in his choral works. The subsequent variations are much more traditional, beginning with a fugue on a variant of the incipit of the aria. The fugue transitions to a slow statement of the theme in a minor key. The piece concludes with an only slightly altered version of the original theme as it is found in the 1725 Anna Magdalena Notebook. The piece ends inconclusively, recalling timbres and gestures from previous variations.

It is impossible for me to express fully my gratitude to Chamber Music Hawaii and Tresemble for giving me the opportunity to compose this piece and for breathing life back into my grandmother’s instrument.