Skip to content

Clearing the Air about John Williams’ Simple Gift (part 1)

I was looking forward as much as any average Bush-loathing voter to the Change that finally became official week before last, but I wasn’t going to let myself get glued to the TV for the inauguration. And then it snowed, and schools were closed, and what could I do? I heard the first part in the car as I drove the older daughter to a friend’s house (our progress was nothing short of miraculous, in spite of three and a half whole inches of snow!). I think Biden was being sworn in when we got there and started watching.

I had been paying enough attention to know that I’d be hearing Rick Warren and Aretha Franklin, but the “unique musical performance” of “a composition arranged for this occasion by John Williams,” to quote Diane Feinstein, caught me by surprise. My heart sank a little at the composer’s name, but still. There, on the screen, four freezing, windblown musicians with ridiculously old-fashioned instruments were playing their hearts out. At the moment he officially became president, Obama was listening intently to the music. Like most anyone who’s dealt with string instruments and the people who play them, I was astonished to see Itzhak Perlman and Yo-Yo Ma sawing away, not even in overcoats. And it sounded pretty damned good! I thought maybe they’d rigged up some way of flooding the area with warm air. It didn’t occur to me that they might be playing to a recording. It may be a sign of just how much of the Kool Aid I’ve drunk that I really don’t care. I’m glad to know what was going on, though—everything makes sense now. (See the New York Times for a fairly thorough article about the decision to use a recording, or this shorter piece on the BBC.)

I was delighted by the performance, and on balance I liked the composition, too. My immediate reaction was about the same as Carl Wilson’s: “Musically, John Williams could have been far worse—there was dissonance! Yo Yo Ma looked so ‘Yo yo yo!’” Low expectations were a factor for me, as well (I’m not quite sure about the “yo yo yo!” part but I think I’m with him on that, too). I probably wouldn’t have thought much more about it, but that evening I came across some criticism that led me to call the thing up on YouTube and listen again. I found that the piece (my sense of it, really) holds up pretty well under repeat listening, and it also holds up pretty well under analysis. The analysis addresses some of the criticism, so I’ll see how much of it I can get across without getting too technical, and then get back to the critics.

This clip, out of many choices on YouTube, skips Feinstein’s introduction but gets all of the music (the one that found its way into a lot of the early reviews cut out the first few seconds of the performance). It’s the clip I’m referring to when I give time points. If you use a different one you’ll probably have to adjust by a few seconds. For audio only, here’s a blog with an mp3 recorded off the radio.

Air and Simple Gifts, by John Williams
Anthony McGill, clarinet; Gabriele Montero, piano; Itzhak Perlman, violin; Yo-Yo Ma, cello
INTRO |AIR            |SIMPLE GIFTS                                               |CODA (AIR)
+-----|---------------|transition---|variation 1---------|variation 2-------------|----------+
pn     vn       vc     cl   (tempo)  vn         vc        pn      trading  tutti
:06    :16      :54    1:26 1:44     2:09       2:24      2:39    3:09     3:18    3:44
(pn=piano, vn=violin, vc=cello, cl=clarinet)

For listeners who liked the piece, the things that seem to stand out are (1) the plaintive theme in the Air, played beautifully by Perlman and then Ma, (2) the familiar Shaker song (according to Wikipedia, it’s not a hymn) and the evocation of Aaron Copland’s gorgeous setting of it in Appalachian Spring, and (3) the dramatically somber ending, which brings back the music and mood of the Air. Taken on its own, Williams’ setting of “Simple Gifts” is unremarkable, though it’s not as indebted to Copland as some listeners seem to think. The Air is more original, but neither part stands on its own—the contrast between the two is integral to the composition. And it’s not just a matter of bookending the cheery song with something more serious. From the beginning, when the violin’s first line rubs against the piano’s placid opening chords, there’s interaction between two different kinds of music, and at the end those interactions are intense and dramatic.

A good place to start is with the contrast between tonalities. The Air is sort of minor, but really it’s modal (specifically Dorian, on A). (The links are to Wikipedia, and I’m not sure how helpful they are. There are some little musical examples, anyway.) Modal melodies tend to have folk- or world-music connotations (think Scarborough Faire, the second line—“Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme”—and especially the second syllable of “rosemary”). In a major or minor key, there are deeply ingrained relationships between melody and harmony. It would be hard to find a more straightforward, stripped-down example of major-key harmony and phrasing doing what comes naturally than “Simple Gifts.” It manages to be graceful and appealing and at the same time utterly conventional—in a way, the message of the song is built into its musical structure. Williams’ Air, like most modal melodies, is more free-standing. The introductory chords and the sparse counterpoint are nice, but the melody line conveys a great deal on its own. That’s a real asset in a piece that’s meant to reach a huge mass of people milling around outside in the middle of winter.

Halfway through the Air the violin and cello switch roles. The cello plays the same tune as the violin up to the last phrase, and then there’s one change. When the violin ends its statement of the melody, there’s a stepwise descent—G-F-E-D (0:43 in the recording). We’ve come to expect F sharps, so the F natural stands out. It stands out even more when the cello plays it, though. Instead of stepping down the line skips up to the F an octave higher (1:20), and with that change the last phrase turns into a series of three dramatic upward leaps, landing on an ethereal high A, played as a harmonic. Williams’ melody is remarkably for its economy, clarity, and eloquence. I guess that’s why he makes the big bucks.

Other aspects of the music reinforce the contrast of tonalities. In “Simple Gifts”, the first thing the bright major-key melody does is to climb cheerfully up an octave. The dark, minor-sounding Air starts by going down, and throughout it, descending lines alternate with wide skips up and down.

Air      Simple Gifts
Somber      Bright
Modal/minor      Major
Falling/receding      Rising
Angular/skips around      Smooth/stepwise

The introductory chords place the dorian melody in relief. They belong with the key of the song, not the Air. The piano says C sharp, but the violin says C natural, and says it emphatically—it’s the apex of the first half of the tune (0:26). When the clarinet enters with “Simple Gifts,” some of the brightness comes from the return of C sharp. Between the clarinet entrance and the violin taking the lead (2:09), which is when the music settles decisively into D major, there’s a chaotic back and forth. Phrases of the song, rising up through C-sharp, are answered by fragments of the Air, descending through C natural.

One thing worth noting about Williams’ setting of “Simple Gifts” is the shift from a texture that features one player at a time to more intricate, conversational interplay. The second variation starts with the strings exchanging brilliant flurries of notes while the piano plays the song. Then the melody is broken up into fragments and passed from instrument to instrument (3:09). Finally, everyone comes together for the big tutti. The effect is expertly orchestrated (in both the musical and metaphoric sense of the word), and though music enacts these dramas of cooperation and cohesion all the time, it had special resonance on that particular day.

Though the final tutti seems to be heading for a grand cadence, the music withdraws as it reaches the last note. We hear the first fresh harmony since the music settled into D major, and the ground shifts. There’s nothing unprecedented about the way it’s done—now and then you’ll hear the same chord used in roughly the same way in a pop song—but in addition to absorbing the energy of the tutti, it’s an effective bridge back to the tonal world of the Air.

The two tonalities are brought into their sharpest juxtaposition in the coda:

tutti   cadence  harmony  Air                 D major  Air       False      Last...three...chords   
                 change   phrase 1  phrase 2  scales   phrase 2  ending     Bright   middle   final
                          vc        ens                again     Eb...............            (bare)
                                                                 in middle  on top
3:18    3:39              3:43      3:53      4:00     4:05      4:10       4:20               4:25

The final efflorescence of D major, when Williams has the musicians run up the scale three times, is one of the least inspired moments in the piece. But it serves its purpose, and on the whole it’s a striking coda. The Air returns, transposed so that it’s based on D. The cello plays a phrase, the rest of the ensemble joins for another phrase that comes to rest on D, which in turn blossoms into those flamboyant scales. The second phrase is repeated, and this time the D it ends on is the basis for a simple, subdued rocking figure (4:10). Listening to piece for the first time, I thought that was the end. But Williams has introduced a new pitch, E flat, at just this point (of the two quick notes, it’s the upper one). The highest, most prominent note of the emphatic dissonant chord at 4:20 is E flat. The unorthodox final cadence is partly about that E flat sinking to D—yet another receding effect. At the end there’s no bright major chord, just the single pitch D.

There is a movie music sensibility at work here, for sure. That’s not what I’m looking for when I sit down to some chamber music, but in this instance I’m not convinced it was such a bad thing. The pulling back and shifting gears at the end of “Simple Gifts” strikes me as especially cinematic. It’s music guiding the emotional response to the turning point in a story, cueing the reflection that’s supposed to follow the exaltation. I don’t know to what extent Williams was writing on spec. I doubt that he had detailed instructions, but he may well have been given some guidance about the tone he should set. For whatever reason, intentional or fortuitous, the cue fit President Obama’s message remarkably well.

Continued in part 2, because everyone’s a critic.