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A Thought-Provoking Prelude

Miranda Wilcox’s curation of prelude music for the 2022 BYU College of Humanities Convocation celebrated cultural diversity and female composers. 

Prelude music sets the tone for an event before a single word is uttered. As masses of parents and friends shuffled inside the Marriott Center on Friday, April 22, they were greeted by the welcoming sounds of organ music played by Associate Professor Miranda Wilcox (Early Medieval Religious Culture). What most attendees didn’t know is that the prelude and recessional music included composers from the many cultures represented by the eight departments within the College of Humanities.

Two years prior, Wilcox had been asked to play for the 2020 convocation, but it was cancelled due to COVID-19. She was excited for the first in-person convocation since COVID-19 began, and she decided that the upcoming event needed a new musical score. As such, she volunteered to compile the songs and play the organ for the event.

As she prepared, Wilcox decided that each of the eight departments within our college deserved to be represented in the convocation. She researched the history of lesser-known composers to find one that she felt represented each department. Wilcox specifically chose five female composers because the overwhelming majority of organ music composers throughout history have been male. She wanted to recognize the women whose music is often underrepresented.

The Compositions:

  • Asian and Near Eastern Languages. Wilcox chose to play “Raining Night’s Flower” by Pei-lun Vicky Chang since Chang was born in Taiwan, composes in her native language with stories about her native culture, and was the first person to play an organ concerto in Taiwan. In the song, sharp pinpricks of music puncture the edge of the longer notes. Up and down, punching small, precise holes within the melody, so lasting that they might be read as braille by a blind hand. The torrent continues, threatening to overflow the listener’s cup. The music comes up to the brim, then adds one more drop, one more drop, one more drop, till surface tension is all that holds it to the cup.
  • English. Wilcox selected Movement in A-flat Major and Voluntary in E-flat Major by Elizabeth Stirling. Stirling was a Victorian composer, known for virtuosic pedaling while she played. Her music reflects the dignified fervor of British culture. In this song, sensible notes follow an appropriate pattern of lingering just long enough to be respectable and sticking to a lower, more dignified register. These notes march on, like a professor walking at a decent clip down the sidewalk. After a minute, the notes slow down, hitting over and over again the tone of dignified fervor as the same professor might when using a cane to help himself or herself along.
  • French and Italian. Wilcox chose Prélude pour orgue ou harmonium by French composer Nadia Boulanger. It begins with matching notes climbing upward in harmony. The one is above the other, and they climb in unison. They sound like two friends going up a flight of stairs, passing each other, then waiting a moment for the other to catch up. When they reach the ceiling, they begin their unsteady descent toward the ground, again passing each other in turns as they reach the bottom in a slow-motion tumble.
  • German and Russian. Wilcox included Prelude in A Major, BWV 536 by J. S. Bach. Bach was one of the lucky composers to be popular during his lifetime. His composition begins in the form of a weaver. Long notes form the loom while shorter notes weave in and out to create the pattern of a tapestry. The pace quickens, and the notes begin to feel more like tugs on a harp—staccato beats that resonate along the entire instrument—then longer moments of reflection as the player ponders what he or she has created.
  • Comparative Arts and Letters. Wilcox chose Andante in G Major and Larghetto in C Minor by Elfrida Andrée. Andrée was a Swedish composer whose music was classified as romantic, meaning it was categorized as programmatic and often had an extramusical narrative, inviting imaginative correlations with the music. Andrée was a women’s activist and was elected to the Royal Swedish Academy of Music for her impressive work.
  • Spanish and Portuguese. Wilcox used Olha para o céu (Look Up to the Sky, nos. 1 and 2) and Clarinada, written by João Wilson Faustini. Faustini is a Brazilian Presbyterian pastor who learned the organ at church. His music comes from Brazilian folk melodies. His composition Clarinada means “trumpet tune.” Sweet, quick notes fly around your head like bees, morphing into dash marks, then the puffs of smoke from a train. The undercurrent of the music is the train, moving forward with the rhythmic expulsion of air from its engine and creating the counterpoint, till the train hits the station and releases a larger whiff from its top as it comes to a halt. Faustini’s second song contains lively music with a bouncy melody. Keeping on its toes, the notes touch the ground only as necessary for movement.
  • Linguistics and Philosophy. Because these two departments do not have a specific cultural connection, Wilcox decided that they would be represented through the overall thoughtfulness of the music.
  • Africana Studies. There were also programs outside the College of Humanities that Wilcox thought worth representing. For example, Africana Studies is technically housed in the Kennedy Center, but several humanities professors teach courses for this program. Wilcox played Gbọ ohun awọn angẹli (Hear the Voices of Angels) by Godwin Sadoh. He was born in Nigeria and is an African ethnomusicologist, intercultural musicologist, and composer. Sadoh’s compositions sound like a choir at full voice. Hear the Voices of Angels held long, sweet notes that a bonnie lass in the green fields might sing. You could almost picture this imaginary lass running across the field, occasionally dancing along with faster footwork but mostly keeping to the sweeping, longer notes as she turns circles in the field.
  • American Studies and Global Women’s Studies. In honor of these two programs, Wilcox selected both Air from Suite no. 1 for Organ and Toccata from Suite no. 1 for Organ by Florence Beatrice Price, an African American composer who grew up in Arkansas. Her music was buried by racial disputes until recent years when renewed interest brought it back to the spotlight. Her song comes in triumphantly rolling high notes, heralding all good things to come. A deep, warm vibration is felt in the listener’s chest and moves to the fabric of his or her being. The high notes swirl overhead, making loops up and then loops down, coming round in circles till they alight on the ground. The notes wander around the building, going up and down stairs to view everything properly till they find the perfect spot and slowly, methodically—like a wind-up toy running out of power—stop.

To help her select the pieces, Wilcox visited with fellow professor Neil Harmon (Organ Study). They placed a piece of paper for each potential piece on a table, then moved them around to see how each piece would fit with others. They evaluated pacing as well as trying not to move too quickly from one key to the next. It took a number of times shuffling the papers around to land on a combination which flowed beautifully.

The effort Wilcox made to orchestrate the prelude created a warm and inviting atmosphere for attendees at convocation. The diversity of the music knit everyone together as global citizens, regardless of home country or gender. The audience may not have been aware of the effort put into creating a prelude with such diverse composers, but they could hear it in the beauty of the music.

*See below for a complete list of musical numbers and a link to the convocation recording.

Nadia Boulanger (1887–1979, France), Prélude pour orgue ou harmonium
Godwin Sadoh (b. 1965, Nigeria), Gbọ ohun awọn angẹli (Hear the Voices of Angels)
João Wilson Faustini (b. 1931, Brazil), Olha para o céu (Look Up to the Sky, nos. 1 and 2)
Elizabeth Stirling (1819–1895, England), Voluntary in E-flat Major
J. S. Bach (1685–1750, Germany), Prelude in A Major, BWV 536
Pei-lun Vicky Chang (b. 1966, Taiwan), “Raining Night’s Flower” from Suite for Organ (Based on Taiwanese Folk Songs)
Elizabeth Stirling (1819–1895, England), Movement in A-flat Major
Florence Beatrice Price (1887–1953, United States of America), Air from Suite no. 1 for Organ
João Wilson Faustini (b. 1931, Brazil), Clarinada

Edward Elgar (1857–1934, England), Pomp and Circumstance, no. 1 in D, op. 39, arranged for organ by Edwin Henry Lemare
John Stanley (1712–1786, England), Trumpet Voluntary

Florence Beatrice Price (1887–1953, United States of America), Toccata from Suite no. 1 for Organ 
Elfrida Andrée (1841–1929, Sweden), Andante in G Major
Elfrida Andrée (1841–1929, Sweden), Larghetto in C Minor