The Æolian Sonata

The Æolian Sonata for organ was commissioned by Duke University Chapel (David Arcus, Chapel Organist) for a recital on 2 June 2002 celebrating the 70th Anniversary of the Chapel’s Æolian pipe organ (1932-2002). The piece was composed between late January and March 2002. The word “Aeolus”, meaning the Greek god of the winds, is at the heart of the name of the American organ builder, the Æolian Organ Company, which built this original Duke Chapel organ (their last before merging with the E.M. Skinner Organ Co.). Aeolian is also the name of one of the ancient Greek modes which, later in history, became one of the original church modes (i.e. A – A on the white notes of the keyboard). The Aeolian mode, as well as the pitches “A” and “E”, are important compositional building blocks for The Æolian Sonata.

In three movements, The Æolian Sonata musically celebrates the heritage and continued use of the historic Æolian organ in Duke Chapel. Extra-musically, it pays tribute to the spirit of the American people in the aftermath of the 2001 September 11 terrorist attacks. The title for each movement is in a different language, symbolically paying tribute to the outpouring of support that Americans have felt from peace-loving people throughout the world. In a spiritual way, the music of each movement is a reflection on its title, with these words being indicative of a healing nation.

I. Aus tiefer not (Out of the Depths I Cry to Thee), marked “Ponderous, dark and searching,” is influenced by the French Overture style with its display of quick dotted rhythms. Cast in full, rich organ sonority, the opening melodic material moves primarily stepwise in a downward direction. The melodic and harmonic material of the movement is based on both the transposed Aeolian mode (D-E-F-G-A-B♭-C-D) and on the opening intervallic contour of the Martin Luther German chorale melody, Aus tiefer not (which he originally set to his paraphrase of Psalm 130). To these transposed Aeolian mode pitches is added the note “A♭”. In so doing, a tritone – a forbidden interval to the early church and dubbed “the devil in music” – is created with the tonic pitch of “D.” Along with this tritone, a highly dissonant relationship is also created between “A♮” and “A♭.” In addition to these important musical materials, the interval of the perfect fifth (symbolically reflecting the interval of “A” and “E”) is significant to the entire sonata as the notes “D” and “A” (a perfect fifth) appear in the pedal to form the harmonic foundation of this movement. Shortly after the beginning of the movement, a short melodic idea is introduced and permutations of this idea appear throughout the entire sonata. This melodic idea brings together the perfect fifth idea “A” and “E”, the stepwise motion, the dissonant clash between the pitches “A” and “A♭”, and the tritone “D” and “A♭.” At the climax of the movement, a portion of Luther’s chorale melody, Aus tiefer not, is forcefully heard as it mirrors itself with double pedal. A quiet concluding section, featuring solo organ stops and marked “Still and lonely,” brings the movement to a reflective close.

II. Shalom (Peace), marked “Serene and unhurried,” is based on a transposed Mixolydian mode (A♭-B♭-C-D♭-E♭- F- G♭-A♭). It is a quiet and simple movement that lyrically dialogues 4′ flute and 8′ solo colors as it gently reflects on the Hebrew word for peace. For its primary melodic material this movement transforms the first movement’s second melodic idea.

III. Laudate Dominum (O Praise the Lord), marked “Exuberant, with great energy”, opens with perfect fifth dialogues of “A♭” and “E♭” and “A♮” and “E♮”, which are quickly followed by fast scalar passages that bring together the Aeolian and Mixolydian modes from the previous two movements. Highly rhythmic throughout, the joyous primary section of the movement is soon heard. Eventually a statement of Luther’s tune Aus tiefer not is again heard, as if mocking the darkness of the first movement. Unlike the darkness of the first movement, this final movement, reflecting the Latin words of thanksgiving that open Psalm 150, is propelled through strength and toward a vibrant conclusion as it brings together and transforms musical elements from the previous movements with the power of full organ.

Dan Locklair
5 April 2002
Winston-Salem, NC

Duration: I. ca. 5′ II. ca. 3′ 30″ III. ca. 3′ 45″
Total duration of The Æolian Sonata = ca. 12 minutes