New Beginnings with Charles O. Beck’s “Prologos”

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Sunday, January 01, 2017

Charles O. Beck: Prologos

Yes, we are at the beginning of a new year: AD 2017! Just to be able to say this is a rich blessing, that our Lord has seen fit to let us live another full year on His handcrafted planet and, once again, stand at the commencement of another revolution around the sun. But we are also in the midst of the Christmas season, so we have two excellent reasons to celebrate Prologos, the four-minute beginning of Charles Beck’s unfinished and untitled Christmas cantata, shared through the Listening Page of the Christian Fellowship of Art Music Composers for Christmas.

The title itself, Prologos, is an extraordinarily clever word play in two languages. Most of us would see “prelude” in this word, which is precisely what this piece is: the beginning of Beck’s cantata. But, in Greek, it is also the beginning of the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Hence, the Christmas and New Year’s connection!

It is surprising to me that the Prologue to the Gospel of John is not set much more frequently to music. If we read this text with new eyes, we cannot help but be radically confronted by the phenomenal claims this Galilean fisherman makes about the Nazarene carpenter’s son he follows and worships not merely as the Son of God, but even as God Himself. Who could even explain this outburst of five short, pithy verses? It seems to cry out for music to undergird its grand, yet mysterious statements.

And yet, a cursory glance at the International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP) website turns up only three settings of this amazing text from 1790, 1904, and 2011. I will briefly brag that I have also set this text as part of my Five Biblical Songs (available through www.waltersaul.com), so that makes four. And to this short list, we must certainly add Beck’s wonderful setting here.

Beck invokes the mood and timelessness of Gregorian chant and ancient organum as he opens with a baritone soloist and choir accompanied by only a harp, emphasizing the other-worldliness of these words. The mystery of the introduction yields to a gently rolling rhythm and a folksong-like declamation of the text. The easygoing mood is starkly contrasted with Beck’s ingenious setting of “and the darkness has not understood it” as stark, even creepy chromatic lines slither around middle C and the music briefly leaves the realm of tonality. The easygoing music makes a brief return before concluding with the Gregorian chant references of the opening. Thus, the piece forms an elegant arch form (ABCBA) that mirrors the text quite effectively.

If I would criticize anything, it would be the easygoing and user-friendly nature of the “folksong” sections. I confess that I took a very dramatic and highly chromatic approach to this text that is quite different from Beck’s more engaging approach, but I would still like the music to join the text in challenging and confronting us more with the utter newness of God coming to us as an infant (especially as He and His family were treated by the religious and political powers of their time!). On the other hand, Beck skillfully weaves some elegant chromatic harmonies and gently adds woodwinds, a pair of horns, and finally strings to the texture to encapsulate the royalty and power of this new Arrival.

We should briefly mention that the only audio recording available is a completely MIDI realization, save for the baritone soloist. And here is yet another beginning: through the assembly of three or four music notation and realization programs, the MIDI “choir” actually sings the words! Beck, by his own accounts (https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10211748389448025&set=gm.10154182969029290&type=3&theater accessed 1/1/2017) has had to work hard not typing in the text in English but in the International Phonetic Alphabet, but the results are eye-popping and true to the text. This will in short order become an invaluable tool for composers to make vocal music much more accessible to possible performers and directors, since now they can follow the lyrics as they listen to the MIDI realizations. This could be the most epic beginning of all the beginnings in this marvelous movement.

To hear this wonderful celebration of Christmas and the New Year please visit for now http://williamvollinger.com/audio/Beck3.mp3. Beck has a website also worth visiting: http://www.swan-cross.com/, but I could not locate score or recording of Prologos, so I hope he will make this work available as he has so many of his other works. I also hope and pray that this rich beginning will soon expand into the Christmas cantata it promises so well.

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We will resume our coverage of the Christian Fellowship of Art Music Composers October conference next week.

Upcoming performance: the world première of Walter Saul’s Kiev 2014: Concerto for Oboe and Orchestra will take place on Saturday, January 21, 2017, at 7:30 pm in the McDonald Hall Atrium on the main campus of Fresno Pacific University, 1717, S. Chestnut Avenue, in southeast Fresno, California. Rong-Huey Liu, the sensational oboist who recorded the Kiev 2014: Rhapsody for Naxos and introduced it with the Fresno Philharmonic in October, 2015, will present the three-movement expanded work, accompanied by her sister, Vivian I-Mao Liu, pianist. For more information about this concert, please call (559) 453-2267 or visit https://www.fresno.edu/event/14991/pacific-artist-series-iii.