Hayes Biggs is an outstanding composer, vocalist, copyist, and longtime instructor at Manhattan School of Music. I was delighted when he agreed to help us judge the call for scores for the Sequenza 21/MNMP Concert (which will be on Oct. 25 at 7 PM at Joe’s Pub in NYC). The concert will close with the final movement from Hayes’s String Quartet, a work he discusses in the following post.
If ever a piece required my patience as it slowly taught me what it needed to do and be, it was my String Quartet: O Sapientia /Steal Away. My first sketches for it date from 1996, but it was not completed until 2004. This eight-year span of course included numerous interruptions of various sorts, including time on the back burner while other more immediately pressing projects got done. Even in rare moments of front-burner status I struggled with it, but I remain as proud of this work as of anything I’ve ever composed. The Avalon String Quartet premiered it in 2006 and subsequently recorded it for the Albany label.
The title refers to the quartet’s two main sources of material: my Advent motet for unaccompanied voices, O Sapientia, composed in 1995, and the African-American spiritual Steal Away. It is the latter that is the focus of the third and final movement, the one that will be heard at Joe’s Pub on October 25. It is in two parts played without interruption: an Epigraph—simply a straightforward presentation of the melody of the spiritual—followed by an extended free Fantasia on that melody.
The quartet bears an overall dedication to my wife, Susan Orzel-Biggs, but this movement carries a separate one in memory of my friend, teacher and mentor, Tony Lee Garner (1942-1998). He was the choral director at Southwestern at Memphis (now Rhodes College), as well as an accomplished singer, actor and director, and he taught me as much about the joys and responsibilities of being an artist as anyone I have ever known. As a freshman member of the Southwestern Singers in the spring of 1976 I sang in a program of American music under Tony’s direction that included William Dawson’s beautiful arrangement of Steal Away. The printed key of that arrangement is F major, but Tony liked the way the choir sounded with it transposed up a half step, so in this movement the tune is always heard in the key of G-flat major.
The Sequenza 21 Concert is free.
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