Behind the Sound of Eric Whitacre's October
Out of all the seasons in a year, none is more misunderstood than autumn. While winter, spring and summer become warmer, sunnier, and livelier by the end of their run, autumn does the exact opposite by becoming colder and more desolate. Autumn may not be a season that is piping with life and rebirth, but the gradual transition from the liveliness of summer to the coldness of winter is surreal and phenomenal. These changes can be noticed best during the beginning of the season, and the essence of that moment was beautifully captured by composer Eric Whitacre.
American composer Eric Whitacre is “one of the most popular and performed composers of our time,” according to his website. He has many achievements to his name, including a 2012 Grammy for Best Choral Recording for his debut album, as well as the success of his Virtual Choir, an online, user-generated choir founded in 2010. He is best known for his choral compositions, but he does compose music for ensemble groups as well. In 2000, Whitacre wrote a piece describing the beginning of autumn. Entitled October, the piece was commissioned by thirty high school bands in Nebraska and premiered in May of that year.
Whitacre writes this about the piece in a programme note: “October is my favorite month. Something about the crisp autumn air and the subtle change in light always makes me a little sentimental, and as I started to sketch I felt that same quiet beauty in the writing. The simple, pastoral melodies and subsequent harmonies are inspired by the great English Romantics (Vaughn Williams, Elgar) as I felt that this style was also perfectly suited to capture the natural and pastoral soul of the season. I’m quite happy with the end result, especially because I feel there just isn’t enough lush, beautiful music written for winds.”
Rather than attempt to musically represent the physical aspects of October, like the sound of falling leaves, Whitacre focused on its essence of the month. The music is like the air in autumn, and the moving parts of the piece are the wind in that air. Whitacre makes his audience feel like the leaves on the musical current that he has composed. The piece begins with the sound of chimes, which represent the chill in the atmosphere that is slight but present. The wind ensemble is like a calm gust of wind in the beginning, changing and lingering to its liking by alternating between 5 4 time, common time, 3 4 time and more. The melodies heard in the beginning are repeated, which demonstrate the simplicity of the season.
At around 2:10, the tenor saxophone solo is a lone, ominous force, with the clarinets providing the atmosphere as the chimes did in the introduction. The clarinets are less resonant than the chimes, which support the ominousness. Through October may be simple in melody, Whitacre demonstrates that autumn is made complex by its layers and depth. There is a tutti reply to the tenor saxophone, and the ensemble echos the solo’s melody, bringing the piece back to its choral, fanfare-like nature.
The piece also has a dolce section, which probably highlights more of the pastoral spirit that Whitacre mentions in his programme note. The tutti section that follows contains little leitmotifs and reprises the main fanfare, reestablishing the glory heard in the beginning, but the composer introduces subtle changes in the music to reflect the subtle changes felt throughout the month. The piece quickly drops to a very quiet but active state, reintroducing the chimes but maintaining the momentum built during the fanfare. The music takes a few twists and turns in time and dynamics before concluding on a sweet and simple G chord.
When I heard October for the first time, I was immediately captivated by Whitacre’s style of writing. It was very unique-sounding; the chords were rich in sound and the rhythms were sophisticated. The melodies were simple enough, but many could be interwoven at once to add depth to the tutti moments. I did not know how to describe Whitacre’s sound without using vague adjectives, so I looked at the type of chords he uses in his music. I learned that his signature chords contain elements of pandiatonicism. This surprised me, for this style of chord is often affiliated with the neoclassical period of music, which was a 20th century movement that sought to return music to its former classical values i.e. avoid the emotional aspect of music. Yet Whitacre described October as having Romantic influences and capturing the sentimentality he felt during the month.
Whitacre does not use pandiatonicism to promote classicism. He uses these chords to make traditional chords sound more interesting. A pandiatonic chord can be built upon any note that is in the diatonic (major) scale of the bass note. For example, in the key of C (all of the white keys on the piano) a pandiatonic C chord could include any note above a given C. The chords do not form typical triads, so they sound dissonant, but still pleasing to the ear because they are all related by a diatonic scale. Instead of hearing blocks of these chords, Whitacre uses intricate rhythms to disguise the pandiatonicism. When the chords are broken up into different melodies, rather than hearing dissonance, one hears several different voices that sound harmonious when played together, giving the music a more traditional, diatonic sound.
Whitacre’s signature chords are at the core of October. When describing the process of writing the piece, he said, “It’s easy to write your way out of a difficult corner with flashy, virtuosic material, but with ‘easier’ music your solutions must be simple, elegant, and functional.” These chords are what make the piece simple, elegant and functional. The chords create different colours in the music, and this infusion of colour is what makes October more than just a piece for the high school band. The piece is loved by so many of its listeners and players because it rises past the technical limitations and accurately conveys the spirit of the season.