When a composer sets out to write a set of piano preludes, there’s a centuries-old blueprint for how to do it. Johann Sebastian Bach, Frederic Chopin and Alexander Scriabin each wrote a set of 24 short keyboard pieces in each of 12 major and 12 minor keys.
Denver composer Nathan Hall wrote his own 24 Preludes recently, but looked to calendars instead of key signatures.
Each prelude is based on a month of the year or a sign of the zodiac -- an idea he dreamed up with pianist Rose Lachman, who commissioned the piece and eventually recorded it for Hall’s new disc “Earth Sea Sky.”
“We originally started off thinking we could do one prelude an hour for the 24 hours of the day, but then we realized we wouldn’t be able to sleep,” he said. “Twelve months of the year, 12 signs of the zodiac would be more containable.”
For the movements named after the months, Hall turned to “Très Riches Heures,” or “The Very Rich Hours,” -- a medieval French manuscript with detailed illustrations representing each month of the year.
“In June you see workers out in the fields harvesting. And in the winter months you see people cozied up by the fire or going out hunting,” Hall said.
For the movements named after the zodiac, Hall wrote music to reflect the personality quirks associated with each sign.
“So, for example, Cancer. If you know any cancers, they tend to be gregarious, opinionated, but also very emotional. But my piece, I call it, crunchy on the outside, but soft and gooey on the inside. And I took that literally on the piano,” Hall said. “The extreme ends of the piano are played very forcefully and then the insides of the piano at the center are played very romantically and soft."
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In September, Hall and Lachman took the new preludes to Iceland to record and perform it for small audiences. Hall liked the response from listeners.
“I think they really liked it,” he said. “They noticed they could pick out their sign and see if it related to them. I think people have a curiosity about astrology even if they don’t believe in it. So they’ll be like, ‘Does this fit my personality? Oh yeah, that movement about Pisces, that felt like me.’”
Nathan Hall is one of five artists featured during CPR Classical’s Colorado Composers Week Jan. 18-22. Hear a different composer featured at 7 each night on Colorado Spotlight.