Of the pieces I’m working on right now, Alan Hovhaness’ Prayer of St. Gregory is probably the least well known among trombonists, owing to the fact that it’s really written for solo trumpet. It started life as an “elegiac intermezzo” for the opera Etchmiadzin, although I have never seen a recording of the opera, or even Hovhaness’ 21st symphony of the same name. Arrangements exist for trumpet with orchestra, organ, and band, and recordings are plentiful (relatively speaking) for all three versions: it is more difficult to find a recording of anything by Hovhaness without the Prayer on it than with.
It is, I admit, a fairly odd choice for me to be working on, but from a musical and interpretive point of view, an exciting one. There are only a handful of markings on the page, and most of them simply follow the line: crescendo as the line goes up, decrescendo again as it comes down. The peak, both in terms of dynamic and pitch, happens on the root, which usually works out to A4. There is a lot of room to work here in terms of markings, and not a whole lot of guidance from the composer. The sheer number of recordings available means a lot of precedent is available. But this simply means it is up to the performer to make some choices!
There are some more interesting aspects to the piece on a slightly deeper level. The “solo” part accounts for a mere 50 bars out of 130, which seems to diminish its importance somewhat, turning the piece almost into an organ solo with trumpet accents. However, in the places where the soloist plays, the organ is holding chords: the solo becomes quasi cadenza, although there are once again scant indications of presupposed tempo variations. Another crucial aspect of the piece is in the resolution. While the solo lines always resolve to the A, either as the peak of a line or as the final resolution, the resolution at the end of a line is delayed half a beat, with a G on the downbeat resolving to A on the upbeat. This weakens the cadence and the resolution, and is repeated until the final statement of the solo part. In the last statement, the G is played at the end of the last figure leading to the resolution on the downbeat of the last measure: the resolution is more firm, grounded.
The solo and accompaniment parts taken together, the piece sounds like a journey to me, and works best slowly, with an eye towards introspection. The solo parts come through as a pause in travel for reflection, perhaps on some eternal question that St. Gregory might have carried with himself in his reputation for scholarship and contemplation. The answer doesn’t come, but the journey continues: resolution is delayed, and the moving lines in the accompaniment begin again as soon as the solo ends, and is given much more time than the solo. Or perhaps the message is that the journey, and the question, is more important than the answer, or the destination. But this is all reflected in the final note. There is no dynamic marking, and is not the high dynamic mark for the piece: once again, resolution is found, but the weight and importance of that resolution is left up to the performer.