Thursday, November 6, 2014

"The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost"

In his book on John Coltrane, Lewis Porter quotes the composer Noel DaCosta suggesting that "The Father the Son and the Holy Ghost" (video above) is derived from the song "Bless This House." DaCosta says

John Coltrane’s intensity is extremely moving, and his discoveries with large architecture and sound background show how one can search out and discover. On Meditations he gets involved with the simple song “Bless This House O Lord We Pray” and out comes a major composition (“The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost”) in which he uses the intervals of this song, particularly the third, to produce a very moving composition. “Bless This House" is not an Afro-American song, but the way in which it is played converts it into an Afro-American piece. 

This is plausible, especially considering that Mahalia Jackson recorded the song in 1956. The passage that might have inspired "The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost" is heard at 1:28 in the video below.

That 1-2-3 step-wise contour moving through tonic and subdominant as well as the sacred lyrics to the song show an affinity to "The Father the Son and the Holy Ghost." When I hear the opening melody to "The Father the Son and the Holy Ghost," however, I can't help but notice the resemblance to the incipit of Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life."

The opening motifs of "Lush Life" and "The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost" are in the same key, D-flat. Unlike the passage in "Bless This House," both have multiple articulations of the ascending pitches and approach the tonic from the lower dominant. And although "Lush Life" was not a staple in Coltrane's ouvre, he had performed it in Seattle for a live radio broadcast less than two months before recording Meditations, so it would presumably have been in his ear. 

Any connection between "The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost" and "Lush Life" is tenuous at best and more likely coincidental. But notable in "Lush Life" are the diatonic and chromatic mediant (third) relations and the tripartite form (A-A-B-C1-C2), and since "Lush Life" is already connected in my ear to "The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost" due to the shared incipits, I'm led to wonder whether the number 3 plays a role in the Coltrane piece. 

In other words, can we find any signs of Trinitarian symbolism in a composition entitled "The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost?" 

It has been suggested that the third relations in Coltrane's music have numerological significance, and Ravi Coltrane has implied something similar in saying, "It's message music, as if he was saying, 'Don't just listen to it as music alone, there's more here.'" If one were looking for Trinitarian symbolism in "The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost," the musical surface does yield some evidence, however dubious.

  • The piece has a 3-part form (statement-development-return), and the ensemble has 6 members (3 x 2). 

  • The piece begins in the tenor saxophone key of E-flat (like the Prelude and Fugue of Bach's Clavier-Übung III), which has 3 flats.

  • The piece opens and closes with Coltrane and Sanders playing a multiphonic (3 notes in one; unity in multiplicity). 

  • The theme is made up of major triads. The triad is a unity of 3 pitches, and contains the intervals of a major 3rd and a minor 3rd. Here the triads are melodically embellished with a passing tone, highlighting the first 3 scale steps. 

  • Coltrane moves the triad motif primarily by minor 3rd transpositions. There are also transpositions by fifths: in the opening statement of the theme, there are 6 (3 x 2) such transpositions, in the closing statement there are 3. 

  • The piece transitions seamlessly into "Compassion," which continues the Trinitarian number symbolism. Its meter is 3/4, and its theme is based on the interval of a descending minor 3rd. These minor 3rd dyads, and whole-tone transposed pairs of minor 3rd dyads, are transposed mostly by major 3rd. The closing theme ends with 3 statements of the dyad, E-C-sharp. 

An analysis of Coltrane's improvisation on "The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost" would likely be additionally illuminating in this regard. 

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