Theme and Variations on “Draw the Sacred Circle Closer” by Adolphus Hailstork

Brian Patrick Bromberg
13 September, 2022

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Sometime ago I came across Adolphus Hailstork’s third string quartet and was immediately drawn into his harmonic language, and his wonderful sense of texture. The quartet uses a familiar tonal grammar with clever nuances that take the listener on unexpected routes through his musical world. I began to explore the rest of his catalogue and I came across his piece Theme and Variations on Draw the Sacred Circle Closer for solo cello. The theme, which distinctly resembles the contour and phrasing of an American spiritual, originally made its appearance in the composer’s EarthRise, a cantata for orchestra and two choirs. EarthRise uses the text from Schiller’s Ode to Joy to unite people in their similarities.

The opening of Theme and Variations starts with this American spiritual played on the cello’s D string accompanied by left hand pizzicato bass notes to fill out the harmony. It’s important to remember this vocal aspect of the music throughout the piece and try to recreate this feeling on the cello.

The opening theme is written in a very pure G major, and, as the piece develops, so too does the harmonic complexity.  When we get to the first variation, a sprightly 12/8, one can’t help but recall Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring as the cello line weaves its way around the lower positions. You’ll notice a kind of bluesy flare that the composer invokes by ornamenting the G major texture with Bb's and C♯’s. There are many wonderful opportunities to explore different executions of grace notes. Sometimes it seems appropriate to treat them as glissandi and other times as the more classical variety.

As we make our way to variation 2, the writing becomes more virtuosic with running scales and arpeggios.  All of these lay nicely on the cello and add to the playful character that the composer is trying to evoke. From the opening until the end of variation 2 we haven’t strayed far from our opening key with only occasional excursions into E minor and G minor. Then we get to my two favourite variations which really stretch the player’s capabilities and perk the listener’s ears.

Variations 3 and 4 are the two slow variations written at crochet equals 42. Throughout these two variations the cellist has endless opportunities to explore different kinds of vibrato, phrasing, and colouristic expression. Both variations are written in a two-voice texture, one high and one low. With careful attention to bow speed and articulation we can separate the differences in these lines and accentuate the contrapuntal writing. As always, practise these kinds of slow sections with a metronome so that the pulse doesn’t disappear. 

Finally, we make our way to variation 5 and wholeheartedly return to G major. This variation makes use of a common rag-time rhythm that seems to call for a shuffled 16th note feel. The composer does eventually give way to this temptation in the final few bars notating this swing feel as triplets in the upper voice. It is important to not let the tempo run away from you as you are making your way to the finale. The effectiveness of Hailstork’s writing can’t be rushed through but should instead be savoured as you reach the highest range of the cello. Playing this way gives the ending an almost symphonic weight, a fantastic end to this wonderful piece.

If you are looking for music that effectively blends popular styles with classical styles or are looking for cello music with blues and jazz influence then look no further, Hailstork’s Theme and Variations is the piece for you.