Jody Nagel
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Little King Arthur Suite
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  • Little King Arthur Suite (2002) for solo guitar
    Jody Nagel (b. 1960)

  • The "Little King Arthur Suite" was written in early March, 2002, for, and at the request of, guitarist Keith Shaffer. The work consists of twelve relatively short movements, each of which depicts a character from the Arthur legends, or, in the case of the first movement, "Excaliber," the sword of Arthur, and, in the case of the last movement, "The Isle of Avalon," the final destination of the mortally wounded Arthur at the end of his era. Movements 2-11 are titled "Arthur," "Guinevere," "Sir Kay," "Sir Gaiwan and the Green Knight," "Merlin," "Sir Galahad," "Sir Launcelot," "Sir Percivale," "Sir Bedivere," and "Mordred."

  • A brief description of each movement follows:

  • 1. Excaliber (key: A) This rather chromatic movement alternates between passages of large chords over a pedal E and passages of rapid sixteenth-note gestures. The large chords represent the noble strength of Excaliber while the quicker-tempo sixteenth-note passages represent the sword's ability to flash out suddenly at the enemies of righteousness. Excaliber first appeared in the English poet Layamon's "Roman de Brut" (1205) and includes the story of the magic sword in the rock which could only be extracted by Arthur.

  • 2. Arthur (key: D Mixolydian) The opening double-dotted rhythms of this movement portray the stately majesty of King Arthur. The Mixolydian mode used here, with its mixture of a major tonic triad and a minor dominant triad, symbolizes the optimism (major) of King Arthur's belief in righteousness, coupled with his deep awareness that his foes (minor) do exist and continue to plague his kingdom. The mode conjures up a heroic sentiment fitting for an honorable hero. Arthur is a semilegendary king of 6th-century Britons. He maintained a magnificent court at Caerleon-upon-Usk (perhaps the legendary Camelot) on the southern border of Wales. In later centuries, a great deal of stories and romances grew up in Europe that added color and characters to the earliest recorded source, the Welsh poem "Y Gododdin" (c. 600).

  • 3. Guinevere (key: G) A lyrical theme with traditional feminine qualities of grace and kindness is employed for Guinevere, Arthur's queen. The simple A-B-A form of this movement is made slightly more complex by a mix of 3-bar and 4-bar phrases throughout. The key of G Major, it will be noticed, shares the same "actual" key signature as Arthur's D Mixolydian (1 sharp); the two royal figures share a common life, but each reflects a different aspect of that life. The dynamic here is quiet as if the modest queen is viewed with lowered eyes and averted gaze.

  • 4. Sir Kay (key: A Minor) Arthur's foster brother and household seneschal was usually described as being arrogant and boastful. Something of this haughty character is found within the D minor and E major triadic relationship (Am: iv - V), which dominates this movement. Sir Kay, along with Sirs Bedivere and Gawain (each a knight of the round table), are among the earliest Arthurian knights mentioned; they appear in the Welsh story collection "The Mabinogion" (c. 1100).

  • 5. Sir Gaiwan and the Green Knight (key: B Aeomixolydian = B Major with "borrowed" m6 & m7) The mode of this movement contains an old-fashioned "Medieval" sense of honor mixed with a little sentimentality. The slightly more chromatic passages also to be found herein add an element of complexity to the other affect. Sir Gaiwan was once traveling and stayed one night at the home of a man who possessed an incredible magical ability. The man decided he wanted to test Sir Gaiwan's honor, and later, disguised as "The Green Knight," the man confronted Gaiwan in the forest and challenged him to a duel. Furthermore, he would freely allow Gaiwan to strike the first blow with his sword. The man was insistent and badgered Gaiwan until Gaiwan agreed. With one blow, Gaiwan struck off the man's head. To Gaiwan's horror, the man reached down, picked up his own head, and set it again on his own shoulders with apparently no ill effect. Gaiwan resigned himself to his fate, and waited for the Green Knight to return the favor. When the Green Knight saw the genuine quality of Gaiwan's honor and his willingness to be fair in this contest, the magical being revealed that he was actually the lord of the house Gaiwan had visited, had been testing Gaiwan, and now richly rewarded Gaiwan for his honorable nature. The anonymous English story of "Sir Gaiwan and the Green Knight" first appeared c. 1370.

  • 6. Merlin (key: G Minor) The counselor of Arthur, also known as a wizard, was introduced into the Arthurian narrative in the "Historia Regum Britanniae" (c. 1139) by Geoffrey of Monmouth, an English writer. Merlin was a strange character with a long beard and mystical abilities. This strangeness is represented by the unusual harmonic relationships that propel the movement forward, the chords being played both strummed and arpeggiated. The form of this movement is just that of a single section played three times over. The first and third time, the music is played loudly, while the middle iteration is played very softly. The extreme dynamic contrast adds to the overall strangeness, but the loud playing also reveals the strength of Merlin's abilities, while the soft playing suggests the secretive nature of those abilities.

  • 7. Sir Galahad (key: E Mixolydian) The noblest and purest of the knights of the round table, Sir Galahad was the son of Sir Launcelot and Elaine. Sir Galahad was confident and joyful, and the music of this movement captures some of this joy in its Mixolydian modality and its strong-charactered dancing rhythms. Sir Galahad along with Sir Percivale were the knights that later undertook the search for the Holy Grail. Sir Galahad supposedly did actually find the Grail at one point, he being the only knight considered to be worthy enough for such an honor.

  • 8. Sir Launcelot (key: C) The oldest of the French Arthurian romances is found in a collection of poems from the 12th century by Chretien de Troyes. One of these poems introduces Arthur's chief knight and his rival for Guinevere's love, Sir Launcelot. A desire to remain honorable and loyal to Arthur just barely overcomes Launcelot's intense love for Guinevere. Launcelot frequently went on adventures just to remove himself from Arthur's court and the continuous presence of the beautiful queen. Within this movement, the listener will notice, at one point, first a reference to the earlier Guinevere movement, then a reference to the earlier Arthur movement, and, finally, a repeat of the two references to Guinevere and Arthur, back to back. A recurring motive throughout the movement consists of a melodic tritone (E - Bb) over the major triads C and Eb, respectively. A tritone is a symmetrical interval that lacks an acoustical root; neither tone dominates the other. It is an interval that needs to resolve, and yet, in and of itself, can never be made to seem resolved. The successive occurrences of this tritone motive portray the unresolved anguish of Sir Launcelot's dilemma.

  • 9. Sir Percivale (key: D) Later known also as Parsifal, Sir Percivale was the most "religious" of the knights of the round table. The earliest account of the search for the Holy Grail involved Sir Percivale, and was also introduced by the 12-century poet Chretien de Troyes. From that point on, "the search for the Holy Grail" became a permanent part of the Arthurian legends. The music of this movement contains a reverent simplicity. It is somewhat "chorale-like," which lends the piece a bit of a "religioso" flavor. It has a humble spirit, and this was certainly a characteristic of Sir Percivale.

  • 10. Sir Bedivere (key: A Minor) Sir Bedivere had the sorrowful task of bringing the dying King Arthur to the barge in which the three queens sailed him to the Isle of Avalon, to try to recover from his grievous wounds. The music here is simply very sad. It is in the natural minor mode, though some chromatic passages add to the intensity of the affect intrinsic to Aeolian.

  • 11. Mordred (key: G Minor) Arthur's nephew, Mordred, rebelled and seized the kingdom while Arthur was at war in Europe. Receiving word of this, Arthur was forced to return home. Upon his arrival, Mordred treacherously murdered Arthur at the final battle at Camlan, in south-western England. However, Mordred fell too, pierced simultaneously by Arthur's spear. The music of this movement is dark. It is full of cunning tricks. At its climax, a repeatedly struck dissonant chord signifies the surprise and terror of Arthur as he is wounded. Afterwards, the rapid sixteenth notes that accompany a discordant angular melody eventually slow and die out; this portrays the anxiety and final disorganized thoughts as the life force leaves Arthur. Then, the music prior to the climax returns in a reprise. The good brought about by Arthur has been toppled. The chaos accomplished by Mordred continues even after the two have both fallen.

  • 12. The Isle of Avalon (key: E Dorian - E Mixolydian) The dying King Arthur is taken to The Isle of Avalon, a magical place, where it is hoped he may recover from his wounds. "The Isle of Avalon" was also introduced into the Arthurian narrative in the "Historia Regum Britanniae" (c. 1139) by Geoffrey of Monmouth. Supposedly, King Arthur is still residing on The Isle of Avalon, awaiting the day when his services are most needed again. At that time, the legends state that King Arthur will return with his knights of the round table and claim ultimate victory over the forces of evil. The music in this movement aims to convey the ethereal magic of Avalon, and the use of guitar harmonics creates evocative and colorful textures. The modal relationships, (E Dorian: i - IV) & (E Mixolydian: v - I), and, eventually, the double-dotted rhythms recall the material of the Arthur movement. The movement starts somewhat sadder than it ends, as is evidenced by the opening E-minor tonic triad (in E Dorian) and the closing E-major tonic triad (in E Mixolydian). This change to a major tonic triad imparts to the music some of the hope that, some day, King Arthur will return.

  • -Note by the composer, March 15-17, 2004, with historical information drawn from Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia, Vol. 2 (1996) under the entries "Arthur" and "Arthurian Legend."

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