The Life and Music of Larry Warkentin
I have struggled to write this blog today because of the sadness and pain of losing yet another brother and member of the Christian Fellowship of Art Music Composers to the Church Triumphant in heaven.
Larry Warkentin was prominently featured in the October 17, 2020, CFAMC Virtual International Conference. We sang a hymn by him at the beginning and in the final concert heard my performance of his magnificent Academic Variations. I will share more about these works later, but, first, let’s celebrate and acknowledge his life of 80 years and his remarkably rich contributions to the musical fabric of Fresno, California, our nation and our world.
Warkentin battled Stage 4 cancer valiantly over the last couple of years. I am particularly grateful that he was able even last November to join our Music Teachers Association of California – Fresno Branch meeting and discuss his Academic Variations and Eleven Little Love Songs with us. My colleague at Fresno Pacific University, Wayne Steffen, has written a wonderful tribute to his life, which I would invite you to read at https://squawkbox.fresno.edu/content/fpu-remembers-faculty-emeritus-larry-warkentin.
I got to know Warkentin when we participated at the Christian Fellowship of Art Music West Coast Regional Composers conference at The Master’s College (now The Master’s University) in Santa Clarita, California, in 2001. He subsequently let me know of his retirement plans from his 40-year career as resident composer, pianist, and music department chair of Fresno Pacific University the next year. After a phone call on Beethoven’s birthday in 2002, I applied for his position and was fortunate to be hired. I served 17 years at FPU and retired in 2020. Warkentin was always a great encourager and friend. We attended countless concerts together, particularly the ones presented by FPU, which he always attended. He was a fanatic of the music of Charles Ives and made sure that all his FPU students and friends learned about Ives’ music. Warkentin also served on committees tasked with getting new music, art, and theater facilities built and, at long last, the Culture and Arts Center, his dreamchild, is beginning to rise near the corner of Butler and Chestnut avenues in southeast Fresno.
Besides being an accomplished creative and performing musician, he more recently achieved fame as a poet and author. In his magnum opus, Bloodline, he traces his family back to the 1200’s and provides fascinating observations about the religious oscillations of the different generations between Catholicism, Lutheranism, and other Protestant movements, particularly the Mennonite movement and the Mennonite Brethren church which was his home church. Warkentin frequently celebrates this heritage of faith, especially its love for peace-making, in his works.
A great example of this is his striking hymn “What Does the Lord Require,” a wonderful interpretation of Hosea 6:6-8, which seems to be such a timely Scripture for our day. Out of the Mennonite tradition this tune plays with alternating ¾ and 4/4 time as it ventures from its A minor tonality to the more optimistic A Major as we hear Hosea’s three famous challenges “do justly; love mercy; walk humbly with your God.” The Mennonites were right to include it in their hymnal, and I hope it will be included in many others in the future. At the CFAMC Virtual International Conference, we included this hymn in our opening Hymn Sing, which may be accessed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yJKMJqK98OY. Unlike many hymn sings, we purposely showcased CFAMC members’ new hymns which run the gamut from Contemporary Christian to High Church. Warkentin’s wonderful hymn begins at 6:50 in this video.
On February 2, 2021, I wrote this about the Academic Variations:
My fellow Fresno, California, composer Larry Warkentin, contributed a strange anomaly in this entire event: a composition for solo piano. His splendid and superbly-crafted Academic Variations was composed in 1978 and its roots reach back farther still into the Classical and Baroque periods. Actually, pronounced Romantic and Modernistic influences abound in these variations as well, so they truly are music for all time. Let’s examine some of these diverse elements.
While the theme, set fairly solidly in D Minor, molds itself into both the Classical thematic format and, later, into the Baroque continuous chaconne format, it has the distinct Romantic element of starting, not on the tonic, but on the submediant chord of Bb major. From the very opening measure Warkentin infuses a Romantic yearning for “home” and then obscures where “home” might be. Sure, D Minor is established at the start, but only with one passing tonic triad in the entire theme! And, indeed, this theme flirts with A Minor before modulating and ending in the relative major of F. The variations proceed in Classical fashion with the typical doubling of their pace – halves and quarters in the theme, to quarters and eighths in the first variation, eighths and sixteenths in the second. The scale figures of the second variation are transformed into arpeggios in the third, and then into a sixteenth-note toccata in the fourth. Variation 5 enters a dark phase with its menacing broken octaves in the lowest registers of the piano, leading to an explosion into the heavens in the brillante of Variation 6, which ends the first part of this piece with a full-keyboard glissando.
The ensuing Fugue, of course, recalls the Baroque period and ingeniously absorbs the frenetic energy of the variations into one voice before expanding into a more-or-less conventional three-voice exposition. But the subject itself, closely related to the variation theme, indulges in the use of two closely-related pitch class sets. 01356 (E-F-G-A-Bb) rules the first measure and, by transposition, the second as well, and 02356 (A-B-C-D-Eb) regulates the two other measures of the subject. These pitch class sets introduce new accidentals (maybe even blue notes!) that, in Modernistic fashion, threaten, but don’t obliterate the tonal structure of this fugue, which, in the fashion of Richard Wagner and his admirers, revolves around the tonal axis of D and F. Warkentin confidently explores tonalities up and down the circle of fifths, which gives the fugue a true sense of harmonic progression often missing in the 21st century, and, interestingly, leads to a firm conclusion on C, the dominant of the opening F Major tonality. Warkentin is not above other Modernistic indulgences, including several sprinklings of bitonality in the last half of the Fugue.
The concluding Chaconne reels back the harmonic language and the form into the Baroque period. The opening theme of this work, formerly in 2/4 time, assumes the ¾ time signature prevalent in chaconnes of the Baroque era. Warkentin presents a theme and six variants which, again, progress in rhythmic intensity from a quarter-note pace to whirling dervishes of swooping 32nd-note scales that close this ten-minute work in festive style. I had the privilege of performing this work, which was awarded first prize by the Music Teachers Association of California in 1978, and you may hear this performance at https://vimeo.com/447354182.
Both Warkentin and Paul Stanbery have left their indelible marks on the musical heritage and history of their respective communities, of us at CFAMC, and of the world. We will miss them deeply, and continue to celebrate their great music and musicmaking.
In the next Stanbery Chronicles, we will celebrate music by Ian Guthrie and Xavier Bateta.