The Music I Need More Of

This is both a call to composers/arrangers to write more of it, and a request for knowledgeable folks to help me find what exists already.

I am sure I am not the only choir director in the world who works under the following circumstances:

  • Aging soprano section that cannot sing well in the upper register and has trouble being heard over the rest of the choir.
  • Decently strong alto section.
  • Male singers of varying number- usually 1, sometimes 2, up to 4.
  • Limited rehearsal time.
  • Difficulty with rhythmic complexity, including contemporary (syncopation and groove) and classical (polyphony, staggered entrances).
  • Difficulty with diction, especially as tempos increase.
  • Breath problems
  • Singers with a good ear for common hymnal-style harmony, but difficulty with late-Classical and Modern dissonance.
  • An organist who does not come to choir rehearsal.
  • Congregational antipathy for Latin plainchant (In my case, my parish is Episcopalian, so the strong preference is harmonized, metered, and in English.)

Even as much as each of these problems may be corrected, or at least improved upon, the reality is that these issues dominate my repertoire selection criteria, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

And I know I’m not the only one!

Moreover- this is not some “problem” of defective choirs. This is the REALITY of normal choirs, filled with good, hard-working amateur musicians all throughout Christendom. The “ideals” of traditional Sacred Music – chant, polyphony, and choral- grew up in circumstances very different from the small provincial parishes that make up the bulk of Liturgical worship, and my lovely “old white ladies” should NOT be made to feel bad because all the “good” choral music is three whole-steps out of their range.

So what should composers do about it?

More than anything else, I need more “anthems” (choral pieces) that have as many of the following characteristics as possible (some are mutually exclusive – this is not a description of the perfect piece, but a direction-line I need to pursue).

3-part, SAB.
A single male line, in the middle-baritone range (solidly on the staff) is a big help. The hegemony of SATB as the standard for all choral arranging is a bit of an albatross around the neck of traditional-minded choir directors in smaller, aging parishes. I often end up dropping the tenor line of SATB chorales anyway- it would be nice if it was just written that way in the first place.
SAB arrangements that work well with “extra” males doubling the melody at an octave.
I call this SA(T)B. The need for this stems from a multitude of factors, mentioned above:

  • We often have an “extra” male at Mass who can’t make it to rehearsal. I am loathe to turn away singers, and it is easiest to just say “sing the melody” so that I can focus on musicality rather than note-learning.
  • The strongest singer in our choir is… me, a male (Tenor 2). I know, I know- choir directors shouldn’t sing with their choirs, but the difference in end-result when I do vs. when I don’t means it’s a crutch we will rely on unless and until we get more singers.
  • Sopranos have a hard time with both staying in tune and being heard over the rest of the choir. If they are alone on the melody, it causes problems. Shifting a strong voice (usually me) off a harmony line to the melody helps them stay on track and better balances the sound as a whole.
Melody in the Alto with the Sopranos singing a “non-essential” descant.
For similar reasons to the last point. Also, the Alto section is just plain louder than the Sopranos. Yes, yes- I can get them to back-off for blend and so forth, but it really helps keep the peace (and peace of mind) if the altos could have the melody a little more often than never. It sounds good, and it makes them happy to sing something other than D-D-D-EEEEEEEEEE-D-C#-DDDDDDDDDD-D— D.
“Fauxbourdon” harmonizations that work with one strong male singer on a melody, with a Bass/Baritone below and one or two female lines above.
Obviously, related to above points. I have had decent success with taking a “song” (melody with piano or organ accomp) and turning the accomp. into an SAB vocal harmony under a melodic solo.
Unaccompanied
This goes without saying, really- a lot of choral music already is unaccompanied. But most of it is SATB, TTBB, or (egads) SSAATTBB. More music that has the above characteristics AND ALSO is a capella would be very helpful.
Hymn-based structure with variations in voicing and/or harmony
You know what makes my life super easy? Teaching 8 to 24 bars of a choral arrangement one time and then being able to say something like “Unison on v1; women on v2 with a couple altos on the Tenor part; men on v3 with me on melody; v4 in full SATB.” It sounds like we have a whole, real choral arrangement. It takes as much work as learning a new hymn.
Hymn-based text setting
Homophony is my friend. Full-on polyphony is VERY difficult, because it requires strong, independant, self-leadership within each section. That’s close to impossible if two of your three Sopranos don’t show up one morning.
Even short departures from homophony in an otherwise homophonic piece are problematic. “When we come in before everyone else, it sounds like we’re making a mistake or something.” Yeah, it does- particularly if it’s a one-person section.
Also, even if all of that could be solved, the nature of most vocal polyphony requires a clean, clear straight-tone. Robust homophony covers a multitude of vibratic sins.
Straight-forward harmonies
I know, I know- composers and well-trained musicians get bored with common-practice harmony. But it’s pretty, normal people like it, and average-skilled choristers can sight read it.
Limited vocal ranges
Yes, yes, I know what the range of a Soprano should be, and yes- we ALL know that everybody can sing a D just fine in the middle of “All Creatures of Our God and King.”
But, in reality, amateur voices have a real hard time singing WELL as they approach the top of their range, especially in a choral (as opposed to congregational) setting, where voices are more exposed. (Doubly so if unaccompanied).

In my opinion, the practical ranges should be:

  • Soprano Middle C up an octave to C. BRIEF moments of C# or D if well-prepared by step-wise motion and/or aural precedent in prepatory chords, and NOT during a dissonance or other over-exposed situation. And DO NOT hang out around the C, either. The bulk of the line ought to be about Eb – Bb.
  • Alto Ab below middle C up to about Bb above. The bulk of the line ought to be about Db – Ab.
  • Baritone Middle C down just over an octave to about Bb. The bulk of the line ought to hang around C below middle C up to A. This makes Key of F Major a real good choice, BTW.
I’m sure that real choir directors would turm their noses up at such a limited vocal range, and some would either fire the choir members (for not being professional enough) or me (for not training the choir better), but those ranges are the reality I deal with week after week. Composers and arrangers would do the liturgy (and our singers’ self-worth) a great deal of good by respecting the singers’ abilities instead of making them feel bad about being shaky on an unprepared high Eb entrance.
Easy (square) rhythms
For all the usual and obvious reasons.
Phrasing that lets singers breathe
I’m all for the long line, and I work as best I can to improve breath support and capacity. But I don’t have a choir full of Westminster-trained pearl divers. (I bet you don’t either).
Texts based on scripture, particularly Psalms and Canticles
As much as I love the Protestant hymn tradition, I could really use fewer rhyming doctrinal treatises and more settings of commonly used Psalms and Canticles. One or two flexible settings of the most commonly-used Psalm texts and Canticles (having the above-mentioned characteristics) would make programming throughout the year MUCH easier.
Texts based on the Propers, especially the Simplex (Common) Propers and in-season (Advent, Christman, Lent, Easter) Offertories
This is largely covered by the above request for texts based on Psalms, and the reasons should be obvious.
Harmonizations (see above criteria) of popular/common Gregorian Hymns, in good, modern English
Go through the Parish Book of Chant. If I had easy, SAB (et al, see above) settings, of all those pieces in non-weird, well-rhymed English, I would use them ALL THE TIME.
Unharmonized plainchant (which I love) has its own problems, not the least of which being that my choir and the rest of the parish would turn on me if we did monophonic (they would say “unison”) choir pieces with much frequency. (It’s not really the Anglican aesthetic.)
Anglicans have good reason to prefer English over Latin, so let’s not get into it. But (sadly) even many Roman Catholic parishes suffer from Latin-aversion. I can get away with about 3 or 4 Latin pieces a year- your mileage may vary. But the point is, we need good English versions of all those chants. Many of them exist in translation already, but many that do are in some kind of weird archaic English that dosn’t play well with some folks or (more often than any of us admit) doesn’t rhyme anymore. I’m all for hieratic language, really I am- but e’en I mayst not long-suffer the wrathful countenance of mine enemie and brethren which shew forth yponen mee the whyle of singing divers songs and hymns among my fellowe clarks and quires.
Work decently well as both Choral “Anthems” and Congregational “Hymns”
If I can introduce a new hymn to the congregation by first having the choir sing it, that helps.
Flexible in length
Related to the hymn-like strophic structure I mentioned above. Try as I might, I just never know how long the collection is going to take.
Feast-day appropriate and also easy
You don’t want to short-change big (or even small) Holy Days, but you also don’t want to spend loads of time working on something that will only be sung once a year.
It’s particularly helpful when these things are sturdy, robust, and resist aging. If you’re only going to do something once a year, it’s nice to build a tradition of doing them every year.

If I had more time to compose/arrange, this is all I would work on- the need is (I believe) huge.

So:

  • If you are a composer, please write more of this.
  • If you are a publisher, please publish more of this and also promote it better so I can find it (I have a comments section for a reason).
  • If you are a knowledgeable church musician and can point me (and the rest of us) toward existing resources for the above, please do so (again- I have a comments section; please use it).
  • If you have additional thoughts and/or criteria, please share them below (you know, in the comments).

8 thoughts on “The Music I Need More Of

  1. Hello Adam,
    As a publisher, WLP agrees that more good SAB choral music is a need in the Church today. We have a commitment to provide music that can serve the needs of the smallest parish choir. I think immediately of Willima Tortolano’s fine SAB arrangement of “All Creatures of Our God and King.” We have hymn concertatos arranged for SAB choirs, as well as more contemporary, lyrical choral pieces. Searching is easy. On WLP’s web site’s home page, click on “Advanced Search.” On the next screen, click on “Choral Music (Octavos)” in the “Primary Categories” field. Scroll down into the “Secondary Categories and Attributes” field and within the “All Voicings” area, scroll down, and select “SAB.” Then click on “search” at the bottom of the page and our SAB selections will appear. You can also refine the search by clicking other categories (Christmas, Advent, etc.). Most pieces have listening examples and all pieces have sample pages.
    I hope this is helpful.
    Jerry Galipeau
    Associate Publisher, World Library Publications

  2. Adam,
    I’ve been meaning to reply to this for some time. I’ll see if and what I have and I always enjoy a challenge. You bring up excellent points and your clear description is a great help to those of us who need to compose new music. Furthermore, you describe a true reality of the Church. Will be in touch on this!
    Pax,
    Richard

  3. I hear you. We have two choirs, one that sings at the principle Ordinary Form Mass and one that sings at the weekly afternoon EF Missa Cantata. The Latin Mass Choir are very good at chant, but often stumped by what I would consider fairly simple polyphony, like Tye’s Laudate Nomen Domini (they do it fine in rehearsal, but every time we try it at Mass it just falls apart). The Parish Choir are very limited–the women can manage the Simple English Propers but the men seem to have a lot of difficulty with them, and they are easily thrown off by any hymn tunes that are out of their previous experience: my husband, the director, brought out the Agincourt tune last week and they had a really difficult time with it.

    Searching through our multitude of hymnals for something–anything–that we could sing as an “anthem” for Easter, I found a version of Now the Green Blade Riseth in the Summit Choirbook. Usually the text is set to the tune Noel Nouvelet, which has always freaked me out, because it’s a Christmas tune. In the Summit Choirbook, it’s set to a different French folk tune. I took the provided harmonization and turned it into an STB a capella arrangement. The choir–not kidding–learned it in 15 minutes. My husband was flabbergasted. We will definitely be looking for some more things along those lines!

    (BTW, if you’d like a copy of the arrangement, email me.)

  4. My immediate reaction to this post is the elitist snort you may have expected – something along the lines of “is it a choir or not??” But still, I’ve been there and know what you mean.

    Let me propose to you an alternate view: this isn’t the music you (or anyone) really need more of. But what you need is music with a more directly pedagogical emphasis. If your choir has range problems, what you need is music that is skillfully written for expanding range. If they have voice independence problems, you need music with simple polyphonic writing. If they turn their nose up at “hard” harmonies, you need music that has very few, well-prepared, “fancy” chords.

    But here’s where I come back to what you’re saying: This music needs to be written with **all other aspects being as simple as possible.** I’m thinking a 3 part common practice chorale, with an entrance or two with one part staggered. Or, instead of simple imitative writing, perhaps a passage or two in asymmetrical meter.

    To say it bluntly, my more balanced reaction to your post is that you (and many others) need some form of “choral etude”. I don’t think anyone is well-served by simplistic music that causes stagnation and decay in your choir’s talents. But neither would you be well-served by music they can’t handle. A middle ground would allow them to grow, without the constant feeling of “we can’t do this.”

  5. I concur with Gavin above. There ought to be a balance between writing music that is singable for the majority of choirs, and makes them sound good, and music that challenges them in a way that is not demoralizing. What I think needs to be added to the needs listed is that the music must still be of the quality necessary for the sacred liturgy. I cannot speak for Episcopalians as a Catholic, who has recently undertaken a study of the Church’s teachings on sacred music, but I do know that when the Catholic Church opened up its liturgy to the vernacular, the English-speaking Church should have looked immediately to those who have done English-language liturgy the best for centuries. Unfortunately, that glance was not focused enough. Basically, what I am saying is that none of the criteria above is excuse for writing bad music that is not worthy of the dignity of the liturgy.

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