Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Practice What You Preach, Part II

About a month and a half ago, I stood in the middle ground between “what an interesting abstract idea, this music composition thing” and “I’m actually concretely doing it”. That zone probably should be called “I’ve foolishly told someone other than myself about this outlandish idea, and now I have to follow through”.

If you like, you may return to those thrilling days of yesteryear, or at least yester-month, here.

When we last left our hero, he had stumbled upon a small collection of poems by two authors: children’s-literature and science-fiction novelist Madeleine L’Engle, and 19th-century author Christina Georgina Rossetti …


The goal was to come up with 20 to 25 minutes’ worth of music to comprise a “large work”, outlining the Advent/Christmas story, to be presented by our church choir come Christmastime. I thought I was more likely to be successful writing with a contemporary sound, certainly more contemporary than the large works by Dietrich Buxtehude or Marc-Antoine Charpentier that our choir has sung … but not contemporary-classical, because [1] my church-gig colleague and brother-in-law has already created two separate Christmas Cantatas that fit that description and [2] I just haven’t done the right coursework to do it credibly. Literary types always say, “write what you know”, and I’m sure I’m more confident in the areas of gospel, jazz, or rock, than I am in trying to create sounds that could make me look like Barber or Copland, only far, far worse.

Also, I have sensed that my strength as a composer (to the extent that I have one) isn’t in the construction of symphonic, long-form compositions. It has also occurred to me that it might be wise to create several four-minute anthems that could function as a unified work, but that could also work as separate pieces. Kinda like a TV show that you don’t necessarily need to have watched it all, from the pilot forward, in order to enjoy one particular episode. (Which is to say, most prime-time television before “Hill Street Blues”.)

As I’ve mused before, when I’m only arranging music, somebody else has done the heavy lifting of creating the musical raw material that I then plug into particular combinations of instrumentation. According to my analogy of several weeks ago, composers build the furniture, rather than merely placing it inside a room. So, deep breath and away we go.

The first big chicken-and-egg question that I banged into: will the lyrics drive the music or the other way around? Or, will there be a 70-30 split? I’d already decided I wasn’t qualified to create the kind of poetry I thought I needed (e.g. with proper theological underpinnings, not to mention purty); so I had punted, and gathered together a few works by other people. Sitting down to a piano, beginning to noodle and see what musical riffs and grooves and motifs might appear, it became clear that it would worth having the poems nearby. Wiser to create musical motifs based on the chosen texts, than to create musical ideas and then try to cram pre-existing texts awkwardly into them. At the time, this was a brilliant insight. Now it seems merely … really obvious. Ah well.

Some of the poems yielded ideas about form right away; others were more murky. Rossetti wrote an awful lot of poems that lend themselves well to becoming hymns: create a four-phrase melody and plug each of the six or seven (or more) pairs of couplets into that melody. (And pray that the line-by-line syllable count doesn’t vary much.) Meanwhile, the structure of L’Engle’s poems was much more varied.

The first poem to get my attention early started out, “this is no time for a child to be born”. A bleak world, that first-century Middle East. This Madeleine L’Engle idea, and the general metrical feel of the poem, seemed to call for a fairly bleak sound. What a neat thing maybe to begin this set of anthems…? What developed was a pretty short musical idea: four notes, only using two adjacent pitches. Sol, sol-fa-sol, for you solfege hounds out there. Keep the motif so simple that it might fit into a number of different harmonic environments. Challenge: can I have the sopranos sing two pitches throughout the majority of an anthem, without encouraging them to throw stuff at me?

But the text part of this potential anthem didn’t come together until an inspired brainstorm for combining it with one other L’Engle poem came to me from a not totally unexpected source: an idle remark from my mother, who not surprisingly resisted my suggestion that she should get some sort of printed credit for that. One stanza of that other poem, then two of the first one; one more stanza of the second poem, and two more of the first poem … and not only did the two poems work well together, but that structural brainstorm was going to encourage the musical setting to be more than just “play a four-square hymn tune six times in a row and stop”.

The next poem whose text set off the bells in my head also had a brief and punchy text motif: “He did not wait”, i.e., for the perfect time to be born. The point of the poem kinda yelled and screamed “Large Work, Big Finish”. And somehow, the text also seemed to point to an uptempo feeling. Perfect. (I did work hard to keep that “He did not wait” motif from spawning a tune that was more “Kool & The Gang” than “Gaither Homecoming Hour”. Eventually, listeners will have to judge for themselves whether I’ve won that fight.)


So, in the space of two early-July mornings’ worth of feverish writing, plus another couple of mornings of determined editing, chopping and channeling … I had what I thought were decent bookend anthems. (For a long time I’ve know that I’m a creature of routine. On the other hand, I discovered that having a vast expanse of unscheduled daylight to work within … can be good for creativity. Which is to say, I got a summer vacation and I’m not afraid to use it. It also means, in my case, that breakfast is at 7 in the morning, and lunch might be at about three-thirty in the afternoon. Whoops.)

Now all I had to do was populate the middle section of this Large Work with settings of poems about terrified shepherds, angel fanfares, desperate desert crossings and such. No problem … as long as some of Ms. Rossetti’s poetry decided to cooperate …

Will our hero find texts to paint? Will the notes leap forth from his brain in a torrent, or will they need to be dragged kicking and screaming? Will the sopranos really want to throw stuff? Tune in next time for the next exciting installment of … “First Rehearsal in How Many Days?”

August 24, 2013 - Posted by | arranging, choir, music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. […] hate them, even the next morning. He was also giving a faint edit/update to that “Part II” post, thanks to a stray paragraph that got copy/pasted incorrectly. He was also recognizing that all he […]

    Pingback by Practice What You Preach, Part III « Editorial License | August 24, 2013 | Reply

  2. […] in this space, during the last few months, I’ve occasionally mentioned my pie-in-the-sky attempt to become a Serious […]

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