Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Practice What You Preach, Part V

When last we left our aspiring pretend-composer, he was staring down the barrel of a deadline, albeit self-imposed. The situation was by no means hopeless … but it was starting to look like all those research papers from college: in spite of all possible preparation, he was going to be typing till midnight the night before the due date.

Like exactly none of the great composers of the nineteenth century, I played back the mp3 files that I had made of the seven anthems in this contemporary Advent/Christmas set. Just wanted to make sure that the grand sweep of the series of songs made sense … or to make sure that there was any kind of grand sweep at all, or aural evidence of a grand plan.

Turns out that the original opening song was okay in the second position, now that I’d written a prelude to it. There were a couple of slower items to start. They were followed by a subversively swingy take on a “Watchman, Tell Us of the Night” text, and a fairly energetic setting of the shepherds’ adventure. Conceivably, it could have been a good place to pause (as in the middle of a service, one must pause and do other things). On the other side of the halfway point, a slow gospel anthem, followed by a Wise-Men desert camel groove (please refer to this dignified explanation for this silly description!), followed by the big finish.

Something was still bugging me. It felt like the tempo of the whole thing just kept increasing and increasing. A lot of slow and pensive stuff early, and the longer it went on, the less relief a listener was likely to get from the constant cranking-up of the intensity. I thought I needed some brief moment of repose before the last movement.

Then I remembered what complete tightrope act I had considered perpetrating, when I stumbled onto the web archive of Christina Rossetti’s poetry. She wrote the text that became the hymn “Love Came Down at Christmas”, and every time that has appeared as a hymn in a church service or come on the radio within my hearing, I’ve somehow felt – arrogantly, one could argue – that segments of the melody it was set to, well, just felt awkward to me.

So, sure, let’s go make contact with the third rail. Let’s go try and re-set a justly-famous and beloved piece of poetry that has an already widely-recognized melody attached to it – a traditional Irish folk melody, no less. If the Irish have known one thing over the centuries, it’s how to write a darn melody that’ll stick in your head.

What am I, nuts?

Well, many of you already know the answer to that.

But I thought it ended up setting the table for the Big Finish movement pretty well. A chance to take a breath before the final plunge, perhaps.

We’ll see.

So, I thought I felt pretty happy with the pieces, even if the way they’d developed hadn’t be precisely linear. More like one of those “Family Circus” comic strips with just one gigantic panel, using a dotted line to trace and little Billy’s mischievous path around his neighborhood.

Just one thing, now:

All that remains is to get it in front of live people – the actual people who we’re conscripting (encouraging) to prepare and present this material in December, as if it were an actual Large Work – and see if they think it’s worth a dang. Our church choir has presented works of Brubeck and Buxtehude, Saint-Saens and Murphy (my prolific brother-in-law and organist), … and I ain’t them! … but the style of a lot of this material has definitely not been run up the flagpole during Advent before, in our church. So, novelty at least.

We’ll see, indeed.

[Postscript: this week, we opened our 2013-14 church choir campaign with one of two Thursday-night rehearsals that will precede the first “choir Sunday”, on the 8th of the month. I gingerly passed two of the more straightforward movements out to them, and we read them down. And I must say, the assembled singers were more than kind and generous about them. Of course, while we were sightreading the “This Is No Time” movement, I could only notice what I perceived to be flaws in the writing … except that they read it so well that I was forced to pay attention to their handsome singing. Afterward, I described to a couple of folks how my blood pressure was ever-so-slightly elevated, shall we say, as we began to sing it. They seemed surprised at that; but I’m not a composer by trade, and I was hoping that wouldn’t show.

[Just hang on till we read the “City of Angels”-esque movement. Then we’ll really see what’s gonna fly…!]

August 31, 2013 Posted by | choir, music, SUMC | , , , , , , | 1 Comment