Composing for Choir
(Putting it all together)

This chapter is written in support of your composition project, which is to set a poem to music for choir, using the chordal and part-writing vocabulary of the common practice period.

Step 1 Getting a feeling for the text

Let us consider these lines from Shakespeare (from As You Like It):

Blow blow thou winter wind
Thou are not so unkind
As man's ingratitude.
Thy tooth is not so keen
Because thou are not seen
Although thy breath be rude

Heigh Ho, sing Heigh ho unto the green holly
Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly
Then heigh ho the holly,
This life is most jolly.

These lines have been set for choirs by many composers, because they lend themselves to a great variety of treatments. The words allow the composer to paint in broadly felt harmonies, with many power words (winter, unkind, ingratitude, tooth, rude). But the composer must also make the transition from the the verse into what amounts to a chorus. And what is the overall mood? The final line, about life being most jolly, reads as ironic after the statement of friendship as feigning and most loving mere folly!

Step 2 Sketching out the rhythm

First, let's choose a overall rhythmic sketch. To keep things simple, we'll start with common time, and place the measure lines, in our first draft, as follows:

Blow  |  blow thou winter | wind — thou  | art not so un- | kind as | man's ingrati- | tude  Thy

tooth is not so | keen be- | cause thou are not | seen  al- | though thy breath be | rude

Heigh ho, sing | Heigh ho un-

6/8 to the green holly most | friendship  is feigning most | loving mere folly then

4/4 heigh, ho, the | holly |   |   this | life   is |  most |    jolly

Already, we can see a certain plan here. The verse will have a straightforward rhythm. The heigh ho will set up something more rhythmically lively, via the 6/8 rhythm which just seemed to want to be there as I was writing. This will play against the bitterness of the words. When the "life is most jolly" is set, the rhythm will slow down, perhaps allowing for the irony of the words to come through.

Within the measures, the internal rhythm (quarter, eighths, dotted figures, triplets, etc.), will evolve in the writing.

Step 3 Finding destination points

Next, it is useful to gain an overall sense of where the piece will have some peaks and valleys. I would say, on first thought:

Build towards "tooth" as an initial climax, with a good dissonance, allowing it to come down to a low rumbling place on the word "rude." Immediately being Heigh Ho on a high place, with a subito forte, coming downwards in range and dynamics through "green holly" then downwards more still through folly, then rising again through this life is most... (wait for it)  jolly, with jolly dropping down in range and dynamics to bring out the irony implied.

This is how you should think of your text, then in broad outlines and emotional sweep. Have a game plan, and put it in writing. It will evolve as the piece speaks back to you, but having an intial idea of shape and destination is essential.

Step 4 Initial harmonic choices

Next, you need to develop a feeling for the harmony, keeping in the back of your mind an openess to any melodic shapes that may emerge. It's possible some melody may already be there, so be aware of it, but first commit to some kind of harmonic outline. Here's a plan:

First, of all, key matters because you want to consider what note of the scale your sopranos will reach. Do you need them to be able to sing the tonic? Better make it in G. Do you want them to sing the sixth falling down to the fifth at the highest point? C or C minor would be a good choice. Eb allows for a strong presence on the third of the chord. Same goes for the low end. Do you need a strong foundation note on the tonic? You can't ask the basses in your amatuer choir to sing an Eb, but they can manage an F. G is safer. So be thinking of this as you conceive of your harmony. Of course, as the writing evolves, you can always change the key if needed. Sopranos can sing from F comfortably but don't keep them singing G or high A for very long.

I am going to set this in C minor because I am hearing the Ab falling to G as a critical high point. It also allows the Ab to receive a Neopolitan treatment, which will be useful. I am purposely using conventional harmonic progressions, especially near the beginning, staying open to other possibilites along the way. I wrote this out first with a pencil on a piece of paper, and I transcribe it here:

i (Cm)                        iv (Fm)
Blow blow thou winter wind

       i 6-4       V      i
Thou are not so unkind

      N6          G7     i
As man's ingratitude.

VI  (treat as tonic)    IV (Db)
Thy tooth is not so keen

V  (Eb)                       Ab (I)
Because thou are not seen

(Gm) N6         viiº7  (F#º7)  i  (Gm)    (Ab becomes N7 in Gm )
Although thy breath be rude

G       Cm        F         Bb  (modulate to relative major)
Heigh Ho, sing Heigh ho

Eb (IV in Bb)  C7  (V7 of V)
unto the green holly

F                         Ger6 in C minor
Most friendship is feigning,

G7 (V in C min)    i (Cm)
most loving mere folly

F           Bb           Eb    (modulate to relative major)
Then heigh ho the holly,

 D:   N6      V7     I      (Eb becomes N7 in D minor, piece ends on D major/minor)
This life is most jolly.

As the piece evolves, this may change, but I now at least have a scaffolding. I can keep what I like a change what i don't, reacting as the piece moves forward.

Step 5. Finding melodic motives

For the next step, some melodic ideas need to come from the opening measures that can be used as motives (hooks, in pop music terms) for the entire setting. The ideas should be simple, so that they can be worked with. Ideas like:

I would create 5 or 6 of these, perhaps using the same text and finding different versions so you don't get locked in.

Step 6. Sketching out the work on four lines.

The next step is to get out your manuscript paper and begin working. I personally like to set up all the staves with the four lines and the key signatures in place, so I don't have to interrupt the flow while I am pencilling in. For this step, work on paper, not in Sibelius. Put in places where you think you have a musical idea, and if you don't have one, just put in the rhythm of the words. Begin to get a sense of where you might have imitation, or certain voices entering at various times. I will give you an example of this rough sketch.

Step 7. Finishing the sketch

Get as much down on paper and pencil as you can, then enter it all into Finale or Sibelius. This will give you better aural feedback.

Step 8. Finishing the rough draft

Finish the rough draft in Finale and give it some rest. I will be giving you feedback on this draft.

Step 9. Finishing the composition

Finish all note entry until you are satisfied with the overall shape and success of the composition.

Step 10. Preparing it for performance

Along the way, you should have been thinking of dynamics and phrasing. Now, add in dynamics, accents, dynamic swells and any musical commands or suggestions to the singer. Make sure you have an accurate tempo marking, both with a tempo word an with a metronome marking. Make it a good finished product. On the Monday after break we'll go over some good Finale tricks, as you should probably finish it in ITAM to avail yourself of more tools than Note Pad can offer.

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