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SSA or SSAA: Argument againt SSA arrangements of SATB works

Date: Sun, 10 Jan 1999 06:43:28 -0800
From: "Monica J. Hubbard"
To: choraltalk@lists.colorado.edu
Subject: "Good" SSA arrangement of XXXX

A Choraltalker wrote:

>Can anyone tell me a good SSA arrangment of the Mozart "Ave Verum >Corpus"?

Had this question been, "Can someone tell me about a good SSA arrangement
of a Shaker folk tune?" my reaction would not have been so intense, but I
confess that I cringe when people look for treble voice arrangements of
music that was composed specifically for mixed voice choirs, especially if
the composer is historically significant.

When we teach Shakespeare to our students do we present the _Mad
Magazine_ or comic book version? When we want to present quality
literature in our classrooms, from any period, do we use as our
texts the Cliff Notes version? Do we see the movie so we can skip
the book?

Is our training as conductors so lacking, our taste so questionable,
our singers so undeserving, that we will not take the time and effort
needed to find the Morley two-part canzonet, the Bach duet, the Mozart
canon, the Mendelssohn or Debussy trio, the Brahms four part songs -
the music composers intended to be sung by treble voices?

Surely the crank-em-out arrangers and editors so predominantly
featured in the catalogues from the large music distributors cannot improve
on the originals - the Handel that Handel wrote, the Haydn
that Haydn wrote?! Why do we spend time trying to find an SSA
arrangement of an SATB composition when there is SSA music by the
same composer, or, if not by the same composer, at least by a composer
in the same historical period? If we want our SSA choir to hear
Mozart's "Ave Verum", why not play an excellent recording by a fine SATB
choir? If we want them to sing Mozart, why not give them a SS or SA duet
or canon instead of an arrangement from an SATB composition?

There is quality music that was written expressly for treble voices
from every single historical period. By spending some time, thought
and care directors can find appropriate and high caliber repertoire
rather than the shoddy arrangements by familliar names, pubished by
well known companies, geared to the lowest common denominator because
that's what sells.

Read the repertoire articles and reviews in ACDA's _Choral Journal_,
Jim Laster and Nancy Menk's articles in the "Research Memorandum
Series" from the _American Choral Review_. Check out the repertoire
resources on ChoralNet and those provided by ACDA's National
Repertoire & Standards Committee on Women's Choirs. Attend the
interest session at the upcoming ACDA convention in Chicago which will help
folks learn how and where to find the quality SA, SSA and SSAA
repertoire. It's there.

Monica J. Hubbard
ACDA National Repertoire & Standards Chair for Women's Choirs
Voice: (626)395-6260 E-mail: mhubbard@caltech.edu
Office Fax: (626)795-8731 Dept. Fax: (626)585-9284
Internet: http://ACDAonline.org/ncwc/


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Date: Sun, 10 Jan 1999 16:48:14 -0500 (EST)
From: Mark Gresham
To: choraltalk@lists.colorado.edu
Subject: Re: "Good" SSA arrangement of XXXX

On Sun, 10 Jan 1999, Monica J. Hubbard wrote:

> A Choraltalker wrote:
>
> >Can anyone tell me a good SSA arrangment of the Mozart "Ave Verum >Corpus"?
[...]
> Is our training as conductors so lacking, our taste so questionable,
> our singers so undeserving, that we will not take the time and effort
> needed to find the Morley two-part canzonet, the Bach duet, the Mozart
> canon, the Mendelssohn or Debussy trio, the Brahms four part songs -
> the music composers intended to be sung by treble voices?
>
> Surely the crank-em-out arrangers and editors so predominantly
> featured in the catalogues from the large music distributors cannot improve
> on the originals -

Which reminds me, Monica, what Alice Parker said about her
arrangement of "How Can I Keep from Singing": It was originally written
for SSAA treble voices *BUT* the publisher insisted on publishing it as an
SATB arrangement (and last I'd heard of it, it had gone out of print) but
*not* in the original SSAA! Knowing that arrangement (the SATB one) quite
well, I can look at it and imagine the SSAA version easily--how much
better it would be. To my knowledge, the SSAA original still isn't
published (though I would love to hear reliable information to the
contrary). I hope I'm wrong and that it's available and in print.

So there are not only the SSA/SSAA works that are available, there are
plenty of instances where the original may have been for treble voices (or
even another combination) but someone published it in an SATB "edition"
becasue they thought it would "sell more copies"--the music itself be
damned. (I still think of those *terrible* editions of Billings where the
soprano and tenor parts are swapped so the sopranos will "have the tune"!)

In my case, as a composer, I do try to make a piece available in several
forms if it makes *musical* sense. My SATB arrangement of "Steal Away"
has been followed by my TTBB and SSAA versions--but there are a few
changes which make the new voicings work, they are not merely verbatim
"transpositions" of the SATB parts. (There was also a specific commission
for doing the TTBB version after the individual had studied the SATB
arrangement; the SSAA version quickly followed it.)

But your major point: WHY IGNORE the body of available "originally treble"
literature? And I will add that if you MUST have a setting of the "Ave
Verum Corpus" text, and you can't find an existing treble setting you
like, commission a new one!

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Date: Mon, 11 Jan 1999 08:51:35 -0500
From: "Dan Gawthrop"
To:
Subject: RE: "Good" SSA arrangement of XXXX

Tom Lumb asked

> "What is wrong with seeking a good treble voice
> arrangement of something composed originally for mixed voices - and what
> does the historical significance of the composer have to do with it?"

Well, the two questions are related. Monica's delightful turn of phrase is
actually a gentle way of reminding us that there are real masterpieces out
there and that we can sometimes shorten our search for one by selecting a
composer whose output has been consistently superior. Having located a bona
fide work of art by whatever means we are then faced with the question of
how to present it. A "good treble arrangement" of something originally
written for a mixed voice choir can fall anywhere along a spectrum ranging
from an equally valid artistic expression (exceedingly rare) to the
equivalent of reproducing the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel on your lunchbox
in primary colors (far more common).

> Surely, if someone particularly wants their treble voice choir to sing
> "Ave verum" - perhaps for some liturgical reason -

A liturgical reason will demand a certain text, but not a specific setting
of it. Settings of most liturgical texts abound and there is usually little
reason to insist on an arrangement in preference to a setting composed for
the forces actually at hand.

> Who is to say that Mozart himself might not have been
> prepared to re-arrange it if the price had been right?

In cases where the original composer has prepared the arrangement or it has
been done under his supervision and with his approval it may be a legitimate
artistic choice, but as noted above such occasions are rare. Far more often
we find things which have been prepared for the market rather than for the
ages.

> Is there some
> fundamental rule of musical arranging that says it is *impossible* to
> make a good arrangement of Mozart's "Ave verum" for treble voices?

Not quite impossible, but near enough, as my grandmother used to say, as
"makes no never mind." For lots of reasons having to do with chordal
voicings and resonance and timbre and voice leading and textures and a dozen
other considerations, a musical idea which has been brought to near
perfection by a skilled composer will quite inevitably suffer when snatched
out of its intended context and plunked down in a completely different
setting. Sometimes the original idea is so strong that it will "survive"
this process, but no one should argue that it is the equivalent of the
original.

Another Choraltalker asked whether he should deny his students the
opportunity to perform these works, to which my considered response would
be: absolutely. After all, you are forced to deny them the opportunity to
perform the vast majority of the literature, including everything from the
Bach B minor Mass to Mendelssohn's Elijah to the Verdi Requiem and beyond;
you only have a very limited amount of time at your disposal and you can't
do everything. Accordingly, it seems to me sound pedagogical procedure and
good artistic practice to select pieces, not because they are personal
favorites or because they are great masterpieces, but because they are
appropriate to the situation and will provide the chance for a meaningful
and valid artistic experience. This is far more likely to occur when we
choose a masterpiece which the composer intended for a group like the one in
front of us, than when we pick a masterpiece designed and crafted for some
other kind of ensemble which has subsequently been "arranged."

Yes, there will be very rare gems, exceptions to the rule. Many of the folks
on this list will be able to think of two or three. But the vast majority of
instances will yield jewels more likely found at K-Mart than at Cartier.
Let's seek out and use the masterpieces written for our ensembles rather
than being satisfied with hand-me-downs from the SATB repertoire.

Monica was right.

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Date: Mon, 11 Jan 1999 12:42:48 -0500
From: Mary Jane Leach
To: choraltalk@lists.colorado.edu
Subject: Re: "Good" SSA arrangement of XXXX

A Choraltalker wrote:

> >Can anyone tell me a good SSA arrangment of the Mozart "Ave Verum >Corpus"?

Monica Hubbard then wrote:

> Had this question been, "Can someone tell me about a good SSA arrangement
> of a Shaker folk tune?" my reaction would not have been so intense, but I
> confess that I cringe when people look for treble voice arrangements of
> music that was composed specifically for mixed voice choirs, especially if
> the composer is historically significant.

As a composer, and one who has written extensively for treble voices, I
couldn't agree with Monica more. A tune, that is, music that is known
primarily for its melody, can have many arrangements, each of varying
quality and interest. That resulting arrangement is then a separate
entity that has its own musical values and integrity.

Many composers work extensively with voicings (how does it sound when
all the parts sound together?) not just harmonizing melodies. Would you
play an arrangement of a Mozart symphony using only violins? I think
not. By using arrangements of masterworks, you are doing a disservice to
the composers and the performers. A disservice to the composer, because
the integrity of the original composition is being violated. A
disservice to the performer, because she is performing watered down
versions of classics. There is nothing more thrilling than singing works
for treble voice that were meant to be sung by treble voices, and
nothing more boring than singing arrangements - there's something
missing. It's like looking at a picture of a painting that's had one of
the primary colors filtered out. There are plenty of wonderful pieces
written for treble voice without having to resort to arrangements.
Instead of spending time looking for arrangements of music you already
know, why not spend that time discovering originals that are just as
satisfying?

Mary Jane Leach
mjleach@earthlink.net


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Date: Mon, 11 Jan 1999 13:46:38 -0800
From: ngilbert@uci.edu (Nina Gilbert)
To: choraltalk@lists.colorado.edu
Subject: SSA Ave verum

Dear Choraltalk,

I had answered Richard Wall's question privately (intending to copy to the
list, but using the wrong address...). While I know this is not the answer
Richard Wall wants, I wanted to share a suggestion with any treble choir
directors out there. It's in the "How could such a gorgeous, un-difficult,
seriously beautiful, respectable piece be out there and we don't know about
it?" category.

Here is the response I had written on Sunday:

Richard Wall is asking:

>Can anyone tell me a good SSA arrangment of the Mozart "Ave Verum Corpus"?

Please let me recommend an SSA setting of much of that text that I've just
discovered, which I would very much endorse over any smooshing of Mozart's
perfectly balanced SATB voicing. Try this:

F. Poulenc, _Ave verum corpus_. SSA. Published by Salabert, distributed
by Hal Leonard.

Not findable in H. Leonard's published catalog, as far as I can tell, but
the folks at the toll-free number were able to find the work immediately.
Costs $1.75. Three pages, doesn't look difficult (we're just starting it).
Manages to sound sweet, rich, and austere at the same time. Some clear
polyphony, and some of Poulenc's inimitable homophony. Composed for
something like the Women's Choral Society of the Tuesday Musical Club of
Pittsburgh -- the dedication says something like "A la chorale feminine de
Pittsburgh," and there's a little more information in the inlay booklet to
a new Poulenc CD from the Netherlands Chamber Choir. Try not to giggle at
the "vere possum" typo in the music.

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Date: Mon, 11 Jan 1999 20:48:16 GMT
From: julie@hammfamily.org
To: choraltalk@lists.colorado.edu
Subject: Re: "Good" SSA arrangement of XXXX

Mary Jane Leach wrote:
> play an arrangement of a Mozart symphony using only violins? I think

Composers frequently do transcriptions of many pieces for different
instruments, and other re-arrangements of pieces. Variations on,
whatever. If the piece is less well known, we probably would have very
little difficulty with it. Is there not a great tradition of variations
on other great works? Seen as the work of a second composer working with
the work of a first, it can be a very nice work indeed.

This is frequently done for musical groups which do not have a great deal
of literature written specifically for them. Like tuba groups or handbell
choirs (who actually seem to have a lot written for them, but still get a
lot of transcriptions of other works), etc.

In that context, I don't see any problem with it. I would assume that the
person looking for a transcription that is of quality, not just a slam
dunk of the original into the desired voicings.

I don't see a big problem. Yes, you may lose something that the original
composer had in the piece. You may also gain an insight that the adapting
composer found!!!


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Date: Mon, 11 Jan 1999 19:02:36 -0500
From: jenniren@mindspring.com
To: choraltalk@lists.colorado.edu
Subject: Re: "Good" SSA arrangement of XXXX

How do you feel about SSA works composed for
boys' choirs being sung by women's choirs and vice versa?