By Brandon Moss
There is no shortage of stellar choral programs in this country.
Like many of you, I was privileged to attend this year’s ACDA National Conference in Minneapolis, where we witnessed at least a couple dozen of the country’s most gifted ensembles from K-12 schools, universities, and churches. Think of how many other fine ensembles must have submitted recordings and were not accepted. Then imagine the number of excellent choirs that perform at divisional and state conferences and other invitational festivals. The wealth of talent we have is thrilling!
I know many people who go to conferences just to watch the concerts, specifically looking for great repertoire. Indeed, I heard and collected so much music at this year’s conference that I would love to be able to program. But much of it will sit on my shelf for a long time. Why? Because much of it is completely inaccessible to the choirs I direct.
Amid all of the truly outstanding choirs out there, I believe there exists a majority of choral programs where great things are happening but where, for one reason or another and often due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control, will probably never be featured at a state or divisional or national conference. Perhaps balance is inconsistent, maybe voices are aging, maybe recruitment is always an issue. Please do not misunderstand me—it is not my wish to label these choirs as if something were wrong with them. Any time people come together to sing in a choir, it is a great thing! But for the purposes of finding repertoire, it can often be a challenge to find high-quality music for your average choir.
Much of the music published today has been commissioned by one of the aforementioned fine choral programs, and, as such, often showcases that ensemble’s talents. Therefore, we see a lot of divisi, wide vocal ranges, and tricky intervals, harmonies, and rhythms that produce highly satisfying effects but which might seem out-of-reach for average singers. It is great music, to be sure, but is often difficult for many of us to program. By the same token, much of the so-called canon of excellent choral music can also be inaccessible to many of our choirs. Much of it requires a large chorus—possibly even increased instrumentation, and improved recordings and higher performance practice standards may intimidate conductors who do not feel their performances of this music can live up to today’s expectations.
On the other side of the coin, sometimes music published specifically with access in mind can be too simple or not challenge our singers to the extent we would like.
So what is the answer?
Being the conductor of what I feel are lovely and very average choirs (and that is NOT a pejorative!), I have made it my life’s work to identify as much music as I can that is both accessible and musically satisfying. And I will attempt to share some of what I have found with you in these posts. Some of it you may already know, but I also get great satisfaction in finding rarities, so I hope I am able to offer some new ideas as well. I will try to highlight music both old and new and in a variety of voicings, languages, and styles. I will always be welcome to ideas, so I hope if you have a piece you feel fits the bill that you will feel compelled to e-mail it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This Week’s Recommendations
In this first post I would like to highlight two pieces—one older and one newer. The first is a three-voice setting of the “Ave Verum Corpus” text by Josquin. Written over 500 years ago, this piece is in three distinct parts, which can be sung all together or as individual movements (in the way that we often sing the first part or Prima Pars of Palestrina’s “Sicut Cervus” but not as often the second). Maybe you have a high school or church choir with sopranos and altos aplenty but only a handful of tenor-baritone-bass-type singers. This piece works perfectly for that, as there is just one part on the bottom that can be managed pretty easily. None of the voices boast particularly wide ranges, though the soprano tessitura at the beginning is a little high. For me, the best reason for choosing this piece is being able to program Renaissance polyphony for a choir with limited forces. (Continuing to teach polyphony is a soapbox for another day, but suffice it to say that I think it highly important!) Maybe you cannot program a “Sicut Cervus” or a Byrd “Ave Verum,” but I bet you can program this!
There are a few published editions of this floating around, but some are very old and others may not be as easy to find. CPDL features five different editions (though some are just the Prima Pars) in a variety of keys, from D all the way up to G. All are well edited, so you should find the one that best suits your choir’s needs. There are also a handful of decent recordings on YouTube that you can use as a reference.
The other piece I want to highlight in this post is a newer piece by the great composer Andrea Ramsey. Ramsey’s work is exceptional across the board, and I hope you explore it if you do not yet know it. “Sing to Me” is a piece she originally wrote for SA choir and later reworked for SATB. The text, a poem by Ella Wheeler Wilcox, is universally felt, and it is set with simplicity yet elegance. The ranges are very appropriate for high school and even possibly advanced middle school choirs (certainly the SA setting would be great for middle school). One of my favorite elements of this piece is the accompaniment part for piano and the duet that emerges between the piano and choir. The icing on the cake is the educational opportunity offered by shifting meter signatures, the shaping of phrases, and expression through dynamics. In a world full of great poetry set to music for choir and piano accompaniment, this piece should stand out way at the top! Both versions are published by Santa Barbara Music Publishing, Inc., and can be found here (SA) and here (SATB).
Brandon Moss is a choir director, teacher, and composer/arranger living and working in Central Ohio. He teaches at Central Crossing High School, directs the Chalice Choir at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbus, and serves in leadership roles with the Ohio Choral Directors Association and the Ohio Music Education Association. He is currently working on the Doctor of Musical Arts degree in Conducting at The Ohio State University.
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