Chief among the things that differentiate choral music from instrumental music is the use of text. I spend a lot of time reminding my choirs of this, as I am sure many of you do. Because it is our job to convey textual meaning to an audience, I think it is important that we look for the best choral text settings to program for our concerts. I love a piece that allows the text to dictate the rhythm and melody, and I also love it when a composer can surprise you with his or her treatment of the text from your initial reading of it. This week’s post features two newer and highly accessible settings of great texts.
The first is “Good Night, My Love” by Jake Runestad. Written for accompanied SATB choir, this piece is a setting of a poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906). Dunbar, the child of former slaves, was born just after the Civil War and is usually placed among the earliest acclaimed African-American poets. Dunbar’s significance in history was a key consideration in the composition of this piece, according to Runestad, who conducted many Central Ohio high school singers on the piece last month at Capital University. The piece is a beautiful duet between choir and piano, modest in vocal range and mostly diatonic, excepting a reflective and unanticipated four-bar modulation near the end. There are numerous opportunities for singers to be expressive, especially in long phrases and within a tempo marked “softly, freely”. My students who sang it at Capital enjoyed learning and singing it so much that they begged me to program it for one of our choirs for next year, which I fully intend to do! “Good Night, My Love” can be found on Runestad’s website, here.
The other piece is “Oh, Think of Me” by Elaine Hagenberg. This simple yet elegant poem features vivid images of nature equated with memories of a loved one, and Hagenberg, dedicating this piece to a young man lost too soon, matches the poem with grace and refinement. The poet here is Frances Anne Kemble (1809-1893), who is often remembered for detailing and describing the conditions of slavery in the South in her pre-Civil War travel writings. Hagenberg’s setting is for SSA, though much of it is in two parts, ideal for a small treble choir. The song is completely diatonic, with some exquisite moments of dissonance and resolution throughout. Long phrases and upward leaps of fourths and fifths make for great teaching concepts. Having just heard this piece at ACDA in Minneapolis last month, I have not yet performed it, but I plan to start my Women’s Chorus on it in the fall. I suspect the text will resonate with them on many levels, and I look forward to opportunities to discuss it with them. The piece, published by G. Schirmer, can be found here.
I would love to hear your thoughts on other great accessible text settings, so please feel free to share in the comments. And, as always, if you have ideas for attainable pieces that have worked for your choirs, please e-mail them to me at .
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.