If you have not already done so, I imagine that many of you are in the middle of selecting music for the holiday season. For me, this is always one of the trickiest programs to choose. There are so many favorites that I want to include, but the canon of Christmas choral music is largely outside of the ability levels of many of my choirs. I search for more accessible music, but some arrangements are so simple that they often lack enough teaching elements and sometimes lose the essence of the song. This week’s post will focus on three Christmas songs sent to me by composers that are highly accessible and yet still very musically satisfying and full of teaching opportunities.
The first is Daniel E. Gawthrop’s “Gentle Mary”. This piece for unison chorus and piano is anything but simplistic. Set in 3|4 and almost completely diatonic, this piece features repeated rhythmic figures, a noteworthy use of descending minor sixths, and beautiful phrase-shaping. Rehearsing singers as they work to hit all of the correct notes in a pretty fast tempo will identify appropriate challenges for them in a piece that is worthy of the work. There are a few measures that feature an optional divisi in the second verse, and the musical material of the third verse is nearly identical to that of the first. I feel that we can sometimes forget how beautiful unison singing can be; “Gentle Mary” might be your chance to try it out! It is available here from Dunstan House.
The next piece is an arrangement of “’Twas in the Moon of Wintertime”, arranged by Teresa Cobarrubia Yoder. Set for SAB a cappella (which is not always easy to find), here each voice gets a chance to sing a verse of the melody, alternating with rhythmic pulses on “rum pum pum” that drive the piece along. The fourth verse features unison, two- and three-part singing and ends the piece as softly as it begins. The song is entirely solfeggable and a great way to introduce natural minor. Finally, it is a Christmas song that has not been overdone the way many others have! “’Twas in the Moon of Wintertime” is available on Yoder’s website, here.
The final piece I will examine this week is “A Christmas Round” by Paul Ayres. Ayres composes a melody about 50 measures long and in English, Latin, Greek, French, Arabic, and Hebrew. He then sets this melody as a canon for multiple voices, eventually adding “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” into the mix. Ayres explains in his notes that his use of many languages hearkens to the translation of the “Gloria” text—“and peace to all people on Earth”. The piece is accompanied, and the composer provides some flexibility in its performances in his notes. The melody is a little rangy, and the languages may take some time to master, but the texture the canon creates is truly beautiful. “A Christmas Round” is available here.
Do you have any accessible Christmas pieces to share? Please consider writing in the comments, and, as always, feel free to e-mail me ideas for pieces you would like to see featured in “Music Within Reach” 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.