Week 12: Friday, June 8, 2018
“Where There is Light in the Soul” by Elizabeth Alexander
With text from a Chinese proverb
SSA, a cappella
In this work, composer Elizabeth Alexander sets a poignant and beautiful Chinese proverb in a buoyant and well-crafted three-part selection:
Where there is light in the soul there will be beauty in the person.
Where there is beauty in the person there will be harmony in the home.
Where there is harmony in the home there will be honor in the nation.
Where there is honor in the nation there will be peace in the world.
The text helps create the framework for the piece. As Alexander mentions in her Composer’s Note in the score, each theme of the text becomes a musical motive or character within the piece.
When I decided to set this Chinese proverb to music, I offered myself a delightful musical challenge. Each of the five central concepts — light, beauty, harmony, honor and peace — is given a distinct character, using rhythm, harmony, melody and articulation. Each time these words make an appearance in the music, no matter how briefly, these musical “signatures” are present, woven into the fabric of the composition. [Composer’s Note from score]
The piece is listed as SSA, and, for the most part, the voice lines move as one rhythmic unit, with only slight echoes or syncopation altering the vertical harmonies. This gives the text remarkable clarity, while the overall soundscape flows smoothly and beautifully. Within these graceful lines, there is ample opportunity for text shaping, vowel unification, syllabic emphasis, and clarity of closing consonants. The most difficult text for beginners will likely be motivic repetitions of the phrase “will be peace,” in accomplishing a beautiful [i] vowel and a clean alignment of the closing [s] sound.
There is one major instance of independence between voice lines, coming on a phrase of the text “There will be peace.” For these few measures, the Alto line divides into upper and lower (A1 vs A2), creating four independent lines, in which each sing the text/motive in successive p layers, before rising to a fast crescendo to f on “Where there is light,” and just as quickly closing to a calm p chord on “soul.” Both in this short independent section, and in the rest of the song, the dynamics Alexander includes are keenly important to creating the overall beauty of the work.
Most of the rhythms are readable with limited rehearsal, except for those involving syncopation/sixteenths. And most of the pitches are readable via solfege in C Major, with the exception of a few altered tones. Because of the accessible writing style, her setting is one that can be accomplished by a large group of intermediate singers, or a small group of advanced singers, or a combination thereof.
In February 2018, my students at Hollins University performed this work as part of the inauguration ceremony for our incoming college president. The combined choir included senior voice majors from my advanced group, non-majors from my intermediate ensemble, and beginning students from my 100-level group. Since the performance was near to the start of spring term, we did not have a great deal of rehearsal time available. We focused our time on the non-diatonic pitches, the syncopated rhythms, and the SSAA measures, and then expanded outward to the entire song.
Along with judicious pencil marking to underscore consonants and dynamics, the accessible nature of the musical setting allowed all the students to feel successful and engaged, and yet did not come across at all “simplistic” in performance. Alexander’s setting is uplifting and exquisite yet provides clearly intelligible presentation of the text even in a large performance space.
This lovely affirmation is a solid addition to any concert, especially one that focuses thematically on the greater harmony we are hoping to foster in our singers’ lives and in the larger world. Also suitable for many worship settings and community occasions.
|Title:||Where there is Light in the Soul|
|Date of Composition:||2009|
|Text Source/Author:||Chinese proverb|
|Subject(s), Genre:||Peace, Justice, Inner Beauty|
|Voicing Details:||SSA, div briefly to SSAA|
|Tempo:||76-80, with lightness and grace|
|Publisher:||Seafarer Press SEA-070-02D|
|Further descriptions and details, including notes, audio, perusal score, and purchasing:|
Until next week!
Dr. Shelbie Wahl-Fouts is associate professor of music, Director of Choral Activities, and music department chair at Hollins University, a women’s college in Roanoke, Virginia.