Week 20: Friday, August 3, 2018
“Ave Maria” by Gustav Holst
SSAA/SSAA, a cappella
This blog on ChoralNet is now 20 weeks old, just slightly older than my infant son (currently 13 weeks!). So far, much of the repertoire has been from the 20th and 21st centuries, with one week each of the Renaissance and Baroque eras. Today, we look at an offering from the late Romantic era, by noted English composer Gustav Holst (1874-1934).
Written in 1900, the piece falls in the early part of Holst’s output, being one of his first published works. He dedicated the piece to his mother, Clara von Holst, who died when he was just eight years old.
This work is about five minutes long, which is remarkably brief compared to Holst’s later, larger choral compositions, such as Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda. “Ave Maria” is a beautiful opportunity to study Holst’s lush techniques in a more compact, manageable fashion.
One notable facet of this composition is the voicing, set for double SSAA choir. On one hand, this could be a beautiful chamber selection for eight of your strongest independent soloists – singers who can fully hold their own one-on-a-part. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the piece would be equally lovely with a large choral ensemble. In a smaller group, the internal moving parts will be heard more clearly, while with a larger group, the overall sonorities will blend and soar more easily. Regardless of the total number of singers, you will need at least one soprano who can effortlessly sing (and hold) Bb5 and another soprano with a solid Ab5, as well as an alto with a steady F3.
Earlier in my graduate career, I programmed this work with the Ball State University Women’s Chorus, a medium-large undergraduate ensemble. This upcoming fall at Hollins, I plan to introduce the piece to my small advanced choir. The part-independence and self-reliance required will push them, as there are usually only 12-14 voices in the group, but I know they will relish the challenge.
Tonally speaking, the piece envelops Eb major, but it encompasses both tonal and modal harmonies. Some phrases will be very conducive to diatonic solfege, while other phrases will require a different approach. There is often a strong vertical triad present at cadence points, but not all the triads are found within the key of Eb. The lack of solfege-functionality may be a stumbling block for some ensembles but will also present an opportunity for other methods of learning.
In addition to the double choir format of the composition, another defining trait of this setting is its constantly-moving step-wise nature (both parallel and contrary motion). There are certainly skips and leaps within Holst’s writing, but the scalar nature of many passages contributes to the forward-flowing motion that seems to be perpetually active in this song. It’s as if the work is consistently unfolding, eager to reach the next triad.
The piece is written in 6/4, with some measures necessitating a feeling of 6 micro beats, while others feel in 2 macro beats. This distinction will largely depend on the speed at which the song is presented. No matter the tempo though, the piece needs to feel as if the individual lines are leading via their stepwise motion, taking you from one cadence to the next.
As with many late Romantic/early 20th century composers, widely varying dynamics play a key role in supporting the drama of a song. Nearly every measure in Holst’s piece has a marking. From pp to ff, cresc. to sotto voce, every phrase has a detailed dynamic pattern to follow. Use these. Embrace these. Attention to the ebbs and flows of the dynamics will help the piece to blossom.
As Holst published this piece in 1900, the material is currently in the public domain. At present, there is at least one free/CPDL version available. However, be cautious of using public domain versions without due diligence; they may lack a keyboard/rehearsal reduction or have a problematic visual layout/spacing or have errors in transcription. For this piece in particular, I would err on the side of published versions, including a time-tested edition from 1987 by Galaxy Music (now ECS Publishing) and a more recent one from 2006 by Collegium Music Publications (distributed by Oxford University Press).
This brilliant example of Holst’s sonorous writing – in miniature – is truly a treat to learn and perform.
|Title:||Ave Maria (Op. 9b, H. 49)|
|Composer:||Gustav Holst (1874-1934)|
|Date of Composition:||1900|
|Subject(s), Genre:||sacred, late Romantic era|
|Listed Voicing:||SSAA/SSAA double choir|
S1: D4 – Bb5
S2: Bb3 – F5
A1: Bb3 – Eb5
A2: G3 – Bb4
|Dedication:||“To the memory of my mother”|
|Publisher:||ECS Publishing 1.3121|
Oxford University Press 9780193416048
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.