#40: Friday, January 4, 2019
“Sweet Radiant Mystery” by Catherine Dalton
Four-part equal voices, piano or handbells
From a teaching perspective, this one should be a quick read, even for less experienced ensembles. In general, the piece is an extended round, with minimal complications, suitable for a number of concert themes and pedagogical uses. It is so much more than “just” a round though. There is beauty found between the notes, and within each overlapping imitation. Savoring these moments creates a contemplative cloud that envelops the singer and the audience alike.
To begin, there are essentially 28 measures of material to learn initially. The main melody (those 28 mm) is presented first in unison across all four voice parts. Then that melody is imitated across all four voices. Each voice part sings the same material, now in canon.
The learning process can be hastened by rehearsing each section in unison first, and then breaking up into imitative subsets. One caveat with the imitation is that the overlap of the round changes by phrase – sometimes it is one measure offset while other times is two, or none (i.e. all in unison). This aspect is worth noting specifically for your singers, so they don’t expect all the imitative entrances to be the same amount of time/pitch apart.
The work has no key signature given, but the voice parts can be read as if in d (natural) minor. This is great chance for la-minor solfege! Its rhythms are all half notes and quarter notes, along with some ties, and so can be sight-read. All in all, the piece will likely not be difficult to learn.
The beauty of this work, though, comes not from its difficulty, but from its spare nature and clarity. The interest lies in the breaths between phrases and the space – vocally, metaphorically, and otherwise – created in the moment. The piece will not take a great deal of rehearsal time to learn, but it provides ample opportunity for the growth of your ensemble through phrasing, breathing, and word stress. The intentionality found in each note, each phrase, each lift, can be stunning.
The accompaniment is a four-measure pattern which repeats continually until the end of the song. It is intended to be played on piano or handbells. If using piano, the chords should be approached with bell-like clarity. Another option might be educational hand chimes, if you wanted the ensemble to accompany themselves, but that might take away from the meditative nature for the singers. If the performance goal is to involve other ensembles/departments, you might be able to use a small combination of Orff instruments, marimba, or vibes as well, but that likely depends on the resonance of your space and your instruments. The goal is to use something that will strike clearly and continue sounding until dampened.
Programmed frequently by Unitarian Universalist churches and community organizations, this work is also quite appropriate for school and university groups. The lyrics are not overtly religious nor tied to a specific belief structure, but neither are they especially secular. Woven together with great care, the phrases foster a contemplative, meditative feeling. Thus, the text transcends the typical sacred/secular divisions of our usual choral repertoire.
I can see this piece being used in a number of thematic concerts, as well as a standalone work chosen for its pedagogical qualities (minor solfege, part independence through rounds, etc.). For my ensembles, we first approached the piece during a concert sequence dedicated to mindfulness, and then ultimately performed it during a winter holiday concert/service, when I needed a “feels-sacred-but-is-not-explicitly-Christmas” piece. We all have those type of programming needs, right?!
Ultimately, Catherine Dalton’s selection is readable and/or easily-teachable, with immense opportunity for reflective practice and shaping of musical moments. If done right, there is potential to shape hearts and minds as well.
|Title:||Sweet Radiant Mystery|
|Date of Composition:||2008|
|Listed Voicing:||Four equal voices|
|Ranges:||All parts: C4-Bb4|
|Accompaniment:||Piano or handbells|
|Tempo:||Meditatively, Dotted half = 40 (Written in 3/4; should feel as if in 1)|
|Publisher:||Hickory Street Publishing|
|Further descriptions and details, including program 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.