summer’s end, or the “vision thing”

Well, it’s September 1 and I don’t know where the last couple of weeks of August went. I’ve written a couple of small compositions, but that didn’t take long. I’ve started settling in to my new church position, leading up to my first choir rehearsal last night. I’d already met several times with the contemporary group; both offer some wonderful possibilities. So, as a composer, what else was I supposed to do but write a piece of music for each ensemble?

The Praise Team won’t probably start on the piece I wrote for them for another few weeks, so I’ll hold off on saying much more about that piece, other than that it has been a while since I’ve written for guitars and voices. It was fun, and initially easier than my more traditionally-based writing. But I keep tweaking things, working for a smoother chord progression, developing an arrangement of what is otherwise a pretty standard chorus/verse alternation. As is typical of this sort of writing, the piece won’t really assume any final form until after the group has made it its own.

For the Chancel Choir I wrote a short piece setting Be Thou My Vision, usually sung to the hymn tune Slane. I decided to do this because I came across a neat organ piece on the tune by Eric Thiman (1900-1975), an English composer. Even though I’m playing a small, Baroque-oriented organ, this piece retains a nice combination of intimacy and grandeur that I just plain like. One of our musical groups usually does an introit or musical call to worship directly after the prelude, so the idea of following Thiman’s piece with some sort of choral setting captured my imagination.

Finding the right way to start the piece was a problem, however. Thiman’s piece provided a perfect intro (if you can have a 4-minute intro to a 1-minute piece!), ending simply and quietly. I envisioned the choir starting from almost nothing and then growing in texture and loudness. But the hymn tune harmonization is so well done that finding my own paraphrase wasn’t working. I finally got the idea of moving the first couple of notes of the second measure up, rather than following the contour of the tune. An hour later, the piece was done.

It was great hearing the piece at rehearsal. The choir picked it up easily, even with a very spare accompaniment underneath. After going through the tune for a verse, the piece moves into a canonic treatment of my modification of the opening line. The organ provides a low pedal tone under the canon, with a descending 4-measure chord progression (that just means that there is a sense of motion, but also a sense of calm as the chord pattern repeats and the pedal tone holds things together in the background).

It may have been a little brave–or foolhardy–to write and program a new piece for a group I’d never rehearsed, but a look at the choir library gave me an idea of their ability. I’m quite pleased, and hope to be able to share this piece with some of my colleagues. I’m all charged up with summer’s end, and looking forward to a productive, musical fall.

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