By John Charles Hughes
As an ensemble director, I’m always looking for ways to help students draw connections between music and history. Because all art (including music) is reflective of the time and place within which it is produced, understanding historical context is crucial to giving an informed performance. Programming music based on anniversaries of historical events or composers’ birth or death years is an easy way to make the connection between repertoire and history. 2014 is an anniversary year for many composers and historical events, and I hope you find these suggestions useful. Most importantly, I hope you use this or other repertoire to add historical perspective to your rehearsals.
“The Closed Town”
WW II began in 1939, 75 years ago. This war saw one of human history’s greatest atrocities: the Holocaust. It is important to teach students about the Nazis’ deplorable acts so that humanity never forgets what occurred. In 1991, Robert Convery wrote a multi-movement cantata called Songs of Children to explore the war’s effect on children, specifically those in concentration camps. Most of the movements call for piano, violin, viola, and cello; however, this movement is scored only for piano. “The Closed Town” juxtaposes the image of a bleak, war-ravaged town with hauntingly beautiful music. The piece is sung in unison by SATB voices over a repetitive, trance-like piano accompaniment. Because of the exposed nature of the vocal writing, solid intonation and sense of ensemble are required. “The Closed Town” can be purchased separately from the entire cantata.
2014 marks the 80th anniversary of the death of the great English composer Sir Edward Elgar (1857–1934). A master of melody, Elgar’s “The Snow” has long been a favorite for treble ensembles. Both women’s and children’s choirs can successfully perform this work. The expressivity required in this piece will challenge students to truly sing the melodic line. The song is made even more beautiful by the lush accompaniment for two violins and piano. The haunting melodies of “The Snow” will make an impression on both performers and audiences.
arr. Steve Zegree
Irving Berlin (1888–1989) died 25 years ago. A tremendous influence on 20th-century American music, few people know that Berlin was born in Russia. Students will thoroughly enjoy Steve Zegree’s arrangement of Berlin’s most famous song, “Blue Skies.” Introduce swing to your choral ensembles, or perfect the jazz style with your vocal jazz ensemble. Either way, performing this piece is a great way to teach students about one of the great American songwriters. “Blue Skies” is also available in an SATB arrangement.
Taken from his cantata King Olaf, Elgar’s “As Torrents in Summer” has a four-part, hymn-like texture. The notes and rhythms of this piece are easily learned, which allows ensembles to spend more time rehearsing musical ideas. Conductors will enjoy shaping phrases, and ensembles should strive for unison vowels and text expression. “As Torrents in Summer” has two sections, the second of which is an almost-identical repetition of the first. The final bass note (EH) may be too low for some singers, but do not hesitate to transpose it up an octave if necessary.
Two Spanish Carols
Born in 1939, the English composer Andrew Carter turns 75 in 2014. His music is frequently performed throughout the world, and he has received many commissions from the United States. In this set, Carter tastefully arranges two traditional Spanish Christmas carols for unaccompanied choir. Both are accessible and would fit nicely into many programs. Each arrangement allows for soprano soli, but a portion of the section could also sing these lines. In the second arrangement, the choir, imitating a Spanish guitar, accompanies the soloist. Well written, these pieces could quickly become an annual tradition for your choir.
Three Stephen Foster Portraits
arr. Edwin Fissinger
Stephen Foster (1826–1864), whose name is synonymous with Americana, died 125 years ago. Foster captured the American spirit so much so that many people assume his compositions are part of the folk tradition. This octavo contains three arrangements of Foster tunes by the great American choral composer Edwin Fissinger (1920–1990): “Laura Lee,” “Oh! Susanna,” and “Gentle Annie.” These songs are important to America’s musical heritage, and students are increasingly unfamiliar with these songs. Fissinger’s arrangements are straightforward and supported by piano accompaniments. Feel free to perform the entire set or simply excerpt one; my favorite is “Gentle Annie.”
Fifty years ago this year, The Beatles led the “British Invasion” with their performance on the The Ed Sullivan Show. Although hysteria surrounds today’s pop groups, The Beatles were the first to enjoy such widespread success. This arrangement of “In My Life” by Roger Emerson features a soloist over the choir singing nonsense syllables. Emerson tastefully captures the piece’s signature instrumental break in an homage to the Swingle Singers. Embrace Beatlemania, and incorporate cultural history into your rehearsals of this piece.
“Let the People Praise Thee O God”
2014 marks the 80th anniversary of the birth of William Mathias (1934–1992), a skilled composer and organist. Mathias was commissioned to compose a special anthem for the wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana in 1981. Undoubtedly his most famous work, “Let the People Praise Thee O God,” the product of this commission, displays all the grandeur of nobility. The work is quite challenging: it has significant dissonance, is fairly long, and a superb organist is required. However, this piece will be very appreciated, especially given the renewed interest in the British royal family.
Matthew Michaels made a wonderful edition of this piece by Hans Leo Hassler (1564–1612), who was born 450 years ago. Many conductors are familiar with Hassler’s Cantate Domino and “Tanzen und Springen,” but “Ihr Musici, Frisch auf!,” a rollicking, spirit-filled piece, is worth knowing, too. Students will enjoy the dance rhythms, interplay between sections, and metrical shift. Consult the King’s Singers’ performance of this piece on their Madrigal History Tour recordings to grasp the Renaissance style. This piece would make a statement at a festival or contest.
John C. Hughes is a versatile choral musician and pedagogue, drawing from experience as a K-12 teacher, collegiate conductor, and church musician. Presently, Hughes is a candidate for the D.M.A. in Choral Conducting and Pedagogy at The University of Iowa and serves as music director at a local church. Please contact him directly via his website: www.johnchughes.com.