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Music About Music

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It seems that composers, publishers, and conductors alike are drawn to music about music. Many composers past and contemporary have written music setting texts about music. Each year, several new works that fall into this category are released. This issue, I offer for your consideration a few ideas of choral works with texts about music.

As usual, this article attempts to touch on old stand-bys as well as new releases. Also, please note the variety of voicings and difficulty levels in the following pieces, which come from a wide range of publishers and composers.
– Drew Collins, forum editor

HANDEL

Let’s Imitate Her Notes (G. F. Handel)
This beloved Handel chorus is the final chorus of Alexander’s Feast or The Power of Musick. It is available in several voicings and editions.

With Voices All Unite (G. F. Handel, arr. Wagner)
This is the final chorus of Handel’s oratorio Samson. For high school and festival choirs, I recommend Wagner’s simplified edition. “Sing and rejoice, with voices all unite. Music forever lives in notes of high delight.”

Music, Spread Thy Voice Around (G. F. Handel)
A chorus from the oratorio Solomon. This is a charming piece in a fast triple meter, which results in a memorable lilt. There are many editions available, and they vary widely. To provide an opportunity for a talented soloist, the recitative Sweep, Sweep the String can precede it, though it is not included in most editions.

PURCELL

Come, Ye Sons of Art (Henry Purcell)
This is the first chorus from Purcell’s 20-minute long, multi-movement ode of the same title (also commonly called “Birthday Ode for Queen Mary”). It is secular, tuneful and has the kind of tune your singers will leave the rehearsal humming. There are several editions of just this movement in Purcell’s original SATB voicing, including one by John Haberlen (SATB; Kjos). Most SATB editions available with this title are actually of the entire ode, and so are quite expensive. The whole ode is worth doing, and completely approachable by a high school choir, but I recommend you download the vocal score, full score and parts for free from cpdl.org. Depending on the edition you use, there will likely be several odd leaps for the voices, however you may find that they are easier to sing than they look. Note that in Purcell’s original SATB voicing, the altos have the melody throughout. Piano alone will work fine, or add trumpet for some color. There are also several re-voicings in print for 2-part treble and 3-part mixed ensembles that work quite well and which your singers will enjoy.

Sound the Trumpet (Henry Purcell)
This is another excerpt from Purcell’s ode Come, Ye Sons of Art. Purcell intended it as a duet, but it is often performed by treble choirs. Teaching tools include free throat on held notes and vocal flexibility.

If Music Be the Food of Love
Purcell’s own SATB arrangement of his solo melody is available for free download from cpdl.org. It is easy, and a good pick for a young madrigal group. Many contemporary composers have set the text as well, including David Dickau (SATB, SSAA, or TTBB; Colla Voce), Michael Larkin (SATB, Alfred), Donald McCullough (SATB; Hinshaw), James Mulholland (SATB; Colla Voce), and others.

CONTEMPORARY

Musica (Matthew Armstrong) pub. Lawson-Gould
Lush harmonies and arching phrases provide a powerful and appropriate backdrop for this centuries-old text: “Music, the highest gift of God, affects mortals, affects gods. Music calms the angry soul and lifts the mournful spirit. Music even stirs the trees and moves wild beasts.” For advanced mixed choirs; note that it is unaccompanied, and that all parts divide. The texture starts out as homophonic, then expands and contracts with the dynamic map, taking the listener on an engaging journey. The opening bar may sound bet if sung by a small group of your best sopranos. Balance the opening chords carefully to achieve the mellifluous effect sought by the composer. The reader is encouraged to explore others of Armstrong’s choral works, available from a variety of publishers. This same text has also been set by Lassus (available for AATBBB, SATB div, and SSA voicings), Dvorak (in a recent SSA arrangement by Robert Sieving, which is quite lovely), and many modern composers including John Rutter and Stephen Chatman.

Music Comes (Ruth Watson Henderson) pub. Roger Dean
Henderson originally wrote this setting of John Freeman’s poem for SSA choir, and published it just a couple of years ago. An SATB voicing has now followed. Both voicings employ piano, flute and oboe parts. Henderson uses the instruments to help depict the text, both in overt and subtle ways. There is great variation from moment to moment as the score progresses (changes in articulation, meter and key) giving the listener an exciting listening experience, yet Henderson finds ways to unify the music.

Cantus In Harmonia (Mack Wilberg) pub. OUP
Prolific and respected composer Mack Wilberg composed this piece over a decade ago.
It is scored for piano four hands (both parts are easy), 3 percussionists, and SATB (with only brief and mild divisi). The text, which uses both Latin and English, is adapted from Alexander Pope’s 18th century poem Ode for Music on St. Cecilia’s Day, while the melody is based on the medieval secular tune “Olim in Armonia”. The scoring, text, and modal feel of the melody give the work an ancient feel.

We Are the Music Makers
There are many settings of this Arthur O’Shaughnessy text (“We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams…Yet we are the movers and shakers of the world for ever, it seems.”). The text seems to evoke vastly different responses from each composer who sets it: tempos and styles vary widely. There are about 20 settings available from traditional publishers for just about every voicing and difficulty! That is far too many to discuss here, so I will simply encourage you to seek out the setting that resonates with you.

A Song For St. Cecelia (Brad Ellingboe) pub. Kjos
This John Dryden text was set by Handel in his Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day. University of New Mexico Director of Choral Activities Bradley Ellingboe has set it masterfully for choir and organ. His setting has a fanfare feeling to it, and would make a great opener.

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