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Repertoire Forum: New Holiday Music

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Each of the past two years, I have undertaken an effort to come into contact with every new choral publication printed in the United States by a major publishing house (a significant task!). I then categorize each work into Holiday, Concert, Cross-Cultural or American Heritage. This issue includes reviews of works especially well suited for holiday concerts, with a variety of voicings and difficulties represented. You won’t find in my column a lot of pieces that are in the public eye, such as pop arrangements from the “Glee” series, or viral videos easily available on YouTube; I figure that you will find out about those yourself or from your students. My focus here are those hidden gems that you sometimes have to hunt to find. – Drew Collins

TREBLE (EASY)

Jubilate! Bells Are Ringing (arr. E. Foncannon) – pub. Pavane

This is a cute selection for developing choirs, sixth grade and younger. It is scored for two-part chorus and piano, with optional handbells and c-instrument. The part-writing is ideal for young singers, including canon and quodlibet. The bell-like hymn melody, “Hark the Vesper Hymn,” forms the bulk of the piece, and is combined later with “The First Nowell.” The text is in Latin and English, and provides a good introduction to singing in Latin for uninitiated singers. A sample of the entire score and front-to-back sound file are both available, but in different places on the internet, so you will need to do some searching to review the piece.

How Far Is It To Bethlehem? (arr. M. Ijames) – pub. SoundForth

SoundForth specializes in church choral music. As this column focuses on school music, the style of most church-oriented publishers does not typically lend itself to what readers of this column have come to expect. However, there is an occasional “cross-over” selection from such a publisher appropriate for public school use. This arrangement is one such work. This is a traditional English Christmas carol scored for two-part treble voices with piano accompaniment. It is straightforward, with interest gained from some gentle hemiolae in the piano.

TREBLE (MEDIUM & DIFFICULT)

How Like a Winter (R. M. Gray) – pub. Alfred

Ruth Morris Gray has a talent for setting complex poems to simple melodies, making distinguished texts available to all ages. This is one reason that her music is so popular (for example, her Ask Me No More on a text of Tennyson, pub. Lawson-Gould). In this case, she turns her attention to the rarely set Sonnet 97 by Shakespeare. This is not necessarily a holiday text, except that it mentions winter, freezing, and December, which Shakespeare uses as similes (such as the opening line, “How like a winter hath my absence been From thee…”) and metaphors. So, like the many settings for choir of Shakespeare’s “Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind,” this new release by Gray will certainly be heard at holiday concerts and year round. It is scored for SSA choir and piano, with an SAB voicing available as well; I hope down the road publisher and composer consider making available versions for SATB and TTB choirs. Difficulty level is easy to medium, and is appropriate for 9th grade and higher, or perhaps 8th grade depending on your group. The SAB voicing is a good choice for older mixed groups that lack tenors. The minor melody is simple which is not meant as a slight. Composers often over-think Shakespeare as if it is to be conquered rather than merely glossed and Gray spins it in creative ways. The arpeggiated accompaniment is not demanding and assumes a support role.

Ave Maria (Angelus Domini) (F. Biebl) – pub. Hinshaw

Biebl’s Ave Maria has been a favorite of male choruses since the 1970s. In the 47 years following its composition, it has done what relatively few pieces have: earned a place in the repertory. It has been recorded by Chanticleer, Robert Shaw, Dale Warland, Harvard Glee Club, and many others. As happens with most popular pieces, additional voicings have been made available. Originally for male voices, it later became available in two different mixed chorus voicings. This year, a superb SSAA voicing has become available. It is not clear if the composer supervised the re-voicing himself (he passed in 2001), if Matthew Oltman arranged it, or if someone else did it. Regardless, it works very well in this voicing, and I recommend it. There are plenty of low F’s for the alto II, and the choral parts divide to five voices on occasion. And, of course, you will need three angelic soloists (SSA).

MALE CHORUS

We Three Kings (Brubeck, arr. Robinson) – pub. Carl Fisher

Part quodlibet, part contrafactum, Robinson has cleverly married the text and melody of We Three Kings of Orient Are with Dave Brubeck’s jazz standard, Take Five. Of course, this necessitated that the melody should be converted to 5/4, which will provide a neat challenge for your male chorus. Your audience will love it, too, but it should be introduced and explained from the stage to ensure the connection is made. Visit www.CarlFischer.com for a free score sample, beginning-to-end recording, and part-predominant MP3s.

MIXED (EASY & MEDIUM)

Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow (Spiritual, arr. N. Garris) – pub. Hinshaw

Garris has arranged this spiritual in gospel style, complete with piano accompaniment. It is part of André Thomas’s choral series, and the piano part has Dr. Thomas’s touch. The moments of soft dynamics and legato articulation provide momentary contrast to the rhythmic groove of the rest of the piece. To maximize this, pay special attention to the crescendos in mm.26, 30, and similar. The texture is responsorial: a soloist sings a line, and the choir responds. This happens throughout, thereby providing opportunities for between 2-12 soloists. The style allows for adding bass and/or drum set, but the arrangement stands on its own without doing so.

Gaudete! (arr. Burrows) – pub. Heritage

Mark Burrows has taken the familiar sixteenth-century carol and dressed it up for modern audiences. It is rhythmic, fun to sing, and keeps the ancient feel of the original, but Burrows still finds ways to vary the source material in engaging ways. It is scored for SSATB and percussion. There is a lot of changing meter, but it all has a natural feel to it that is at least somewhat logical for the singers, while still keeping the listeners on their toes. The percussion and introductory/interlude material in the voices add a lot to this classic melody.

MIXED (ADVANCED)

Lullay My Liking (S. Chatman) – pub. ECS

This setting of the Medieval English Christmas poem lends itself perfectly to the choral instrument. (Gustav Holst has a classic setting of this same text that is great for chamber choirs.) Chatman’s setting calls for three treble soli, low Cs in the bass, and is in Dorian mode, but is nonetheless within reach of advanced high school choirs. It demands a lot on the audience, as it is quite placid and haunting. Decide in advance if you want the first syllable pronounced “lul” or “lool.” There is an optional accompaniment that may be played either on harp or piano. Review a score and sound file at www.ECSpublishing.com.

Behold, I Bring You Glad Tidings (Gibbons, ed. Giardiniere) – pub. Hinshaw

The “verse anthem” was a relatively short-lived phenomenon, and there are few that are today considered “repertory works.” This is a fine example of a verse anthem with appeal for modern audiences. Composers who contributed to this body of literature include Gibbons, Byrd and Purcell. The hallmark of the genre is the contrasting of solo voices with full choir in a single-movement work. It is scored for SSAATB choir with a soloist in each section, accompanied by organ, strings and recorder (the editor has indicated that the strings and recorder are “optional”). Because of the stylistic intricacy, this is really a college-level piece, but could be done well by a top-notch high school or church choir. The burden is on the six soloists: out of 94 measures in the work, scant more than one-third involve the choir. If you hold your holiday or masterworks concert in a church and have access to the organ, consider this work.

Forum editor Drew Collins teaches choral music and music education at Wright State University (Dayton, Ohio). He is active as a festival conductor, author, and composer. Contact him directly at drew@drewcollins.com.

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