By John C. Hughes
Composer Tim Blickhan doesn’t necessarily write music to earn a living. Having recently retired after 35 years of teaching music theory and composition at Northern Illinois University, where he also served as coordinator of Graduate Studies and assistant director of the School of Music, he is more focused on having his compositions performed. To that end, he makes his compositions available for free on the Choral Public Domain Library (www3.cpdl.org/wiki/index.php/Tim_Blickhan). In exchange, he simply asks conductors to notify him of performances of his works (his contact information is found at the link above).
A quick search for “Tim Blickhan” on YouTube reveals that choirs around the world are taking advantage of this opportunity and offering fine performances his music. As budgets continue to get smaller, free access to high quality, versatile works such as Blickhan’s are quite valuable. A talented singer and choir director in his own right, Blickhan’s choral writing is idiomatic, and he only chooses texts of the highest quality. Ranging from works for children’s choirs to advanced pieces accessible only to the most expert ensembles, Blickhan’s output can fit into any program.
Commissioned in 2011 by the CSA Children’s Choir and their conductor, Mary Lynn Doherty, “Weave Me a Poem” is a setting of a poem by Eric Ode. Blickhan captures the text’s whimsy and sincerity through his tuneful melody and syllabic text setting. The strophic form helps make the piece accessible to children’s choirs, and the only divisi is in an additional part on the final refrain. Blickhan shifts meters (the verses are in duple, and the refrain is in triple) and modulates at the very end, which can help introduce young singers to these concepts. The piano accompaniment not only supports the singers and also adds dramatic depth.
Composed for the Northern Illinois Children’s Chorus, Blickhan’s setting of William Blake’s famous poem works well for both children’s choirs and advanced treble choruses. Aided by piano, the vocal writing is fairly straightforward. Centered on thirds and incorporating some unison, the choir does not sing in three-part harmony for the entire work. “The Lamb” might be a good introduction to three-part writing for emerging choirs. There are several short solos that can be used to feature exemplary students. Although the text is sometimes interpreted as a Christmas poem, consider programming this beautiful piece on any upcoming concert.
Just recently completed, “Bakerwoman God” adds a much-needed breath of fresh air to the repertory for women’s choirs. While many new pieces sound similar, Blickhan’s setting of Alla Renée Bozarth’s mystic poem is a welcomed change. To musically capture the deeply spiritual poem, Blickhan alternates between imitative textures, which create an organic soundscape, and homophonic textures, which steadfastly declaim the text. The repetition in the piano is almost trancelike. As I’ve mentioned in previous articles, I am a dedicated advocate of music for women’s choirs that sets empowering texts that are about more than flowers and love. In this powerful piece, Blickhan meets these criteria with his unique compositional voice.
Not for the faint of heart, Blickhan’s unaccompanied setting of the traditional Latin “Ave Maria” text is quite difficult. The piece begins with the first sopranos singing the Gregorian chant while the other parts hum tone clusters centered on the whole-tone scale. The piece progresses through two very fast sections that contain many metrical shifts. The piece ends with a return to chant-like material from the beginning. A successful performance of this work will require solid intonation (especially with all the whole-tone material!) and strong rhythmic and melodic independence within each of the four sections. However, the piece will repay hard work in its originality and vitality.
I love starting concerts with fast, rhythmic pieces with which the choir will undoubtedly succeed. Blickhan’s contribution to the oft-set Psalm 98 genre is the perfect opener. The vocal parts are easily learned and employ a fair amount of unison writing. The piano part adds significant interest with its dance rhythms. I would recommend this piece for any mixed choir. From early high school singers through advanced adult choirs, ensembles and audiences alike will enjoy this work.
“Et Egredietur Virga”
A setting of the Isaiah’s prophecy (Isaiah 11:1-2), this Advent/Christmas work offers an up tempo addition to any seasonal program. Alternating between 3/4, 3/8, 6/8, 2/4, and 7/8, the frequent metrical shifts create excitement. Blickhan also alternates between different choral textures to create contrast. Using repeated material and some unison writing, this piece is quickly learned. The piano accompaniment helps maintain the rhythmic drive and supports the choir’s intonation. “Et egredietur virga” and “Cantate Domino” (discussed earlier) are part of a set of four Latin-texted works. The two remaining compositions, “Dolor Meus” and “Laudate Dominum,” are also excellent, and performing the four pieces as a set is quite effective.
“Life Has Loveliness To Sell” won the 2013 ACDA Illinois Choral Composition Contest. A setting of a poem by Sara Teasdale, this piece would work nicely for a high school graduation ceremony because the text reflects on life’s journey. Blickhan uses a through-composed form, homophonic textures, and syllabic text setting to draw the listener’s attention to the text. Not overly long or difficult, the piece shares a wonderful message.
I was pleased to conduct the world premier of this work several years ago, and I can honestly say it’s the only time I’ve conducted a piece that calls for wine glasses! That part is easy – all you need to do is fill three wine glasses with the amount of water needed to produce three tones, which are sustained through portions of the piece. The vocal parts are more difficult. There are many tempo and meter changes, and each section of the choir needs to be truly independent. Blickhan’s setting captures the stark beauty of Herman Hagedorn’s poetry.
A setting of Sara Teasdale’s poetry, Blickhan’s “There Will Come Soft Rains” employs polyphonic textures and rich harmonies to create a deep soundscape. Similar to a ballad, conductors are granted significant artistic license in the sections approaching the many cadences notated with fermati. To capture the text, Blickhan frequently shifts meters. Only accessible to experienced ensembles, the piece requires four-part divisi within the women’s sections.