Composition for your Church Choir

Composition can be a lonely occupation. Images of composers living on dry bread in garrets spring to mind, although many church composers have been well-paid and well-fed.

Much music was born of necessity. Bach had to produce music for different combinations of musicians each week, often at short notice. Palestrina had to write music for the new liturgy (yes, they had that problem in the Sixteenth Century too!) in order to survive the changes. So did William Byrd. These masters were geniuses, but they were also skilled craftsmen, for that is what 95% of composition is – a craft.

So how do you craft a choral music composition for the liturgy? While you must develop your own “voice” and musical language, there are practical guidelines all composers need to follow, whether they’re Bach, Palestrina … or you.

First the Words …

Firstly, you need a text. Strange to say, despite the billions of religious words that have been written through the ages, they aren’t that easy to find! Composers need texts which speak to them, which call forth a deep response from mind and soul. If the words mean nothing to you, you’ll find it next to impossible to write a great choral composition.

Take time looking for your text, and always be on the lookout for good ones. They needn’t be liturgical or even biblical – there’s much fine religious poetry and prose, there are prayers, and also some excellent hymns. Many composers write their own words and this can be an excellent way of proceeding – not least because it gets you out of any copyright complications. Steer clear of copyright texts unless you are certain that the copyright owner will allow their use in your composition.

In the European Union copyright lasts for 70 years after a writer’s death. Other countries have different laws – in the USA it’s 70 years after the original publication of a piece. So you see you must check up for your own area.

Even the official words of the liturgy aren’t necessarily free of copyright. You’ll need to check for your own Church. So you may not have the option that Bach and Palestrina did of simply setting the words of the service! You don’t want to spend months on a composition only to discover that permission for performance is withheld. And I’ve seen this happen.

If you’re writing for the liturgy ensure that you know exactly where your piece will fit in and what length it should be. The length of your composition is crucial if you want it to receive regular repeat performances.

.. then the Music

When you’ve found your text consider the musical side of the composition. What forces are you writing for? The larger they are the more difficult it will be to get a performance. Unless you’re very well known, or have been commissioned, don’t compose a piece for three six-part choirs and five grand pianos – it won’t be performed! You must be practical – to start with, a composition for SATB and organ or piano is best.

Some general suggestions: if you’re writing for voices make sure that your composition is singable and vocal. What can be played easily on the piano is often impossible for a singer to sing. So when you’ve written a line, try and sing it yourself. And if it’s very difficult – change it! Avoid awkward jumps and intervals. And give the singers time to breathe … especially important to remember if you’re an organist. As Stravinsky once remarked of the organ, “The monster never breathes!”

Explore the full vocal range, but don’t keep the singers at the extremes of their registers for long periods. Here are the normal, practical ranges:

Sopranos: middle C to A an octave and a sixth above
Altos: G below middle C to D a ninth above middle C
Tenors: C an octave below middle C to G a fifth above middle C
Basses: G an octave and four notes below middle C to middle C

When composing for tenors write their notes an octave above what you wish them to sing. If you want middle C write the C above, and always write in the G clef for tenors.

If you do keep a line high, give the singers concerned a good rest afterwards. Suit your lines to the accentuation of the words. Choose the easiest vowels for high notes – ah and ee are best. And take care to avoid difficult consonants on high notes. If you take your sopranos to a high A, set it to an ah vowel sound and make it part of a longer phrase which has all been set to the ah sound.

If you’re going in for choral composition then you’ll need a comprehensive working knowledge of the mechanics of singing. So it’s a good idea for a choral composer to sing in a choir for a longish period, to get first-hand experience of choral singing. For the same reason, when you’ve completed your first readable draft have a singer friend look at your composition to see if there are any landmines. Listen to their advice – it could save hours in rehearsal.

Let’s get started with the Composition

Now, to start your composition, return to your text and see if it suggests any music to you. Look at it from the point of view of word-painting. See where the climaxes will come – but don’t overdo them. And are the words happy or sad, joyful, or exultant? Match your music to the mood of the words, and hear your composition spring from the text.

Work out what rhythms will fit your words. You’ll be spending some time on this, so don’t accept the first rhythm that comes to mind. Experiment, and devise rhythmic patterns which relate to and complement each other.

When you begin your composition don’t sit around waiting for inspiration – it doesn’t work that way! Improvise on the piano or another favourite instrument until you get an idea, but the sooner you start putting “blots on paper” the better. Use a pencil and have a rubber handy.

Musician and writer Hans Keller once needed a rubber, and called across the crowded room to Martin Dalby. Martin immediately produced a handful of erasers from his pocket. “How did you know he’d have a rubber?” Hans Keller was asked. “Martin is a composer,” he replied with his characteristic smile, “Composers always carry rubbers!”

Daily Discipline

Work out a disciplined approach which suits you, and you will increase your productivity tenfold. I always set myself a daily target of 30 bars at least. If they aren’t any good I can always tear them up on the following day! If you follow this procedure you will soon have a sizeable composition.

Some general tips: As a choral composer you’ll listen to contemporary choral music – both church music and secular – and study the scores of other composers. An understanding of counterpoint is essential – so go to a good teacher. If you intend to do a lot of composition invest in a computer programme like Sibelius to ensure that your finished product looks good. It doesn’t take long to get the hang of this – even if you have two left thumbs when it comes to computers!

Always keep in mind the prospect of performance and ask yourself “How can I get my composition sung?” You’ll either need your own choir or you could try and find a conductor friend who will sing it with his or her own group. If you submit your composition to a publisher send a recording of it along with the sheet music. Ensure that the score is readable – ideally printed – and the recording’s of a reasonable standard.

Composition is a demanding and lonely process and experience is essential. The more choirs you can persuade to sing your music, the quicker you’ll learn. Music exists in performance and not as notes on paper, and there’s no substitute for hearing your music sung (and there’s nothing like it!). Once you’ve developed your own disciplined approach you will eventually produce a composition which will give great pleasure to all who hear it.

Maybe you’ll become as prolific and famous as our heroes Bach and Palestrina … hopefully you’ll have some jam for your bread!

These articles may also be of interest to you:

Composing for a Congregation – Composing for a Congregaion – some pointers

Rhythm and Aural Training – Sight-reading – Rhythm and Aural Training

Choosing your Wedding Music – Your Wedding – how to choose the Wedding Music you want

Symbol and Memory – Sight-reading – Symbol and Memory

Sight-reading – Sight-reading – How it’s done