18 August 2009

Bless the Lord, O My Soul

As a result of a Boston-area choir director asking after the piece
[ link ], Bless the Lord, O My Soul (the four-part version, Opus 32a) is now available at Lux Nova Press [ link ].

Lux Nova Press having contracted the piece (de facto), all varieties of the piece are encompassed in the contract, so in principle, an SAB octavo should be in the pipeline ere long. The anthem is originally for three-part choir (I composed it for the choir of the First Congregational Church in Woburn, at a time when the body of the choir wavered between sopranos, altos & men and sopranos, altos & Karl). This three-part choral score must be among the first scores I essayed in Finale (lots of typographical crudities, some of which will be on sheepish display, presently); the piece may also have been the very first piece of mine sung by the choir of the Cathedral Church of St Paul (Episcopal) here in Boston, while it was yet under the glorious leadership of Mark Engelhardt. Mark always had a competent and musical four-part choir; and at this distance in time, I don’t recall at all how it is he agreed to take on this piece as a three-parter.

It was the first piece of mine ever to be performed in Boston, of course I wanted to go hear the performance! But (IIRC) the service was in February, and that morning there was heavy-ish snowfall. After the event, I had the thought of adding in a tenor part, making it a four-part setting, and therefore better suited still to the St Paul’s choir. I think, though, that it was not until Mark left the Cathedral for another position (Grace Church in Salem) that the four-part version was sung at St Paul’s. Which is to say, it is one of the first of my own pieces which I put to use, when I accepted the appointment of Interim Choir Director.

It was refreshing and interesting to return to close examination of the piece in preparing the Lux Nova SATB edition; and looking over the nine-year-old Finale file of the SAB original, I was perforce reminded of some few minor alterations I must have made en route to the SATB.

But — enough of the boring words! Bring on the interesting pictures!

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A great portion of the adjustments to the score, must have been a result of having sung for some years with the Cathedral choir, myself: where I wanted breaths at the ends of phrases, I notated in rests. (The above illustration is actually a rare instance of my having done that in the original draughts.) My source-scores in Finale are, without any properly mitigating excuse, in open score; so that the original three-part score runs to 10 pages . . . waste, waste, waste. The wasted space is partly a result of using three staves where two would be ample; partly, the rehearsal keyboard reduction (which a closed score would render redundant).

My inexperience with Finale (and its clunkiness) in those days appears in, among other things: the word extender after bless which crowds His in m.6; and the crescendo hairpins which are colliding with slurs. Oh, the shame, the shame . . . .

Moving on to more musical adjustments (not that the typography is unimportant):

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Looks better, and takes up much less space. Enough said.

(Bear in mind that we are comparing three- and four-voice settings of the same piece, so, as differences run, the additional voice in the tenor is a given.)

At an early point, a couple of phrase-endings which ran just a bit long, got trimmed; so here, two measures of 2/4 became one measure of 3/4.

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There’s another cadence I had drawn out too long. I suppose I had meant a kind of madrigalism by drawing out the values for the word forever; but, no, it was de trop.

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The cadence is improved not only by halving the rhythmic values, but the change in bass note on the second syllable of forever from B to A strengthens the harmonic motion. For the passage after the double-bar, no good solution presented itself for adding a tenor line; I decided to leave that stretch of the piece as a three-voice texture, which made for two happy discoveries: the tenor ‘overhang’ from the end of the previous phrase; and then, since the passage beginning For as the heavens are high above the earth is at fortissimo, adding the tenor at that point, after a three-voice texture, was musically fortuitous.

(Included at the top of that example is, quite by chance, I assure you, Gentle Reader, one of my favorite moments in the setting: the close voicing of He will not always chide, which stays close — and therefore gets a shade richer — with the addition of the tenor.)

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The two things to note here, are that I do not indicate any change in tempo, and the cadence is quite simple.

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The addition of the tenor made for this adjustment, which is one of my favorite bits in the piece: the ascending scale into the Phrygian cadence (which Paul Cienniwa calls my “Hovhaness moment” — at the time, in fact, I hardly knew any of Hovhaness’ music, but my ears had been steeped in Russian Liturgical music, and many of the modal inflections are shared with the Armenian Liturgical music which was such a strong part of Hovhaness’ background). The tenor begins with a quarter-note appoggiatura E (dissonant against the F in the soprano, and resolving down to D); and in the course of the tenor ascent, they switch their dissonant roles . . . on the very downbeat of m.97, it is the tenor line with the F, and the appoggiatura E is in the soprano.

This Lux Nova edition generated an occasion to make a minor ‘repair’, too. For years, in the four-part version, the entire scale was in the added tenor part; I left the alto as it was in the SAB original, moving in the cadence from A to G#. Where that was no problem in the alto in the three-part texture, that low G# is in a hushed stretch of the alto range . . . yet the important G# note is theirs, which they are struggling to have sound against the tenors, who were a minor third higher, singing quite a strong B. Here at last, that imbalance is addressed, the voices are switched so that they are in natural relation one to another, and the chord sounds better, with less labor.

I believe that even before I worked with the St Paul’s choir in this piece, I had decided that the last phrase must be at a slightly more deliberate pace. I may well have got that idea when we first sang it at First Church in Woburn, though with so few voices, asking them to slow that phrase down a tad must have been quite trying.

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