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Musical Musings: Miscellaneous

Why Don't You Write More Often?

by Gary D. Penkala

The summer months afford many opportunities for the church musician: reading, planning, attending classes and workshops, visiting other churches. One area often neglected by even the most competent musicians is composition. Why should you wait for the perfect anthem, psalm or hymn to come along? Try your hand at writing music -- it's not as difficult as it may seem, although it requires time and patience.

Consider the advantages of writing your own music. Who knows better than you the various musical resources of your parish? When you're writing the music you can fit it perfectly to your situation, to exploit the strengths and avoid the weaknesses. If your youth choir has trouble singing notes above D, avoid them. If your young trebles can soar to a high A, use them. If you have no tenors, substitute a baritone part for the tenor part, or combine all the men on one part. If the blend of your bass section sounds like the glorious chant of a European monastery, use it.

Fit the music to the tastes of your particular choirs. You know what your choir likes, and rather than just searching for it, you can create it. If a special liturgy will occur next year, now is the time to start planning for it. When difficulties arise in finding suitable music for such occasions, that's the time for an original composition.

Composing is not an effortless flow of notes from pen to page, introduction to coda, all at one sitting. It usually requires several sessions at the piano with, perhaps, much time in between. When viewed in an organized, orderly manner, the task of composing is not quite so daunting. The following are some suggestions for the beginning composer (at least minimal theory knowledge is assumed).

  • Before beginning to write, the form of the piece must be clearly outlined in words. Clues can often be taken from the text. If word groups are repeated, perhaps the music should repeat. If the text is in verse form, the musical form is already somewhat defined. This working outline should specify who sings what, what happens between verses, whether the key should change. Some liturgical music shows clear form distinctions: Kyrie, Responsorial Psalm, Gospel Acclamation, Sanctus, Agnus Dei. Others are not so clear: Gloria, processionals, hymns. Before beginning to compose, you should know in general terms just what will happen in each section of your work.
  • Work in sections. Don't think about writing all the way to the end of the piece. Just finish one section at a time. From your outline you will have a general idea of the whole work, but don't make your immediate goals too large. Even Handel didn't sit down to write an oratorio. He merely wrote arias and choruses that fit very well together.
  • The best place to start is not necessarily the beginning -- start with the most basic component of your work. If you're writing a responsorial psalm, start with the antiphon. If you're writing a hymn arrangement, start with the basic harmonization of the tune.
  • When you've got your basic component where you want it, expand from there in either direction. Or even skip sections and return. If your working outline is good, the pieces should fit together.
  • Always review what you've done. This is very important for continuity. Even if you've written the ending first, review it -- you'll know where you're heading. During composition you lose concept of time, due to the tedium of writing down the notes. Reviewing what you've written gives you an overview, a chance to hear it in "real time."
  • Rewrite when necessary. Don't be afraid to change your mind. Replace, rearrange or omit sections if that better suits the outcome.
  • When you're finished writing, sing through the voice parts or have them sung. This will bring to light any awkward spots (intervals, text underlay, breathing) that may have been missed in the piano renditions.
The easiest form in which to start composing is the hymn arrangement (as an anthem for choir) or a responsorial psalm (for cantor and congregation). In both cases the text and form are generally clearly defined.

In choosing a hymn to arrange as a choir anthem, I prefer to select a tune which is not familiar to the congregation. It is very difficult to be creative in writing an anthem based on a tune that everyone can sing in his sleep. After selecting the tune, make a working outline indicating introduction, interludes, verse harmonization and scoring. If you have more than one choir a hymn arrangement is a great opportunity for combined singing. Have each choir sing a verse (using different voicings and accompaniments) with all singing the last verse. At my parish we have had great success with an arrangement of Christ Is the King! (tune- Gelobet sei Gott) for all our choirs, each verse being tailored to the specific choir singing it.

In the area of responsorial psalmody the key word is simplicity. The antiphon must be readily sung and remembered by the congregation and the music for the verses, while allowing for creativity, must not obscure the important element, the text. The melody and accompaniment of the verses, as well as the antiphon, must be appropriate to the nature of the psalm: praise, supplication, history, etc.

Reading this article (or even a great textbook) will not make you a master composer. Analysis of good music, as to form and content, is helpful, but practice is essential. You must write to learn to write.

CanticaNOVA Publications is always looking for new music that furthers our goal of providing "Traditional Music for the Contemporary Church." If you feel you've written some liturgical music that might be valuable to other musicians, consider submitting it to us for publication consideration. Guidelines may be found at: Submit your music.

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