Daughters Of Rachel

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The Magnificat! What a text. It makes you think there was a lot more to Mary than meekness and mildness!

I am writing a piece for Downtown Presbyterian Church’s Lessons and Carols. Because the church has this stunning Egyptian Revival Architecture I was inspired to write about when the Holy Family fled to Egypt, escaping the massacre of the innocents.

How was it for Mary, hiding in a cave, holding on to her baby? Was she haunted by the thought of the mothers who were left behind? Did their cries come to her in her sleep? If Rachel wept from the dead, surely her voice travelled to Egypt?

We don’t have a car in the US yet, so I’m walking a lot. I walked for days thinking about Mary and the Magnificat. This experience of being a refuge in a cave with a baby, and she was only a girl herself! How this must have stealed her mind to the way she would raise her son.

I have been thinking about what writing an anthem means. Anthems are sung by church choirs. Often competent readers and singers. Maybe drawn from the congregation, maybe paid singers, likely a mixture of both. Church choirs are working choirs. They have a performance each week so there just isn’t a great deal of time for rehearsal. Anthems need to be written with this in mind. I have found it hard to put into words what this means exactly, but it basically requires that the song doesn’t have features that take getting used to, to sing well. Exotic chord changes that work because during rehearsal you get the feel for how the harmony sounds as a whole. That’s a brave move for an anthem. Or phrase shaping that relies on singers really knowing the piece. I was describing this to Emlyn - and he was saying that like Shakespeare, I need to write with no subtext! That is a good way to describe it, and it’s quite different from writing for community choirs - anthems will be read, by good readers. I’ve found this quite challenging to be honest. It’s a new angle.

The music has been hard. One by one I’ve been disgarding the ideas I started with, as the song has slowly emerged. This has taken some time. I have been working on this piece for weeks, and have only started to feel like it was going to work, two days ago. It started in 6/8 and felt crowded and rushed. I put it in 6/4. Normally I prefer the softness of note seven a tone below the tonic, but I had to face that this was getting oppressive and perhaps a major chord V was going to bring some welome light to the piece. The tune I started with wasn’t working - it didn’t translate to a choral setting - so I threw half of that away yesterday. And now the 6/4 doesn’t always allow the singers to express the words, so that has gone too. The more I’ve given away of what I originally wanted, the better the piece is working. But it’s been a wrestle. Every time this happens, which honestly is most times I create anything, I wonder - have I peaked? is it all down hill from here? Maybe. One day. I’ll reserve judgement til I finish this one, but I think I’m still ok.

Now I need to go over every part with a fine tooth comb to make sure each part is good to sing, and good to sightsing. I have one thought I wanted to share on this. In my experience when a note that is suddenly sharpened a semitone as part of some harmonic movement, it is easier for singers to pitch if they descend to the new note. Rising to a recently sharpened note is harder and likely to be flat or insecure. For example, a tierce de picardie moment will be easier for the folks singing the brightened, major third to find it by falling a semitone. Hmmm. Maybe this isn’t such a good example because singers tend to know and recognise this harmonic movement and will be secure whatever you do, but if there are other places with sharpened notes, I think it will be easier for singers to fall to them, when they come across them for the first time in a piece.