How to Write a Choral Masterpiece

Recently I received an e-mail message from a composition student at a high school who was working on a senior project which required him to write a piece of choral music and to present some information about composing for choruses. He asked if I would mind answering a few questions about how I worked. Since I had a pressing deadline on a piece which was actively resisting my efforts to shape it, I was happy to have an excuse to practice avoidance. Here are his questions, along with my responses. I’m sure this will clear up any mystery about the subject for you…

How do you go about selecting text?

Well, I’ve tried reading tea leaves and chicken entrails, but both are rather messy and results are uneven. What I’ve read most of, however, is poetry. Unfortunately, those results, too, are rather uneven. The truth is, I frequently spend more time trying to find a suitable text than it takes to write the music for the words once they’ve been selected. I try to view this, philosophically, as simply the investment I have to make in order to assure a final product which is up to standard. It’s a bit like prospecting for gold: you have to pass by a lot of mud and gravel before you find anything shiny. It can be a bit discouraging to invest so much time and effort in so unproductive a part of the process.
That said, I persist because it is such a critically important part of the process: if the words don’t “sing” to me, I’m not going to do my best work with them. I really believe that no musical setting, however brilliant, will overcome the deficiencies of an unsuitable text.

Where do you specifically look to find good lyrics?

I read a lot.

Then, I read a lot more.

Sadly, this yields disappointingly little usable material, though I’m always grateful to encounter something that catches my ear.

When a deadline is approaching, however, or when the particular commissioning ensemble has asked for something so specific that I despair of ever finding anything in the literature that says exactly what I’m looking for, then I turn to a collaborator and ask for help. I realize that this is not an option for all composers. In fact, very few have been blessed with an artistic partner who is as talented and understanding as the writer I most frequently work with. I make no attempt to analyze why I have been gifted with this divine partnership, while others, equally deserving and perhaps far more talented than I, are forced to make do without. I simply try not to gloat, as I consider such behavior unseemly…

As my own reputation has grown, I have been more and more often approached by people offering their own poems and lyrics for consideration. I’m always happy to look at such things, because the need for texts is acute and never ending, but honesty compels me to admit that I have only very rarely found anything that I wished to use. Still, hope springs eternal…
The most unusual place I have ever found a good text was:
on a T-shirt! (A Gaelic Blessing)

What defines “good” lyrics or a “good” poem to set to music?

I suppose there are as many answers to this as there are composers, and I can only speak for myself here: your mileage may vary. Still, whenever this question comes up I am reminded of a conversation I had with John Rutter some years ago during which I asked him what sort of thing he looked for in a text. His answer has stayed with me. “I suppose I’m looking for a sort of inspired doggerel,” he said, and I knew instantly exactly what he meant.

You see, some poems are already too strong as poetry to benefit from the addition of a further element (i.e., music). Hence, “doggerel.” But clever as this description is, the truth is that genuine doggerel would rarely ever work outside of a piece deliberately intended to be humorous. A text needs to be inspired, to have something to say and to say it fairly well, or the addition of music will only expose its shallowness all the more clearly.

At the bottom line however, the answer to your question is that a “good” text is one which sings to me, and which suggests that its music has already been written. It then becomes my job to find that music and to put it on the page in the most perfect form that I can, given the limitations of my musical understanding and technique.

What are the main characteristics of the poem you look at (e.g. length, its story, form, rhyming, etc.)?

INTEGRITY – If I am going to ask my audiences to spend their valuable time listening to these words, and my singers to spend vastly more time living with these words while preparing their performance, then the poem must have something worthwhile to say. It must show sufficient artistry and mastery of literary technique to justify their investment.
BEAUTY – If an audience, who may hear the work only once, manages to catch only a few disjointed phrases out of the whole, then there must be sufficient evocative imagery to guarantee that something larger will still be conveyed. After all, that’s how good poetry works: it conveys more than the merely literal, through the use of literary devices like simile, metaphor, and poetic imagery.
SINGABILITY – Not every wonderful text will actually sing well. I look, for example, to see whether the ends of lines (which are likely to be sustained in a musical setting) consist of difficult-to-extend diphthongs or multiple consonants.
SUITABILITY – Will my “client” find this choice of text a good one for the event where this piece will premiere? Is it sufficiently long? Too long? Sufficiently dignified? Too stuffy?

How specifically do you go about preparing the text to be set to music (do you read it over and over, set it rhythmically first, etc.)?

There’s really very little you can do to a text to prepare it; it is what it is. If you sit down to begin your musical setting and still feel it needs something, then you’ve probably chosen the wrong text. It’s far more important to prepare the composer…

I’ve usually already read it a number of times during my consideration process, so there’s not much need to read it over and over as a means of further familiarizing myself with it.

I don’t set it first rhythmically. In fact, such a possibility had never even occurred to me. I strive for a setting which is so organically a part of the poem that melody, harmony and rhythm seem, after a single hearing, to be an absolutely natural and inevitable outgrowth of the words. I cannot imagine being successful at that if I were trying to deal with those three elements separately, but, again, other people may work differently.

What other decisions do you need to make about the text (the time signature, the mood of the piece, different sections of the poem…)?

The process of composition is one of decision-making, and consists of hundreds upon hundreds of inter-related possibilities which must be weighed, balanced, and either accepted or rejected. This includes the things you mentioned: time signature, mood, sections, as well as virtually every other aspect of the music. Almost every one of the myriad of decisions will be affected in some way by the text. The trick is to make all of these complex decisions in such a way that the resulting music enhances and strengthens the text, rather than distracts from it.

Do you alter the text in any way (repeat certain sections, change the order…)?

I don’t consider the repetition of a word or a phrase to be a “change” which requires me to consult with the writer. Such amplifications are simply the way I try to give weight or importance within the musical setting, to things which the poet may have emphasized by other means, which cannot be made clear to a listener (such as line breaks or placement). A reader, with the text on a page in front of his eyes, may pause for effect without much risk of loosing track of the flow. A chorus, however, is far more limited in the kinds of pauses which musical pacing will permit. Accordingly, other effects, more suited to music, must be used to achieve the goal of undergirding the words.

Occasionally I find it desirable to actually change a word. Perhaps I want a long sustained high note at a certain point, but the existing word is one which would not sound beautiful when subjected to such treatment. Or, I may have found a certain rhythmic motif which demands to be repeated just one more time for the sake of balance, and I therefore simply must have a three syllable word where this pitifully inadequate little two syllable word now stands. In either case I will consult with my writer, explain the problem, offer an alternative if I have one, and then throw myself, groveling, upon the floor. I have, on rare occasions, offered small bribes or petty inducements, and even hinted at certain unsavory connections I have with people in the mob “collections” business (references to a large fellow named “Guido” are often helpful).

I have generally found my collaborators to be more than willing to help, but when my partner has a strong feeling that the alteration I am requesting would result in harm to the artistic integrity of the text, then I accept that judgment and try harder to find a musical solution which doesn’t require a change to the words.

If I cannot consult with the poet because he has had the inconsiderate rudeness to die or something, then I generally work with the text as it is, rather than making changes merely to make my job easier. I can think of one fairly consistent exception: in setting scripture I am aware that, as I am dealing with translations of translations, some latitude may be appropriate without necessarily doing any damage at all to the original writer’s intent.

Can you describe any other relations between the text and music (harmonically and melodically)?

They must be so organically intertwined that, once your listener has heard them together, he can no longer hear the melody without thinking of the words, nor read the words without hearing the melody in his mind’s ear.

Oddly, it’s also important that this melody and harmony be fresh and original, which would seem to argue against the sort of inevitability which I describe here. All I can say is, once you’ve heard it, you’ll know.

Although there is no exact way to compose, do you have one particular method you find works best? Do you, for example, just start off by writing a melody, then add harmony, or does it all come together at the same time…?

By analysis I observe that my rhythmic and melodic ideas seem to grow out of the text quite directly. Harmonic ideas, by contrast, have no apparent or obvious source, and I conclude that they have been delivered by the stork. Analysis, however, while helpful to tell us what’s there, tells us very little that’s useful about how it came to be. I point that out because when I’m actually composing, the three elements of rhythm, melody, and harmony generally occur to me simultaneously. Refinements will usually be worked out separately, but at least the germ of the idea usually appears with all three in place.

Do you compose at the piano or away from it?

Actually, the instrument most comfortable for me is the organ. I find that having multiple keyboards and pedals at my disposal helps in working out some ideas.

I have no quarrel with those who find they work best away from an instrument, but I reject as inappropriate and silly the scorn they sometimes direct towards others who need, or prefer, to use a keyboard. I grant freely that there can be a danger in writing at the piano: it is all too easy to fall into the trap of writing something in a way which is natural to your keyboard, rather than idiomatic to the voice(s) or instrument(s) for which your piece is intended. Avoiding that, however, is just one of the many requirements of being a fully competent and professional composer, and is really no harder than avoiding writing outside of appropriate ranges or any other technical restriction.

What things do you think the composer needs to be particularly aware of when composing choral music (breathing, ranges, voice-leading, etc…)?

First, the text.
Second, the audience.
Third, the singers.
All else, however important, is details.

What do you find most difficult in composing?

Maintaining the detachment that lets me know when I have:
1) solved a particular problem in the same way before (or, worse, several times before!),
2) failed to maintain a tasteful and artistic balance between pleasing the audience and pandering to them,
3) chosen the easy way instead of the best way, or,
4) drawn the double bar too long after the music has ended…

Do you find yourself not trying to decide what to use, but instead what not to use?

Nah. When I crash and burn the smoke is usually visible from a considerable distance.

What do you do when you run out of ideas or blank out (or don’t you?)?

I listen to music, the very best I can find.
Significant also is what I don’t do: drink, do drugs, escape to Pago Pago, beat my wife, kids, or dog, etc.

What inspires you to write?

Rarely: a wonderful text.
More often: a wonderful commission.

Do you write better at certain times of the day?

Not that I am aware.
What does seem to make a difference is that I write every day. When I fail to put in my Minimum Daily Requirement for more than a few days in a row, it seems to be more difficult to get the process started again.

Do you think that anyone can compose?

Sure, in exactly the same sense that I think everyone can write. Anyone who has acquired sufficient language skills to be considered literate can write a letter, a brief essay, or a short poem which will be of value to family, friends, and community. It may fail to achieve the status of eternal masterpiece, but it will still have served a useful and worthwhile purpose within somewhat smaller circles.

Similarly, anyone who has mastered sufficient musical skills to be considered “musically literate” can surely put together a song or hymn or prelude which, even if not an eternal masterpiece, can surely be of value and service to family, friends and community.

In either case, the higher your goals the more you will require highly refined skills and more sophisticated techniques, plus at least a modest amount of that mysterious element we call “talent.” That should not, however, prevent all but the most gifted natural composers from writing and arranging music for their own use, any more than it prevents all but professional writers from dropping a line to friends removed by distance, or a few well chosen paragraphs to the local newspaper editor on some subject of interest.

Now go write a masterpiece for your choir. The world needs more such!


Dan Gawthrop

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