Composers' Forum

Music Composers Unite!

Anyone with experience or knowledge of SATB choral quartets/octets? I need aid :)

Hey all!

So I'm planning on recording with a small choir soon and am composing in that wonderful old English four-voice sacred style. Initially that was enough, but I'm probably going to splash out on an octet as that's where the richness starts to come out. This being me, I can't leave it at "SATB with double the singers"; I have eight voices to play with and I want more.

Question being, how much is wise to divide with SSAATTBB? I was inspired by this Bairstow piece:



At 1.23, b15, altos and tenors suddenly divide for massive chords, with bass and soprano remaining unison. Bingo, six voices instead of four. I know it sounds great with an octet because there's some performances online, and it ties in with advice I've seen on strings - to only divide the middle and leave bass & 1st vn alone. Does anyone have any perspective on that, especially as it's my first time recording with a choir - perhaps I should play safe? I feel up to six voices is solid. You tell me.

Please tell me!

Views: 141

Reply to This

Replies to This Discussion

hi Dave,

If your singers are confident and competent, there will be no problem with the distribution you want to use. It will sound fine, depending on  dynamics and range and assuming you want an evenly balanced sound.  You'll notice in the example at 1'.23" that the tenors and altos are in a mid to higher range - this is tactically good at louder dynamics and an excellent way of manipulating the emotion in the voice. Of course loud dynamics can be achieved across a bigger range than this, but it is worth bearing in mind that register and dynamics are closely linked with implications for balance. Good writing will always exploit the power of the voice depending on its musical role at that moment.

You can always mark different dynamics for each part, to clarify your musical intent. For ex. sops marked mf or less and inner divisi parts marked f or more, depending on how important the inner lines are, or just to balance the sound to your taste, but with only 8 voices, your proposed distribution wont be unbalanced in a  noticeable way because even with 2 voices singing unison, the sound is texturally, still quite intimate and solo-istic.

You'll know on the day if it's working or not and the singers will instinctively feel what is needed musically. (with the proviso that tessitura and ability have a bearing on what can be achieved!). Simple instructions like telling where a part should dip down and a part should come to the fore are all part of rehearsal and performance.

Hi Dave,

I would like to have a look at your score, can you provide an XML please?

At the moment, not having any other idea, these are only general comments in harmony/counterpoint, but perhaps irrelevant to your project, so I apologize if not applicable.

 

These are some elementary harmonic rules that one should follow for any harmonization, including songs of praise :-) and the style you are after (not necessarily in any order of importance-just out of my head):

 

  1. If a tone is common in any two successive chords this tone must be repeated.
  2. Chordal factors that will change between two chords should proceed to the nearest available tone in the next chord.
  3. In connecting parallel chords (I-II, II-III, III-IV and so on) the bass moves in contrary motion to the three upper parts if parallel 8ves-5ths are to be avoided.
  4. leading notes should not be doubled and generally they should rise to tonics in the next chord.
  5. 7ths in dominant 7th chords should resolve by downwards half step to the 3rd of the next chord.
  6. Roots should be preferred to fifths and fifths to thirds in doubling chordal factors (wherever possible but respecting voice leading principles more than this rule)
  7. Root position in chords is the norm as they are the strongest progressions. First inversions are weaker but still very useful in certain situations like a first inversion chain (sequence). Second inversions should be avoided except in the cadential 6/4 chord dominant=>tonic, or in arpeggios, and in certain more unusual cases as I-IV, I-IV, I-IV etc where a tonic pedal is maintained in the bass. In this sense, for avoiding 2nd inversion chords, the interval of a 4th is not allowed between tenor and base.
  8. Parallel, direct and hidden 8ves and 5ths are generally forbidden, but allowed in certain cases where the upper voice proceeds by step (for example when a leading note rises by half step in the soprano and the bass rises also by a 4th-both factors forming a direct 8ve). The parallel 8ves rule here in no way is referring to re-enforcing a melodic line in 8ves.
  9. Contrary and oblique melodic motion should be preferred to parallel motion in general.
  10. Non chordal factors (dissonances) should be prepared, sounded and resolved and in general should occur as passing notes in the weak and relatively weaker parts of the measure.
  11. Melodic movement of the 3 upper parts is generally in steps and small leaps, with bigger leaps are used for variety, but the bass is allowed/expected to proceed in bigger leaps.

 

If all these rules are followed the progression is bound to sound smooth… but still sound as shit, so a deeper knowledge of how and when to break them is necessary.

 

Having said all this, the style you are after is not harmonic. It belongs to a glorious contrapuntal tradition (one of the most valuable that the British nation has ever offered to the world). The harmony rules mentioned still apply, but here the contrapuntal rules take precedence and in many instances can break some of these harmonic rules because the emphasis is on melodic movement and voice leading. Therefore a working knowledge of these rules is necessary, but this is a far greater subject than my consideration can give at present. In general these contrapuntal rules don’t differ from the rules/usages observed in other composers and in other parts of the continent, but still a uniqueness of the British style can be said to be observable in many instances, i.e. Tallis, Byrd, Morley, etc, so a general feel/acquittance with that style is a very big bonus.

 

My opinion is that writing for four voices is still the golden rule. Counterpoint in more voices is still possible, but as their number augment the difficulties rise and there are not many examples even in six voices (let alone in eight) that true melodic independence can be said to be existing for substantial sections or throughout a given piece.

 

I don’t know how you will view all these general information, but carry on because the ambition to write something in that style is very noble. I will try to comment, if I have any internet access, but for the next 3 months or so, I will be mostly away from this forum as I'm gigging in south Crete where coverage is very poor and fishing takes precedence :-)

All the best for your current recording effort!

Thanks Mike.

I've specifically requested singers familiar with that style so hopefully I won't end up with a barbershop outfit - which would be great, but for another time. When I know their individual ranges I can be a bit more confident in moulding the piece to that. Scores from Tallis, Byrd et al have few to no dynamics, presumably because they were written for performance as with Mozart, but I'll be approaching mine similarly to my orchestral work.

Socrates,

Thanks so much for the detail! I don't know if I'll be able to absorb or apply all of it, but I think/hope some has leaked into my writing already. I'm taking most of my guidelines from Byrd and Tallis and there's only so many ways you can achieve that sound, so the writing takes on the shape of the style. Less concerned with some of the "forbidden" things though :) I've been fascinated by the genre, if you could call it that, for a while - nothing else I've heard comes close to such beauty. The problems are writing something appropriate that doesn't merely lift the underpinning ideas of the style, and making a decision between comparatively simple and complex. I've a few months anyway. No score yet.

I've specifically requested singers familiar with that style so hopefully I won't end up with a barbershop outfit...


Here's the Agnus Dei from my Mass in D minor ( I didn't request appropriate singers)

oops..here you go

Attachments:

excellent stuff! Should fit the "ave Maria gratia plena" or even the "ite missa est" part of the text. ;-)

Mike Hewer said:

oops..here you go

https://youtu.be/VXBrAcaD9rA?t=35s

No . . . it's a bum

Reasons you don't fuck with Mike, no. 6. That's fantastic! I can't tell if you're being tongue in cheek since I can't imagine that performed in any different style. Deserves a thread to itself, the score would be fascinating. Heard this? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L1i8QTOV20Y

That's reminded me of another facet of uncertainty - I'm setting the music to text/setting text to music but I never planned to. Originally I'd intended vocalisation, if I have the right terminology, and was unsure how to do it - writing Oh, Ah etc. I imagine that the sung text will add an extra element to the overall texture (and it's the style I want) but it also stymies things a bit. How might you approach non-vocal? 


Mike Hewer said:

I've specifically requested singers familiar with that style so hopefully I won't end up with a barbershop outfit...


Here's the Agnus Dei from my Mass in D minor ( I didn't request appropriate singers)

Always in the best possible taste...brilliant.
So too the barbershop 4 tet.
Sorry mate, couldn't resist that post above, seeing that you mentioned barbershop.

Melisma is the way to go if I understand you right. Take the a(h) at the start of 'agnus' for example. You can spin this out for as long as you wish with as many notes as you want.
When you say non vocal, I assume you mean setting text instead of oohs etc. There are no hard and fast rules really (unless you are doing a degree pastiche, see socrates above) just make the lines singable.

Counterpoint is obviously the way to go given your stylistic parameters, but simple homophony is appropriate too. Mellismatic writing is the order of the day too- just make sure the disparate syllables of a word being sung in the individual parts at the same time come together at appropriate places like cadences.
Feel the texts' rhythm and tempo as you speak it and see if that can translate into a musical rhythm. Find the stresses in the words and the key centres of emotion to build up to. Think about agogic accents too (syncopation) and how that might help bring out the emotion in the text.
There's more to it, but gotta go......

Don't apologise, it was great! Even before that I took pains to ensure I wasn't ripping on barbershop. Barbershop Spem in Alium would be pretty sweet . . . after the session's over.

Aha, much usefulness. Some of the most powerful Tallis moments are homophonic now I know what that means. It was interesting to read he adapted his style to suit who he was writing for, some whom didn't want the extremely complex counterpoint he could bring.

I noticed lots of melisma (also new word for me) in those scores, I feel those lads just wanted to write awesome music and the text was sometimes an afterthought. I have a solid foundation but in making it a sad and personal piece I have to nail it :)

Mike Hewer said:

Always in the best possible taste...brilliant.
So too the barbershop 4 tet.
Sorry mate, couldn't resist that post above, seeing that you mentioned barbershop.

Melisma is the way to go if I understand you right. Take the a(h) at the start of 'agnus' for example. You can spin this out for as long as you wish with as many notes as you want.
When you say non vocal, I assume you mean setting text instead of oohs etc. There are no hard and fast rules really (unless you are doing a degree pastiche, see socrates above) just make the lines singable.

Counterpoint is obviously the way to go given your stylistic parameters, but simple homophony is appropriate too. Mellismatic writing is the order of the day too- just make sure the disparate syllables of a word being sung in the individual parts at the same time come together at appropriate places like cadences.
Feel the texts' rhythm and tempo as you speak it and see if that can translate into a musical rhythm. Find the stresses in the words and the key centres of emotion to build up to. Think about agogic accents too (syncopation) and how that might help bring out the emotion in the text.
There's more to it, but gotta go......

Hey Socrates, I was thinking - why are some of those intervals forbidden or strongly discouraged? I did some more research and a lot of it seems to be tradition or linked to more Bachian approaches to choral writing; if I understand it right then technically, someone like Tallis breaks things like the octave rule a lot with homophonic repeated chords. I know (or at least am treating things as if) these rules aren't hard and fast, but are there practical reasons like pitch stability as well as tradition?

Just think of this, Dave: Between 1600-1900 we call it the era of "common practice" and not without a reason. Composers did stick to the same harmonic/contrapuntal rules for those 300 years to a big degree, but still manage to create their personal styles within those prohibitive rules. So, as you say, tradition and respect for it played a major role. In my opinion also the logic of those rules played another major role (if they made life difficult in some cases composers did not hesitate ever to break them to suite their musical ends).

Regarding parallel intervals, the prohibition refers to the duplication of melodies at 4th, 5th and 8ve which is what usually happens if in a mixed choir of untrained singers (like an ordinary church service) the people try to sing the same liturgical tune. The sopranos and altos are going to sing according to their accustomed comfort in 4ths or 5ths and the same thing will happen between tenors and basses and this is exactly how the great medieval "organum" tradition of the Ars Antiqua came about. At the same time (in this example) the tenors-sopranos and the basses-altos will be singing in parallel 8ves.

All this is fine as far as far as congregated song goes and Ars Antiqua did give us many fine examples of it, while it still survives in some folk cultures also (even in parallel 2nds sometimes, which proves that nothing is new despite all Avant guard sophistication), but the contrapuntal laws which began to develop slowly from the period of Ars Nova or even earlier with the Franconian law wanted to avoid this duplication of parallel melodies at a fixed interval because their aim was not homophony (like the type in Ars Antiqua tradition) but polyphony. Polyphony though proved to be a much more complex phenomenon and its aims and artistic requirements diversified very quickly, as well as new rules, prohibitions, and techniques started to develop. So intervals like the 4th, 5th and 8ve, by referring to this new aesthetic were given the subjective qualities of bluntness, bareness, perfectness (this last one referring to consonances) etc, while other intervals were categorized as imperfect consonances where parallel movement was allowed (3rds and 6ths mainly) and mild-hard dissonances (2nds-7rhs).

To add to all this, from very early a medieval monk called Franco had asserted (quite reasonably and successfully for his era) that no dissonance should occur in an accented bit of a measure, and if it does occur should be resolved properly (whatever that meant to him and his contemporaries), but ever since then and (if we think macro-historically) the evolution of counterpoint and later of harmony can be said to consist in the discovery of countless ingenious ways by composers of how to break Franco's law.

In the beginning of the first great contrapuntal era (16th century) the intervals had already been categorized with the following subjective (but somehow reasonable) qualities:

PERFECT CONSONANCES: Unisons, 4ths, 5ths, 8ves.

IMPERFECT CONSONANCES: Major and minor 3rds and 6ths.

MILD DISSONANCES: Major 2nds and minor 7ths.

HARD DISSONANCES: Minor 2nds and major 7ths

The above categorization leaves out the interval of the augmented 4th/diminished 5th (the famous or infamous Devil in music), which was considered as an avoidable dissonance to start with, but as the centuries progressed was considered the most neutral of all intervals.

Later in contrapuntal and harmonic development of rules the interval of the 4th was more clarified. Although a perfect consonance, it is treated as a dissonance but only in two part writing. In three or more part writing and in harmony is considered as consonant (and parallel movement in 4ths is not forbidden) as long as it is not observed between tenor and bass because in that way would suggest chords in 2nd inversion, which harmonically are forbidden except in the cases I mentioned in the previous post.

 

Now, in most people's opinion, dissonance is giving edge and forward movement to the music and consonance gives it serenity, satisfactory conclusion, fulfilment, etc, all very subjective of course, but they are both necessary elements for expressing ideas feelings etc, as sonic parts of a common language which we can all understand and appreciate. Otherwise the whole thing would be futile.

 

Rules are there only to help us understand what has gone before us and to learn from it, imo. If they make life difficult they can be broken… and good luck to anyone's endeavours I would say. Good Popular and jazz music are not aware of any rules, but they don’t seem to be doing badly (well that is another matter, I suppose), but study the past to bring about the future is not a bad maxim either.

 

In the 20th century a lot of composers tried to break away with all this common language and its pre-conceived values and achievements (especially the 2nd Viennese school and later the integral serialism), but generally, even more tonality-orientated composers developed or tried to develop their own individual languages. Integral serialism came to a dead end by the late 1960s and was gradually abandoned by most, but the first 70 years of the 20th century as a whole did give us works of great artistic value. What followed that collapse is in my opinion worse at the moment, but only history will tell.

 

To come back to your piece, from what I can understand so far, it is an effort to re-create something new out of something old standard and admired. I applaud the intention. You may even have to invent your own rules. Rules that you may need to give consistency to this effort, if for nothing else. In many instances I think that a lot of people in this forum do the same. We all try, sometimes with more or less clear views, some other times completely blindly.

Good fun though!

Dave, I forgot to mention that playing in parallel 5hs and 8ves is for certain idioms (both popular and classical) of the very essence.  Also certain idiomatic instruments like the guitar are asking very much for certain passages to be played in parallels cause otherwise (by sticking to classical harmony rules) the beauty of the passage gets very diminished. One such case with which you may be familiar is the famous Andalusian Cadence (or Spanish Hijaz as we call it over here).

The progression is in descending chromatic minor mode like for instance

Am – G – F – E. (or any of its variants)

A lot of songs of many nations, or passages have been written by utilizing those four chords:

 

QUATTRO CHITARRE (Italian) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=icDdI6VDHMQ

El porompompero (Spanish) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JaNRehBO9N0

Hit the road Jack! (American) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q8Tiz6INF7I

Οι Μοιραίοι (The fatalists-Greek) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xGNUNqYSvRw

Malagueña (Spanish) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=COc1ljZEb-M

 

Which make theory look very naïve, cause human societies’ expressive needs develop the theory and not the other way round.

Reply to Discussion

RSS

© 2017   Created by Chris Merritt.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service