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Senex puerum

An old Latin hymn suitable for Christmas or liturgical use for full chorus.

The sound file was generated with software using choral ah vocals as a demo.

I've deliberately introduced some dissonances to give it a character not usually associated with hymns.  Don't know if it works.

As ever, I'll be glad to receive any comments, especially from performers, even if a long time has passed since this was posted.

Score and audio available at:

MuseScore Senex puerum

or:

YouTube Senex Puerum



Version of 18 August 2019


The words:

Senex puerum portabat: 
puer autem senem regebat: 
quem virgo peperit, 
et post partum virgo permansit: 
ipsum quem genuit, adoravit. 

[An old man carried a child:
yet the child was the man's king:
the child whom a virgin bore
and after bearing remained a virgin:
she worshipped the child to whom she gave birth.]

(translated by Jon Corelis)

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Please note that while this composition is based on a traditional song in the public domain, my adaptation is an original creative work under copyright. You may feel free to share or link to it by the usual means. For performance permission, please see my permissions page.

Image: Saint Joseph and the Child (c. 1620-30), by André Reinoso (d...

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A very interesting piece to listen to but I'm not sure 'live' vocalists would be too happy. There are numerous examples of difficulty of which some are the leap of a major 7th in the Sopranos at m.6 and elsewhere. Also several tonus diabolus-like leaps (B to Ab descending - not of course literally a tritone but of a similar difficulty).

It's difficult to navigate because your measure numbering reverts to m.1 after m.56. But, in the first m.30-31 I'd be tempted to replace that chord with G+ or G-, anything to relieve the monotony.

Despite all that (and more) I enjoyed the piece (being old enough to have been taught Latin at school and enjoying masses read and sung in that same language, very nostalgic).

I see it's written in the Hungarian minor mode - not something I've ever used but very interesting and pleasant - to my ears at least.

Thanks for posting.

Thanks for the perceptive comments.  I'll keep them in mind for a future revision.

The measure numbering is just a mistake.  I must somehow have done something inadvertently to make the notation software restart the measure numbers and didn't catch it.

I forget now exactly where I got the scale or what it was called, but I think it was from a set of Arabic scales.

I should add that due to Ottoman influence many Eastern European scales seem to be derived from Arabian scales through Turkish musical influence, so it wouldn't be surprising if the supposedly Arabic scale I used was also found in Hungary.

Jon this is great man! By far my favourite of all the pieces I've heard from you! Did my link the other day have an influence? (wink, wink).

I disagree with my esteemed colleague Stephen, I didn't find any of those intervals hard to sing and I'm an awful singer (perhaps the fact that I played jazz for about ten years helps with the odd intervals), but I did struggle to hear the Alto harmonisation in bar forty something, where it's just sopranos and altos and the altos harmonise a perfect fourth below. I'm not saying that it's wrong or bad or suggesting that you change it, I just found it hard to hit for some reason... It's funny how different ears are...

Thanks for the response, and for liking it.

I'm not sure what link you're referring to, but I originally composed this piece about a year ago.  The version I posted here is a revised and corrected score, but using the same scale and substantially the same harmonies as the original one.

I'll also keep your specific comments in mind.  I appreciate very much specific suggestions like that, though many of them I think I would need to try out implementing in rehearsals with actual performers to see how they worked, if I can ever find any who want to perform it.

Claude Werner said:

Jon this is great man! By far my favourite of all the pieces I've heard from you! Did my link the other day have an influence? (wink, wink).

I disagree with my esteemed colleague Stephen, I didn't find any of those intervals hard to sing and I'm an awful singer (perhaps the fact that I played jazz for about ten years helps with the odd intervals), but I did struggle to hear the Alto harmonisation in bar forty something, where it's just sopranos and altos and the altos harmonise a perfect fourth below. I'm not saying that it's wrong or bad or suggesting that you change it, I just found it hard to hit for some reason... It's funny how different ears are...

I meant the Bulgarian choir link... But obviously not if you wrote it a year ago...

Jon Corelis said:

Thanks for the response, and for liking it.

I'm not sure what link you're referring to, but I originally composed this piece about a year ago.  The version I posted here is a revised and corrected score, but using the same scale and substantially the same harmonies as the original one.

I'll also keep your specific comments in mind.  I appreciate very much specific suggestions like that, though many of them I think I would need to try out implementing in rehearsals with actual performers to see how they worked, if I can ever find any who want to perform it.

Claude Werner said:

Jon this is great man! By far my favourite of all the pieces I've heard from you! Did my link the other day have an influence? (wink, wink).

I disagree with my esteemed colleague Stephen, I didn't find any of those intervals hard to sing and I'm an awful singer (perhaps the fact that I played jazz for about ten years helps with the odd intervals), but I did struggle to hear the Alto harmonisation in bar forty something, where it's just sopranos and altos and the altos harmonise a perfect fourth below. I'm not saying that it's wrong or bad or suggesting that you change it, I just found it hard to hit for some reason... It's funny how different ears are...

There are some general rules on composing for voices that constitute 'good practice' and it's those to which I refer. That said, however - rules are made to be broken aren't they - but only if you do it intentionally.

Just out of interest, the melodic version of C- has a Bb and Ab when descending and A and B natural when ascending - this is to avoid the rather difficult (in terms of tuning for tutti singing) B natural to Ab descending (there is a tendency to overdo the Ab and sing it flatter than it should be).

Claude Werner said:

Jon this is great man! By far my favourite of all the pieces I've heard from you! Did my link the other day have an influence? (wink, wink).

I disagree with my esteemed colleague Stephen, I didn't find any of those intervals hard to sing and I'm an awful singer (perhaps the fact that I played jazz for about ten years helps with the odd intervals), but I did struggle to hear the Alto harmonisation in bar forty something, where it's just sopranos and altos and the altos harmonise a perfect fourth below. I'm not saying that it's wrong or bad or suggesting that you change it, I just found it hard to hit for some reason... It's funny how different ears are...

Thanks again -- I'll save all this for a revision, which I may do soon, since I want to get compositions possible for Christmas  posted on my various web sites soon, in case any choirs might be interested in them for holiday concerts.

Stephen Lines said:

There are some general rules on composing for voices that constitute 'good practice' and it's those to which I refer. That said, however - rules are made to be broken aren't they - but only if you do it intentionally.

Just out of interest, the melodic version of C- has a Bb and Ab when descending and A and B natural when ascending - this is to avoid the rather difficult (in terms of tuning for tutti singing) B natural to Ab descending (there is a tendency to overdo the Ab and sing it flatter than it should be).

Claude Werner said:

Jon this is great man! By far my favourite of all the pieces I've heard from you! Did my link the other day have an influence? (wink, wink).

I disagree with my esteemed colleague Stephen, I didn't find any of those intervals hard to sing and I'm an awful singer (perhaps the fact that I played jazz for about ten years helps with the odd intervals), but I did struggle to hear the Alto harmonisation in bar forty something, where it's just sopranos and altos and the altos harmonise a perfect fourth below. I'm not saying that it's wrong or bad or suggesting that you change it, I just found it hard to hit for some reason... It's funny how different ears are...

Damn, that first page is going to be a nightmare for live singers. The individual lines are all right (that major 7th leap is a bit tough but doable if you imagine the right soundscape) but the moment you try to blend the voices together and keep them in tune, you're in trouble. I'm not really sure how to fix this.

To make the various dissonances easier you'd probably want some kind of "anchor" (either real, as in, actually being played / sung, or derived from context and easily imagined) that allows the singer to feel comfortable about where every chord sits and where their place is in the chord. But! This means rewriting the thing, and if you want to keep as close to the original as possible, you'll need a lot of very subtle and clever trickery to give the singers enough harmonic clues.

Note that this isn't a problem at all if you give this fragment to a string section, for example - they know where their notes are. But a choir is always up in the air, and reference points are everything.

I have two quick and dirty solutions for now:

1) Make voices enter every 3rd half note instead of every 2nd. This completely changes the harmony but you do retain some of the original edge. You can do micro adjustments but a quick piano check told me this should be singable raw. Voices support one another for a note or two here and there, it's enough to make the section a hundred times easier.

2) No edits to the music, but give the performers a reference track on an earphone. You can tailor it to every voice to make it as helpful as possible. There are dozens of reasons why this shouldn't be done in a solo choir performance, but damn... sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do :)

Thanks, I'll take all this under advisement.  Your advice reflects the basic challenge of composing this piece: I wanted to work against expectation of what a hymn should sound like by using a non-Western scale and introducing dissonances, but I didn't want to go so far from standard Western music that it was unlistenable or unperformable.

Greg Brus said:

Damn, that first page is going to be a nightmare for live singers. The individual lines are all right (that major 7th leap is a bit tough but doable if you imagine the right soundscape) but the moment you try to blend the voices together and keep them in tune, you're in trouble. I'm not really sure how to fix this.

To make the various dissonances easier you'd probably want some kind of "anchor" (either real, as in, actually being played / sung, or derived from context and easily imagined) that allows the singer to feel comfortable about where every chord sits and where their place is in the chord. But! This means rewriting the thing, and if you want to keep as close to the original as possible, you'll need a lot of very subtle and clever trickery to give the singers enough harmonic clues.

Note that this isn't a problem at all if you give this fragment to a string section, for example - they know where their notes are. But a choir is always up in the air, and reference points are everything.

I have two quick and dirty solutions for now:

1) Make voices enter every 3rd half note instead of every 2nd. This completely changes the harmony but you do retain some of the original edge. You can do micro adjustments but a quick piano check told me this should be singable raw. Voices support one another for a note or two here and there, it's enough to make the section a hundred times easier.

2) No edits to the music, but give the performers a reference track on an earphone. You can tailor it to every voice to make it as helpful as possible. There are dozens of reasons why this shouldn't be done in a solo choir performance, but damn... sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do :)

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