The writing, performing, and hearing of descants
  • Grace and peace, everyone.

    It's Christmas and you know what that means: descants!

    I think of a descant as a golden thread woven into the last verse of a hymn or carol. It is not an opportunity for Parish Top Dog Soprano to show off (as firmly I believed and truly when I was a young Episcopalian and fancied myself a PTDS), but should be sung by a handful of singers who can pull off a sweet, innocent sound with as little vibrato as possible. Hearing a well-performed descant, I think, "Hmmm, time I went to confession."

    Descants make me think of joyful freedom. (Now that I have written that, I wonder whether any sorrowful descants exist; no doubt someone here knows the answer to that one.) Nothing takes the joy out of singing a descant like a poorly written descant, though. The tessitura needs to be high but not too high, please, and save the high notes for as close to the end as possible. To do otherwise kills both the drama and the sopranos.

    Descants of quality---I'm looking at you, Kings College Cambridge---help tepid choirs grow fervent and fervent choirs quickly mount to high perfection. Let us now praise famous descants and the servants of God who created them.
  • And let this be said: taking the alto line above the melody and calling it a "descant" does not make it one. It is not a quicker path. It produces something that is ugly and completely void of artistic merit. In Canada we have far too many hymnals filled with these "not descants", which have nothing to recommend themselves over a free harmonization or even the unaltered tune in unison.

    Properly prepared and harmonized descants, scarce as they may be, are in a class of their own.
  • Does anyone have a favourite GROSSER GOTT descant? I wrote one out but it needs some reworking to really pop.
  • Anna,

    Somewhere hereabouts is a copy of a collection of descants I wrote.

  • Liam
    Posts: 4,209
    The palm goes to Trinity College, Cambridge.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8ud6BoAE4wI
  • Does anyone have a favourite GROSSER GOTT descant? I wrote one out but it needs some reworking to really pop.


    https://youtu.be/E_nYjkZyyQY There was a power outage the day this recording was taken, and thus there is no organ and instead Piano with orchestra. I believe it was a Pentecost Sunday. It was the one and only time in my 17 years in the choir we sang with the piano. If you were interested in the recording I can send you the music when I get back to the office in a day or two.
    Thanked by 2m_r_taylor CHGiffen
  • That's lovely - and music would be nice, thanks!
  • CHGiffenCHGiffen
    Posts: 4,566
    Here is "Come Down, O Love Divine" from the 2011 Sacred Music Colloquium in Pittsburgh, the concluding hymn at the Votive Mass to the Holy Spirit. Having been a lurker at here at MusicaSacra for some time, I was blown away to discover that my double descants for this hymn were sung and recorded. I became active here shortly thereafter. Descant I is sung on the 2nd stanza, Descant II on the 3rd stanza, and both are sung on the final stanza. Although the 2nd descant was revised just at that time (but before I learned of this performance), this is one of my most treasured live recordings.

    http://recordings.musicasacra.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/20110614M_14_-_Come_Down_O_Love_Divine.mp3

  • CHGiffenCHGiffen
    Posts: 4,566
    The performance of "King of Glory, King of Peace" [Gwalchmai] at the Queen's 90th Birthday Service of Thanksgiving has a marvelous descant on the final stanza.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TKVXTMEXbaw

    Thanked by 1sdtalley3
  • Charles, can you post the music for the descants for Come Down, O Love Divine?
  • CHGiffenCHGiffen
    Posts: 4,566
    Here are both the original descants for "Come down, O Love divine" (as sung at the Colloquium) and the revised descants, together with a sound file for the revised version.
  • Haha, you have all made me feel quite guilty. The last two weekends in which we had public Mass, as I was up prepping the Sunday music, I was writing descants at like 12:01am in preparation for the Mass...

    Do take a look. These descants are hard to do without boy trebles but that's why I wrote them - because my descant person was a treble. Although, he did want to kill me for how high the range was and how much they jumped around.
    Thanked by 1CHGiffen
  • By the way, do feel free to use these. Like I said, they were written at like midnight the day of the Mass so don't worry too much about credit. Do tell me, though - I'd be interested!
  • I think that your descants are quite nice (though I might suggest a different rhythmic interest here and there), nor do they seem prohibitively high to me. There's certainly nothing particularly challenging about a few Gs and an A here and there for a boy treble. I don't think that your treble should complain. He certainly shouldn't kill you!
  • My descants demand a male voice mostly because of the agility required to sing them. Although a good female soprano could do them, most parish choirs would not have the personnel to do them justice. And neither could most diva sopranos, either.

    My treble's voice is starting to change too, which is why he was kind of upset with all the high notes... but he still has them in full force.
  • SalieriSalieri
    Posts: 2,686
    Here are some descants/arrangements that I have written. Some of them have been performed, others have not (yet) been sung.
    Attached are:

    O come, all ye faithful (Descant for Verse 3 and Last Verse) -- not yet performed
    Once in royal David's city (Descant/Organ for Last Verse) -- performed
    Hark! the Herald Angels sing (Descant/Organ for Last Verse) -- performed
    Angels we have heard on high (Descant/Organ for Last Verse) -- not yet performed
    The first nowell (Hymn arrangement (SSATB & Organ) -- not yet performed in entirety
    I sing the mighty power of God (Descant for Last Verse) -- performed
    Praise to the Lord, the almighty (Descant for Last Verse) -- performed
    All my hope on God is founded (Descant for Last Verse) -- performed (Only the descant is given here, as the tune (MICHAEL) and harmonization are Copyright)

    I also have descants for O come, divine Messiah, and Lo, he comes (HELMSLEY), which have been performed, but are still in MSS.
    Thanked by 2CHGiffen sdtalley3
  • Charles, I made an organ recording of your Down Ampney back in June in case you never saw it.
    https://youtu.be/xoTwLdoorBE
    Thanked by 1CHGiffen
  • CHGiffenCHGiffen
    Posts: 4,566
    Indeed, ServiamScores, I've seen it - very nice, and thank you for posting the video.
    Thanked by 1ServiamScores
  • SalieriSalieri
    Posts: 2,686
    Descants for:

    O Come, Divine Messiah (for last refrain: used with Healey Willan's harmonization at No. 7 in the New St. Basil Hymnal) -- performed
    Lo, he comes (Verse four, No. 57 in The Hymnal 1982) -- performed
  • CHGiffenCHGiffen
    Posts: 4,566
    And let this be said: taking the alto line above the melody and calling it a "descant" does not make it one. It is not a quicker path.
    This is good advice, Schönbergian, since the alto part is typically not conceived nor composed as a viable part when taken up an octave as a descant. The results can indeed be horrible.

    HOWEVER, IT IS POSSIBLE (sometimes JUST possible) that a composer/harmonizer can, with careful intention and attention from the outset, craft an alto part that will succeed as a descant.

    Among other things, this involves attention to movement of the voice as a (semi)independent part, as well as avoidance of interactions with the melody line when the alto part is transposed up an octave. In particular, the original alto line should avoid pure parallel fourths with the melody part, so as to avoid pure parallel fifths with the melody part when the alto part is transposed up an octave as a descant.

    I have set myself to addressing this issue with some of my own hymn tunes and, for a few of these efforts, have recommended the transposition of the alto part up an octave as an optional or alternative descant. These few seem (at least to me) to be reasonable, viable, and even successful. I considered the transposition possibility not as an afterthought but as a crucial consideration during the composition. It's not unlike (although quite different from) the challenges of writing canons in polyphony - plenty of thought and planning, for sure!

    But don't think that transposing the alto part up an octave as a descant is at all likely to prove successful with the typical garden variety harmonization you find in a hymnal.
    Thanked by 1Anna_Bendiksen
  • Richard MixRichard Mix
    Posts: 2,255
    Indeed, I can't offhand think of a single JSB alto part that doesn't work as a descant.
    Thanked by 1CHGiffen
  • CHGiffenCHGiffen
    Posts: 4,566
    In the opening chorale of "Jesu meine Freude" BWV 227 has some parallel fourths between the soprano and alto ~~> parallel fifths if the alto part is transposed up an octave. Otherwise, it works pretty well as a descant.
  • There are so many exemplary descants from the pens of English cathedral and collegiate organists (and some Americans, too) which are readily available in books from Oxford, Novello, and others, some challenging and some quite easy, that I have trouble understanding why anyone would take an alto line, stick above the treble line and call it a descant. Even if is is a chorale by Bach himself, it seems to me presumptions butchery to visit this treatment upon Bash's voice leading and texture. Another problem with doing this sort of thing is that one has essentially a note for note descant, which is quite boring and has no rhythmic interest, e.g., those few found the The Hymnal 1982 and Wroship IV). A descant, by nature, is a more florid ornament above the SATB lines and should have its own melodic and rhythmic interest. This sort of do it yourself robbery is hardly different than the absurd habit that some have for thinking that they have really accomplished something by taking a psalm tone and fashioning from it what would be a people's psalm responsory from.
  • Liam
    Posts: 4,209
    For a lovely instrumental descant (shows up at 2:20 mark) that reveals what might be called the Apollonian model of contrapuntal descants: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mnDm5Ok2xOY
  • M_R_Taylor and all:

    Here is the descant for Holy God, We Praise Thy Name. It was never published and is in public domain. I hope it is helpful.
    4032 x 3024 - 2M
    4032 x 3024 - 2M
    4032 x 3024 - 2M
  • Another great descant, this one for Jesus Christ is Risen Today can be found here: https://youtu.be/HilvowoZwLs?t=128
  • CHGiffenCHGiffen
    Posts: 4,566
    In this thread, you will find my setting of "Gentle Shepherd, Thou Hast Stilled" set to my minor-key tune O'CONNELL with a final stanza descant that is the alto part transposed up an octave. It exemplifies what I think is possible when one takes care in crafting such an alto part. The melody (soprano) and descant (alto transposed) work well together, in my opinion. But then, I rather like writing interesting alto parts!