Choice of textures
  • Is it always preferrable to sing with the maximum number of parts your choir will accommodate?

    Is three-part or two-part music (that is, music composed as such, not edited to such) defective four-part music?

    Is music for male voices only (TTBB, for example) to be deprecated in the present era, since it doesn't use women's voices?

    Is there still any place for (and should one cultivate or tolerate) men-and-boys choirs?

    Is it preferable to sing the same setting (say, Palestrina's Sicut Cervus or ....'s Ave Maria) or to vary the settings if the choir is capable of singing more than one setting?

    Thanked by 2LauraKaz tomjaw
  • Liam
    Posts: 4,671
    1. No
    2. No
    3. No (nor is SSAA music)
    4. Yes (also all-female choirs, and mixed choirs)
    5. No if there are worthy settings of which the choir is capable. To begin with, consider that even plainsong can offer simple and solemn settings. A good choir, for example, should have many Magnificats in its repertoire.
    Thanked by 2tomjaw LauraKaz
  • MatthewRoth
    Posts: 1,773
    To the last one, while I realize that the papal court was not, and is not, known for excellence like we attribute to twentieth-century English choirs which revived Renaissance polyphony, it's worth noting that the practice until the reform of the liturgy was to always sing the same setting on certain occasions, e.g. the Palestrina "Sicut Cervus" was for Holy Saturday morning. So in that case, one might use other settings throughout the year as a motet, reserving the Palestrina for Holy Saturday.
    Thanked by 1tomjaw
  • M. Jackson Osborn
    Posts: 8,258
    Yes!
    There will always be a place for boy's choirs, and choirs of men and boys.
    The greater part of those who live on this side of the pond are not aware of this.
    There is a Houston Boys Choir, and I think a few others around the country - but they are not church choirs.

    I had a boys choir the Lutheran church which I served for some years.
    On greater feast days they would sing with men as a choir of men and boys.
    The boys always looked forward to this and were proud to sing with the men.
    Thanked by 1tomjaw
  • francis
    Posts: 10,081
    As a composer I resent (? Might be too strong a word) when choirs will never sing anything newer than Palestrina. The traditional parishes get “stuck” thinking it is the best (or most preferable) music for the Mass. And Palestrina wannabes are worse.
    Thanked by 1LauraKaz
  • Richard MixRichard Mix
    Posts: 2,582
    What an quaint notion, Gounod's Sicut cervus at the Easter Vigil! As to Ockeghem, the question has to be SA or TB promotion at whose expense? If we had space to rehearse two choirs at once I could have the men prepare Victoria's Vidi aquam instead of the mixed-voice-friendlier Cardoso.

    We've done a lot of 8-part music but no 12/11-part, so I guess I've never expoited "maximum number of parts your choir will accommodate". I didn't actually burn my SAB library when leaving my first job, but Lassus' exquisite 3vv. Ave Regina last April has been a rare exception to my current SATB habit. At times it's been useful to sing unison/octaves, as in Ives' Serenity &c. This we did most recently last summer, with Dvorak's Op. 99 No. 4: West Edge Opera was about to do Kát'a Kabanová and I really wanted my Czech chorister to teach me the ř. It's unlikely that Schubert's very beautiful Gott ist mein Hirt will ever replace Virgil Thomson's My Shepherd will supply, though; the logistics of SATB a cappella simply trump SSAA + piano.
  • Matthew,

    Indeed, there are some pieces which have taken a hallowed place, but would it be wrong (on account of that hallowing) to use the Palestrina setting every time one wished to sing the text?

    Francis,

    Absolutely, there is music more recent than Palestrina, and bad Palestrina knock-offs are probably hideous, and even some much more recent, but there is also older music -- Isaac comes to mind as just the most obvious. Frozen in amber doesn't represent the best use of either music or musicians. Years ago (when you were only middle aged ) I sang the same section of Handel's Messiah every Advent. Handel's a fine composer, but we never sang the other parts of the Messiah or anything else he wrote, for the rest of the year.

    Jackson,

    Without allowing girl altar boys, since they should never exist, how can we promote vocations to the priesthood and men-and-boy choirs? (You may remember that I sang in a men-and-boys choir as a youngster, when you and Francis were only middle aged).

    Liam,

    A good choir, for example, should have many Magnificats in its repertoire.

    would you take as a friendly amendment "should have many different settings of commonly used pieces (texts) including the Magnificat"?
    Thanked by 1LauraKaz
  • Schönbergian
    Posts: 1,063
    The largest issue with two- and three-part music is that it forces a portion of your choir to sing outside their comfortable range. Even SATB is a compromise, but as a true tenor I would be croaking through most of a baritone part if it were even possible in the first place.

    As for traditionalist parishes and new music, this is what happens when a deliberately reactionary attitude to everything is promoted. I remember the discussion on Messiaen's L'Ascension last year, one of his tamest works by the most devoutly Catholic mainstream composer of the twentieth century—and it was attacked for "perpetuating the cult of the performer" and not conforming to the same harmonic language as Carlo Rossini.
  • Liam
    Posts: 4,671
    "Liam,

    A good choir, for example, should have many Magnificats in its repertoire.

    would you take as a friendly amendment "should have many different settings of commonly used pieces (texts) including the Magnificat"?"

    Yea, verily.
  • Schoenbergian,

    The problem you identify is the same as the one Francis identified, except with a different end point: Palestrina v. Rossini. It is not, organically, connected to the Traditional Latin Mass. It's a cancer which grows in all sorts of communities. You've encountered in in different clothing when Catholic catalogs market "Traditional Catholic hymns", such as "Amazing Grace, Here I am Lord, and Be Not Afraid". I encountered it, first hand, when the First Communion teacher insisted that Schubert's Ave Maria was inappropriate because the children couldn't sing it. That was in a vernacular Mass parish which used the Baltimore Catechism to teach the children.
  • M. Jackson Osborn
    Posts: 8,258
    Chris

    Schubert's Ave Maria is indeed inappropriate - whether the children could sing it or not.

    Yet another case of 'I don't know it', or 'I am incompetent to teach it, therefore the children couldn't possibly sing it'.
  • Jackson,

    I was younger and more stupid then than I am now, and I let myself be talked into using the Schubert.

    Indeed. This same teacher insisted that the music be all kid-friendly in other ways, too, but (fortunately) more sensible heads prevailed.
  • SirIggle
    Posts: 9
    The largest issue with two- and three-part music is that it forces a portion of your choir to sing outside their comfortable range.


    One can easily remedy this by not having every member of the choir sing every piece. For obvious reasons you don't want to do it too often, but going down to a smaller group for select pieces on occasion is reasonable in my opinion.
  • Siriggle,

    An alternative to not doing this too often is this: vary the choir members who get a rest. One could sing a 2-part Lassus piece, a three part Byrd and a four-part Koerber or Giffen in the same Mass, I suspect, and thus give some choir members a rest; on a future Sunday one could sing 2 DIFFERENT parts (SSA, instead of TBB, for example) and thus vary the textures?
    Thanked by 1SirIggle
  • Liam
    Posts: 4,671
    FWIW, SATB singing in choirs often involves pressing mezzos and baritones into service in parts that do not suit their best voices. Generally speaking, most women are mezzos, most men are baritones in a roughly normal distribution. True SATB voices are the outliers. A two part work for mezzo and baritone voices will cover more ground well.
    Thanked by 2LauraKaz CHGiffen
  • Schönbergian
    Posts: 1,063
    Generally speaking, most women are mezzos, most men are baritones in a roughly normal distribution.
    That untrained voices may prefer singing in these ranges in no way guarantees the above statement. Most women are much more comfortable singing in a choral soprano range once they have learned to avoid pushing the chest voice up too far; the difference between mezzo-soprano and soprano mostly relates to tessitura and maximum vocal weight. As for male voices, even true tenors will be hard-pressed to sing real tenor parts without proper training; since bass lines usually lie below the break, they are more universally accessible to all voices without the ability to knit the two registers together.

    For evidence of the above, compare Bruckner's alto parts (written for female singers) to his English contemporary Stanford who assumed adult falsettists. One would be hard-pressed to hand both works to the same alto section and expect an equal result.

    Lastly, I have never met a trained professional female singer who was unable to sing soprano, and essentially all of the "altos" with which I work are sopranos who cultivated singing in and below the break with proficiency. I have trained several singers who self-identified as contraltos to open up their upper register and access the soprano range without inhibiting the lower register which they had usually sufficiently developed.

    An alternative to not doing this too often is this: vary the choir members who get a rest. One could sing a 2-part Lassus piece, a three part Byrd and a four-part Koerber or Giffen in the same Mass, I suspect, and thus give some choir members a rest; on a future Sunday one could sing 2 DIFFERENT parts (SSA, instead of TBB, for example) and thus vary the textures?
    This is an excellent idea and prevents the appearance of exclusion.
  • Liam
    Posts: 4,671
    I appreciate that assessment from the professionally trained side of things, but stick by my general statement of the state of affairs outside that, which is based not just on my own experience by on British music articles I've read decades ago (from before the Internet era) that indicated that mezzo/baritone ranges predominated roughly 60% of women's and men's voices, respectively, and that true SATB voices fell outside that (roughly 20% each on either side of each those peaks, as it were) - that explained a lot of what I've noticed then and since in amateur choirs (which is the vast bulk of them) and in the pews in Catholic congregations, which are not normally raised from an early age to develop true SATB voice part singing. It's not all a matter of fach (individual vocal quality, shall we say), but also of register. Most men and women are not trained vocalists, and that includes members most Catholic choirs in the USA, most of whom are lucky if they get *choral* training, but they are still not getting voice training for their individual voices (individual voice training doesn't really happen in the context of a weekly choir rehearsal).

    Based on what you've said, however, it indicates many choirs in the field may well be better off with three-part voicings of SABar. Which is relevant to the original question from the Chris.
    Thanked by 2tomjaw CHGiffen
  • Richard MixRichard Mix
    Posts: 2,582
    better off with three-part voicings of SABar

    In practice I find music so marketed unsuited in tessitura to almost everybody. What seems to be suggested is that the ideal 8vv piece would be scored SMMATRRB. This seems (overlooking the unison passages) the distribution in Mendelssohn's Op. 72 No. 2, more or less the case in Bruckner's Ave Maria, and less so in Brahms' pieces which tend to a double choir SATB.
  • Liam
    Posts: 4,671
    Yes, especially if the A is flexible enough to accommodate true altos (male) and contraltos (female) if they are chorally companionable! Not particularly interested in sopranists (male) but one thing I learned in shape-note singing was to appreciate how wonderful it can be to have sex-mixed SATB voice sections.

  • Liam
    Posts: 4,671
    Btw, the inimitable Ysaye Maria Barnwell (whose own vocal range is impressive....) in this video from 2015 eventually (about 6+ minutes in) focuses on something that I've noticed across the political divides of the last generation*: the near cessation of singing by American people in their mass gatherings (other than perhaps awful renditions of the national anthem at sporting events). She also is a great coach of ... congregational singing, as it were, and she comes up from that tradition. I think that is something many leaders of singing are having to confront within our churches, and it has connections to the texture issues Chris raised in his initial questions, even if the applications in this particular video are generally not sacred.

    If you watch to the end from the beginning, you can see she's a pro at this.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hY6svYv39tI

    * She identifies the Occupy movement as what caught her attention this regard, but it goes back further than that.


    PS: One of the glories of some of Sweet Honey in The Rock's concerts was when they'd end them with the audience/congregation singing to them as they left the stage.

    Thanked by 1LauraKaz
  • Felicia
    Posts: 95
    I was taught that a major distinction between voice types is timbre, the difference in timbre between soprano and mezzo-soprano corresponding to that between tenor and baritone. Also, one can hear the difference between these voice types even in amateur singers.
    Thanked by 1M. Jackson Osborn
  • Felicia,

    Picking up on your point, I have a question: should people sing outside their timbre-register, in order to make certain kinds of music possible for an ensemble which wouldn't otherwise be possible?
  • M. Jackson Osborn
    Posts: 8,258
    People should not be asked to sing outside their register because doing so can do serious damage to the vocal chords and then may not be able to sing at all.

    Some people, though, have very wide ranges and are comfortable in singing in various registers.

    Some are able to sing out of register on occasion, but should not be expected to do so very often.

    Then I have heard what really were lady basses and female tenors

    Male altos are cultivated in England and are encountered elsewhere across the pond.
    They are a rarity in the US - though we are beginning to catch up!
    Thanked by 3Liam CHGiffen tomjaw
  • Jackson,

    You would, therefore, assert, that 3-voice, 2-voice and other-combinations are preferable to forcing everything into an SATB mold?
  • M. Jackson Osborn
    Posts: 8,258
    Chris -

    It is obvious that in order to avoid harming anyone's voice 3 or 2 voiced music is the preferable option if a singer is uncomfortable singing out of his or her natural range.
  • CHGiffenCHGiffen
    Posts: 5,000
    Maybe it's the lack of numbers, but I have some problems with the mindset that we have to downsize from SATB to 2- or 3- voice combinations (eg. SABar or MzTB). With enough and varied singers, why not move up (at least sometimes) to 5- or 6- voice works, such as SMzATB (or SATBarB) or SMzATBarB. The latter 6-part voicing, for example, allows for the comfort of mezzos and baritones as well as the true sopranos, altos, tenors, and basses.

    Why not give my 6-part Ave verum corpus or my 5-part "Bring us, O Lord God" a try. Performances in the USA seem to be virtually nonexistent, although Europe has proven much more receptive. The following are best viewed directly in YouTube (as they are scrolling scores):

    Ave Maria a 6 - Charles H. Giffen
    width="1280" height="720">

    Bring us, O Lord God - Charles H. Giffen
    width="1280" height="720">



    Thanked by 1M. Jackson Osborn
  • Liam
    Posts: 4,671
    In the evolution of textures of vocal harmony in Western sacred music, a melody paired with another contrapuntal voice line, and underlaying a bass line below them, was a long-lived thing perhaps for this practical reason, with less of need to deliver complex harmonic progressions. The addition of ensemble instruments (especially in princely chapels: for example, think San Marco in Venice when it was purely a palatine chapel, and the Chapel Royal in London) allowed for more complex developments.

    All that said, I don't mean to say that 2 or 3 voices is superior in all respects. It may be that >4 voices is also an appropriate approach when resources permit it or militate for it. What 4 voices means depends a great deal on the specific demands of the music desired vs the actual abilities of the singers no less than 2 voices, 3 voices, 5-8 voices.
  • M. Jackson Osborn
    Posts: 8,258
    Indeed!
    I have always regretted that SATB became the default texture for western choral writing.
    Six, eight, and more (sometimes many more) voices provide for a richness of expression that a mere four can't express.
    Of course, as Chris is pleading, there are those places which do good to have the mere four voices or less. And there is no dearth of music for the less, starting with Lassus's twelve motets for two equal voices.
  • francis
    Posts: 10,081
    the mere four voices

    hmm... three can provide a complete harmonic texture (but you must have truly capable vocalists that can remain on pitch for an a cappella performance if it is contrapuntal)... four allows for greater contrapuntal texture of the same with more of an anchor to the tonal center.

    with traditional harmonies, many voices can often be redundant in harmonic texture, while in modern harmonies, more voices can add to the crystallization of the same.

    so, being able to perform choral music truly depends on the type of harmonies linked to the (cap)ability of the singers employed. ...not a straightforward proposition.

    in other words, more [voices] is not necessarily better... i always let excellence [of performance] be the rule of thumb in what dictates repertoire. (beautiful Gregorian Chant is far better than badly performed parts)
  • Schönbergian
    Posts: 1,063
    I would only move down to two or three voices if a specific work demanded it or if there was a genuine inability to sing four parts. The SATB compass is not set in stone and, with a sufficiently large ensemble, enables singers to compensate for each other's weaknesses (the baritones can take the lead in higher bass parts, while the true basses will shore up the lower notes)
  • GambaGamba
    Posts: 488
    For me the intrinsic quality of a piece is much more important than its voicing. The Byrd Mass for 3 is 3pt and sublime; an SAB+org adaptation of something SATB is also 3pt, but is less-than and a loss.
    Thanked by 2MatthewRoth LauraKaz
  • Schoenbergian,

    If a piece is written for four voices (SATB) but you don't have a reliable quartet, is it better to 1)Sing the piece badly; 2) eliminate one of the parts, even editing the score to do so; 3) abandon 4-part singing by choosing 3-part settings of the same texts; or 4) abandoning polyphony all together, choosing either recto tono singing or Missa de Angelis (or My Little Pony Mass) all the time ?
  • Schönbergian
    Posts: 1,063
    I would choose 3 or 4, but if you have fewer than four singers, you need to select repertoire based on their voices rather than generalizing. If you have eight or more, you can select more varied SATB repertoire and feel confident that each singer's strengths will compensate for the others' weaknesses.

    Unlike many here, I abhor recto tono singing as pure legalism, and it is probably better to have no music at all if your ensemble cannot manage the simple antiphons available from Bartlett, Weber, and many others.
  • Schoenbergian,

    Would you take as a friendly amendment "fewer than four independently capable parts"?

    I'm not a fan of recto tono singing, but it gave a very stark version of Tenebrae this year and last. At some point, I hope, my pastor will encourage us to sing a fuller form of Tenebrae, but at least we're celebrating in in choro.

    Bartlett, Weber and others provide antiphons for the OF. That's no help, here.
  • Schönbergian
    Posts: 1,063
    Would you take as a friendly amendment "fewer than four independently capable parts"?
    No, I truly meant singers. If you have, say, three less confident singers on each independent part, they will still be able to shore up each other's weak spots and you can afford to be less judicious with repertoire selection. If you only have one voice on a part, though, individual ranges are crucial to consider.
  • ok.
  • ServiamScores
    Posts: 2,005
    As a composer I resent (? Might be too strong a word) when choirs will never sing anything newer than Palestrina. The traditional parishes get “stuck” thinking it is the best (or most preferable) music for the Mass. And Palestrina wannabes are worse.

    To say nothing if the fact that many recent popes and magisterial documents have commanded composers to continue to add to the treasury. Even if chant and polyphony are the models, they are not to be the only (or final) word. I also resent when people refuse to feature new music. I put my own music in front of my choir all the time. God didn’t give me the gift of composition merely for me to write stuff and put it in an archive in the hopes that someone else will take an interest three centuries from now.
    _______
    I think three part music is great (Dalitz’s Missa Tribus Vocibus immediately comes to mind). I’m less a fan of two part though, unless it’s only two singers, in which case it can be nice. But there’s something funny about hearing a bunch of people only divide into two parts in ordinary repertoire. Three part seems to work just fine, however because you get melody, bass, and harmonic structure.
  • God didn’t give me the gift of composition merely for me to write stuff and put it in an archive in the hopes that someone else will take an interest three centuries from now.


    Sometimes, it feels like it.
  • francis
    Posts: 10,081
    Ok... Composers Unite. I gotta finish up my hymnal and then we can discuss publishing a choral collection (in a choral book octavo) from our little cadre of composers. We cannot let beauty wither, nor the praises of the Almighty go unsung.
  • CHGiffenCHGiffen
    Posts: 5,000
    I also resent when people refuse to feature new music. I put my own music in front of my choir all the time. God didn’t give me the gift of composition merely for me to write stuff and put it in an archive in the hopes that someone else will take an interest three centuries from now.

    Alas, I'm not able to put my own music in front of my choir, since I don't have the luxury of having a choir (and the group that passes for a choir at my parish is a praise & worship choir). So, I'm left the the option in the "God didn't give me the gift ... " sentence.
  • francis
    Posts: 10,081
    CHG... I may be wrong, but it appears you are the most 'performed' composer on this forum... yes?
  • CHGiffenCHGiffen
    Posts: 5,000
    I rather doubt that, francis. Although I'm probably not aware of pieces that have been sung for which I don't have recordings or direct information.