Word Setting and Melody Writing

It’s been a little while since I last posted an update on the composition I’m working on; as a church musician, Easter does take over any spare time that I might have had (we had 11 services and rehearsals between Palm Sunday and Easter Day!). However, work has been progressing on the composition, and at the stage of writing this, the melody line and harmonic structure for the accompaniment are now complete. I use the word ‘complete’ reluctantly as I’m pretty sure that there will be a number of small changes (or maybe more significant ones) as the piece moves towards completion.

One difficulty that I have had to work hard to overcome is the fitting the natural rhythm of the words. In a nice piece of poetry, there is usually a regular pattern to the number of syllables in a line – what’s called the metre; we have it in hymns too, where a verse may have four lines with a pattern of, say, 7-6-7-6 (have you ever wondered what those numbers were next to the name of a hymn tune? they tell you exactly that – how many syllables there are in each line, so you can chose an alternative tune with the same metre and know that it should fit). Unfortunately, with this text, there isn’t a particularly regular metre – I’ve introduced the text in an earlier post, but I’ll repeat it again below so that you can see what I mean:

Teach us, good Lord, to serve you as you deserve; <-- 11 syllables to give and not to count the cost; <-- 8 to fight and not to heed the wounds; <-- 8 to toil and not to seek for rest; <-- 8 to labour and not to ask for any reward, <-- 12 save that of knowing that we do your will. <-- 10 Amen. <-- 2

There are some patterns in the text – the three lines with 8 syllables each are not only regular, but also have a similar pattern of emphasis too, so these were quite straightforward to set. However the following long line with 12 syllables disrupts that flow. After trying several different options, I settled on breaking up that line, using a small amount of repetition to create two shorter phrases:

to labour and not to ask, <-- 7 not to ask for any reward, <-- 8

A line with an odd number of syllables can sound, as it does here, incomplete, emphasising the comma, whereas a line that has an even number of syllables has a sense of conclusion to it.

I used that same theory to break up the final line and give an odd number of syllables (7) which seemed to draw the melody into the ‘Amen’.

save that of knowing that we do your will, <--10 knowing that we do your will. <-- 7 Amen...

As you’ll see from previous posts, the main melodies that I used, particularly for the opening and the recapitulation in the Amen, came very quickly. However, setting the middle part of the text (with it’s uneven metre in places) went through several different iterations. I knew that harmonically, I wanted the piece to go in a slightly different direction in the middle, to provide contrast with the relatively static harmony of the opening ideas which predominantly moves between chords I and IV (B-flat and E-flat). Close inspection of some of the images in previous posts may uncover some of the ideas that never made it to the final piece! Of course, it’s not unusual for composers to discard material as they go – sometimes keeping it to one side to use in another piece sometime in the future; Elgar was known for having a pool of melodies in his head that he would wait to use when the right situation came along.

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