Well, after a few final tweaks to notes and typesetting, today I passed the completed scores on to David Flood, Organist and Master of the Choristers at Canterbury Cathedral, so that he could begin to work on the piece with the Trebles. To be honest, I don’t think it will take them very long to learn it at all – they are very talented musicians who sing seven services a week and regularly tackle repertoire far more complex than my piece!

Having passed it over, it’s now a case of waiting – perhaps for a question or two from David – there may be something in the score that I haven’t made clear or something that he feels doesn’t quite work.

With under two weeks until the Baptism, at least I don’t have to wait too long to hear my piece performed. I’m hoping that I may be allowed to take a recording – if so, I’ll post it on here, and make the final complete copy available to view and purchase, should you wish to use the piece with your own singers.

Final draft

In my last post, you could hopefully see from the image that I had finished the melody and had mapped out the harmony of the accompanying, but hadn’t got particularly far with the accompaniment patters. One restriction on the accompaniment for the first performance is that, because the service is taking place in the Eastern Crypt of Canterbury Cathedral, the only instrument for accompaniment is a small one manual chamber organ with three stops (8′, 4′ & 2′). Originally built to accompany Tudor music in the Quire, it is more than capable of filling the space, but the restrictions it imposes on me is both that the accompaniment must easily lie under the hands – there are no pedals to take the bass notes, or a sustain pedal as you would get on a piano, and the dynamic range is restricted due to the small number of stops – an organ doesn’t play louder or quieter depending on how hard you press the keys like a piano would, so the dynamic contrasts can only be made by adding or reducing the number of stops, or what is called more correctly, the registration.

Personally, I find it easier to compose on a piano, but I was careful to regularly try my accompaniment out on an organ, just with a single 8′ flute stop, to make sure that what worked on the piano (and in my mind), worked equally well on the organ.

There are two main styles to the accompaniment: one loosely based on an arpeggio-style pattern, and one on repeated syncopated chords. Both of these include my own fingerprint of added notes that aren’t in the basic triad, and some counter-melodies hidden within the accompaniment textures. To give the piece a sense of completion, I wanted to return to the opening style towards the end – to give the piece a sense of winding down, of regaining the calmness that the opening held; the repetition of the opening melodic material and text helped to make this easier. The change in the middle to the more syncopated style gave the piece a drive and a contrast. It is essential in a good piece of music to carefully balance repetition with contrast. Hopefully I’m somewhere close to getting this right in this piece – I’ll have to wait and hear the opinion of others to see if they agree.

First stages in typesetting

OK, I’ll confess, I’m a bit of a geek when it comes to typesetting. I like to make my score look as professional as possible. I also like to get some of the music into Sibelius (my preferred choice of score writing package at the moment) and then continue to work in pencil on the half-finished score. If you look closely at the image below, you’ll see that I’ve already started to do this – adding tempo direction that wasn’t there before, some repeat bars as I decided to repeat the opening theme – first time with a solo treble, and the full treble line joining on the repeat.

Early draft of typeset work.
Early draft of typeset work.

You’ll also noticed that I’ve started to think more carefully about the harmony of the accompaniment. I think that I said in an earlier post that writing a piece based on a single melodic line, without other voices to build the vocal textures, is something that I haven’t done for a while – my other mst recent pieces have been for full SATB choir, sometimes with further divisions. I’ve been thinking in terms of chords, and reasonably conventional chord sequences – at one point I found myself writing a complete cycle of fifths, but decided that was too obvious! Despite this, my use of harmony includes a number of added non-harmonic notes; these can be dissonances that may or may not be resolved, they can be notes that are added as part of hidden counter-melodies within the accompaniment, or it may just be a chord that seems to ‘work’ – yes, I firmly believe that composers should trust their ears and if it sounds right, use it! However, the caveat to that is to ensure that it really does sound right, and you’re not just settling for something that might be ok, but could be better; is that phrase really as good as you can make it? I’m not pretending to get it right every time, but I do question everything that I write.

By the time I write again, I’m expecting that I will have a complete first draft… better get on with it!

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.

Composing and developing motifs


Right from the start, the final performance of the composition is in my mind: who will be performing it? how many parts? will there be accompaniment? what is the performance venue like? etc. Obviously many of these will change in subsequent performances (we all hope that there will be more than one performance of our compositions, don’t we?!) but I do find it useful and inspirational to be thinking about that premiere.

With this particular composition, unusually for me, I am limited to just treble voices (boy choristers), although being the Cathedral Choristers, they are very able and often split into two or three parts. The service is taking place in the crypt, and the only instrument available for accompaniment is a small one manual chamber organ with three stops (and no pedals) so this poses a few challenges, although if it were to be performed again at some point, I imagine the accompanying instrument might be significantly more versatile, so this can also be borne in mind.

First sketches of a few ideas

The image to the left (click on it to enlarge) shows how the first few ideas are taking shape. I’ve composed a short motif for the words ‘Teach us, good Lord’, which I’ve begun to develop – in particular I felt particularly inspired to use the motif for an extended ‘Amen’ section which will eventually conclude the piece. I remember once being told to make sure when performing that you have a really good opening piece, as that will capture your audience, and a really good final piece, as that is what the audience will remember most after the performance is over; I guess that composition is similar – have a good opening that captures the listener, and leave them with a good ending that carries on in their mind after the piece has finished – a bit of an ear-worm perhaps!

Also on this page are a few ideas for how I might use the voices in certain places to vary the texture, particularly the contrast between all singing in unison and singing in two – or maybe three – parts. I’ve also given thought to how some of the harmony might develop, but this is very early days, and has come from playing a few ideas at the piano rather than giving it any structured thought.

Finally there are some ideas for how the first line of text might develop, but this is the area that I am least confident about at the moment so will want to spend some time thinking about how the ideas might develop through this. It would be very easy to set the words in such a way that the text was rushed through rather quickly, and I don’t think this is the overall effect that I am after; having taken such care in choosing some excellent words, some time needs to be given for the listener to absorb these as well.

Throughout all this, lingering in the back of my mind is the pressures of writing something that both my friend and his musical family will like, and also something that the Master of the Choristers at Canterbury Cathedral feels is worthy of spending rehearsal time on; of course it would be wonderful if he went on to incorporate it into the Trebles regular repertoire, but that might be hoping for a bit too much!

By the time I write my next post, hopefully some of these ideas will have become more structured.

Starting with the text

Over the next few weeks, I shall be working on a composition for a friend of mine whose son is being Baptised in Canterbury Cathedral in a couple of months time.

I asked him for a text that he felt would be suitable for the occasion, and he came back with three possibilities, from which we decided to use the Prayer of St Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556).

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

St Ignatius Loyola was a Spanish priest and theologian who founded the Society of jesus, or Jesuits as they became more widely known.

For some visitors to my website, it might be of casual interest to see the process that I go through when composing, but I also know that my students don’t believe me when I say that they have to plan their work more carefully. Perhaps by showing what I do when I compose, it might give them an insight into what makes a (hopefully) successful final piece.

My next post will show how I’m progressing with some melodic motifs, beginning to get an idea of the word setting, and perhaps a few harmonic ideas.