Earlier in the year I shared some thoughts on structure.
Structures still worry me. They’re possibly one of the areas I spend the most time worrying about, although ironically they’re often one of the areas of my compositions that just seem to fall into place. We worry about how we’ll shape ideas, where we place them, and how we manage our instrumental forces. Even if we don’t do this consciously, it’s part of the process.
However, I have rarely considered how this plays in a large scale work. In such a creature, each of the individual movements must function not only as a piece in its own right, fulfilling all of the above criteria and more, but it must also serve as part of a larger whole. In terms of creating cohesion, there are a number of elements I’ve tried to take into account:
Order of movements / structure of texts
I’ve consciously fiddled with the traditional order Requiems are presented. The fact I’ve interspersed other texts helps with this; in terms of telling a story with both the liturgical and non-liturgical textures, and musically, it made more sense to present them in a slightly different order. The Requiem begins with the Introit (as traditional), and ends with the Lux Aeterna (less traditional). The Introit is presented first not only due to its usual position, but also because it’s the first part of the work I thought of. The initial melody came to me, and sparked off the process that made me start writing this work, which although having resided on my to do list for some time, I had had no inspiration for up until that point!
This directly links to how the individual movements are structured, with regards to their texts. This was also done to ensure they make sense, ‘story’ wise and musically, and when considered alongside the work as a whole. Non-traditional texts tend to be sandwiched in between liturgical texts, although this isn’t the case throughout.
The tonal links between the movements were something I considered very early on, when trying to envisage how the Requiem would work as a whole. I quite quickly rejected the idea of dominants and subdominants, alongside the idea of keeping the whole piece in the same key. Although I wanted the work to be as tonally coherent as possible, I didn’t want to take that route- despite it being implemented by many other Requiem composers, and being a very traditional way of moving between movements. I decided to move up in semitones or tones; the first movement actually modulates up a semitone, into the key of the second, but the difference between the second and third is a semitone (D to Eb). These links make musical sense to the ear, although sound more ‘different’ to one another than using the directly related keys mentioned above. The semitone interval also has an uneasy edge to it, which relates directly to the subject matter – especially as it travels away from the initially established key of Db. The tension created by this is then slowly released as it moves back towards initially established key as the Requiem comes to an end.
Use of forces
It’s all too easy to write whatever you want to hear, for that reason and that reason alone. I’m sure lots of composers do it. However, I’ve been through the process of performing a large scale choral work. I’ve worked on it as a conductor, a chorus member, a soloist, an accompanist and as a member of the orchestra. While I’m lucky to have had all of those experiences, it means I’ve also experienced the negatives which can be presented to each of those roles. I’ve also worked with many musicians fulfilling each of these roles, and listened to their many complaints! Naturally, as a result of my frustration in the past, these are all things I’ve taken into account within this work.
This is a choral work, not an operatic one. The choir is the main focus. Solos are present, but not to the extent where the choir will find themselves wondering if they’re really relevant at all. There are solos for each section of the choir – whether they come from within the choir or from externally is more a question for anyone performing the work, but I would potentially have the leader of each section as the soloist, both giving them a chance to shine, making the choir feel more included (rather than bring in someone from outside of their ranks), and meaning that the soloist isn’t then sitting doing nothing for the rest of the choral piece.
As above, the choir is to feel included throughout. There will be some orchestral only sections, but these will be used to complement and promote the choir, not as a way to exclude them. Furthermore, care is taken to ensure that each choral part is well voiced and sing-able. Having sung contemporary music in the past, it’s amazing how few composers bear this in mind, expecting singers to find notes in the middle of a cluster with no guidance whatsoever. In fact, it amazes me that this point is brought up so often in texts about writing for voices, and reiterated by lecturers, but yet so often ignored.
Any orchestral musician will sympathise with this one. There is nothing more frustrating than sitting through any work and hardly playing. I therefore made a couple of promises to the orchestral musician in me:
– There would be no parts that play just in a single movement and that is that. How frustrating is that – not only for the players who have to sit through the whole thing, but also in the world where deps or players have to be paid for the gig, to pay for a player to ‘rest’ all night!
– Each ‘part’ would have a vital role to play – be this a solo section or just a key role. Again, nothing more annoying than just playing static chords that you feel are unimportant and just part of a large texture.
I’m a big believer in giving each movement a name; however, these will be derived from the texts used, as is often the case in such a piece.
The world “Requiem” will fall in the title, but it’s not the only word. Some people have mentioned to me if this word is even technically correct, due to not using purely the liturgical texts. However, in the more contemporary compositional world, the word Requiem is used to describe any sacred composition that sets religious texts to music. The majority of the texts utilised can be described as religious texts, even if they’re not all Christian.
Of course, the above aren’t all the elements I’ve taken into account. Style, tempi, time signatures and rhythmic elements are just a few of the others, that I’ll perhaps elaborate on at another time. I will mention, however, that I’ve managed to use one of my favourite time signatures – 7/8.
Will it work as a whole?
Until I’ve finished short scoring the entire work – hopefully by the end of the coming week – I won’t know how successful all of these elements will be. As happy as I am with the movements I’ve finished already, that doesn’t mean they will work together wonderfully, despite all of the elements I’ve taken into consideration.
Of course, objectivity is important, and something that’s always hard for composers to gauge of their own works. Thankfully I have several other pieces that need completing over the summer, so I am able to distance myself from the Requiem for a little while after completing the short scoring stage, to hopefully help me gauge how well it functions as a larger scale work. That, and a little help from my friends..!