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Songs of Celebration: Making an Old Work New Again

Songs of Celebration, Mvt. 3

Listen to Movement 3, Song to the Holy Spirit in the Choral section of the Recordings page.

What does a composer do with the “older pieces” in their catalog?

Some of these early works were learning projects; the composer who created the first sketches was not as skilled as the one who finally completed the piece Does the composition hold up years later? Or is this a work that should be remembered for what it taught the composer, but not pursued in current times?

Hopefully there is room to present at least some of these older works, the ones that still have expressive power and relevance to current audiences. There may also be the option of revising or expanding the original composition, if the material is truly worthy. One such case is a work of mine called Songs of Celebration, from 1986.

Songs of Celebration was commissioned by R. Steven Houser and the congregation of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Old Lyme, Connecticut. My piece was created for soprano solo, choir, string quintet and organ; all of these were resources that the church’s music program could provide. In accepting the commission, I was asked to set poetic texts by Elizabeth Randall-Mills, a member of the congregation at that time. Her texts often graced the Sunday morning church bulletins of the congregation.

A composer may have reason to worry when a request comes to set texts from an unknown source! Sacred texts in particular are sometimes a source of consternation. Will the poems present viable, contemporary imagery, or will they rely on antiquated and overused ideas? Fears of mushy, overdone 19th century romanticism rise to the surface! Will the theological content be acceptable to a wide audience and to myself as well, a dedicated Lutheran? Does the text allow for the inclusion of music? Will the use of music bring a new dimension to the poetry, or just get in the way? There are wonderful texts out there that should always be read and not subjected to a musical setting.

I requested samples of the poet’s work and received a packet of materials in the mail. The package did indeed include poems printed on the back of Sunday morning church bulletins. And lo, to my surprise and delight, they were very good!

Elizabeth’s poems were more than very good; they were sublime. Her language was always eloquent and inspiring. I was particularly drawn to a poem called The Paschal Presence, which landed up as the text for the second movement of my composition.

Acclaim the Resurrected Christ’s

unceasing life within our life –

where severed lives are rebound,

where peoples bend toward common peace –

the wounding and the wounded cleansed –

the Risen Christ is raising us.

O marvel! Here is Paschal Power

creating gardens in our earthliness.

Easter always is in flower . . . God with Faithful freshening

forever is disclosing Christ.

A worthy text fires the imagination. In setting Elizabeth’s poem, I decided to forgo the use of the choir and create a movement that featured only the soprano soloist, in addition to the organ and strings. A prominent solo for the quintet’s violist replaces the choir; much of this instrumental line is based on the ancient Christian hymn, Victimae Paschali Laudes (Christians to the Paschal Victim), the only use of borrowed material in the composition.

Victimae Pascháli Laudes, from the Liber Usualis (excerpt)

View on YouTube

Combining this very historic and expressive Gregorian melody within my overall setting of Elizabeth’s poem provided a unique, intimate dimension to the middle movement and wonderful compositional challenges for my developing technique.

The outer movements feature the choir prominently; the ensemble works with the soprano soloist to present the poet’s ideas. Movement three, Song to the Holy Spirit, departs from the Easter themes of the first two movements. presenting an energetic, stimulating prayer to the Holy Spirit, suitable to the season of Pentecost.

Holy Spirt of God

blow our dark to flame;

let our voices blaze

with music of God’s Name.

Be our Singing Master

and we will be God’s choir

Holy Spirit of Light,

O bestow thy Fire.

There was only one slight problem with selecting this text for the project: it was short! This was the first and only time in my career when I approached the poet and asked if she could make her poem more substantial! Elizabeth graciously said yes; four more stanzas were quickly created. Song to the Holy Spirit was composed to reflect the hymn anthem tradition; the primary melody was mine. The tune is heard four times in addition to a choral Alleluia section. Below is an excerpt from the third stanza, where the soprano presents a varied form of the melody:

Songs of Celebration received its premiere on June 1, 1986, featuring the piece’s original instrumentation: soprano, choir, string quintet and organ. I travelled to the church from my home in Ohio to conduct the final rehearsals and the performance.

Over the years, the piece has had several performances. The latest opportunity is about to take place at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Cincinnati. Dr. Kevin Seal, the Director of Worship and Music at the church honored me by including this work in his plans for a Spring 2023 choral concert featuring the musicians of the congregation, plus a hired chamber orchestra. Kevin had more than enough instrumentalists on hand to cover my piece, as he was also programming Felix Mendelssohn’s Psalm 42. From this situation came a new opportunity: would I like to expand my original work into one that is written for a chamber orchestra? The musicians were already engaged to play a concert; they were onsite and available.

The proper answer to this invitation: Of course! In the summer of 2022, I began work to update Songs of Celebration to include added strings and a quintet of wind instruments. The primary question was to determine where wind instruments fit into a work that had been composed without them almost forty years earlier! The parts for both winds and strings had to be reasonable, playable within a very limited rehearsal frame. It is easy to write hard parts; the challenge comes when you must tell yourself to be reasonable.

Hopefully this will be the case with this new version of an old work. The winds sometimes double choral and/or organ parts, a typical technique used in situations such as this. But I did look for a few places to create more distinctive passages for the winds alone that will add new dimensions to this composition.

I have always tried to create musical works that are viable and interesting to the listener, compositions that will maintain their relevance not only when premiered, but in the years to come. Songs of Celebration is one of my projects that still holds up; I am proud of my work here. If you are in the Cincinnati area on Sunday April 23, 2023, please join us at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Kenwood and join us in our celebration of the Easter and Pentecost seasons.


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