top of page

Writing for Choirs

Monotone (excerpt) for SATB Chorus and Piano

Choral music has always been a very natural and personal mode of expression for me. I love to write for choral forces; when we sing, we use that very instrument that is a part of our bodies. Some say that the string quartet is the most personal mode of expression. In some ways, I would agree with that statement, but the voice goes one step closer, at least for me.

I have sung with or conducted choirs for most of my life, starting with a children’s choir when I was in second grade. We sang every Sunday for an early morning service at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Philadelphia. Our director did not settle for cute little children’s songs to make our parents smile; instead, we sang unison and two-part literature that were classical in origin. This was the beginning of my education, even though I didn’t know this at the time.

Like many people, I was active in choirs throughout high school. I sang in the Concert Choir, under Ralph Barclay, who was careful to expose us to a wide variety of literature. Eventually I was able to audition for regional Honors choirs, where the challenge level was greater. In some cases, these opportunities afforded the opportunity to sing with an orchestra; I still remember performing the opening choral movements of the Mozart Requiem, by memory, with orchestra.

Joan McConnell, John Williams, Doug McConnell

It was college that truly sent me on the path to the art of choral writing. John Williams was the director of the Wittenberg University Concert Choir during my undergraduate years, and he was……fearless. Bach motets every year! Works by the Renaissance masters, and 19th-century composers such as Bruckner and Brahms. We also benefitted from a fine selection of contemporary choral works that John had discovered on his travels. And then there were the spiritual arrangements that choral singers and audiences have enjoyed over the years. So much of this literature seems lost to young singers in recent years. This is truly a tragedy and a personal rant to be discussed in a future piece……

It was John who gave me my first opportunities to write for advanced-level choral forces. My first true choral work was a challenging one for unaccompanied voices. In keeping with the times, I selected a poem by social activist Daniel Berrigan, called Prayer. Berrigan’s poem called for peace and forgiveness, despite the murderous deeds of our society; the locations of some of these horrible atrocities were “shouted out” in the poem: Hiroshima, Guernica, Selma, Sharpeville, Coventry, Dachau…….I applied bitonality, polychords, chromatic writing, mild extended technique and other toys that I had picked up in my music studies. Jan Bender, my composition teacher at Wittenberg, did not approve of this piece, but John Williams gave me a chance to try it out with a real choir. He provided more than sufficient rehearsal time with the choir and allowed me to conduct the piece myself. The first performance came at the OMEA State Convention in Columbus, a rather large profile debut for a young, unproven student composer.

Excerpt: Prayer (1975) Text by Daniel Berrigan; music by Doug McConnell

John Williams and later John Leman from the College-Conservatory of Music provided opportunities for me to grow as a choral composer. Fellow graduate students went out into the field and conducted choirs of their own; this afforded me the opportunity to work with their students and improve my skills.

STYLE: My choral writing is on the conservative side, but I will use more contemporary techniques when the opportunity arises. I discovered early in my career that more highly dissonant harmonies and textures did not always produce the results that I desired. Two colors were prominent when employing this harmonic language too extensively: gray and brown. I could write a biting chord on the piano that sounded wonderful; voices muted that elegance and made for a sonority that sounded far less distinct. This is not to say that you cannot write dissonant textures for a choir; of course, you can! But this device needs to be tempered and adjusted to fit the medium.

My decision to write more tonally for choirs was not greeted well by the Composition/Theory Department of CCM during my graduate days. My teachers did not attend choral concerts, so I was free to do as I wished in this area. But a choral jazz piece, presented at the end of my Masters recital almost prevented me from entering the doctoral program. Once I graduated with my DMA years later, I was in a better position to write as I truly desired, in choral music and other performance mediums.

My choral writing also makes use of more linear writing, including contrapuntal textures. Years of singing music from earlier historical eras instructed my ears and sensibilities considerably. Good choral writing requires variety in terms of texture; I sometimes despair when I hear the works of some of my colleagues in the field, composers who rely too much on homophonic textures and attractive harmonies to propel their compositions. In my teaching days, I found that students were drawn to more polyphonic passages in a piece of music and wanted to hear more. Choral directors: please take note!

MUSIC: If you go to the RECORDINGS tab on this website, you will be able to hear examples of my choral work through the years. Among the selections:

Annabel Lee: This is a setting of that famous Edgar Allan Poe poem, composed for male chorus and piano. Poe’s text seemed to demand a very Neo-Romantic setting, and that is the direction that I followed.

Monotone: The piece uses a short poem by Carl Sandburg, from his Chicago Poems collection. The text talks about the nature of beauty, as personified by the sound of rain. This was one of my first choral commissions, a short piece that strives to be as beautiful as the Sandburg poem.

Look to this Day! – The text is from the Sanskrit; it was handed to me on a Hallmark greeting card, one of my more unique commissions! Over the years, it remains one of my most performed choral pieces. Awarded Honorable Mention in the Roger Wagner International Choral Composition Competition, it is published by Gentry Press.

Set Me As a Seal: A setting of the well-known passage from The Song of Songs, composed for unaccompanied choir and solo flute.

Elijah and the Raven: my choral work includes a number of pieces that were written for the Heidelberg Concert Choir, directed at that time by Dr. Grant Cook. This was perhaps the most challenging piece that I wrote for this fine ensemble, based on a poem by William Reyer, from the Heidelberg English faculty.

Wondrous Love: An anthem setting of the well-known American hymn tune, for SSATB choir and organ or piano. A short soprano solo is also featured. Long out-of-print, unfortunately! Please contact me if you are interested in obtaining copies.

Rehearsal session for The Lockless Door, commissioned by Benjamin Lupo for the Bryan High School Concert Choir, 2019


Featured Posts
Recent News & Ruminations
Search By Tags
Follow Us
  • Facebook Basic Square
  • Twitter Basic Square
  • Google+ Basic Square
bottom of page