To be commissioned to write a piece for an orchestra is objectively a pretty big deal. There are so many moving parts to deal with before you get to that first downbeat of the first rehearsal that it’s a miracle it happens at all. You have to have a hundred-ish musicians of sufficient technical expertise, gather them together at the same time, and have them be fed, rested, and sober (We’re looking at you, trombones). You have to have an ensemble leader who knows how to rehearse efficiently, who knows the music, and who is okay with being in front of a hundred people who could at one point think them an imbecile (It also helps to be charming!). You need administrators. Good ones. They need to deal with scheduling, advertising, all the exceptions for everything that has been carefully planned, venues being over-booked, venues catching on fire, artists being over-booked, artists catching on fire, and so on…
There’s also a certain amount of cultural cachet attached to symphonic music that owes itself to the legacy of the composers who wrote it. Composers like Mahler, Beethoven, and Shostakovich wrote big symphonic music believing that they were creating the biggest music of their time. Their audiences granted the music a reverence to match the intent and to this day, we still attach this reverence to symphonic music.
So if writing for orchestra is regarded as being a pretty big deal, it should then follow that people will look at composers who regularly write for orchestra as composers who have “made it”. I experienced a very visceral reminder of this cultural milieu when I sat down for coffee with composer Rodney Sharman, whom I consider to be among the most well established of Canadian composers. We spoke at length about all the popular topics composer talk about (Mainly coffee, what we were writing, and what we wished we were writing instead) but it was when he expressed regret he couldn’t gain traction as a choral composer that I stopped him and asked him to explain himself.
“I feel like I’m a choral composer, but I don’t think anybody else does. I honestly don’t know what it is”.
Rodney grew up as a boy chorister and is often be found in the bass section of local choirs when his schedule allows him the luxury. He’s quite aware of what choir can and can’t do. Also, at least in my experience, choirs are very receptive to new music which is not at all my impression of the orchestral world.
“Even though my music is not always conventionally diatonic, or what you might describe as the every-man level, every part is a melody so that every part sounds good by itself which is the secret of good choral music”.
The choir I sing in, Vox Humana of Victoria, is currently preparing one of his pieces for an upcoming concert: Requiescat, previously commissioned and performed by Vox Humana in 2015. It’s easily my favourite piece on the program and I say this knowing we are performing two of my own works.
Requiescat is a setting of a text by Oscar Wilde; an elegy mourning the death of the poet’s sister. Rodney’s setting is intimate – like a whisper inches away from your ear – and is intoned in a slow rhythmic dirge with lots of space for us to enjoy the sound of delicious harmonies decaying.
Tread lightly, she is near
Under the snow,
Speak gently, she can hear
The daisies grow.
All her bright golden hair
Tarnished with rust,
She that was young and fair
Fallen to dust.
Lily-like, white as snow,
She hardly knew
She was a woman, so
Sweetly she grew.
Coffin-board, heavy stone,
Lie on her breast,
I vex my heart alone,
She is at rest.
Peace, peace, she cannot hear
Lyre or sonnet,
All my life’s buried here,
Heap earth upon it.
“I was introduced to this poem by a teenage student who was studying with me and writing choral music. He thought about setting this for choir and changed his mind and wrote something else. I never forgot it made a great choral text.”
Rodney might be falling victim to the unfair experience of being typecast as an instrumental composer. Choirs will inevitably experience a tinge of fear at the idea of having music written for them by a composer who writes primarily for instruments. The apprehension is easily understood: There are conventions of instrumental writing that a typical choir, or even the best choir ever, can’t easily replicate because they’re just not suited to the voice. Many instrumental composers just don’t have the experience with voices to recognize when they’re asking for something unreasonable.
It gets even worse than that: saying that a musical instrument can only reach you as deeply as you can be impaled by it doesn’t feel like hyperbole to me – if anything, it’s accurate – and I think that voices impale us most deeply of all. So if you’re pushing a voice somewhere it can’t be – even if it’s something as basic as the notes being too hard – the molecular level rejection you experience touches you a little more deeply. And that can be a bad thing.
All that being said, Requiescat is a gorgeous work – and it fits snugly into the voice. My hope is that we get more of Rodney’s choral music into our folders – a hope mirrored by the composer’s family: “My mother who has only heard a couple of my choral pieces – she always felt my choral music was my best music. So I offer it to the universe and hope that it will come back and multiply”.