One major aspect that sets choral composing apart from other music writing is, of course, the use of words. Choosing an appropriate text to set to music is often the most crucial element to a successful choral piece. Sometimes it may be that the words you will set are chosen for you, rather than you having the first say. This is often the case with church or sacred music, where, say, you might be asked to write a musical setting of the Mass, Canticles (Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis) or an anthem or motet for a specific time or day of the church year.

Ben Parry © SPT Photography
Ben Parry
© SPT Photography

Concert works might offer you a greater degree of flexibility and can often fit into a particular theme, which can be fun to research. Sometimes you may have the luxury of a poet writing brand new lyrics for you to set. The other essential element, for me at least, is sensitive – and sensible – voice writing. As a singer myself, I always approach the composition of choral works from a singer’s point of view. Are the vocal lines coherent? Are they performable? Are the harmonies and textures logical? The third consideration, which applies to all composing, is how the listener or audience perceives the music in performance (for that, after all, is the ultimate aim); elements of the music that draw the listener in and therefore make the piece more interesting. Personally, I find (increasingly, to my frustration) that a lot of choral music written today is little more than “mood” music – “effect” rather than “affect”. Of course, it’s entirely up to the individual as to what sounds good to them – music is, after all, the most subjective of all the arts – but it must be the composer’s responsibility to give voice to the meaning of the words in a conscientious and intelligent way.

There are other challenges which may be thrown at the composer, such as whether the composition is for unaccompanied voices or with some sort of accompaniment. Both styles offer interesting possibilities, as well as an obligation on the part of the composer to understand the instruments being written for. Most accompanied sacred music will require the use of organ accompaniment: don’t attempt to write for organ unless you really know what you are doing – organists are notoriously particular! Thought also needs to be given to the extent that the accompaniment might assist the vocal lines, or whether to remain largely independent. Most commissioned works (whereby a choir or organisation requests a composer to write a piece) will often involve a performance in a specific venue, and therefore offer a particular type of acoustic. This can have a dramatic effect on the actual performance of the piece, and should always be considered in the compositional process. There is also a large degree of responsibility on the part of the composer to be aware of the ability of the singers you are writing for. Choirs come in all shapes and sizes, as well as a variety of standards! You need to consider elements such as vocal range, division of parts, melodic shape and phrase lengths, harmonic complexity and so on. Some of the simplest choral compositions (for example, John Tavener’s The Lamb) can sound hugely impressive when sung by any choir, whatever their ability.

It can only be up to the composer how to roll out the process of setting words to music. Some composers like to plan an overview of the whole piece, defining key, meter, tempo and, most importantly, the rhythm and shape of the text, before committing a note to paper. Others prefer a more organic approach, starting off with the kernel of an idea and seeing how this might develop as the composition evolves. The use of a piano or similar keyboard instrument to aid the process is a hotly debated topic – should the melodic and harmonic structure be simply in the composer’s head, rather than transferred to and from a keyboard? Certainly, it can be argued that the percussive effect of a piano doesn’t bear any relation to the production of the human voice, and therefore the use of keyboard compromises a more natural approach to writing.

The other major evolution in the last twenty years has been the development of computer notation to facilitate the production of scores. The days of handwritten choral scores, often with barely legible notation and lyrics, are almost a thing of the past. Many “conventional” composition teachers will espouse the use of pencil and manuscript paper for the serious composer, but, in the right hands, computer notation (Sibelius and Finale are the market leaders) can be a useful and powerful tool. The playback facility – being able to review what one has just written – and even plug-ins for proof-reading can be beneficial and save valuable time. The end result, in my opinion, needs to be a composition that offers interest, is carefully and thoughtfully constructed, and moves the listener in any way.