I waited patiently for the Lord… he put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. (Psalm 40)
‘New Year, New Beginnings’
Choirs were among the activities to be most severely impacted by the Covid pandemic. Community music making was silenced for nearly two years. This sent musicians and singers behind their laptop screens, jolting choir directors into looking for alternative ways to rehearse and perform safely with their choral groups. Outdoor choir rehearsals in dim November light, with a cold drizzle soddening the sheet music, were no fun.
Choirs that met regularly, either through Zoom or small group rehearsals, had more chance of surviving the pandemic. Many singers in our choirs are elderly. Some were fearful of returning to a world without social distancing and masks.
This is the reality with my own community choir, one that is replicated across much of the choral world. It is probably a rare choir that did not suffer a loss of membership at some level. Sadly some folded altogether.
Refreshing our choice of music regularly is a way of keeping our liturgies and choral events alive and meaningful.
The New Year brings with it a new choral year – ‘new year, new beginnings’, as they say. Hopefully this will be one that is uninterrupted, and a welcome return to normal. After a fragmented two years since March 2020, and with much choral rehabilitation still needed, a new year brings opportunity to look again at how we do things.
Repertoire is one of the main ingredients in sustaining interest in choirs. How many references are there in Scripture to “singing a new song”? Refreshing our choice of music regularly is a way of keeping our liturgies and choral events alive and meaningful, for both choir members and the assembly.
So let’s begin with a small selection from the excellent music of the Sacred Series from Cailíno Music Publishers. I’ve chosen seven pieces, representative of the different styles and composers in this series.
Do Not Let Your Hearts be Troubled – Patrick Killeen
This piece featured in the RTE Church Music Competition in 2001. It has an attractive refrain which could be easily learnt by ear by the congregation. The verses are from John 14 – perfect for use throughout the Easter season or for funerals throughout the year.
Guitar chords are added above the music, which is useful for many accompanists, and gives greater flexibility in performance. A flute line is introduced in the final refrain. This would work equally well if played by violin or oboe either.
Ave Maria – Bernard Sexton
Cailíno has three settings of this text in its catalogue (the others are by Fergal Carroll and Patrick Killeen). They’re all very finely-written, and all quite different. Bernard Sexton’s handling of the text uses repeated motifs throughout, making this ternary form piece easy to learn.
The attractive melody, with its suave G – F9 chord progression underneath, grabs our attention from the beginning. Indeed, in the absence of a full choir, this piece would work well with just a single voice and organ. The melody is almost always sung by the top soprano.
The fourfold repetition of “Jesu” is a powerful lead-in to the final presentation of the main theme. The text is suitable for use throughout the year – perhaps more ideal in concert setting than liturgy. Nevertheless, many churches may wish to include Marian music during the month of May. And of course the many feasts dedicated to Our Lady throughout the year.
I See His Blood Upon the Rose – Eoghan Desmond
The text chosen here is by Irish poet Joseph Mary Plunkett. With references to the crown of thorns and the Blood of Christ, it is often used for Veneration of the Cross on Good Friday. There are, however, possibilities to think outside the box for this piece. Numerous references to the presence of God in nature would make this piece eminently suitable throughout the year, or for harvest festivals too.
Eoghan Desmond has delivered a haunting setting of this text for two-part treble choir and soloist. This voicing is always so useful when there are many choirs using upper voices only. Elements of chant abound in this piece. The 7/8 time signature fits naturally with the free, chant-like melody; the use of the minor mode; the melismas in each phrase; and carefully crafted interweaving harmonies which settle on the unison.
The piece builds from a solo first verse, through a two-part choral second verse, and into the final verse where the choir is joined by the soloist. You’d need to be nicely secure in your upper register for this. It’s a short piece – performance should take no more than 2 minutes – but so worth it!
O Sacrum Convivium – Eoghan Desmond
If you have a choir that’s up for a bit of a challenge and can cope well with divisi, then here’s another offering by Eoghan Desmond that is definitely worth investing in. Once again, Desmond starts with a soloist before moving into lush harmony that while contemporary, is nonetheless tonal throughout. There is a hint of the plainsong Adoro te Devote in the opening melody. Not surprising, as O Sacrum Convivium is also a communion hymn.
Desmond increases the intensity of the polyphonic texture at two key points. On the words “recolitur memoria passionis ejus” (the memory of his passion is renewed), and the final “Alleluia”. Not one note is superfluous. This is a rich, colourful piece that is deeply satisfying for both performer and listener.
I am Your Hands – Liam Bates
Liam Bates has a few pieces in the Sacred Series, and all are worth checking out. His Agnus Dei, with echoes of Fauré’s Cantique de Jean Racine, might be a little long for your average parish Sunday liturgy, but would make a very attractive concert piece. However, I am Your Hands should really be in most choirs’ repertoire. It is suitable for liturgies throughout the year, especially where the readings speak of social action and justice.
Bates has adapted the text from the writings of Teresa of Ávila, a 16th-century Spanish mystic. The words are presented in a largely homophonic setting. The opening melodic motif rises, only to fall immediately. This idea comes in throughout – an instant invite into accessibility.
It’s a cappella, though it also lies beautifully on the fingers if your choir need a bit of keyboard support. If this is the case, don’t let the key of G flat put you off. The piece works well too if you read it in G major. And if you’re short on men’s voices, the upper two parts work excellently against each other. The keyboard can cover the full SATB harmony if needed.
Suantraí Chríost – Bernard Sexton
Sexton’s arrangement of this Scottish tune ticks many boxes. An attractively-written keyboard part, with lovely crossing over to broaden the range of the accompaniment. A well-known tune that is already melodic and haunting. Finely written harmonies in two parts, with optional descant in the final verse. And verses in both Irish and English. There’s absolutely no reason not to introduce this into your repertoire for the coming year.
A pretty, inviting piece that hopefully will find a place in the Christmas repertoire of parish, school and community choirs.
Truly I have Set my Soul – Sue Furlong
Psalm 131 is expertly set here by Sue Furlong, well-known for many years for both her choral and liturgical writing. She sets a simple homophonic refrain for assembly and SATB choir, with verses for soloists. A fairly standard form used by contemporary liturgical composers.
Furlong’s musicianship and craft shine through. The rising chromaticism in the vocal harmonies, independence of keyboard writing in the second refrain, and that surprising modulation! Not up a semitone or tone, as we might expect, but downward to the dominant. This allows the melody of the refrain to be given to the altos, with sopranos taking the descant role.
Psalm 131 is a short psalm. It would have been interesting to see how the composer would have further developed the music if there had been the opportunity for a third verse. In the three-year cycle of readings, this psalm comes up just once. But even so, this piece could be suitable as an offertory hymn or communion reflection, during Night Prayer, or as a responsorial psalm for funerals.
Ephrem Feeley is one of Ireland’s most established church music composers. His corpus of music includes over 200 pieces of liturgical music, as well as a significant output of song and chamber music.
His hymn A Joy for All the Earth was chosen as the official hymn of the World Meeting of Families and papal visit to Ireland in 2018.
Ephrem teaches Music, Choir and Religion at second-level at St. Joseph’s Mercy Secondary School, Navan, Ireland. There he directs Schola, an award-winning female voice choir.