NE OF THE challenges of a small choir is having enough singers to pull off any kind of polyphony. Last year I came across a series of Advent motets by Deigo de las Muelas (1698-1743). He was a Spanish composer who served as the “maestro de capilla” for the cathedrals of Astorga and Santiago de Compostela. The original voicing for the 1st Sunday in Advent (“Erunt Signa in Sole”) is for SATB. However, last year this was not something we could have managed. Therefore, I studied the music (briefly, because I do everything with multiple children hanging from each of my limbs) and arranged it for SAT. If you have enough voices for SATB, the original can be found on cpdl.
I recorded each of the parts for my choir last year. Perhaps these tracks will be useful to some of you with smaller volunteer choirs this Advent:
Our YouTube channel has rehearsal videos for each individual voice. You can see where the text comes from by downloading the 1st Sunday of Advent and looking at the Gospel:
Et erunt signa in sole, et luna, et stellis,
et in terris pressura gentium
præ confusione sonitus maris, et fluctuum…
The sun and the moon and the stars will give portents,
and on earth the nations will be in distress,
bewildered by the roaring of the sea and of its waves…
Remember that 99% of the people attending Mass on Sunday have no idea what it “ought” to sound like. Music scholars might need their smelling salts and a fainting couch when they hear about this guerrilla tactic, but if you have to reduce an SATB piece to just SA, ST or SB, then do it. This will help you get started in singing some polyphony until your choir’s abilities progress. You can still pull off something pleasing to the Lord that is worlds better than a typical jingly jangly modern hymn. It is true that some pieces of music cannot be reduced because they simply lose too much beauty in the harmonic progression of the chords. This is a judgement call you will have to make.
If you just aren’t sure it will work, use your phone to record your choir singing the reduced version of whatever amazing polyphonic piece you want to try. Then let a friend, co-worker, family member, or Sharon from the soccer carpool take a listen. If they hear it and make a face like they just bit into a lemon, then fine—maybe it won’t work. But if they find it pleasant to listen to, then press on. Gloria in excelsis Deo!
Background For This Article
Anyone who has built a choir from the ground up knows that there are some things that simply cannot be circumvented no matter how badly you want to. For example, singing the full propers when your volunteer choir is just starting out is virtually impossible. So you rely on psalm tone propers and try to learn one or two full chants a month. You build from there, and every year you add to the repertoire until one day you find that your choir is not only capable of singing all of the propers for the year in full, they can even sight sing Gregorian chant. But this does not happen overnight. The process can take years. It is not for the faint of heart or the impatient soul! There are a myriad of obstacles along the way, not the least of which is sometimes…you. As music directors we are limited by our imperfections and our own gaps in knowledge. Sometimes, we are learning right alongside choir members—and that’s ok. Maybe you got thrown into the position by default because there was no one else who was remotely capable of leading a choir. I know there are a lot of music directors reading this right now who have minimal formal musical training, if any. Maybe “music director” is even too lofty a title for what you do (this is definitely true of me). You are out there, trying your best to build up something beautiful and sacred that will befit the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. You might be in it virtually alone, but you desperately want to help draw souls to Christ. And it’s hard. I know because I am right there with you.
We have seen many articles on this website of incredible scholarly insight. We have heard from the absolute best professionals in sacred music. We have benefited tremendously and soaked up every bit of knowledge offered. And now…you get to go slumming with me! Over the next few months, I will humbly offer some of the “guerrilla tactics” in sacred music that I have learned along the way. This is for all you church musicians who just got thrown into the pool even though you didn’t know how to swim. Sometimes, we are going to make the rules up as we go along. But this is always in order to glorify God as deeply as we know how. We are going to pull ourselves up by the bootstraps and make it happen!
We hope you enjoyed this guest article by Andrea Leal.