By now, you’ve probably seen the video of four men singing Ola Gjeilo’s Ubi Caritas in a stairwell. In fact, you’ve probably had several people forward it to you because they know you’re involved in church music. Just in case you missed it or would like to see it again:
Like you, I enjoyed the video. But I couldn’t just stop there; I had to analyze the whole phenomenon. A few thoughts:
Kings Return can really sing.
I had never heard of this group, and after doing a bit of online research, I get the impression they’re still making a name for themselves. From what I can hear, they deserve every bit of the viral fame they’ve gained. What a clever way to gain a massive online following in a matter of days—even if that wasn’t their intention.
Listeners are amazed to find themselves enjoying chant….only this isn’t really chant.
Online commenters are marveling at how beautiful Gregorian chant can be. Some are urging Kings Return to make an all-chant album. But here’s the thing: as Corpus Christi Watershed readers already know, chant generally isn’t sung in four-part harmony. It consists of a single melodic line, which traditionally has been adorned with only the simplest harmonies. Various composers have written motets by harmonizing chant melodies, but that’s not the norm for how chant is performed.
Nor did Ola Gjeilo simply harmonize an existing chant melody to compose this Ubi Caritas. As he writes on the inside cover of the motet published by Walton Music:
As with Maurice Durufle’s beautiful Ubi Caritas from 1960, this setting also draws inspiration from the Gregorian chant tradition. While reflective of the chant style, this composition is entirely original and is not based on any existing chants.
So, what makes Gjeilo’s composition chant-like? That’s a bit subjective, isn’t it? I’d say it’s because the piece has a simple melody with a limited range. It’s also syllabic, meaning there’s generally only one note per syllable of text.
Anyway, if Kings Return made an all-Gregorian chant album, it would probably sound great but it wouldn’t sound like this. Would people still love it? I’m thinking back to that Benedictine Chant album that topped the charts in the mid-1990s and wondering whether a broad audience would embrace Gregorian chant today. Judging by what I hear blasting from car stereos on my way to and from Mass, today’s “music” is devoid of harmonic complexity. Take away the profanity, the racial slurs, and the oppressive rhythm, and it would cease to exist (Deo volente). At least chant has melody. Perhaps the time is right for a mainstream revival.
The SATB version of Ubi Caritas is spectacular.
Kings Return does a wonderful job with Gjeilo’s motet. But don’t deprive yourself of the original SATB setting. The greater range of voices brings out the full potential of this piece:
A great motet can work for different voicings, though. Ubi Caritas is available for purchase in SATB, SSAA, and TTBB settings. In addition, Gjeilo himself has recorded a version in which he interjects piano improvisations between the choir’s phrases.
This piece is learnable.
Are you intrigued by Gjeilo’s motet but not sure if your choir is ready to learn it? The modern harmonies may sound challenging to a choir that’s just beginning to explore SATB repertoire. But my church choir learned this piece several years ago at a time when we were solid on a lot of Renaissance repertoire but hadn’t sung much modern music.
Here are the main challenges we encountered:
- There are some “crunchy” chords. Be prepared to play them on the piano—and have patience with your singers.
- There’s soprano divisi. You’ll need to balance your people strategically. But if your choir is like mine, you’re stacked with sopranos and thin in the other sections!
- Tuning is challenging at the recapitulation. The soprano line tends to go flat here. If you remind your singers to sing with forte intensity and listen to everything but themselves, I think you’ll find that the tuning fixes itself.
- The ending calls for a huge crescendo and decrescendo. You really have to go for it, or the whole effect will be lost. Why not include crescendo/decrescendo exercises in every choral warmup from now on?
Your choir’s motivation to sing such a cool piece will probably override these and other musical challenges. In time, Ubi Caritas will become one of your chestnuts, just as it has for us.
There’s a reason why Ubi Caritas remains Ola Gjeilo’s top-selling motet at Walton Music, despite the fact that he has since composed many other impressive works. This is an immensely satisfying piece to have in your choir’s repertoire. Kudos to Kings Return for introducing it to a wider audience.