INGING THAT FIRST SATB MOTET can feel like a massive leap for a choir. The challenge for the choir director is to find a piece that’s straightforward enough to learn yet still satisfying enough to sing.
If you’re in this position, your first instinct may be to ignore Renaissance works. After all, when pieces are written in a contrapuntal style, each section must have the confidence to make entrances independently and carry the line. But if you choose a simple canon, you’ll make things easier for your choir. One piece that fits this description is In Te, Domine, Speravi by Leo Hassler.
Inside In Te, Domine, Speravi
In Te, Domine, Speravi pulls its text from two verses of Psalm 70. The sentiment is simple, and so is Hassler’s setting. We begin in verse 1, with the basses leading a canon at the fifth. After each section has made its entrance—from the bottom up—the basses lead us into verse 2. We then encounter a recapitulation using verse 1. It’s about 90 seconds of music, and it couldn’t be simpler. But it’s full of life and hope.
What to Look and Listen for
What I love about this piece:
The text is from Psalm 70. It’s always in season, and it reminds us that we are totally dependent on God.
It’s one of the first pieces I brought to my choir. When I took my job in early 2014, our program was in transition. Some veteran singers had recently moved on. Some of the younger singers were still learning the ropes. Much of the choir’s old repertoire began to feel “out of reach.” I sensed a need for some quick wins—pieces that they and I could quickly learn together as we learned each other. It worked.
We produce a full, confident, joyful resonance on this piece. And your choir will too. If you’re new to SATB, the resonance may not happen right away. But be patient and it will come. You’ll then look back with fondness at the days when this motet was a huge step forward for you.
A few tips:
Implore your singers to listen, listen, listen to the other lines. It’s easy for an experienced choir to underestimate a piece like this and stop listening, leading to imprecise entrances and artless phrasing. Regardless of your level, you may need to remind your singers to be aware of when they have the melody and when they should be handing it off to the next section.
Make sure the basses begin with presence. The typical church choir is perpetually short on men—but without them, this motet can’t even get off the ground! Coax a confident sound out of them. Convince them that everything depends on them—because, in this case, it does.
Polish it up with pulse-singing. If you’re not familiar, pulse-singing is when your choir sings the motet on text, but pulsing, staccato, on short note values. If you’re in 4/4, you’d typically have the choir pulse quarter notes. So on the first bass entrance of In Te, Domine, Speravi, your basses would sound like: “Ee…ee…een…te…Do…o…o…o…o…o…mee…ee…neh…eh” and so on.
Why pulse-sing? At first blush, it seems like a good way to solidify rhythm, and it is. But I’ve found that it also helps clean up pitch and even the shapes of vowels. Think about it: when you’re singing legato, you can get away with sliding into notes or singing unintended diphthongs on your vowels. When you’re pulse-singing, you have only a split-second to sing that note, so you’d better be dead-on accurate with pitch and vowel.
Don’t overdo the pulse-singing; you’ll tire out the choir. Do it for a bit and then return to legato. If you’ve never tried it before, I think you’ll be amazed at the results.
I hope you’ll have a chance to try out this motet soon. It’s nice and light for the hot weather ahead—and an excellent fit for choirs that are slowly rebuilding their forces after returning from lockdown.