ESPITE THE COUNTLESS MOTETS available in the public domain and the many modern-day composers writing fine sacred works, it can take a tremendous amount of work for a church choir director to find pieces that are just right for his group. You can ask another director for recommendations, but what’s suitable for her choir may not be right for yours. Only you know your singers’ listening skills, their specific vocal strengths and challenges, and their likes and dislikes. It’s easy to take the easy road and choose the same types of pieces repeatedly—perhaps even from the same composers.
If you’re stuck in a rut, it can be refreshing for you and your singers alike to tackle a piece from a composer whose work is unfamiliar to all of you. For example, have you sung anything by Dr. Peter Kwasniewski?
You may have seen Dr. Kwasniewski’s articles on several of the leading traditional Catholic websites and blogs. You may recall that he was for many years a professor and choir director at Wyoming Catholic College. You may know that his surname is pronounced “kwash-NEV-ski” (I learned this 30 seconds ago, with some embarrassment, on his website). Did you know he also composes music?
Many of Dr. Kwasniewski’s compositions are available in a single volume: Sacred Choral Works, published by Corpus Christi Watershed. If your choir is large enough that it would burst your budget to buy a copy of this book for each member, you could always buy just one, find the selections you like best, and then ask the composer about purchasing digital copies of individual pieces.
But I digress. Of the many compositions I’ve sampled from that volume, one of my favorites is Tantum Ergo II (of VI). It’s quite accessible, and I highly recommend it as a Communion piece that will go over nicely at any time of year.
Here it is with all parts recorded by the inimitable Matthew Curtis:
What to Look and Listen for
What I love about this piece:
It begins on a second-inversion chord. You don’t hear that very often!
It’s a fresh approach to a well-known text. Many choirs (particularly in the Extraordinary Form) have memorized the text of Tantum Ergo. They can devote their full attention to Dr. Kwasniewski’s harmonic language.
The sun keeps darting in and out of the clouds. The piece is in E minor but passes through various major keys. It’s a great approach for a Eucharistic composition. Can we ever receive the Eucharist with perfect joy when we consider the gruesome sacrifice it re-presents? On the other hand, are we to remain entirely dour while receiving the Sacrament of Love?
A few tips:
Enjoy the juicy dissonances. Your singers already know the text, right? So spend some time singing through on a hum or on “nu-nu-nu.” Let the chords wash over you.
Try count-singing. Because this piece is written in a chordal style, you’ll want all entrances and cutoffs to be as precise as possible. I’ve written before about pulse-singing and believe it is a helpful approach for most metered pieces. But for a composition like this, I’d highly recommend count-singing, too. In case you’re not familiar with this technique, you have everyone sing their parts on the written pitches, but instead of singing the text, they count off their rhythms. Since this Tantum Ergo is in cut time, you’ll probably want your singers to sing “one-and-two-and” for each measure. But here’s the crucial part: in the last bar of each phrase (whether you prefer four-bar or eight-bar phrases), everyone should sing “one-and-two” and then breathe on the last “and.” This is a highly efficient way of coordinating the beginnings and endings of phrases. If you all breathe together—and I mean really together—you almost can’t help but sing together.
Observe the dynamics. As I reminded my choir when we sang this piece on a recent Sunday, Dr. Kwasniewski is explicit about dynamics. This is a change from the public domain versions of Renaissance motets that sometimes provide no dynamic markings whatsoever. Now, we performers have the liberty to change a composer’s markings, and indeed, forte is a color as much as it’s a volume. But this piece is a good reminder that we should be thoughtful about phrasing and have good reasons for making the choices we make.
Isn’t this a delicious piece? Do explore Dr. kwash-NEV-ski’s many pleasing compositions when you get a chance.