ON’T YOU HATE IT when someone recommends a great Christmas motet to you on December 21? Especially when it’s a brilliant piece that you would have had your choir learn if you had only known about it earlier? You’ll thank me, then, for writing this article in October and introducing you to a Christmas motet your choir will love. It’s a piece you would have found only after many hours of searching on Choral Public Domain Library. Or maybe you would have skipped over it because you haven’t heard of the composer.
Luc Jakobs isn’t a famous name—but based on his spellbinding Dormi Jesu, he should be. According to CPDL, he’s a Dutch composer, choral conductor, and harmony teacher born in 1956.
Inside Dormi Jesu
Mr. Jakobs’ SATB setting of Dormi Jesu uses the standard text. It’s slow and delicate yet colorful. Although Mr. Jakobs provides a key signature of 2/2, I’ve always conducted it in four. We begin in Db major with a tenor solo against sustained notes in the other voices. After eight bars, the sopranos take the melody. We then encounter a middle section in Bb major in which the sopranos hold onto the melody and the alto line splits to create some delicious dissonances. While Mr. Jakobs keeps the dynamics at piano and pianissimo throughout this middle section, the intensity does increase. For the final 12 bars, we return to the tranquility of the motet’s opening, which makes sense because the whole point is to lull our Infant Lord to sleep so that Our Lady can finally get some rest.
What to Look and Listen for
What I love about this piece:
It sets a Christmas text that hasn’t been used to death. There are so many settings of O Magnum Mysterium out there. I would never discourage a composer from writing another—in fact, one of my friends recently did just that for our choir. But as a choir director, you hesitate to keep bringing the same text, however beautiful it is, to your choir. Dormi Jesu will give most choirs a fresh text for meditation as they sing.
It’s classical enough and “cool” enough to please everyone. Mr. Jakobs uses some distinctly jazzy chords, but he does it under a veil of reverence and awe. Even an avowed enemy of modern harmonies will have to admit that this motet is gorgeous. Meanwhile, for a choir that sings mostly Renaissance polyphony, this piece will present a welcome change of pace.
It’s simple in its construction. Notice I didn’t say it was “easy” (more on that below). But it’s the kind of piece that will immediately seem within reach for even a small, advancing choir. Besides the fact that there’s alto divisi, there’s not much here to dissuade choir directors from trying Dormi Jesu.
A few tips:
Encourage your singers to listen to the recording frequently. I’ve noticed something about pieces that contain “crunchy,” hard-to-tune chords: the learning usually goes much more quickly than I expect. I suspect that a choir with good listening skills can pick up lines more easily in a colorful piece than they can in a “tame” piece. Perhaps it’s a matter of motivation? Choirs want to sing stunning music. And while I strive never to bring dull music to my choir, I must admit that not every motet makes my singers’ eyes light up. This Dormi Jesu does, every year. If it sounds too difficult for your choir, don’t give up on it until you’ve let them try it. You may be surprised at the results.
Listen to beginnings and ends of phrases. This Dormi Jesu is full of little lifts. It would be easy to bask in the luscious chords while letting entrances and cutoffs get ragged. I struggled with “cleanness” in this piece at first, probably because I was trying to do too much as a conductor. Yes, everyone should watch the conductor carefully, but giving constant cutoffs in a piece like this can slow down the line. I’ve found that the real key is to remind everyone to breathe together (and in rhythm) for entrances and to listen for everyone else at phrase endings. I’ll even tell them, “Don’t be the first to cut off….but don’t be the last.” Sometimes vagueness trumps specificity.
Move DO. Listening to the recording of Dormi Jesu is helpful, but of course I had my choir polish up this piece with solfege. If you do the same, don’t forget to move DO. The beginning of this piece is clearly in Db major. I had my singers switch to Bb major in bar 16, one bar before the change of key signature, because I think it makes a smoother transition of syllables (for example, the basses are then thinking SOL-DO, which they’ve done thousands of times). My singers then switch to G major in bar 30 to ensure a smooth transition to bar 31, which is just a G major chord other than the tenor. The final change is to Bb major in bar 35.
Beware of bar 31. As I mentioned, it’s almost a regular G major chord, but the tenor has an A. This is a tough one to tune because after a couple of key changes, aural fatigue begins to set in. I got good results by having my choir drill that transition from 30 to 31 without tenor and pointing out to them that they’re landing on a regular G major chord. I then warned them not to listen too hard to the tenors when I added them back in. Once choirs know that a “wrong” note belongs there, they can work around it!
When my choir learned this piece several years ago, the composer’s website encouraged choir directors to notify him of any performances. I emailed Mr. Jakobs to let him know we had sung Dormi Jesu at Midnight Mass and received a gracious reply. I hope this motet will become as much of a favorite in your loft as it has been in mine.