HAVE SOME GOOD NEWS. The motet I’m featuring today should be learnable for choirs that are just delving into SATB polyphony. It’s also one of the most demanding motets my choir sings. How can it be both? Because Adoro Te Devote by Carlotta Ferrari is a paradox. It presents few note challenges. But it will test the musicianship of even a seasoned group of singers.
First, a few words about the composer. Ms. Ferrari is a living Italian composer, aged 47 at this writing. (Don’t confuse her with the late-nineteenth-century opera composer of the same name.) She’s prolific, as you can see from her page on Choral Public Domain Library, and her work has gained considerable renown in the form of commissions, recordings, and lecture recitals. In addition to her long list of choral compositions, Ms. Ferrari has composed many organ works that have caught the attention of the indefatigable Carson Cooman.
Open a few PDFs on CPDL, and you’ll notice that Ms. Ferrari’s works tend to be minimalistic. She says much with few notes. This is why a fledgling choir will consider some of her motets “easy enough” for them—and yet even a more advanced choir will find them as challenging as some of the standard Renaissance pieces, albeit in different ways.
Inside Adoro Te Devote
I haven’t found a YouTube recording of Ms. Ferrari’s Adoro Te Devote, and I find myself strangely unmotivated to record my own choir singing anything these days, despite the fact that we’ve been in a groove for months. But you can get to know this piece quite well by looking through the PDF:
Adoro Te Devote uses the famous mode 5 chant melody throughout, opening with a solo line in the alto. Ms. Ferrari stays true to the free rhythm of the chant by introducing meter changes when necessary. She embellishes only slightly on the chant melody by adding small ornamentations in the soprano and occasional flatted RE’s in the alto and bass. At a glance, there may not seem to be much to work on in this piece. But look more closely.
There are pieces in the choral repertoire that seem to sing themselves because there’s so much “going on” in them. This is not one of them. A choir that sings this piece halfheartedly will turn in a forgettable performance. By the third page, the familiar melody will seem tired, and perhaps even trite. Ms. Ferrari’s Adoro Te Devote demands great care, attention, and even piety from conductor and singers alike. So you might say it’s an ideal piece to remind us why we’re doing what we’re doing.
What to Look and Listen for
What I love about this piece:
- It’s based on a chant that everyone should already know. Even if you’re just introducing chant to your parish, you’ll likely have many choir members and other parishioners who know and love the melody. Your singers will pick up the tune quickly, and people in the pews may be tempted to hum along as you sing this piece at Mass.
- The basses stay on one note for almost the entire piece. Let me make it clear that after spending several years scraping to find enough men for my choir, I now have a stable, talented, and enthusiastic group with whom to work. I don’t hesitate to challenge them. But most of them are in high school, and it’s not hard to envision a season when several of them leave for college and I’m forced to rebuild. A piece with a very easy bass line means I don’t have to worry much about the men because I sing tenor as I conduct.
- It’s long. I’ve never timed this Adoro Te Devote, but each time we’ve sung it at Mass, I’ve been surprised at how much of the available time it takes up during Communion and Ablutions. Let’s face it: sometimes it’s nice to have a “workhorse” piece that precludes the need to rehearse a second Communion motet. It’s like having a delicious meal in your garage freezer, waiting to be thawed on a hectic weeknight.
- The tempo marking is Andante morbido. I had never seen that one before. But it has nothing to do with death. Morbido means “soft” in Italian. This is an understated piece of music.
A few tips:
- Think horizontally, not vertically. As I mentioned, many in your choir will already know this tune. But seeing it in modern notation and a 4/4 time signature (mostly) may cause them to lose direction in their phrases. I remind my choir constantly that when they see a long string of quarter notes, they should think of walking while leaning slightly forward. Just as we should never hold a note without crescendoing or decrescendoing slightly, we should never sing a series of quarter notes in a plodding, static fashion. Consider having your choir sing through the chant first before singing this motet.
- Breathe together. There are many starts and stops in this piece. As a conductor, you can choose to obsess over your gestures, or you can remind your singers to breathe together—with an energized breath of uniform length—before every entrance. If you take this task lightly, Adoro Te Devote will expose you. (I told you: this piece is harder than it looks.)
- Listen for the melody. Most amateur choirs tend to sing out when they’re confident and back off when they’re unsure of the notes. Nearly everyone already knows the tune of Adoro Te Devote, and so you may hear your singers sailing through this piece at a constant mezzo forte. Remind them to listen for the section that has the melody and back off considerably if they’re not in that section.
- Count, count, count. Overconfidence can also hinder accurate counting. The main motif always begins on a pickup, which means it’s easy for sections to lose focus and enter just a hair late. And as I mentioned, Ms. Ferrari introduces meter changes throughout the piece. Beware: this piece can train wreck just as easily as any work by the great Renaissance masters.
Your parish will love hearing Carlotta Ferrari’s Adoro Te Devote at Mass, and this motet will challenge your singers no matter what level they’re at. Keep this piece in your back pocket for any Mass at which you’re expecting a long line of communicants.