“You write the best alto lines” is among the dearest compliments I’ve ever received, made more so because it was offered to me by an office worker who sang alto all her life in a church choir. Now, I don’t want to give the impression that I believed her, although one of my goals as a composer has always been to keep the altos happy. Nor do I equate “church music” with “amateur music.” I love writing for professionals. I treasure the artistry, and the comments, from those who’ve experienced the greatest variety of music at all levels. But the fact is, the non-professional will be the usual musician in a church environment. So when someone who doesn’t do music for a living appreciates what I attempt to do, that’s a special thrill. In the 12 Things I’ve Learned from Church Music, this leads me to:
4. Make Them Sound Good
Much choral writing is in four parts. The traditional way of teaching composing, going back hundreds of years, encourages writing the top line first, then the bottom, then the middle. It makes sense. Nailing down the melody and anchoring the bass helps to build a strong sound. I usually write (in bits and pieces) this way.
But Top/Bottom/Middle is three parts, and the result is that altos and tenors are often scrambling for leftovers. Just like hornists and violists who roll their eyes at yet one more “um, bop, um, bop” march or the “wait-boop-boop, wait-boop-boop” waltz, altos wish they had a nickel for every C and G they sing in C major. (The “dominant” scale degree is named for the chanting tone in the old church modes, but it’s also dominant in tonal music because it plugs holes in more chords than any other. When a composer can’t think of anything else to do, flipping a dominant into the alto line usually fits the bill.)
Altos, however, just like tenors, sopranos, basses, and all musicians, want to sound good. They want to sound like they matter, like they’re making music. Professionals want to; so do amateurs. I love the German editions of piano music that proclaim: für Kenner und Liebhaber. For professionals and amateurs, yes, but reading it in another language highlights that professionals (who, we hope, also love music) are those who know, and that amateurs (who, we hope, know a thing or two) are those who love.
I don’t want to jilt them.
5. Follow the Rules
Voice-leading rules exist for a variety of reasons, but school didn’t teach me what might be the most important one. Parallel fifths, we say, destroy the individuality of the line. This is true, as it is also for doubled sevenths, which want to resolve in the same direction to the same pitch. Doubled major thirds emphasize sketchy intonation. Leaps following leaps in the same direction sound ungainly. All true. But the main reason to follow the rules—in the majority of cases and for the majority of ensembles—is that when you don’t, the music is harder to sing.
I’ve witnessed this over and over in choir practice. A piece will break down at one spot. A fairly easy anthem comes to grief in one bar; we sing it again; we stare at it. It shouldn’t be this difficult. But don’t you know, exactly there, a cross-relation monkey wrench, a tenor F-natural following on the heels of a soprano F-sharp. Same or different octave, hardly matters.
Men have to sing parallel fifths in oh, how many anthems. It’s tonal, it’s not fast, it’s not chromatic, yet one or the other or both voices are fishing for notes. Leaving aside the (usually) boorish effect, it ought to, you’d think, lock in. They’re fifths, after all. On paper it looks locked in. But it doesn’t lock in, nope. Sure, the guys get it eventually, with a good will and with good direction. But they have to fight for it. Next week, at the next rehearsal, they fight for it again. When they should be working on dynamics, say, or on another piece, they’re fighting parallel fifths. It’s one more item the director doesn’t need on the to-do list. It’s one more strike against the composer.
The rules are short cuts to easier music-making.
6. Break the Rules
I’ve never forgotten what a tenor said after a rehearsal of a Bach chorus. It was challenging, as Bach often is, and chromatic and snaky and kind of fast and rhythmically akimbo and, well, in German. It necessitated repeated work with individual voice parts. There was a lot of sitting around and keeping quiet (just as hard for volunteer grownups, by the way, as for kids) while other parts sang their lines over and over.
The tenor, thus made to listen to the sopranos, altos, and basses all by themselves, had a revelation. He told me afterward, as we reshelved our music, “That Bach, it’s like he makes every voice line a melody.” My knees buckled. Flags unfurled, fireworks burst, popcorn popped, fish were jumping, and the cotton… I wanted to high-five him. I had no idea what to say, but I looked him right in the eye and said, “Oh. Yes!” He had gotten Bach. He works in a bank, he screams at the Phillies on TV, and he gets Bach.
He gets music. He understands what should be—this I believe—the goal of all music: each line, a melody. Every moment in every voice (whether sounded or not), indispensable.
But to get to there, rules must be broken. The music of Bach is riddled with cross-relations, doubled major thirds, hidden parallels, and galumphing sequential leaps. Well, maybe not riddled, but they’re easy for the motivated freshman to find and present with an “Aha!” to the putatively blockheaded theory teacher. The answer isn’t, as the deserved smackdown often is, “He’s Bach; you ain’t,” as if genius comes with a pass to break rules.
The answer is, of course, that there are no rules. Or better: That there is a deeper rule, and Bach knew it. Location, location, location becomes, in music, the line, the line, always the line. As Aslan says in The Chronicles of Narnia, “The Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still.”
For, despite my schoolmarm finger-wagging above, the point isn’t to have everything easy. The point is to have everything sing.
Keep the altos happy, and find the deeper magic.