Rory Wainwright Johnston is a conductor and composer from Bradford-on-Avon, based in Manchester. He joined ORA Singers as our one of our ‘Bloggers in Residence’ in 2018, eager to share his experience of choral writing, singing, directing with the next generation.
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Rory is a composer and conductor based in the rainy city of Manchester. Having just finished his Masters in Composition, he is gradually forging a path in the professional world of music.
Growing up within the English choral tradition as a treble at Bath Abbey, Rory’s musicianship was formed by composers like Howells and Byrd. Luckily having been played plenty of Radiohead and Manic Street Preachers on cassettes in his parents’ car as a kid, his taste broadened to encompass more than just the classical sphere. Nowadays, Rory enjoys listening to Renaissance polyphony and contemporary art music alongside R&B and 90"s hiphop.
Rory is passionate about encouraging people to engage with contemporary music, opening their ears to new possibilities and sound worlds. He admires the ORA Singers for their commitment to new music and is thoroughly looking forward to working with them.
Leading on from the exciting prospects of Stephanie’s piece and the beautifully evocative poetry she is working with, I’d also like to bring us into the New Year talking about text, and how to decide what to do with it.
I, like Stephanie, find the choosing of the text of a choral piece the most excruciatingly difficult part of the compositional process but, as frustrating as it can be, it’s definitely the best way for things to be. The text is just as important a part of the music as the melodies and harmonies one writes, as it is the immediate conveyor of meaning and puts every other parameter of the music in context, so caring about choosing the right text is no bad thing. It’s important when you start out, though, to think about what you want or need out the text. Do you want something that is going to help you with a structure? Something that will amplify your musical ideas? There are many things you may or may not want from a text, and being aware of what one is offering you will enable you to articulate its meaning to the fullest extent.
In my mind I see there being essentially three categories you can put a text into:
(To all the English students out there, I apologise for being so reductive, but for the sake of text setting in choral music I think this is a useful framework from which to start.)
The first is as its name describes: it’s a narrative piece of text that either tells a story or follows some kind of narrative temporal structure – this could include things like oratorio texts, narrative poetry or nursery rhymes. The second encompasses all forms of poetry that paint a picture of an object, scene, person or emotion, etc. And the third is for texts that have some kind of use that is extra-musical (outside of the music itself) like religious texts. Of course, these categories are not mutually exclusive, but it’s a good place to start when thinking about what you want or need from a text.
Narrative text is great, as it gives you an almost immediate structure with which to build your music from, meaning that you can focus on the musical ideas and how you want to shape them throughout the structure. Descriptive poems and texts give you more freedom and allow you to play around with repetition and structure much more, as often there are not necessarily any obvious climactic moments. Text that is wholly functional is - in my opinion - even more freeing, as there may be some kind of textual structure, but without narrative or descriptive aspects the words are an empty vessel for your creative thoughts; an example of this would be the Kyrie eleison text from the Latin mass – very little description or narrative, just three groups of two words each.
I’ve always been a sucker for texts of the 2nd kind. I love utilising word painting and creating musical ideas that match the literary imagery of the poetry; for that reason Shakespeare’s Sonnets and other Lyric poetry has always been an easy fit. I also used to write music that was constantly moving from one idea to the other, and the freedom of structure that highly descriptive texts gave me was very liberating for that type of writing. I’ve recently started writing much more contemplative music that finds its interest in the juxtaposition of subtle textures and ideas, and less in the development and climax of musical material, which has led me to looking at text in a different way than I used to. Here’s an example of where I went against my initial urges in order to focus my ideas.
I was commissioned in September 2018 to set the Ave Maria text by Kantos Chamber Choir for a concert in November. This text has been set hundreds, if not thousands of times over the centuries, and is one of the most well-known religious texts in the world, so there was a lot to think about when deciding what to write. If you are unfamiliar with it, it’s a prayer to the Virgin Mary, one of the most important figures in the Catholic Church, and goes like this:
Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum. Benedicta tu in mulieribus, et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Jesus. Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, ora pro nobis peccatoribus, nunc et in hora mortis nostrae. Amen.
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and in the hour of our death. Amen.
At first when I sat down to start working on the music, I began to look at the structure of the text: It consists of four sentences.
Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum.
Benedicta tu in mulieribus, et Benedictus fructus ventris tui, Jesus.
Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, ora pro nobis peccatoribus, nunc et in hora mortis nostrae.
This immediately gave potentially four sections to work with within the music. The text isn’t particularly descriptive; it’s first and foremost a functional piece of writing for liturgical use, leaving a lot of freedom with which to set it. Initially I was thinking about the phrases and what musical motifs and ideas I could use to emphasise their meaning – things like: beautiful harmonies on words suggesting beauty or holiness (Benedictus, Santa, gratia – Blessed, Holy, grace), and a darker more sullen tone when talking about sin and death at the end of the text. But I then took a step back and thought about the text’s utility and what its functional purpose was: it’s a prayer to an important religious figure, chanted for redemption. This led me to think about it in a different way. Being a prayer in needed to be pious and calm, but it is also talking about a figure whose divine grace and splendour brought us the Son of God. My main aim was to create a piece of music that was calm, contemplative, and beautiful, whilst also having the potential to be radiant and full of energy without being overbearing.
Finding the balance between those things was the challenge, and utilising an efficient structure was my first important step towards realising that goal. Taking a leaf out of Howard Skempton’s book, I decided in the end that there needed to be as little change of material as possible. I therefore decided to give myself only one moment in the piece for any dramatic/musical change, meaning it had to be the right one. I settled on the four words ‘Sancta Maria, Mater Dei’ as the focal point, as they encapsulate the reason why Mary is such an important figure for Christians – she’s the Mother of God after all! For form, I went with an A-B-A material structure, in which the outer sections set the text only once through, and the middle section allowed for any amount of repetitions I would like, as it was the most important message.
A: Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum. Benedicta tu in mulieribus, et Benedictus fructus ventris tui, Jesus.
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B: Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, A2: ora pro nobis peccatoribus, nunc et in hora mortis nostrae. Amen.