Four American Choruses on Gospel Texts


unaccompanied SATB Chorus
Mixed Voices
First Performance
First performance (I'm a Pilgrim & Bright Morning Star only): 31.1.04, Symphony Hall, Birmingham: CBSO Chorus/Simon Halsey. FP (complete): 24.4.04, Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Groot Omroepkoor/Simon Halsey

Score 0-571-53213-6 on sale

Programme Notes

The texts of these four choruses are chosen from Ira D. Sankey’s popular American Gospel Hymn Book, from the mid-nineteenth century, a volume much beloved by Charles Ives who quoted numerous Sankey tunes in almost all his mature works. I have not used any of the tunes at all, being struck more by the optimism and artless directness of the texts themselves. There is something socially very moving about them, providing as they did a means of solace, comfort and hope in a better life for people whose lives were, on average, probably terrible. Some of the phraseology and turns of phrase may also have been an influence on American poets in the latter half of the nineteenth century. I hear pre-echoes of Emily Dickinson, at least, in the texts of both I’m a pilgrim and Beautiful Valley of Eden. In all four cases, the chosen texts generally avoid any specifically denominational religious references, as I wanted to focus on the social idea of collective hope and celebration. 1. I’m a pilgrim (2002) This is the simplest of the four choruses, both in text and music, and is a memorial to my late stepfather. Broadly ternary in structure, it opens with an unaccompanied monody which returns at the close of the piece harmonised. The middle sections are more polyphonic. 2. Beautiful Valley of Eden (2002) By contrast, this is the most extended of the four choruses, as well as the most extended. Inspired by the text, I imagined a group of choruses singing hymns simultaneously in different mountains across a valley (this is also an Ivesian idea). In Beautiful Valley of Eden, the chorus is split up into four groups, each singing at their own speed. In order to aid both singers and listeners in hearing the different speeds going on at once, the four sub-choruses correspond to the four standard voice parts of a chorus: the top group are sopranos, the second the altos, the tenors in the middle, and the basses in the lowest register – each under their own sub-conductor. They are never synchronised – save for the very last bar. Each part on its own is fairly easy to sing; however, their combination produces much more surprising harmonies. A system of cues between the chorus sections ensures the whole thing runs in order from beginning to end. The challenge here was two-fold: 1) to set the same text, line by line, in four completely different ways; 2) to ensure that no matter what happens the four parts always make harmonic sense against each other – despite the fact that they are never singing at the same speed. The end result is intended not to convey complexity, but a sense of joyous collective celebration. Beautiful Valley of Eden probably lasts about 7 minutes – the duration is hard to estimate as all the speeds given are very approximate. 3. Bright Morning Star! (2003) This text is aspirational, replete with images of light. This is reflected in the clashing major seconds which are a frequent feature of the harmony, and the use of multiple grace notes which create sprays of sound around the central pitches. Both of these features are influenced by folk singing, specifically the heterophonic Psalm-singing traditions on the Gaelic islands of Lewis and Harris of the West Coast of Scotland. 4. At the fountain (2003) This has perhaps the most unusual text of the four. Sankey’s hymn book explains that the fountain concerned was originally a central display at the Chicago Industrial Exhibition, which became a frequent meeting place for social gatherings. The author of the text chose to reinterpret the then frequently-heard phrase ‘Will you meet me at the fountain?’ in a more spiritual light. I have followed the author’s lead, setting the words in a more intimate style than the preceding choruses. Towards the middle, the music takes on elements of a blues, with the chorus functioning increasingly as a close harmony backing-group to more florid solo lines and this remains a prominent feature to the end of the work. Julian Anderso

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