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Vocem angelorum

I've been directing and singing counter tenor in the Trinity Compline Choir with a monthly Compline since May of 2009 at Trinity Episcopal Church in Nevada City CA. You may have already downloaded my entire FREE PD library (385 pieces) of music for ATBarB compline from our website:
This hybrid ATBarB voicing was historically all-male, but in our town of 2500, finding counter tenors (or male altos) seemed hopeless. We then started using female altos to help cover the part, which works out well. In the meantime, we now have do enough male altos to do the job. Most of the females will be moving over to a new group which will also chant Compline once a month, with The Office of Compline of some kind every two weeks. Where will the women go?
Recently, a new idea was born: an all-female Compline Choir with the fetching moniker: Vocem angelorum. I tried to find precident for this (outside of the Convent) and could find none. This group may be ground-breaking. I call it: "Colorized Convent" as the Sisters chant in mostly unison and Vocem will color it up with some harmony. I percieved a need for more women to be part of the Compline experience and solicited a dozen ladies posessing a straight, non-wobbly tone, and the ability to read music at least moderately. I ordered about 40 published works that I thought would work for women. Then I got to work composing and transcribing appropriate Compline music (upwards of 45 works now) and an Order for Compline (in treble clef) for a chantress, a speaker, unison chant, SA, SSA, SAA, SSAA, and SSAAT. The tenor part (in treble/8va clef) in a 5-part setting is just that: a part. The gender is still female. It beats writing out more than 3 ledger lines below the treble staff. The sound of the group is...well...angelic. The ace-in-the-hole for the group is the sound of the low altos. The 3 'anchor women' have a just-great tone (and amplitude) all the way down to low C, low B, and low A, respectively.(and no, they're not smokers!, but older helps) Our 150 year old nave of wood and plaster is especially sympathetic to the sound of Vocem. To get things rolling, I'm conducting (until I work myself out of a job) and find it difficult NOT to sing with the girls. However, there are no clergy or other male sounds to befoul the ambience of the group. All-women, all the time.
If you have any advice for repertoire for Vocem, I'm all ears. Also, if you have anything you want to suggest or discuss, this is the place.
regards, as always, jefe (Jeff Reynolds)
Replies (23): Threaded | Chronological
on May 23, 2012 12:14pm
Jeff:  What an absolutely STUNNING project!!!  Congratulations to you and to your ladies.
As you know, there's no precedent outside convents for the simple reason that for centuries the Church forbade women from singing or speaking in church, thanks to one lousy sentence in, I think, I Corinthians.  I looked it up once, and it was in the middle of paragraphs about speaking in tongues!!!  But Paul was not known for respecting women in any way.
By all means investigate the music of St. Hildegard of Bingen,* which is absolutely wonderful and specifically written for women's voice ranges.  And also look into what the marvelous ensemble Anonymous 4 has done with music originally intended for medieval men's voices.  They have blazed trails that deserve to be followed.  (Trebles--which is to say boys--did not really show up until the 15th century.)  You would have to choose texts appropriate to Compline, of course, but that should be no problem.
You might also take a look at what Vivaldi wrote.  There's still a lot of controversy about whether he intended his SATB music to be sung by the girls and young women at the Ospedale (where they hid the girls behind drapes when they performed and would hardly have invited young men in to sing with them!), but there's at least one modern ensemble that is performing his music with all women.
And don't apologize for your low-singing women.  The bell-shaped curve guarantees that both genders include voices that cover the entire range that is physically possible, no matter what voice teachers may have to say about it!  (Although you may want to avoide the Mariah Carey altissimo notes in general!!)  I don't question that your basses give a terrific bottom to the sound!
All the best,
P.S.  For what it's worth, music for Sweet Adelines barbershop choruses and quartets is written exactly as music for men's barbershop is, in treble and bass clefs using a piano grand staff.  The lead and tenor sing at notated pitch in treble clef, while the baritones and basses sing an octave higher than notated in bass clef.  For the men, of course, it's the opposite:  tenors and basses singing an octave lower than notated and baris and basses singing at pitch.
*Hildegard, 12th century nun, abbess, well educated and artistic, got caught in a bind as the Church changed its bureaucratic procedures.  Previously Saints had been declared by Bishops and Archbishops--the people on the spot who knew the candidates best--and Hildgard was declared a Saint by her Archbishop.  But authority was being taken over by Rome, and her Sainthood was never confirmed in the big city.  Or at least so I understand it.
on May 23, 2012 4:17pm
Thanks for the note and history lesson. A further few thoughts: I  am trying like mad to avoid the 'sweet adelines' sound and trying to find the 'sweet spot' for women's voices in Compline. This is what I have found out after hearing some of my stuff with the girls. Just arranging Compline music up an octave from a TTBB tessitura is not good enough. Remember, the object of Compline is to say good night to God in a restful, soothing manner. I find transposing up a 5th, 6th, or 7th keeps the 'shreeky' sound down. It depends on the over all range of the piece, top to bottom. Women have a narrower choir range due to the lack of a usable falsetto compared to ATBarB. I choose tunes very carefully, and find many two and three part (SA or SSA) tunes can be very effective. A few Reniassance composers have written works in what I call the "tight formation" with all 4 parts compressed into a couple octaves, + or-. I've already exhausted those, and they are compelling. I've been harmonizing Psalms for Vocem, and it's a whole different animal than writing for ATBarB Quire. A very few of Peter Hallock's Psalm settings work well tranposed into SSAA. I ordered Kevin Siegfried's women's choir works and even transcribed his heavenly "Phos hilaron" for SSAAT(with his blessing). I've done a lot of SA settings of Gregorian and Anglican Chant, which has, in my view, been very appropriate. They have that ancient but flute-y sound with plenty of wide open spaces. Also, a few 2-part Medieval Organum (or is that Organae?) that have a stark, ever unresolved openness: a higher pitched window into the past. There are some Russian women's works which should be a shoe in. I'll look into Hildegard's music. There is an all female chant group in Flanders that I've been following trying to get some insight. In short, writing for a Compline band au femme is not as easy as I thought it would be. This is certainly the "road less traveled".
I would sure like to hear from some of you 'experts' in writing for women's voices.
regards, as always, jefe
on May 23, 2012 8:12pm
Jeff:  I agree completely with what you say!  And I wasn't suggestng using barbershop harmonies!  Just making sure you were aware of the notational convenion, because it's different from traditional choral writing.
And no, the LAST thing you want to do is take men's voicings up an octave.  (Which of course is absolutely standard in traditional choral writing, but no, soprano voices are NOT the favorite in either popular music or chant.  Or barbershop, to be sure.)  One of the neat things about Hildegard's chants is that they use the full range of women's voices without getting up above the staff, about a 12th or so from roughly a (A3) to e'' (E4).  And that was MUCH wider than the typical chant sung by 12th century men.  (Pretty much like Guido's Gamut, without the lowest octave.)
I learned to write for voices by trial and error.  For about 20 years for the male voices in my professional quartet, with a top tenor who could get up into countertenor range and sound good doing it.  Then for at least 4 years for female voices in an ensemble I directed at one university.  And then for 14 more years for mixed voices (finally!) at this university.  And along the way I directed a women's barbershop chorus for a couple of years.
Men's voices sound wonderful spread out over a range of about an 11th or 12th (with tenors on top and not countertenors).  Women's voices do not.  I think the reason is that they lie higher in the harmonic series, and therefore sound better in closed voicings with no empty chord tones.  The overtones simply lock in better.  That's exactly what you've found, and it's what I found in writing women's barbershop.  For my women's show ensemble, on the other hand, since it was using mics and had a backup band, I used a pretty wide range and often had sopranos and altos moving in 2-part counterpoint, because they didn't have to cover the bass notes or always sing in full harmony.  I also found that it richens the sound to have fewer high voices than low ones.  But if you have women with low Cs and lower (c or C3), you have a little over 2 octaves that will sound GOOD, and can stretch that by a 3rd or 4th on top without sounding screechy.
Every combination of voices is a different instrument, and you're right, you have to find what works best for each one of them.  And they really aren't interchangeable.  I suspect you'll find that countertenors are a different deal than contraltos, too.
All the best,
on May 24, 2012 12:43am
The plural of organum would be organa, I believe!
on May 24, 2012 1:47pm
Yes, and the plural of requiem (accusative singular) would be requietes (accusative plural). Requiem is in the accusative because it is the grammatical object in the sentence "Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine", and hence also a strange thing to use as a proper name, but there we are.
Oh, and the nominative singular (aka the basic form) of the word is requies, from re+quies, the latter meaning "rest". In other words, requies means a state of rest regained following a state of non-rest. Quies goes back to the Indo-European root *qwi-, which also gives us Old English hwil and hence Modern English while (noun).
Are you not entertained? :-)
Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
Helsinki, Finland
on May 23, 2012 10:19pm
I am somewhat puzzled by the name of your ensemble. Why would you choose this inflected form? "Vocem" is the accusative singular of "vox" (voice), and the accusative is the case of the object in Latin; as a result, this name comes across as a sentence fragment lacking a verb rather than an independent noun phrase. I suspect that the name is derived from Revelation 5:11 "et audivi vocem angelorum multorum" (and I heard the voice of many angels), but anyone with basic Latin seeing the name of this ensemble will immediately wonder why it is called "Vocem angelorum" and not "Vox angelorum", with the nominative, or uninflected, form of the main noun.
Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
Helsinki, Finland
on May 24, 2012 5:24am has mp3 & pdf of H.Brown's 1940 JMHopkins setting #1: "no worst there is none, pitched past pitch of grief". Free Download. it is SSAAAA, of which the latter 2 are divisi touching the tenor range. Might be perfect. Non-liturgical of course, but possibly suitable for a memorial occasion.
on May 24, 2012 7:08am
Jaakko - True enough; but the sad truth behind it is, very few Americans these days know enough Latin to either note or care. Furthermore, I suspect that linguistic conventions are NOT at the root of naming conventions for this type of group. For example, I direct an a cappella group called "The Living Water" - which in fact is a translation of the French "L'eau vive," yet another group from eastern France (near Strasbourg) which was the inspiration for it - but if you go back to the New Testament and check out the references, you find that it refers to the Living Water - Christ Himself - and is an odd entitling for such a group, if not frankly blasphemous - until one realizes that ALL we do is sing sacred music, to the praise of....The Living Water (not ourselves!). Another group that really does a job on the Latin is the Suspicious Cheese Lords, an all-male group that does some wonderful period music, who took their inspiration from "Suscipe Quaeso Domine" - it's a tongue-in-cheek titling, but which has absolutely no effect on the beauty of their singing nor their commitment to the music that they do sing.  Bottom line:  bad Latin - sure; good music - surely.
Applauded by an audience of 1
on May 24, 2012 9:56am
quote - bad Latin - sure; good music -surely -unquote
1st- why not to make "perfect music" getting at the same time "Good music" and "Good Latin"? (not difficult I think!).
2nd - Why not to pay attention to the "very few American these days know enough Latin to either note or care"? Are they 2nd class Americans?
3rd - Besides "very few Americans" there are many other people in the world reading "Vocem Angelorum" and feeling an ugly jarring note. Isn't it important - speaking of Music and Singing - to have perfectly tuned notes all over the world and for everybody?
Very interesting your explanations and examples Mr. Duquette, but  ...related to a different linguistic/naming subject/problem. I hink it is not the same as "Vocem Angelorum".
Could you please help me to understand why "Vocem Angelorum" (a nonsense) is better (we say <<più bello>>, which is different) than "Vox Angelorum?" which corresponds in total to... is perfectly tuned to your  "good music - surely"? (My conductor cares a lot about notes perfectly tuned! - I've got no musical degrees, but I've been singing for almost 55 years now, and I think he's right).
Isn't it the same problem as "a good choir in nice costumes" and "a good choir in bad costumes" it was widely discussed on this forum?
Short example: in the '80s a musician and I founded a Vocal Group "Musice Concinere" (a sort of "singing together harmoniously" - We were young then... it was our program, out attempt to).
We were many time named "Musica concinese" by the press and media of those times... Terrible! Unacceptable... What to do with "cinese/Chinese"... could you explain it too?
Linguistic conventions?
Sorry, English is not my native language ...I'm afraid sometimes I don't understand perfectly. If this is the case, I humbly apologize.
Best regards G. Morandi
on May 24, 2012 11:34am
Giorgio:  Thank you for your post.  You are of course technically quite correct.  But what may be hard to understand is that English, and American English and its speakers in particular, is a language that has grown by both adopting and adapting words and grammar from many different languages, and in many cases with words that are adopted but the grammar is not.
English grew up as an underground language at a time when the language of the Church and of education was Latin, and the language of the upper classes and of government was Norman French.  No one paid any gramatical attention to English because it was already an amalgam with Celtic and Germanic roots and it was the language of the despicable lower classes, who were emphatically NOT educated in the grammar of ANY language.  And when scholars did start paying attention to English, they tried to apply Latin rules which simply did not fit because English uses word placement rather than case endings.  At the same time, of course, Latin itself was changing into French, Spanish, and Italian, bringing with it some of its grammar but also with each modern language developing its own.
That's history and theory.  As a practical matter, "Vocem" looks, to an American, like a plural form.  "Vox" looks, to an American, like a singular form.  It's really that simple.  Very few Americans study Latin, even though lawyers and church musicians and choral directors do tend to USE it on occasion.  We simply don't bother with case endings and declentions and all that other stuff because they don't mean anything in English.
Not making an excuse for bad Latin here.  Your arguments are absolutely true.  Just saying that it doesn't matter, because when we adopt the words we do not necessarily adopt, care about, or even know the grammar that goes with them.  So very few people would feel the slightest dissonance with "Vocem angelorum" because it LOOKS right.
All the best,
Applauded by an audience of 1
on May 25, 2012 5:31am
John - Thank you for rescuing me in a situation that was beginning to be a disquisition on Latin.  Bottom line, for me:  the title of a group, other than a really clever cross-linguistic pun as "Suspicious Cheese Lords/Suscipe Quaeso Domine" (the translation into English is obvious nonsense BUT is clever enough to grab attention), is only the introduction.  For those who would have a technically perfect Latin (or any other language, for that matter) title miss what I consider to be the point:  the draw in to hear glorious music. 
Giorgio:  No, those Americans who DO understand Latin are NOT second-class citizens; but for anyone whose first language is something other, there is always the element of "it's not so important."  And, I'm sorry, it really isn't - see my note just above to John Howell.  As for those people elsewhere in the world who do understand and appreciate precisely used Latin - incidentally, as a linguist, I understand that NO ONE ever uses a language perfectly precisely - I apologize - but I ask them to grasp my essential point:  It's not about the precisely rendered title; it IS about the music.  Are we Americans cultural barbarians, or at least linguistic ones?  Maybe - and whether that is so or not is not really important here.  What IS important is that there is this wonderful project to recast music in settings that are not common, and to make music that might otherwise be unavailable or unknown available AND known - and that's what we should be focusing on.
Jeff - Bravo!  It sounds like a marvelous project!
on May 24, 2012 1:56pm
Rendering "Suscipe quaeso Domine" as "Suspicious cheese lords" is brilliant and even better bad Latin than rendering "Spem in alium numquam habui" as "I never put faith in garlic".
Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
Helsinki, Finland
Applauded by an audience of 1
on May 24, 2012 11:07am
So very nice to hear from you guys. You are collectively an excellent band of nit-pickers. 8<) Beyond that, I am learning from you.
I would still like to hear from writing-for-SA 'gurus' to get a better focus on writing for the ladies best vocal attributes.
SIR: I will download the work you speak of, if only as a reference for voicing, as Vocem is a Compline Choir and has only one gig: Compline, the last of the divine hours.
Jaakko: I am one of the multitude of non-Latin speakers that Ron speaks about. One of our Compline Choir cantors IS a Latin scholar, but I did not obtain advice from him before I simply Googled "Voices of angels" to find the Latin tr. and came up with several 'interpretations' of the phrase. Vox has a very masculine sound to it and was my first choice, but alas, when I ran it by my wife, Vocem sounds so much more feminine and won out as the 'imagery' of the group on a continuum (nice Latin, hmm?) of time, wafting the listeners into that soft spiritual night of their lives. So, a sentence fragment it is. It's kind of like the translation of the instruction sheet for putting something together made in China. Sum Ting Wong, but it works.
I have two Profound regrets in my life. The first is that I did not become a proficient keyboard player. I have absolute pitch and can 'hear' what I look at, score wise, but that alone is too limiiting when it come to composing.
The second is that i did not become fluent in Latin.
Jaakko: I played bass trombone in the L.A. Phil for 38 years. In 1988 I was on the audition committee to represent the orchestra to the board of directors of the orchestra when we auditioned a 24 year old kid from Helsinki named Esa Pekka Salonen. What a coup was he for us. Also, my Mother was a Finn. So, i guess I'm half-Finn. Her ancestors came over on the boat from Helsinki about 1900 and lived in the Finnish Ghetto in Ashtabula Ohio until she married my father, a Welchman. I took her to a brass conference in Finland in 1989. It was the first and last time she saw the homeland. On the flight from London to Helsinki, she was overjoyed in speaking in Finnish to a Finnish choir returning from a contest. I've been there several times with the orchestra and Esa Pekka. I hava a lot of proudly Finnish speaking relatives.
Ron: One further Latin quandry is: which Latin. Is it classic conversational Latin, the dead language which is still taught in a few schools; or is it church Latin used by many composers from the Reniassance? Not quite the same. I found this woe while transcribing and translating a dozen works of Heinrich Isaac (b. c.1450). Which archaic version should we use? We chant a lot of works in Latin with the Compline Choirs. Simply put,; the pure, unadulterated, non-fat sound of the language is soothing to the soul and sounds well when put to music.
Thanks for the replies. You made my day.
regards, as always, jefe
In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum
on May 24, 2012 2:01pm
I should have also said that the nominative plural of "vox" is "voces", hence "voces angelorum" = "voices of angels" as a standalone noun phrase.
As the offspring of a Welshman and a Finn, you have equal parts of both the languages that inspired the Elvish languages in Tolkien's 'Lord of the Rings'. If that is not a factoid, I do not know what is.
Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
Helsinki, Finland
Applauded by an audience of 1
on May 25, 2012 12:04am
Agree here - it's an easy change too from Vocem to Voces. 
on May 26, 2012 6:04am
Jeff - Oh, what a quandry "which" Latin indeed!  Ecclesiastical, "Italianate" which is still the living language of the Catholic Church (sorry, folks, never displaced in spite of movement to the local vernacular in the local church)?  "Classical" Latin, which, to this linguist's mind, is a construct of something we have truly little idea of how it sounded (this is why "classical" Latin is also "dead" Latin - who knows how Cicero spoke?)?  "German" or "European" Latin, which I'm doing some work in while doing the Schubert Mass in G and which turns "quia" (as in "kweeah") to "kVeeah" - and "benedicimus" from "beh-neh-dee-chee-mus" to "bé-né-dee-tsee-mus" - and so on.  So, yes; I'm with you in the quandry; and I'm also with you on how the sound, agreed upon and done well in performance, does indeed soothe the soul.  Wish I could hear your group in situ....
Chantez bien, et avec joi!
on May 24, 2012 3:34pm
I suggest you add an screech-mark and tell 'em it's an exclamatory accusative!
on May 25, 2012 9:00am
To many Americans, (especially those of us infected with the rock guitar virus) "Vox" means a very loud and bright guitar amplifier, which can sound glorious in the hands of Brian May or Brad Paisley, but the word seems incongruous in this context. I vote for "Vocem" - after all, we're Americans - we don't care about grammar!
on May 25, 2012 9:40am
but why not Voces as Jaakko pointed out? Correct AND sounds good ;)  My cousin has a group up here called Voces Thules :)
on May 25, 2012 10:13am
Fancy meeting you here. I remember you from Long Beach State. (I was brass coordinator there until I retired in 2006 and graduated from that illustrious institution back in the day)
John, I like the way you think. At the moment we're having one of the altos bail, so Jeanie ( currently on Sop. 1) will move down to Alto 1 to cover the breech and follow your great advice to thin out the upper voices and thicken the lower voices. With your extensive and wide-ranging resume and real-world experience, I'm still confused as to how you wound up at as 2nd bannana at a small Virginia College music department.
Jaakko: You are the 'card'.(Americano slang for Jokester) However, you do have something to say. With your prowess in composing and especially translating, why not arrange or compose something in SSA for our group, in Latin? That way you would be more than just a kibbitzer. I like the way the Finns write music. It will look good on your resume. 8<)
The five 'changeable' tunes in our version of Compline are the:
1. Orison. Essentially a short sung prayer, preludio, or antiphon to fit the occasion. Hymn verses or plainsong chant is also acceptable depending on the church year calendar.
2. Hymn. Can be in plainsong, harmonized hymn, or composed hymn style piece.
3. Psalm. It is the focal point in compline. Can be plainsong, harmonized, through composed arrangement, or Gregorian or Anglican sytle chant.
4. Nunc dimittis. I have about 50 versions of one kind or another. Some are plainsong, some are full-on, big sounding composed pieces which work well witht the church calendar.
5. Anthem. The sky is the limit here. We have done some pretty far-out stuff here. The main thing is sonic "imagery". 
Just remember the point of Compline is to, "soothe the sin-sick soul".
I find idioms in language do not travel well across the boundries of tongue but music does. The above half metre of verbage proves that point.
Thanks again for all your replies.
My innocent little plea for information and your actual experience with women's voices morphed into something far different than I expected.
regards, as always, jefe
In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spirtum meum
on May 25, 2012 3:47pm
While - as a Latin & Greek teacher of 30 yrs or so - I cannot endorse bad Latin, perhaps I can rescue Jeff & his alto friends, while allaying the concerns of Jaakko and Giorgio et al? Surely we could pretend/explain that "vocem" is OBVIOUSLY being used as an 'accusative of exclamation'. Hence those who listen to the ladies may exclaim in delight, "The Voice of Angels!" There is, then, the question of why such listeners wouldn't say "The VoiceS of Angels!' but this can be explained away as a classic case of metonymy, with 'voice' representing 'sound', so finally we end up with "Ah! The Sound of Angels!"
..... or you could just quietly, surreptiously, somewhere along the line, change to "Voces."
Can anyone tell it's the end of a long week of teaching?
Philip Barnes
St. Louis (MO)
on May 26, 2012 9:21am
Philip, in his ubiquitous way, put the last nail in the coffin for "Vocem"! (accusative of exlamation just will not stick to the wall)
Last night at a Compline Choir rehearsal, I spoke with our own resident Latin scholar, which is what I should have done before Googling "Voices of Angels". Allan Haley obtained degrees in both law and music from Harvard. He is also fluent in 6 languages. Here is his response after he read this link:
"I see what you mean.  Voces angelorum is the name you seek -- but be aware that there are already other women's choirs and that it is the title of a piece for women's voices by Johannes Brahms   If you would like to be unique, you could try alternatives like voce angeli, or plural: vocibus angelorum ("with angelic voices"), or vocibus angelicis ("with angelic voices"). Voces angelicae is probably the best of those, and could be pronounced using Church-latin as "voh'-ches an-jel'-ee- see".
Let me know if I can help further.
<snip> (my snip-and-paste did not work very well here)
So, your collective advice to change the name of our women's Compline choir to Voces angelorum is official.
Thank you very much.
regards, as always, jefe
In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum
on May 26, 2012 3:54pm
Voces angelicae is probably the best of those, and could be pronounced using Church-latin as "voh'-ches an-jel'-ee- see".
The pronunciation of that last syllable doesn't make sense. It would be 'chay' in Church Latin.
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