I imagine that if you are a church musician you have Holy Week and Easter planned already. (It is next week, after all.) But in the spirit of the season, as it is indeed the inspiration for some of the most beautiful music ever written, I thought it would be fitting to share some very accessible and high-quality pieces suitable for the occasion. If you are a school or community choir director, these recommendations might work for your ensemble throughout much of the rest of the year as well.
The first piece may be known to some, as it is based on a pretty familiar canon—William Boyce’s “Alleluia”. Boyce’s canon features three distinct melodic lines that are (with one brief exception) diatonic and very “solfege-able”, which is critical to me as a teacher. A frequent arrangement of this piece is for four parts, with the sopranos beginning the first of the three lines. As the altos begin, the sopranos move to the second melodic line, and so forth until all voices are in. To bookend the easy polyphony that ensues, the most notable arrangements of this canon feature a brief four-part homorhythmic harmony on repeated “Alleluia”s. I will forever remember the day I handed this to my developing high-school choir and told them to go learn it on their own. They came back in 25 minutes and were so proud of the sound they were able to make! Of course, you can manipulate the canon in many ways and for a variety of voicings. There are some good published arrangements out there, and CPDL also boasts two as well as the canon itself, which can all be accessed here.
The next piece, yet another “Alleluia”, is for three-part treble voices and was composed by Romantic French composer César Franck. Originally written as “Dextera Domini” for STB and soloists, Franck himself edited the piece for SSA and set it to an Easter text in French by Marc du Pasquier. In its entirety, the piece is around 10 minutes long and features soloists. If you are looking for such a work, it is still quite accessible, but something I have done on multiple occasions with this piece is to just perform the first 49 measures (which amounts to about 2 ½ minutes). The tessitura in the Soprano I part is a little high, but the vowels are helpful for that, and the part provides an opportunity to teach good vocal technique. The most easily available score is on CPDL, transcribed and edited by Mara Wehrung, and can be found here. There is also an excellent recording of the piece by the Boys of King’s College Choir, Cambridge, on their album Heavenly Voices.
The last piece I would like to share in this post is a three-voice setting of the text “Christ lag in Todesbanden” by early Baroque composer Johann Hermann Schein. Schein’s sacred concerto is one of the earliest settings of this text based on Martin Luther’s hymn tune. (Probably the most famous quote of Luther’s tune is Bach’s cantata of the same name, BWV 4. Bach was famously cantor at the Thomasschule in Leipzig a century after Schein held the same position.) Schein’s work is for two high voices and a low voice, with moderate tessituras in each voice. The piece is largely polyphonic and presents some harmonic and melodic challenges, but it is perfect for a choir of limited forces, especially in the tenor and bass sections. The best edition of this piece is published by Tetra/Continuo Music Group (TC225), as the meter signatures are amenable to modern performance and the continuo part is realized. This edition also includes text both in the original German as well as an English version.
While probably too late to program at church for this year’s Holy Week or Easter, these pieces are great for most any time in a school setting, and I hope you add them to your list of attainable works to consider. As always, if you have ideas for accessible, high-quality music you would like to share for this blog series, please feel free to e-mail them to me at .
Brandon Moss is a choir director, teacher, and composer/arranger living and working in Central Ohio. He teaches at Central Crossing High School, directs the Chalice Choir at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbus, and serves in leadership roles with the Ohio Choral Directors Association and the Ohio Music Education Association. He is currently working on the Doctor of Musical Arts degree in Conducting at The Ohio State University.