In my humble opinion, there can never be an overabundance of great text settings for choir. The text of a piece is usually the first thing I notice, and I have a special fascination for how different composers treat the same text with individual senses of meaning, nuance, and texture. This week’s post will focus on three SATB settings of great poems that have each been set multiple times. All pieces work very well for high school and community choirs.
To begin, we will examine Gwyneth Walker’s “My Soul Has Grown Deep”—the first of four in I’ve Known Rivers, a cycle that features the poetry of Langston Hughes. Much of this piece is a duet between upper and lower voices, occasionally descending together to textually paint the title phrase. There are a handful of measures for divided sopranos and the soprano voice can occasionally go a little low, but the rest of this piece falls well within the standard range of each voice part. There are numerous opportunities to work on musical expression, especially in the dynamics, pushing and pulling of the tempo, and dramatic enunciation. “My Soul Has Grown Deep” is published by ECS Publishing and is available here.
Next is Z. Randall Stroope’s excellent setting of Robert Frost’s “The Pasture”. This beautiful and delicate piece begins with sopranos and altos in unison, eventually splitting into two parts to complete the first stanza. The second stanza is given to tenors and basses in the same fashion, with the full chorus repeating the final phrase, “I sha’n’t be gone long, you come too”. There is quite a bit of mixed meter in the piece, though it seems to fit the poetry perfectly. There are also a handful of tricky intervals when the unison singing splits. So the teaching opportunities, which include phrase shaping and sensitivity, are numerous. Published by Colla Voce, Stroope’s setting is available here. (“The Pasture” is part of Stroope’s cycle Where the Earth Meets the Sky. Coincidentally, both this cycle and Walker’s cycle I’ve Known Rivers feature excellent settings of Hughes’ poem “In Time of Silver Rain”.)
The last piece is “The Tiger”, an invigorating setting of William Blake’s poem by composer Lauren Bernofsky. Written in mostly Dorian mode and in mixed meter with a predominant 5/8, directors should not be afraid of this piece, as there is a lot of repetition, and the driving eighth notes in the bass line of the piano will help singers feel the steady beat. There are as many unisons as there are dissonances, as well as frequent octaves between upper and lower voices. The ranges are extremely suitable for SATB choirs of all ages, and both singers and audiences will find this piece to difficult to forget. “The Tiger” is published by Boosey & Hawkes and is available here.
I would love to hear about other great accessible poem and text settings that work well for your choirs. Feel free to share in the comments! And, as always, if you have ideas for pieces you would like to see included in a post, send me an e-mail 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.