Week 19: Friday, July 27, 2018
“Le Sommeil de l’Enfant Jésus” arr. Ron Jeffers
Traditional French carol
SSA, a cappella
This is a favorite carol of mine to program. Over the last decade, I have used it for three different choirs, at two different schools. Ron Jeffers’ a cappella setting of this 13th century French carol is beautiful and unassuming, without sounding “easy.” It is one of those songs that has great functionality as a teaching tool for numerous concepts but is also a lovely and rewarding piece of music to perform and to hear. Everyone – students and audience alike – has loved it. It’s a win-win for nearly any Christmas or winter holiday event.
|Entre le bœuf et l’âne gris,|
Dors, dors, dors le petit fils:
Mille anges divins,
Volent à l’entour
De ce grand Dieu d’amour
Entre les roses et les lys,
Entre les pastoreaux jolis,
|Between the ox and the grey donkey|
Sleeps, sleeps, sleeps the little child:
A thousand divine angels,
A thousand seraphim,
this great God of love
Among the roses and the lilies,
Among the handsome shepherds,
Many of the aspects that I love about this piece are from a music literacy and pedagogy perspective. It has much to offer – either to introduce or reinforce concepts, depending on the level of your group.
The arrangement itself is straightforward and strophic, with three brief verses and three repetitions of the chorus. For the first verse/chorus, the S1s have the melody, while the S2s and As have primarily-stepwise homophonic harmony. The second verse/chorus is marked as a solo melody, while the lower voices have the same harmony as the first verse. Text for the harmony this time is “loo” instead of the French. There is some limited divisi here in the S2 line, but if your S1s are tacet behind the soloist, they can move down to cover the divisi. This solo could also be a duet, trio, or small group. For the third verse/chorus, entrances are staggered by a measure, creating the layered feeling of a round. However, after their initial entrance, the voice parts are similar to earlier verses, so there is minimal new material to learn. Jeffers’ arrangement closes with a brief coda, an elongated version of the final four measures of the verse.
Nearly all motion is step-wise, except for a few leaps in the melody line. For a group used to two-part songs, this could be a chance to branch out to three parts. The step-wise motion helps make it easier to stay on a part without getting lost. The only significant leap is from C#5 to F#5 in the melody line. This fourth comes between phrases though, so there is plenty of time for a breath and good placement.
Phrases are compact, symmetrical, and almost always four-bars. This is a good opportunity to emphasize fluidity, phrasing and breathing, without overtaxing less experienced voices.
The meter is 2/4. Rhythms are introductory: quarters, eighth pairs, and half notes, with the occasional dotted quarter+eighth (beat, divided beat, tie, extension dot). All ranges stay within an octave or a ninth and are very comfortable for all voice parts.
Motives and harmonies are very similar between verses, making for quick learning. This can be an easy read for an experienced group. Or, for an ensemble who is actively working on transferring their literacy skills to the sheet music, this piece is a great way to have success early and often.
The key is f# minor. All pitches except one fall within the natural and harmonic minor scales. Great chance to work on so vs. si*. The only outlier is the Picardy third on the final chord, raising do to di*. (*if in la-based minor)
The setting is a cappella, but the harmonies are stable and familiar. Singers can feel confident, even if this is a relatively new foray into unaccompanied singing.
The French is beautiful, but not lengthy or complicated. It is a nice chance to add a new language, without being too overwhelming. There are only 40 short measures of text to learn, because the verses are just 8 measures long. That’s 8 for each verse, plus 16 for the chorus. Technically, one of those verses is a solo, so it’s only 32 measures for the full ensemble.
The strophic nature of the piece allows for flexibility in the length. One possibility is to add a verse all on ooh or ahh, using the harmonies from verse 1. Or, you could add one or more repeats of the first verse with text, before singing the 8-measure coda (V1, 2, 1, 3, coda). There are also other verses to this carol, which could perhaps be added (with appropriate permission from the publisher). With additional length, the song can be used as a processional. In that case, I would suggest moving on verses 1 & 2, and being in place by the time the imitative entrances of verse 3 begin.
Outside of these teaching-focused concepts though, I am very much drawn to the beauty and simplicity of the arrangement. There is something serene about Jeffers’ setting, which connects so well with the images created by the text: a quiet stable, warm animals, a tiny sleeping child, a peaceful moment of love. As conductors, we often have a plethora of holiday repertoire to choose from, including numerous settings of carols. Many are flashy, up-tempo settings, with brass, organ, fanfares, and percussion…or gorgeous, lush settings with strings…or complex, intricate, polyphonic puzzles. Believe me, I love all of those as much as the next conductor! But, sometimes a second of quiet introspection is just what a concert or holiday event needs to really reach the audience. For that intimate moment, I love this setting by Jeffers.
|Title:||Le Sommeil de l’Enfant Jésus (The Sleep of the Infant Jesus)|
|Source:||traditional French carol|
|Arranger:||arr. Ron Jeffers|
|Date of Arrangement:||1989|
|Subject(s), Genre:||Christmas, winter holiday|
|Voicing Details:||SSA, w/ small divisi and solo or small group|
S2: C#4-C#5A: A3-B4
|Further descriptions and details, including program notes, audio, perusal score, and purchasing:|
Until next week!
Dr. Shelbie Wahl-Fouts is associate professor of music, Director of Choral Activities, and music department chair at Hollins University, a women’s college in Roanoke, Virginia.