#51: Friday, June 07, 2019
“Crossing the Bar” by Gwyneth Walker
Text by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
SSAA, piano or orchestra
Many of you are likely familiar with the work of iconic American composer Gwyneth Walker, and likely have even heard this particular selection – as vocal solo, SATB, SSAA, or TTBB. However, the piece was such a resounding success on my spring choral-orchestral concert this year, I can’t help but share it!
Crossing the Bar
Text by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892)
Sunset and evening star,
and one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
when I put out to sea.
But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep,
turns again home.
Twilight and evening bell
and after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell
when I embark;
For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
the flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my pilot face to face
when I have crossed the bar.
Gwyneth Walker has been a mainstay of American composers for decades – with hundreds of works for instrumental and vocal solo, chamber, and ensemble configurations. This particular piece was originally written as a soprano solo, for the memorial service of Walker’s mother in 2000. Walker then arranged it for TTBB choir in 2003, as part of a larger group of Tennyson poems for the Orpheus Male Chorus.
Now the third movement in a set of three for TTBB, Walker continued to adapt this specific movement for SSAA and SATB ensembles as well. I am often wary of programming works for SSAA voices that were originally for other voicings, as transcriptions or adaptations do not always fall well, or may have a challenging tessitura. However, Walker is well acquainted with composing for women’s/treble voices, especially community women’s choirs, and this selection is no exception.
This piece had been in my “to do” pile for a while, but I hadn’t yet found the right concert. This spring though, my college choirs at Hollins University collaborated with the community Valley Chamber Orchestra for which I am also musical director. This selection, with Walker’s chamber orchestra accompaniment, was a perfect fit.
As a side note for anyone programing for choir+orchestra—there are two families of choral-orchestral rep: 1) choir and orchestra are equal partners, and the writing is idomatic and musical for the instruments (particular strings), or 2) the choir is the focus, with the orchestra or instrumental ensemble just supporting the choir. Both families of works can be strong for the choir, but orchestra members certainly will find the latter type less appealing. Especially if your orchestra or instrumental group is a standalone community or school entity (not just an adhoc group only intended to serve as accompaniment) make sure to look for rep in the first category, where the orchestra feels like an equal part of the team.
Generally, if the composer also has written frequently for instruments-without-voices (solos, chamber, orchestra, etc), their choral-orchestral writing is successful as well. Because Walker is equally well-versed at composing for instruments and ensembles of all types, the orchestra in my case was very pleased to be working on this particular selection. We rounded out the combined portion of the concert with music by Holst, Dickau, and Verdi. (See blog weeks #48-50 for information on the Holst.)
Waller’s piece begins in unison for the choir, and stays primarily homophonic throughout. In C major with minimal accidentals, and 4/4 simple meter with limited rhythmic complexity, this will be a quick read for many ensembles. For groups with less confident readers, or those just starting out with solfege and rhythmic reading, this could be a great piece to directly utilize beginning literacy in real repertoire.
The unison opening is smooth and flowing, with plenty of opportunity for work on breathing/phrasing and phrase shaping. After the unison beginning, the choral writing morphs into SSA, with lovely, triadic harmony. Walker treats the opening stanza of Tennyson’s poem as the refrain, so it returns, in harmony, throughout the composition.
Beginning with the third of Tennyson’s stanzas (“Twilight…”), the chorus switches to an SSAA voicing, with the entrances switching back and forth between sopranos-in-vertical-harmony and altos-in-vertical-harmony. Each of these entrances, and almost all of the pitches, are covered in the orchestration as well, so an ensemble less practiced in splitting into that many parts will still be well supported.
The piece then comes back to a very strongly consonant homophony, before splitting back into Ss vs. As. This split section, at rehearsal letter H, is a great opportunity for clarity of diction, and encouraging responsibility on the part of the singers. The text is “face to face” – and is echoed back and forth for multiple measures. The starting [f] sound, and the closing [s] can be a mess if not lined up properly. But, being that the rhythms are entirely quarter notes and half notes, can easily be accomplished successfully by any ensemble.
The songs builds to a close with Tennyson’s last two lines, hitting a glorious ff passage about 14 measures before the end. It stays strong and lush and full of energy for the next 10 measures, with lovely suspensions and resolving dissonances. [Note: depending on the size of your chorus and your orchestra, this will be the spot where balance is most difficult between the two.] As the piece comes to close, it slowly melts away to p, as the orchestra lightly plays different inversions of C major, climbing upward. With the final “across the bar”, the work ends on a light, sweet, poignant C major chord.
As a choir and piano piece, or a choir-orchestra collaboration, this piece deserves a spot in your repertoire. It was a resounding favorite among my college singers and community orchestra alike, and provided a wonderful opportunity for depth of musicality while still being accessible for many levels of performers.
|Title:||Crossing the Bar|
|Composer:||Gwyneth Walker (b.1947) |
|Date of Composition:||2003|
|Author:||Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892)|
|Date of Text:||1889|
|Subject(s), Genre:||Death, Life, Memorial, Journeys|
|Voicing Details:||Unison, SA, SSA, SSAA|
|Ranges:||S1: C4-A5 |
|Accompaniment:||Piano, or orchestra|
Further descriptions and details, including program notes, audio, perusal score, and purchasing:
**Note when purchasing: Because there are multiple voicings of this work, the TTBB version of which is part of a larger set, the work can occasionally be tricky to locate when purchasing. I have most often seen it listed as just “Crossing the Bar,” but it also has appeared as Love Was My Lord and King!, mvt 3. Especially if you are searching for the brass quartet parts or orchestra accompaniment and are having trouble, be sure to search by the full title.
Until next time!
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.
Email: Bio: https://www.hollins.edu/directory/shelbie-wahl-fouts/