#60: Friday, May 1, 2020
“Moon Goddess” by Jocelyn Hagen
Text by Enheduanna
SSA, piano 4-hand, large frame drum, finger cymbals, suspended cymbal
If you are looking for a Fierce and Feisty selection for your women’s choir, this is the one! Written in 2011 for the ACDA Women’s Chorus Commissioning Consortium, this work by composer Jocelyn Hagen has brilliant drive and musical energy. And it has text to match, sourced from Sumerian poet Enheduanna. This is a can’t-miss selection for your women’s or adult-treble ensemble.
The promotional tag-line for this piece on Graphite Publishing’s site says “A tenacious, ferocious and distinctly feminine anthem of praise to the ancient goddess Inanna.” When I first introduced this selection to my choirs this term, they were floored. They immediately took to the work, and were visibly excited, from the first rehearsal onward. There is a forward motion to the piece that is inescapable.
Another draw to the students, besides the musical energy, was the text and its author. We in Western choral music so often sing songs written in praise for the (male, Christian) God, or texts about male figures in history, or general texts written by men or for a male audience. And while those may be beautiful pieces of music, there are entire segments of the population left out of that narrative. This text is an intense statement in praise of the Goddess Inanna, from writings by Sumerian poet Enheduanna. Enheduanna was a High Priestess of Inanna, and the first writer in history, male or female, whose name and work has been preserved across the centuries.
Imagine telling your women’s or adult-treble choir that they were (finally!) going to get to sing a piece about a feminine deity, with text by a priestess of that deity (and the first recorded author, nonetheless), and composed by a present-day female composer. My singers were thrilled.
As with most all choral performances this spring, our anticipated performance was cancelled due to the Coronavirus pandemic. When I had my singers reflect on what they were most missing about that concert, Moon Goddess was hands-down their top response. I anticipate re-programming it as the closer on our next concert…whenever that may be.
Written for SSA, there are only a few measures of internal divisi. Additionally, the three-part voice writing is almost entirely homophonic, which makes this piece infinitely more accessible than polyphonic SSAA or SSAA divisi selections. There is definitely challenge in the work (in meter and range), but not from polyphony. You will however need two quality pianists and two quality percussionists, and they provide the polyphonic aspects of the work. Unison phrases abound as well, so the piece presents many opportunities to strengthen cross-part blend and balance.
As noted previously, range and meter are the two main challenges of this piece. Regarding range, most of the voice parts remain in a comfortable tessitura for most of the piece. Notice I said “most” a few times! When the voice lines venture outside the primarily comfort zone, you might have a few S1s giving you dirty looks, or Altos feeling hesitant.
In the case of the Altos, most if not all of their high notes are in unison across all voice parts. So, these might be most easily approached with the full choir, not in sectionals. Let the altos feel strength in numbers, and supported by S1/S2.
For the measures where S1s are at A5 or B5, I would present those measures first in sectionals. Let the sopranos find the notes in their voice, and talk about how to modify the vowels and adjust (or drop) the consonants. In my rehearsals, we worked on the rhythms and text first, then sung the measures in a slow legato, and then changed the tempo and style…all in sectionals, so they could explore that portion of their range without an audience.
The other primary challenge in this piece is the meter. The changing meter is part of what gives the piece its forward motion and drive, but it can also be a challenge for less experienced choirs, especially when you see so many meter changes, so frequently. However, while this is changing meter, it is mostly variation of simple meter: 3/4, 4/4, 5/4, 6/4. The quarter note stays constant throughout much of the work. In our first rehearsal, I had my accompanist play through the entire piece (slowly!), and had my students count-sing. Once they realized that it was mainly a matter of counting to 3, 4, 5, or 6 – but with the counting staying a steady speed, they were much more comfortable.
There are three 9/8 measures to reckon with – I would recommend starting with those measures first, before you even introduce the rest of the piece. I wrote the rhythms out on the board, without the music in their hands, and we worked through each, then added text. Each of the three measures technically has the same rhythm and beat division pattern, but because the text syllabification is different in each, they can feel like three separate entities. Not an insurmountable challenge, but one more easily tackled before diving into the full piece.
Outside of the meter, the rhythms themselves are quarter notes, eighth notes, and half or dotted half notes. So, once the overarching metrical structure is understood, the rhythms and text should easily fall into place.
So much of what makes this piece a favorite of both performers and audience (and conductors!) is not contained in only one aspect of the work. It isn’t just the driving piano rhythms, or the well-set text, or historical nature of the words, or the insistent motivic patterns, or the beauty of the strong choral harmony. All those facets, and more, blend together form an amazing, intense, and powerful musical experience. I cannot recommend this piece highly enough – and I look forward to the safe return of choral music to our world, so my singers can have the chance they so desperately missed this spring.
|Date of Composition:
|Enheduanna (b. ca. 2300 B.C.), adapted by Jocelyn Hagen
|Goddess Inanna, Women’s history, Strength of women
|SSA, with a few measures of harmonic divisi
|4-hand piano, large frame drum, finger cymbals, suspended cymbal
|QN=112, 132 Vigorous, 110 Calmly
|2011 ACDA Women’s Choir R&S Commissioning Consortium, Iris S. Levine, National Chair
|JH Music, distributed by Graphite Publishing
|Further descriptions and details, including program notes, audio, perusal score, and purchasing: https://graphitepublishing.com/product/moon-goddess/ (perusal score, and audio recording by Cantala Women’s Choirs, Phillip A. Swan, conductor)
https://www.facebook.com/JocelynHagenMus/videos/10154257795610535/ (video of Wenzhou Female Choir from China, who won a gold medal “Moon Goddess” at the 2016 World Choir Games in Sochi, Russia)
Until next month!
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.