#64: Friday, October 2, 2020
Missa Brevis by Adolphus Hailstork
SSAA, a cappella
This four-movement Missa Brevis by Adolphus Hailstork is a gem for unaccompanied treble or women’s choir, with unexpected strengths both for teaching music literacy and for performance.
I learned about this piece, along with additional works by Hailstork and others, from Dr. Marques L. A. Garrett’s excellent resource: Beyond Elijah Rock: The Non-Idiomatic Choral Music of Black Composers. If you haven’t yet studied Dr. Garrett’s research, go there now.
Once I ordered a copy and studied this Missa Brevis, I put it on my “for fall” collection. It is an interesting SSAA selection, with many different applications. Dr. Hailstork is a prolific and award-winning composer, currently serving as Professor and Eminent Scholar at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. For a complete bio, please see https://www.odu.edu/directory/people/a/ahailsto
I & IV.
The opening and closing movements (Kyrie and Agnus Dei) are squarely in G Major, with not a chromatic note to be found. Both are marked Lento, QN=56. In fact, the fourth movement is a motivic and stylistic recap of the first, so once your singers have learned the concepts in the first movement, they have already almost learned the fourth as well (different text, and some different rhythms to suit).
Both movements are perfect for diatonic solfege – very tonal. Harmonies are primarily homophonic, with a few measures of motivic echo. Lots of step-wise motion, minimal large leaps. On first glance, my beginning-of-the-semester students, many of whom are just learning solfege, will soon have the skills to approach these movements.
Additionally, the rhythms almost exclusively incorporate beat, beat division, beat rest, and elongated notes (with one 1-beat figure that includes beat subdivision). Essentially, if your singers can read quarters, eighths, half notes, and ties – with the occasional dotted quarter or rare 16th – they are ready for these movements.
While marked as SSAA, neither movement is what I would consider four-part. Often the writing is SA, with some unison, some SSA, and some SAA. The only point at which there are four simultaneous pitches is on the last chord of each movement.
Because it switches between SSA and SAA frequently though, I would still definitely assign parts as SSAA, in order to avoid the singers in the middle filling their music with arrows jumping between staves. Thankfully, the music is written on two staves, instead of four, so when S1/S2 are in unison (or A1/A2), it is 100% apparent. This is key for less experienced singers, as they may not easily notice unisons between voice parts on four staves, since that requires looking up or down to another line.
These two movements are absolutely a great place to start, especially for ensembles who may not be ready for four distinct parts yet, or ensembles at the start of their music literacy journey. I plan to use short sections for sight-reading examples in the rehearsals leading up to introducing the piece, to ensure students know they have the skills and abilities needed (and the confidence to go with it).
II & III.
If the outer movements are a solid early-semester option in terms of literacy skills, the inner movements are the opposite. The second movement, Gloria, is marked Vigoroso and QN=82. Not only is it faster and more energetic than the outer movements, as is typical with a Gloria, it also incorporates a few borrowed figures (8th note triplets) and a phrase with beat subdivision and syncopation (16ths, ties over the barline).
These ideas do repeat themselves multiple times in the movement, so once singers know it, they are set. But it will require a slightly higher level of rhythmic literacy to read it initially, as compared to I & IV.
Like I & IV though, the part-writing is often SA, with frequent SSA and SAA. What little SSAA writing there is, is limited to static chords. However, there is a bit of an S-A polyphonic feel to this movement – with the soprano voices (in unison or in harmony) set against the alto voice (in unison or in harmony). At max though there are only two ideas happening at once, with added vertical harmony (S-AA or SS-A).
In the third movement, Sanctus & Benedictus, the rhythmic focus lessens, shifting to Adagio and QN=52. These rhythms are similar in level to movement I & IV – quarters, 8ths, half notes, quarter rests. Minimal syncopation, no beat subdivision (16ths). All homophonic movement, with all voices reading each rhythm together.
The harmonic structure is where both II and III become challenging from a literacy perspective. The Gloria starts with a key signature of A major/f# minor, but focuses on repeated B naturals. The B becomes a Bb, and now a new key signature appears, and it looks like we are in the key of F major/D minor. But, the music has accidental Ebs and more easily reads like its in g minor. However, then an Ab pops up, and the Eb becomes an E natural.
You could perhaps still read most of this section as if it were g minor, but there will be altered pitches to contend with in solfege. Then some Ab Major triads present themselves, as well we a few other chords requiring altered solfege, and we’ve definitely lost the functionality of solfege, at least for singers at a beginner or intermediate level.
The harmonic structure of the Gloria isn’t strongly dissonant; it is still quite tonal and consonant. But, it is not strongly diatonic in the way that would allow for functional use of solfege, especially in a setting where the singers are still learning how to apply nascent music literacy skills to their repertoire. The Sanctus/Benedictus is not dissimilar, with a fairly-consistent tonal structure that doesn’t directly match the key signature, and then additional chromatic pitches in certain places.
I anticipate focusing on I and IV in the fall term, as we still get used to ensemble singing in the time of Covid. (Fewer singers per choir and not always of the ideal part-balance, large distances between singers, no “strength in numbers” to help out less experienced singers, appropriate breathing in a mask, etc). Right now, we need music that is engaging and relevant, but not rhythmically/tonally difficult or vocally taxing (and without piano, in my particular Covid non-standard rehearsal space).
Once my ensembles have a chance to find their new cohesion in the current constraints, then we can begin to look at II and III in the spring term. All four movements have lovely dynamics and phrase shaping, which I look forward to exploring with my singers.
All in all, this work by Dr. Hailstork is a lovely piece of music that I’m glad I have learned more about, and one I look forward to experiencing throughout the coming year with my singers. It is a chance to have a long-term relationship with a multi-movement work, that can grow with your ensemble and serve different functions as their skills evolve.
|Title:||Missa Brevis (4 movements)|
|Composer:||Adolphus Hailstork (b.1941)|
|Date of Composition:||Copyright 2008|
|Test Source||Liturgical Latin|
|Subject(s), Genre:||sacred, mass|
|Voicing Details:||SSAA, though frequently SA, SSA, or SAA.|
|Ranges:||S1: D4-G5 |
|Publisher:||Theodore Presser Company|
Until next month!
Dr. Shelbie Wahl-Fouts is Director of Choral Activities and associate professor of music at Hollins University, a women’s college in Roanoke, Virginia.
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