by Guest Contributor Dr. Brandon Williams
#56: Friday, November 1, 2019
“Imagination” by Colin Britt
Text by Phillis Wheatley
SSAA, violin, piano
My position as a professor of choral music education includes conducting the Rutgers Voorhees Choir. This is an auditioned women’s ensemble that primarily consists of non-music majors. The choir is also an official student organization with a mission to champion the work of female composers and poets. In preparation for our April 2019 Carnegie Hall debut that shared a program featuring the United States premiere of a modern choral/orchestral work with text by Emily Brontë, I decided that our set would highlight text written by female poets. The whole program was titled “In Her Words.” Colin Britt is a well-established composer, conductor-teacher, Rutgers alumnus, and friend who I commissioned to choose a text and write a piece that we would premiere on that program.
Phillis Wheatley (c.1753-1784) was a slave owned by John Wheatley, a wealthy Boston businessman. The family fostered her education, a practice that was extremely rare for that time, and encouraged her writing pursuits. Wheatley’s book, Poems on Subjects Religious and Moral, was printed in 1773 making her the first African American woman (while still a slave) to have a book published in America. She was emancipated shortly thereafter. Phillis Wheatley’s legacy lives on in many ways, most notably in the names of buildings and organizations such as Phillis Wheatley High School in Houston, Texas and the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA in Washington, D.C and St. Louis, MO (note the alternate spelling of her name). “On Imagination” is a seven-stanza poem from Wheatley’s book, and the following stanza was extracted for the commission:
Imagination! who can sing thy force?
Or who describe the swiftness of thy course?
Soaring through air to find the bright abode,
Th’ empyreal palace of the thund’ring God,
We on thy pinions can surpass the wind,
And leave the rolling universe behind:
From star to star the mental optics rove,
Measure the skies, and range the realms above.
There in one view we grasp the mighty whole,
Or with new worlds amaze th’ unbounded soul.
Melody and harmony are the salient elements that make this piece stand out. Britt brilliantly employs the melodic figure B-F#-E-A#-G# in all of the performing forces. The tuneful essence of this figure permeates the primarily conjunct and soaring vocal lines and leads to dissonant harmonies which are approached in a very accessible manner. The vocal lines mainly function in pairs (SS and AA) providing for easy sectional rehearsal if necessary.
It is important to note a few potentially difficult elements. 1) The piano 1accompaniment has some challenging passages that may require special attention. 2) While the alto parts in many popular pieces for women’s choirs sit below or at the bottom of the staff, the writing in “Imagination” requires altos to access their upper register. The alto tessitura is not high, but it covers a wide range. 3) There are brief moments when the soprano two part is lower than one or both of the alto parts. That voice crossing may be confusing for some sopranos who rely heavily on their ears and are used to only singing the higher pitches.
“Imagination” is an accessible work that is excellent for ensembles of varying sizes and for regular concerts or honor choir festivals. Consider programming this piece with your ensemble because it is well crafted, expressive, and adds a historically marginalized poet to the vast body of women’s choir repertoire.
|Composer:||Colin Britt |
|Date of Composition:||March 3, 2019|
|Text Source:||On Imagination |
|Date of Text:||1773|
|Subject(s), Genre:||Imagination, Freedom, Bondage, Universe|
|Voicing Details:||Nineteen measures of SA and nine measures of SSA|
|Ranges:||S1: B3-G#5 |
|Commissioning Ensemble:||Rutgers Voorhees Choir|
|Publisher:||Colin Britt Publications|
|For further descriptions and details, including program notes, audio, perusal score, and purchasing: https://colinbritt.com|
Dr. Brandon Williams is an Associate Professor of Choral Music and Choral Music Education at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.
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