#62: Friday, July 3, 2020
“On Children” by Ysaye M. Barnwell
Text by Kahlil Gibran
SSAA a cappella
I’m always looking for a great opening piece for my small ensemble – especially at the start of the year. Not too difficult, but not too easy. Energetic, but not necessarily fast. Something they can lean into as group – to build community and practice that small-ensemble harmony. One of those songs that you hear them singing in the hallways all year long. “On Children” by Ysaye Barnwell is one of those perfect pieces.
I remember first hearing the ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock in 1998 at DePauw University, when I was an undergrad. The experience was outstanding. So many styles and genres of music – including gospel, folk, and music composed for the group by Barnwell – all beautifully woven together with narration and sign language. As I later found myself studying repertoire for women’s/treble choirs, Barnwell’s compositions were always a favorite.
As with much of her music, “On Children” is scored for SSAA, with A2 written the bass clef. Your low altos may struggle initially, but this a great opportunity to practice transferable solfege skills – once they know where do is in the different clef, its all relative. A third is still a third. Written in D Major, the song is almost entirely diatonic, except for me in the A1 and te in the S1.
The challenge for A2s may come in the range though. Like most of the repertoire from Sweet Honey in the Rock, the alto lines are very low. “On Children” goes down to D3 (D below middle C). The good news is that the S1 part only goes up to D5, and, at most, each voice part only spans an octave. So, you can potentially pitch the song in a higher key that might sit better for your A2s. Take care though not to go too high – the song should still feel grounded and the S1/S2 line shouldn’t fall in their break.
The rhythms are motivic and repetitive in structure, primarily quarters and eighths. There are some sixteenths to support the correct text syllables, and ties for syncopation. With the exception of a few interjections, all the voice parts sing homophonically. For most groups, the syncopation will be the challenge, but one learned quickly with repetition.
The text for this song is taken from the poem “On Children” by Lebanese-American poet and artist Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931), which he published in 1923 in The Prophet. He wrote the text decades ago, but it seems ever more relevant today. In these difficult, stressful, anxious times, I often think of what the next generation will face – will it be better? Worse? Are we creating or furthering issues now that will plague their generation? What can we do to make their lives better, once we are no longer here? I think of my son, I think of my students and their families, I think of mothers and fathers the world over and the children they raise. What world are we leaving for our children? This poem, and Barnwell’s setting, provide a wonderful opportunity to contemplate the future and how we can help shape it.
Your children are not your children.—-excerpt from “On Children” – by Khalil Gibran (1923), adapted by the composer
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but they are not from you,
And though they are with you they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
Strive to be like them,
but you cannot make them like you.
In addition to the exceptionally timely text, I am particularly looking at this piece for this fall because of its compositional design. With social-distancing in the classroom, I know I will be having more small group rehearsals and sectionals during class time, as opposed to the whole ensemble together (even for my small ensemble). On this song, singers can work in part-sectionals on the solfege, and then split into SSAA quartets to work on the rhythm and harmony. All small group work, without having to worry about too much divisi or crunchy harmony to start off with. (Don’t get me wrong – my groups LOVE crunchy harmony – but its difficult to practice in small breakout groups, if not all your singers can hold their part alone yet, or if you don’t have enough people to cover all the divisi when split up.)
With the right quartet, live performances might be possible with just four singers, spaced many feet apart. (16ft? 20? Waiting on the July 22 Colorado State research for this!) Or, if performances end up having to be virtual or otherwise recorded as individual tracks and combined on the computer, this is a song that is minimally fussy for those purposes (no polyphony or canon, minimal tempo changes). With the proper audio programs, students might even be able to layer and align the tracks themselves.
Best wishes as we all prepare for the great unknown this coming fall. Stay safe – and keep making music, however we can!
Until next month,
|Composer:||Ysaye M. Barnwell |
|Date of Composition:||1980|
|Author:||Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931)|
|Date of Text:||Excerpt from “On Children” – published in The Prophet (1923)|
|Subject(s), Genre:||Children, future, society, mother, father, parenting|
|Voicing Details:||SSAA, with A2 written in bass clef|
|Ranges:||S1: F#4-D5 |
|Publisher:||The Musical Source Publishing Division https://www.musicalsource.com/|
Further descriptions and details, including program notes, audio, perusal score, and purchasing: Composer’s Website:
Performance by Temple University Women’s Chorus
Performance by Sweet Honey in the Rock
Sweet Honey in the Rock website
-Dr. Shelbie Wahl-Fouts is Director of Choral Activities and associate professor of music at Hollins University, a women’s college in Roanoke, Virginia.