Music is something beyond rhythm and pitch. It is beyond any written notation, no matter the style – or even if it is written at all! The notes, the chords, even the instrumentation are just a medium, an avenue for communicating the message which is transcendent. We must listen beyond, much like we must read between the lines of a poem. Like the notes in music, the words of a poem are only a vessel for the message. Well-placed syllables and vowel sounds, the use of alliteration and onomatopoeia, and various other poetic devices are not the meaning in themselves. They only direct the reader to the meaning.
Back in September and October, I was in quite a slump and did not compose at all. One day in early November, I was contacted by a woman I only knew through Facebook, a friend of a friend, asking if I had any pieces suitable for Advent or Christmas. She was looking for something new to sing for her church’s Christmas Eve service, instead of rehashing the same old standards. At that point I didn’t have such a piece, so I decided to write one for her. I did not want any money for it because I was writing this for my own benefit. It wasn’t just about the wisdom of having such a piece in my portfolio; it was also about my need to get back to composing regularly after about two months of stagnation. The encouragement of being told my work was desired was enough reward and something I needed more than payment at that time. (She and her fellow performers were also willing to give me a copy of their recording, which is very helpful.)
I asked if she had a text in mind.
Finding the right text is the most difficult, and most important, part of writing a vocal piece. I am very picky about the text. The flow of the words, whether syllables are more open or closed, the rhythm of each line, and the pattern of rhyme (if there is one) all contribute to whether or not I will take on the challenge of setting a text.
She suggested “Love Came Down at Christmas” by Christina Rossetti:
Love Came Down at Christmas Love came down at Christmas, Love all lovely, love divine; Love was born at Christmas, Star and angels gave the sign. Worship we the Godhead, Love incarnate, love divine; Worship we our Jesus: But wherewith for sacred sign? Love shall be our token, Love shall be yours and love be mine, Love to God and to all men, Love for plea and gift and sign.
I’ve got to be honest that, while I enjoy much of Christina Rossetti’s work, this poem is not one of my favorites. The mouthfeel just doesn’t work for me. The changes in the shape of the syllables from line to line seem abrupt and rather square. I don’t like square; I like round. The syllables are short, the words are short, the lines are short, the stanzas are short, and the entire poem is just three stanzas! It takes about twenty seconds to recite the poem out loud, with pauses. It’s impossible to stretch it out further by reading each word slowly. Try it! It sounds silly. It also seems to me to be “unfinished.” I get to the end of the poem and feel a bit like I was left hanging. Is that it? I would not normally have chosen this text myself, but since I did not have the emotional energy to go find one I liked, I accepted the challenge.
One piece of compositional advice I have heard is that a good estimate for the amount of time it will take to set the text in music is about three times the length of reciting the poem. For this poem, that would be about one minute. Adding in accompaniment, I knew I could stretch it out to about one and a half minutes, but this still was not sufficient. I knew immediately I was going to have to do something to change up this text.
When I first began working on the piece, I was unhappy with the sound of it. I was writing for a church service and using a very popular poem, so I wanted to keep the music relatively approachable for the average listener. Yet, I wanted it to be more like a classical-style art song than a popular-style common in much of Contemporary Christian worship music. My piece was heading in the direction I didn’t want.
As I discussed the issue I was having with my twenty-year-old daughter, she encouraged me to try and figure out what the poem was really about. In a “Duh!” moment, I realized I had skipped some very important steps before beginning to write the music. Normally, I jot down words that capture the feelings and ideas that I hope to communicate through the music. I do this for all pieces, vocal or instrumental. But this time, I had forgotten to take the time to do this. I had forgotten to read between the lines of Christina Rossetti’s poem. The words were just a frame. What was she really communicating? So, I went back and spent more time with the poem and wrote down some thoughts.
There’s a difference between setting text and setting context.
I am reminded of the words of one of my English teachers admonishing my class of young writers: “show, don’t tell.” That’s my job as a composer: show, don’t tell. Simply setting text without trying to capture the substance behind the words is simply “telling” or “reciting.” I need to use musical devices to help bring listeners on a journey to encounter the transcendent meaning for themselves.
Christina Rossetti’s works are in public domain; I do not need to get permission to make changes. So I did. Musically, I stretched out the words and made the single-syllable word “love” last an entire measure in some places. I repeated words and parts of phrases. I rearranged the lines of the first stanza so I could make the musical ideas more cohesive.I made the first stanza into it’s own musical section. I combined stanzas two and three into one section because the third stanza answers the question that ends the second stanza, and in my mind, there was interior rhythmic consistency that brought them together. I then repeated the first stanza/section again to address the unfinished feeling I got from reading the poem and to reiterate the answer to the question of “why?” inherent in the second and third stanzas. All in all, I made this short, pithy poem last four-and-a-half minutes.
Earlier this week, I made the mistake of listening to other settings of this text. I did so in response to a strong sense that I needed to modify my own piece slightly, which I wrote about in “When Music Wakes You at 4am.” I came away feeling insecure. I complained to my husband that my setting, comparatively, seemed to come out of left field. “It’s just so different. All these other settings are so pretty and in major and mine is in minor and, well, it’s just so angsty.” He responded, “Of course it’s angsty. It’s 2020. Times are tough, and you’re a product of your time. The angst of these days is going to show up in your work.” Each artist interacts with their sources differently due to different personalities and experiences. My own self, mingled with the uneasiness of 2020, influenced how I interacted with the meaning in the poem and combined to create the meaning in the piece.
The idea of a poem or a piece of music being only the container for a message relates very much to the Christmas story of Jesus Christ, the Son of God come in the flesh. The body was the container – one that we, as humans, can recognize and interact with, much like how poets use words that we understand or composers use notes we can hear and comprehend. But Jesus was much more than an ordinary person; he was God, incarnate. The acts he did in the body – the way he lived, taught, performed miracles, died, and rose again – all those things point to something much greater: the message that mankind can be at peace in relationship with God and each other, the message that Love came down at Christmas. In becoming a person, Jesus didn’t just communicate God’s love for the world; he also experienced life from a human perspective and became familiar with our suffering. During this topsy-turvy year full of illness, death, unrest, injustice, distress, chaos, and uncertainty all around us, the Incarnation takes on even more significance, at least for me.
So, I present my setting of “Love Came Down at Christmas”, by Christina Rossetti, written during November 2020 and premiered by Michelle Marinelli Prindle, soprano, Dan Prindle, cello, and David Kidwell, piano. In these times, they needed to make a recording for their church’s virtual Christmas Eve service, and they chose to do so by recording individually and then making a video. This creates challenges that don’t exist in a live situation where everyone is performing together in one place! The piece and the recording, both, are a reflection of our time. I am grateful for their beautiful performance, hard work, and willingness to perform this piece. I hope you enjoy it and that it contributes to a deeper understanding of the words “Love Came Down at Christmas.”
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A professional recording of my piece for string orchestra, Daughter of the Stars, is now available. It can be found here.