Love Came Down at Christmas

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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When Music Wakes You at 4am

Sometimes I can’t sleep for the music swirling in my head. Despite my body happily resting, my mind is a whir, playing and replaying pieces. Not even whole pieces. Segments of pieces. One line. One phrase. Over and over. This commonly happens when I’m in the middle of a musical production. One season, Charlie Brown and Linus just would not leave me alone!

I have heard that some composers dream up new compositions. I usually only dream of compositions already written. If it’s someone else’s piece, I can continue to “sleep”, somehow resting despite the conscious awareness that my mind’s playlist is on repeat. I often have my own pieces churning in my head for days or even weeks after finishing them, my mind still digesting the work. It’s annoying, but I can deal with it.

When I’m in the middle of composing a piece, I relish the fact that my mind works on it while I am sleeping. Sometimes I wake up with solutions to a problem I’ve been trying to solve, or I wake up with ideas for a new direction. In fact, I often look over my work right before bed to give my subconscious something to do. It’s a way of making good use of my natural tendency to overthink.

But this week, I had a different experience. I had recently finished an art song for a virtual Christmas Eve Mass and even turned it in to my performers a few weeks ago. Yet, I woke up at 4am with the intense feeling that it needed fixing. This one I couldn’t shake off. I was too stressed out to fall back asleep and got out of bed. I spent part of that day listening again to my own piece, as well as a couple of other settings of the same text I had used, trying to figure out what about the piece was bugging me, and if it was worth the effort of making any changes. After all, Christmas Eve was one week away (yikes!) Did I really want to inconvenience the performers, who were making a recording (in other words, it involved more time and effort and starting work on the project sooner) on such short notice?

I didn’t act on my feelings that day.

But like Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, who ignored the warnings of the first ghost, I was visited again in my sleep by the nagging sensation that I needed to FIX MY PIECE – the dang piano part! Two measures needed a little more movement to push into the following measures, and I needed to make the notation in another measure clearer. Minor changes, but still…

The anxiety of making these last-minute changes spawned more thoughts: My performers are giving me a recording. I’m going to try to sell this score. Don’t I want the recording people will hear to match the changes I know I need to make in the score? What if this is my only shot at a good recording? Time is ticking away. The longer I wait, the more I will inconvenience the performers. But these are minor changes. Surely they won’t mind. But what if they have already recorded? I don’t want to put them out and make them re-record. After all, this is for their church service and I’m getting a copy of the recording for free. I don’t want to be a pest.

Once again I got myself out of bed at 4am, unable to fall back asleep. It took me all day (until about 8PM) to gather up the courage to contact my performers, ask politely if they could possibly accommodate the very minor changes, and send the updated score. At that moment, I was very, very grateful for digital technology! All turned out well, and they agreed to the changes.

Now I know that if I am wakened at 4am by thoughts that plague me about alterations I need to make to a piece that I thought was already finished, I just might have to listen the first time, especially if I already have people lined up to perform the piece. It is not worth waiting, because I will only be haunted again the next night, and perhaps every night, until I obey the spirit.

Resolving this issue has brought great relief, and I slept much better last night. Now I eagerly await the recording. I am very excited to hear my piece performed by real musicians instead of the computerized mock-up. Stay tuned! I will release “Love Came Down at Christmas”, my setting of Christina Rossetti’s poem, as well as more thoughts on the compositional process, on Christmas Day.

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We Reserve the Right to Define “Emerging”

A little while back, I got the results from a contest for emerging composers that I had entered. It did not have an age limit, and I had work that met the guidelines, so of course I had to take advantage of the opportunity. The rejection email I received was the worst I have ever received. Most of these rejection emails I get are impersonal form letters that begin with “Dear Composer,” but this one didn’t even include a greeting. “You are receiving this email because you entered the emerging composer’s competition”, it said, and then went on to say that the winner had recently been announced and the people receiving the email did not win. “We want to recognize your effort and interest in making an application to the competition” (note, we recognize your application, not your work), and “it was a privilege to choose a winner from the many extraordinary works submitted” (am I the only one that finds this wording strange?)

The first thing that puzzled me was that the winner had already been announced…and was not named in the email. Most competition results are sent with the email, or recipients are told where and when to be able to find the results. This email contained neither. My skeptic alarm went off immediately, and I went to work sleuthing on the internet to find out who won. I first went to the organization’s website. For such a big competition with a nice $$ tag connected to a commission, I expected this announcement to make the front page. It didn’t. Huh. I poked around on every page and every link on that website, even on pages I knew had no real chance of containing the information, such as the personnel page. I could not find anything about this competition. Since I designed and manage my own website, I know how easy it is to make a new page and where to put it, especially when such a large organization would have a webmaster devoted to managing the site. Huh.

The next strategy was a Google search. Bingo. I found the page, but the page was not linked to any other page of the organization’s website. There was no big announcement. Rather, the first paragraph explained that the competition was over and that scores were no longer being accepted. Embedded within the second paragraph was the winner’s name. If I was the winner, I’d be wondering why the organization wasn’t highlighting this exciting news. So I looked him up.

The organization had said they reserved the right to define emerging. I understood that, especially when age is not the limiting factor. It would be difficult to know in advance which competing composer’s background would best be defined as “emerging.” This was their definition: the winner was young (25), but seemingly a prodigy since his work has already been performed all over the world. He has earned ASCAP awards, collaborated with the New York City Ballet, and has even been featured on National Geographic. His bio goes on from there. I guess age ended up being the determining factor, after all, since his experience doesn’t sound like “emerging” to me. Huh.

No wonder they appreciated my “effort and interest in applying.” It seems that my effort (and that of others who entered) was necessary for this organization to jump through the hoops of setting up a competition in order to make it look like they fairly chose someone they already knew they wanted to work with. This is not unlike universities that create job descriptions that fit only the person they want to hire, or government proposals designed for only one contractor. This group got around that, and around age discrimination, by saying “we reserve the right to define the term ’emerging.'”

I knew all along that my $20 donation/entry fee would help fund the commission. They got about $2,000 out the almost-100 poor emerging composers who never had a chance. Today I returned to the webpage which contained the announcement. It was blocked to all but members of the organization.

Declaring One’s Self

The term “declaring one’s self” often refers to making a pledge of commitment and support. It can also mean stating strongly one’s opinion or revealing one’s true character or identity.  In short, it’s about owning up to a position, saying “this is where I stand.”

Composition is an exercise of “declaring one’s self.” During the writing phase, I sort out my ideas, clarify and refine them. But once a piece is completed, I own it. I chose all the notes, all the voicing, all the instrumentation. I have declared myself to this piece. I stand behind it, taking full responsibility for it. I have said, in no uncertain terms, “this is what I want.”

It is at once empowering and terrifying. I feel like this every time I get on a roller coaster or when I am halfway through a mountain trail and find myself in a difficult spot. On the one hand, I am quite satisfied with myself for having the guts to get on the ride or start the hike. I didn’t chicken out. But once in the midst of it, I sometimes wonder what I have gotten myself into. There’s no getting off the ride, there’s no going back. There is only one way to go, and it is forward, come what may.

To me, writing a piece of music and presenting it is a bit like laying out my heart in front of the entire world. I painstakingly ripped it out of my soul and laid it bare.  It cannot  return to the depths from which it came. It has seen light and has been exposed, all of it: the good, the bad, and the ugly. At that point, all I can do is see what happens. Will it get performed? Will it be well received? Will it be found lacking? Will my friends encourage me or will even they have nothing to say, finding nothing to praise? I feel accomplished, having finished a project. But I also feel extremely vulnerable. My inner thoughts, shown in the choices I made to create the piece, are on public display.

Declaring one’s self can be a dangerous activity. Some people will not like what you have to say or who you are. The practice of saying “this is what I want” clearly and firmly is an important discipline. So many times we are hesitant to reveal our inner desires out of fear they will be rejected or scorned. But pretending that our own desires don’t exist or are unimportant is a refusal to stand by our own selves and a form of self-rejection that says we are worthy of being dismissed or ignored. I’m not saying that every single desire we have is a good one that should be “published”, but too many times we hide ourselves for no reason other than simply being afraid.

However, the skill of declaring one’s self can be developed with practice. It does get easier. The first hill on the roller coaster is the scariest. One hike up a mountain gives confidence to do the next one.  As the saying goes, what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. What is the worst that can happen? A rejection? Someone gets angry? I am embarrassed? Those things will not destroy me. I may get knocked back a little. I may hesitate. I may need to recover. But I pick myself up and write again, with a little more strength, confidence, and determination.