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Descants/last Verse Arrangements (of Carols)


jonadkins
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Rather than digress in the "Once in Royal/O Come" thread, I thought I would ask these questions here, prompted as I was by pcnd's mention of the Cleobury descant for Once in Royal.

 

Firstly, pcnd, do you use the Cleobury descant yourself, or have you just liked it whenever you've heard it?

 

I have also been reminded of the discussion in the feature section of the DVD from King's, where Cleobury, Philip Ledger and David Willcocks talk about various aspects of their time at the College Chapel. Cleobury mentions a letter he received quite early on, asking "when was he going to revert to the "proper" descants"?! (meaning Willcocks') Ledger then tells a similar tale of a chorister being affronted when he handed out his new descants at a practice. Willcocks then makes the point that perhaps they've made life difficult for the next director of music there because there are only so many (one or two) descants that can be written on a given carol/hymn.

 

I think he has a point, certainly if you don't change the harmonies, but even if you do, it is all too easy to sound as if you're trying too hard to stretch the harmonic possibilties of a tune in an effort to make it sound different from another, established descant, particularly when you bare in mind that you are trying to lead the congregation in worship!

 

Do you agree, and which are the most successful examples?

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Whilst I would be reluctant to assume that there is any limit to a good composer's ingenuity, it does seem probable that you have a point!

 

It is not easy to write a good descant. First and foremost, it must be a decent melody in its own right with direction and shape. All too many are melodically tautological (hovering around the same note for too long); these are tedious to listen to and add nothing to the main tune. Contrapuntal descants (by which I mean ones that use smaller note values than the main tune) seem to be the ones most likely to witter around aimlessly without form or shape, though a notable exception is Willcock's famous one to Once in royal, which manages to be mildly contrapuntal without falling into this trap.

 

One problem with descants is that, against any decent congregation in full throat, they tend to squeak away in the distance like a chorus of mice. Flowery, contrapuntal descants are the worst in this respect. Descants are more likely to enhance proceedings when they are forthright.

 

I don't much like descants. There are too many bad ones around. Not altogether rationally, I do like to use the ones in the Carols for Choirs books because they are so well done. I was always surprised that Willcocks never did one for While shepherds watched, but the one by Alan Gray is so splendid I doubt that even DVW could have bettered it.

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Guest Barry Williams

Whilst I have a general version to descants, it is clear the the Willcocks' descants are extremely fine. Indeed, their popularity is justified by the very high quality of the workmanship.

 

As with last verse harmonies, (to which I have an equal aversion,) descants should be used sparingly but to great effect.

 

The idea (in some quarters) that there should be a new descant every year seems to put competition above musicality.

 

Barry Williams

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A problem arises however when someone in the congregation starts to sing a descant to for example O come all ye Faithful when the rest of us have decided not to use it. The resulting harmonic wrenching is toe curling and moreover there is nothing one can do bar shooting the offender. The trouble is that everyone knows (or think they know) many of the CFC 1 descants and it only takes one who feels like a bit of a solo to produce chaos. This happened to me last week at a carol 'do' where I was playing - suddenly we had both the extra 'O Comes' in the chorus of O come all ye Faithful followed by the then expected warblings to go with 'Sing Choirs of Angels!

 

AJJ

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I was always surprised that Willcocks never did one for While shepherds watched, but the one by Alan Gray is so splendid I doubt that even DVW could have bettered it.

 

Willcocks did write one for "While shepherds watched" VH - see Carols for Choirs Book 2 P211. IMHO, it doesn't add anything to the hymn.

 

Graham

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Goodness, I had completely forgotten that one. Clearly I must have looked at it once and pushed it straight to the back of my mind. Dare I suggest that the main reason it doesn't work is because it is contrapuntal? The anti-climax of that final quasi English cadence doesn't help either.

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Goodness, I had completely forgotten that one. Clearly I must have looked at it once and pushed it straight to the back of my mind. Dare I suggest that the main reason it doesn't work is because it is contrapuntal? The anti-climax of that final quasi English cadence doesn't help either.

 

You're probably right VH, but to me everything coming to a halt in bar 4 on the word "peace" feels wrong.

Perhaps some movement in the harmony here would have been preferable?

 

G

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Yes, I think you have a point. Everything does seem to hit a brick wall on that chord. My guess would be that DVW wrote it like that on purpose so that the strong, unexpected A minor chord on "peace" would have maximum impact. Certainly you would not want to throw away the impact by immediately moving to a different chord - if you are going to have A minor there, it needs to continue for the full three beats - but at the same time one does feel the need for some movement in the inner parts to keep the contrapuntal momentum going (up to the third beat of the bar, I would suggest). Far be it from me to tell Sir David how to compose though!

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As with last verse harmonies, (to which I have an equal aversion,) descants should be used sparingly but to great effect.

 

However, I was saying to my wife only this morning that Willcocks's arrangement of the last verse of O come all ye faithful (Yea, Lord we greet Thee) sends tingles up and down my spine every Christmas. :)

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However, I was saying to my wife only this morning that Willcocks's arrangement of the last verse of O come all ye faithful (Yea, Lord we greet Thee) sends tingles up and down my spine every Christmas. :)

 

Agreed. And for me, Cleobury's arrangement of the last verse of "Hark! the herald...." does it every time. :rolleyes:

 

G

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Guest Barry Williams
However, I was saying to my wife only this morning that Willcocks's arrangement of the last verse of O come all ye faithful (Yea, Lord we greet Thee) sends tingles up and down my spine every Christmas. :)

 

 

Yes, or course. It is one of the best and a model as to how these should be done.

 

Barry Williams

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Guest Barry Williams
What about those wonderful brass fanfares for "O Come" and Hark!"? Does anyone have keyboard arrangements of these or know if they exist?

Martin

 

If they exist in recordings it is a simple matter to write them down. (Don't mention copyright!)

 

Barry Williams

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Far be it from me to tell Sir David how to compose though!

Why not? Is there anything other than his carol arrangements which will have longevity? Thinking about his organ music, his Breslau piece is not particularly distinguished IMHO, nor is that Prelude on Irby in the Oxford Christmas Organ Music book.....

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Why not? Is there anything other than his carol arrangements which will have longevity? Thinking about his organ music, his Breslau piece is not particularly distinguished IMHO, nor is that Prelude on Irby in the Oxford Christmas Organ Music book.....

This might be true, but the trouble is that nothing I have composed shows signs of having longevity either! Of course, this is only because my genius remains undiscovered (cough, splutter! :) ) Seriously, though, DVW's compositions are probably best seen as modest, functional offerings in the "kapellmeister" tradition rather than attempts to court immortality. There is nothing at all wrong with this and he has a (mostly) sound and secure command of technique which is something I always value when I find it - and he does have a style of his own, even if it is not overtly distinctive. Yes, full respect to Sir David - I wish I could do as well.

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Please allow me to vent my wrath on the habit members of the congregation have of singing the DVW descants. Tonight must have been a record, two ladies in the congregation singing slightly different versions of the CFC stuff not just for the last verse but for all of them!

 

It must be the worse feeling in the world when you hear a doomed descant drifting up to the organ loft, they usually start out OK, but then end with a suprised squawk as the tune somehow doesn't fit to the regular harmonisation I'm playing. I only wish I had the music at hand to rescue them.

 

Not the most irritating thing though, the Vicar exhorted everyone to stay in their seats for the FIRST movement from Org Symph no 5, the variations in F minor "WHICH I BELIEVE IS THE FAMOUS TOCCATA." -'Nope' Anyhow that did not stop a couple of ladies commenting that they had had the piece at their weddings and thought I played it very well. 'And weren't the descants lovely.'

 

Just after I had finished her carers were able to ascertain that an old dear in the congregation was not in fact dead, but had been wrapped up too tightly against the cold and had passed out for want of breath.

 

I kid you not.

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.....I only wish I had the music at hand to rescue them.

 

Why bother? If they feel that their descant doesn't fit, they might just be discouraged from doing it in the future.

 

Descants from people in the congregation can be maddening. I remember a former choir soprano - a bit of a diva who had resigned from the choir in a fit of pique just before Christmas one year - coming along after her resignation to every carol service going where the choir wasn't in attendance in order, it seemed, to sing descants from the congregation. I think she wanted people in the congregation to notice her, and me to notice her absence from the choir. You must be more charitable than I, cornetdeschats, as I actually changed the harmonies to harmonies which definitely wouldn't fit in order to try and dissuade her. It didn't work, though! :)

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I think she wanted people in the congregation to notice her, and me to notice her absence from the choir.

For sure. Have you ever known a diva who didn't want to be noticed? :)

 

You must be more charitable than I, cornetdeschats, as I actually changed the harmonies to harmonies which definitely wouldn't fit in order to try and dissuade her. It didn't work, though! :unsure:

This would have been my response too, but you can't win. Even if the offending sopranos realise that what they are singing doesn't fit, they will simply assume that they are right and you are playing wrong notes.

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.....they will simply assume that they are right and you are playing wrong notes.

Yeh, life's just not fair at times! :)

 

Mind you, depends on whether they're actually listening to the organ, or just concentrating all their efforts in trying to show off. :unsure:

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If they exist in recordings it is a simple matter to write them down. (Don't mention copyright!)

 

Barry Williams

 

Hi

 

Some of them were published by Oxford - I have a copy somewhere (unless I gave it to my son for his brass quartet a few years ago - which looks likely as it's not in my "Christmas Music" file any more). PM or e-mail me if you want me to try and track it down. It may be out of print by now - I picked it up several years ago.

 

Every Blessing

 

Tony

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Guest Nigel ALLCOAT

For me the inherently wonderful and memorable descant should be able to stand on its own as a melody. Sometimes it becomes even more wonderful than the original and therefore more remembered (hence in a past post where members of the congregation start to sing it). For me the changing of harmonies need to have purpose and not feel contrived and out of place against the previous verses. Just my point of view, and a rather old one perhaps! Happy Christmas when we get there!

Nigel

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For me the inherently wonderful and memorable descant should be able to stand on its own as a melody. Sometimes it becomes even more wonderful than the original and therefore more remembered

There is a theory that the tune we know for The First Noel was originally the descant to a now lost tune.

 

Paul

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The Willcocks arrangement of Good King Wenceslas is a classic - the 'Herod' verse is a real spine tingler every time - especially with a decent Full Swell (box shut) plus 32'. Likewise the Trumpet/Tuba under the first line of Sing Choirs of Angels in Hark the Herald. I also remember from my early youth the effect of the 8 + 2 (or 8 + 1-1/3 as we had just had one installed at our church) at the start of the Willcocks Sussex Carol arrangement - much immitated (quite a lot by Willcocks) but not bettered - I think anyway! CFC1 was a breath of fresh air when it arrived.

 

AJJ

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