Writing the Music List

The Director of Music writes…

As I write this month’s blog post, I am also well into the process of writing the coming term’s Music List. This is always an enjoyable and satisfying process, but one that always demands considerable thought, and one in which I wondered whether readers might be interested! So, how does it work?
At first pass, I approach the term (by which I usually mean a period of four months from January, May and September) in entirely ‘aspirational’ mode, pencilling in pieces of repertoire I am keen to do (or that I know the choir and/or organists are keen to do) with no regard (at this stage) for feasibility! Even at this point, though, my primary concern is of course that the music chosen for any given day is appropriate to the theme of the scripture readings; the RSCM’s ‘Sunday by Sunday’ publication can be useful in this regard, suggesting a number of pieces of ‘standard repertoire’ for each week; past years’ music lists (both from St Peter’s and elsewhere) can also be helpful (being mindful, though, that the CofE lectionary works in a three-year cycle); but more often that not, reading the gospel set for the day is unsurprisingly the most effective prompt. Whereas anthems at Matins and Evensong are often (but not always) larger-scale affairs, the Communion motet sung at the Eucharist is almost always more reserved in character, as is appropriate for this sacred and prayerful moment of the liturgy.
Once these main ‘pillars’ (and usually these are the anthems/motets) of the list are in place, I turn my attention to the Mass settings (the choir usually sings the Kyrie and Agnus Dei at the Sunday morning Eucharists) and canticles (the Te Deum at Matins; Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis at Evensong). Often I look for a complementary style here, perhaps even the same composer as the anthem or one from the same era; but sometimes contrast is more effective – a particularly contemporary set of canticles, for example, might most effectively be set alongside an anthem from the sixteenth century.
By this stage, I am usually getting quite excited by the possibilities to which this aspirational list is giving rise; the next stage, however, involves a more practical, level-headed approach where consideration must be given to factors such as rehearsal time and choir attendance! Attendance by every chorister at every rehearsal and service cannot automatically be assumed – ours is a voluntary choir (the one exception being our university choral scholars who have to satisfy an 80% attendance rate during term-time in order to qualify for their modest bursary award). Experience has shown that asking members of the choir to predict their availability for services more than a month in advance is neither reasonable nor feasible, however, and so much of the process of ascertaining the strength of the choir on any given day is educated guess work. I know, of course, when the university terms are; I know from experience that attendance at certain times of the year (most notably the Summer months) is usually somewhat sparser than others. Guess work can only take us so far, however, and so eagle-eyed members of the congregation may have noticed that this year I have, in fact, stopped publishing the termly music list in favour of publicising music details in the new, monthly Parish Magazine; clearly this equates much more neatly with the expectation mentioned earlier that members of the choir keep a month ahead in letting me know their attendance intentions, allowing changes to be made to the following month’s repertoire if required.
Another key factor when considering the feasibility of these initial, aspirational plans is rehearsal time. The choir rehearses just once a week (ninety minutes on a Friday evening) which means time to prepare is always at a premium. Again, educated guess work is important here, as first I must estimate the number of weeks of rehearsal required for each piece of repertoire on the list. Sometimes this will be just be one (for pieces the choir knows well) or even zero (for pieces we do regularly and know very well), but for some pieces that might be particularly complex or new to our repertoire (or both), five or more weeks is not unusual. By working backwards through the term, I can then compile a list of the pieces needing to be covered each Friday of the term. This is usually the point at which changes need to be made, as there will more often than not be a series of Fridays where the ‘to do’ list is simply too long to be feasible, meaning I must substitute some rehearsal-heavy repertoire with more well-known material.
We’re almost there by this point, and all that remains (though actually in many ways this is an equally complex puzzle) is hymn choice. St Peter’s congregation has a diverse background – one of its great strengths – but that does mean that what is a well-known hymn to some will be unknown to others. This is at the forefront of my mind when I choose the hymns for each term; I try to strike a good balance between regular use of well-loved hymns and maintaining a wide and extensive repertoire, indeed I try not to repeat a hymn during the course of a term (which, incidentally, equates to a repertoire of almost one hundred hymns – a very impressive number of which the congregation should be very proud). I don’t want our repertoire of hymns to seem stagnant, however, and so every so often will introduce a hymn that I believe might not be as well-known, but one which people may like if it were to become so! In these cases, I try to only introduce such a hymn when the choir is present, and to repeat it after not too long a time to ‘solidify’ it in people’s minds. I am also mindful of the place of each hymn in the service: processional hymns should always be well-known, inspiring, and ideally introducing the theme of the service; I try to ensure the Offertory Hymn will cover the time taken for the collection (but also have the luxury of an organist team that have the skills to extend the hymn in case of misjudgments here); the Communion Hymn will usually be subdued and prayerful in character; the Final Hymn aims to send us out with a good tune on our lips!
So, a complex puzzle, but one that is most enjoyable, and, when it works (by which of I mean, met with positive feedback from members of the congregation), enormously rewarding.