Friday, June 30, 2023

Was it a Night Like This?

 Dr. Matthew J. Walton

Matt Walton is a Minister for Discipleship, teacher, and writer. He loves to help others think about how the Biblical narrative connects to the stories of their lives. He believes that words and stories matter because they help us perceive life in light of God's promises. Matt has written numerous studies for adolescents and adults pertaining to faith and Biblical texts. He is a graduate of East Texas Baptist University, where he received a B. A. in Speech Communications, and George W. Truett Theological  Seminary, where he earned Master of Divinity and Doctor of Ministry degrees.

In the midst of the 2020 Pandemic, medical personnel in our church, South Main Baptist church in Houston, Texas, determined that it was safe to meet outside on Christmas Eve/2020. For Houston, the weather was a bit was actually cold on the evening of December 31, 2020. As we were shivering in the cold, Matt prayed a prayer with several references to Was it a Night Like This? He posed several questions that had never connected with me in such a meaningful way before. I had never attended an outdoor Christmas Eve service that I could remember.

Specifically, some of Matt's questions within the prayer were as follows:

--Did Mary shiver in the cold as she brought forth her first-born son?
--Was Joseph filled with fear as he gazed into the night sky?
--Was it a night like this...when hope was born through God's own Son, the promised One?
--Was it a night like this...when joy unfurled in flight, and through the darkness we found light?
--Was it a night like this...when peace became our balm?

When Matt posed the questions, I was drawn into a more realistic view of the holy event in Bethlehem, and his prayer equipped me with new ideas to enjoy, contemplate, and experience Christmas Eve in a more personal way. In addition, Matt did not leave us without purpose in seeking God through worship on Christmas Eve. The prayer's ending implored the Almighty to "Open our eyes to Your light. Open our eyes to Your glory. In the darkness, we see the glory of Your Son."

Those words and the setting of the holy night with new understanding "sang" for me in a unique way. The mood of Was it a Night Like This? remains the traditional "manger mood" of soft, legato music in which a baby might be able to find rest in the midst of a cold winter night. I realize that the climate of Bethlehem might be unknown to me, but the seeking of a miracle remains a journey I choose to take every year with friends and family, making my personal journey a holy one.

In the setting of Was it a Night Like This?, an ethereal introduction sets the mood of mystery, with a few interesting harmonies on important words like "born," "untold," and "foretold." 

In the plea to the Almighty, sonorous chords with a descant and full-chorus are set to Matt's text:

Open our eyes to Your light on this holy night.
Open our eyes to Your glory.
In the darkness, we see glory,
the glory of Your Son on this holy night.

In the final refrain, sopranos are in duet as a descant. If you do not have enough sopranos to divide, either part will be just fine, as the tenors and altos have the melody. Basses are the foundation, sounding like double bass strings.

This octavo is available from my website in SATBSAB, and SSA. If more convenient, you are welcome to go to J. W. Pepper to purchase. The only difference in purchasing from my site is that the Rehearsal Preparation Sheet is complimentary. Either way is fine.

I hope you will give this octavo a listen, and purchase for your church choir, community choir, or any other group where it might be appropriate.


Monday, June 5, 2023

Gershwin, an American Treasure


George Gershwin (1898-1937)

The music of George Gershwin is truly brilliant with its harmonic progressions and internal harmonic movement, as the chords move along in seamless beauty. I never realized the depth of music genius, until I began to work with two compositions (Clap Your Hands/Someone to Watch Over Me). It really is a shame that he passed away at 38 years-of-age from a brain tumor. As I read about Gershwin, I thought about all the music we have in our possession and all the "unwritten music" that was yet to come from his brilliant, creative mind.

As a Jewish person growing up in New York City, he frequently experienced discrimination in all sorts of relationships. Families of friends sometimes restricted friendships and other close relationships. Yet, he somehow managed to create amazing music for us to enjoy for years to come.

George Gershwin found a collaborator in his brother, Ira Gershwin, whom he used as his lyricist for most compositions. George would write the music, then hand it off to Ira, so that he could set the lyrics to the music. 

George (left) and Ira Gershwin (1896-1983)

Another collaborator with George was Kay Swift, a wonderful composer in her own right, who was responsible for arranging many of Gershwin's tunes after his death. You can google "Kay Swift" to read about her relationship with George. She evidently had perfect tonal recall, and because of her we have  many Gershwin tunes to enjoy today.

Kay Swift (1897-1993) and George Gershwin

I have arranged two Gershwin tunes from the musical Oh, Kay! (1926). They have just come into the public domain, and are available for purchase from my website or from J. W. Pepper.  The two tunes are Clap Your Hands and Someone to Watch Over Me. In addition, there are video links on each EROP webpage with general information for both. I'll go a little further into the depth of my arranging in the summaries that follow. These two are among my favorite George Gershwin tunes, and it was total joy to arrange them.

Gershwin created both of these tunes as piano compositions. He had a wonderful ragtime style, and his performance had a drive and energy that had audiences tapping their toes, singing along, dancing in the venues, and creating a general atmosphere of celebration. The ragtime style worked for Clap Your Hands, but Gershwin himself made adjustments for Someone to Watch Over Me. We'll discuss that later.

1) Clap Your Hands - This tune is intended to be a concert opener or closer. It is energetic, jazzy, and it dances and drives to the very end. The effect can be to bring the audience quickly into your performance, or send them home with joy after a great night of music. This is an easy tune to memorize, should you choose to create choreography.

Use a tempo that works best for your group. Younger choirs might find an advantage with a tempo that is a bit slower, as compared with more highly skilled singers. The arrangement is filled with countermelodies and syncopation that serve to create harmony and energy. There is a modulation that leads to increased intensity in a new key. Lastly, a group descant adds even more energy to the arrangement as it completes the final verse. You can use only sopranos, or a combination of tenors and sopranos.....whatever sounds the most impressive. For the ending, voices move gradually from a soft dynamic to "ff" in the final "Hallelujah!" The arrangement is fun, it never stops, and it energizes the audience. Have fun it!

To purchase:
There are six voicings of Clap Your Hands available from Earlene Rentz Online Publications, LLC:  

The same voicings are also available from J. W. Pepper:

I can't wait to hear some of your choirs perform Clap Your Hands! If you record, please send a recording to me via my website Contact information. It would be wonderful to hear your choir singing this arrangement.

To assist you in the teaching process, I have created a short video that might add a bit of insight.

2) Someone to Watch Over Me - In order to assist me in writing this arrangement, I actually found a recording of Gershwin playing Gershwin. I was stunned to hear Gershwin perform Someone to Watch Over Me faster than I ever imagined it performed. As was the norm, Gershwin composed the music before the lyrics were added. The woman who sang the solo in Oh, Kay! tried to sing it at the Gershwin tempo, but it was so fast, she could not connect emotionally with the music and words (Ira Gershwin). As a stage prop to assist her in finding an emotional connection with the music, someone backstage found a doll, and brought it onstage, and she sang to the doll. Though the tempo was slower, and the revealed the overall vulnerability created through the words, Ira Gershwin's lyrics and her interpretation finally combined to create a wonderful performance. George Gershwin agreed with her modifications, and as a result, the first performance of Someone to Watch Over Me was sung to a ® Raggedy Ann Doll at a tempo much like the ones heard today. It seemed that the music and lyrics were a  "mis-match," one reason some composers require lyrics before they set the music. 

In my arrangement, there is a wide range for tempo, so choral directors can select a tempo that "locks in" for their students. In addition, there were several Gershwin piano "licks" in the faster version that I wanted to incorporate into the accompaniment, paying homage to Gershwin's original style, while tastefully including a modified version of them in the latter style. In essence, I tried to combine elements of both styles, providing freedom in tempo and using some identifiable trademarks of Gershwin's own. Check out this video to gain some additional insight.

To purchase:

Earlene Rentz Online Publications, LLC:  SATB, SAB, SSA, 2-Part, Unison 

J. W. Pepper:  SATBSABSSA2-PartUnison


It was great fun to write these two arrangements. I listened to both of them repeatedly, and it was then that I began to appreciate the subtleties and the masterful work of George Gershwin. 

Take a look on You Tube to hear more examples of Gershwin himself performing and discussing these two popular tunes.

Enjoy creating memorable performances of Clap Your Hands and Someone to Watch Over Me, by one of America's greatest musical treasures, George Gershwin.