Dr. Russell L. Robinson
Emeritus Professor of Music Education, University of Florida
Composer, Arranger, Consultant, Speaker
I have been arranging masterworks for young choirs for over 20 years, from madrigals to larger choral classics to recently arranged solo masterworks for choirs. It has been my goal to create choral music for young choirs (elementary through high school, and even college choirs who have many non-music majors) to help elevate their choral sound and be proud of their musical results.
You must start with a great piece of music. We cannot make great arrangements out of bad pieces. Classics that have stood the test of time are best. From some of my first arrangements such as: “Sing We and Chant It” (Morley/Robinson), “In These Delightful Pleasant Groves” (Purcell/Robinson), “Sing Unto God” (Handel/Robinson), and “How Lovely Are the Messengers” (Mendelssohn/Robinson) to lately taking solo works and arranging them for choirs. Pieces such as Faure’s “Pie Jesu” (ed. and arr. Robinson) and the Bach/Gounod “Ave Maria” (arr. Robinson) are good examples of this. These timeless melodies are often familiar to singers and audiences, but not in a choral setting.
Let me for the moment focus on the Bach/Gounod “Ave Maria.” As the performance notes say, this piece was originally written by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) as his “Prelude No. 1 in C major” for
piano (clavier) and later a melody was composed by Charles Gounod for solo violin. The traditional “Ave Maria” lyrics were added later. Since that time, such famous soloists as Placido Domingo, Jackie Evanko, Renée Fleming, Luciano Pavarotti and Andrea Bocelli have performed this piece. So, there is a good chance that many audience members will have heard the melody and perhaps the singers themselves. It’s timeless and beautiful.
So how does one arrange these masterworks, such as the “Ave Maria,” to be accessible for young choirs or inexperienced singers?
There are many considerations when writing such arrangements of classics regardless of their style. First, the ranges should be treated intentionally. If it is a 3-part mixed (where the third part is for changed or changing male voices and uses a range from F below middle C to D above middle C) or a SAB arrangement, and the boys/men’s voices can go lower, I try to “think like a young man” when writing their parts. Avoidance of great leaps in the intervals is essential. And, in the case of the “Ave Maria”—allowing parts other than the Soprano to sing the melody. In addition, the piano part should subtly (and sometimes not-so-subtly) reinforce the parts to assist the singers. An arranger of these masterworks should not alter the musical or lyrical qualities of the original piece. I always feel like the original composers are looking over my shoulder from above, and I want their “ok” in what I’m writing.
What about responsibilities of the director/teacher and singers?
Pure vowels are essential regardless of language! All vowels should be sung with a bit of “oo” in them. In other words, ah-vowels should be sung “aw”—ee-vowels should be sung with an “ee” in the inside of the mouth and an “oo” vowel on the lips to keep the vowel from spreading. For more information on these concepts, see these recommended Alfred Music publications: The Complete Choral Warm-Up Book (Robinson/Althouse), Creative Rehearsal Techniques for Today’s Choral Classroom (Robinson), and Middle School Singers: Turning Their Energy into Wonderful Choirs (Robinson).
Perhaps most importantly, pay close attention to dynamics and text accents. There should be an audible difference between piano and mezzo forte. I hear too many choirs that sing with a limited range of dynamics, usually from mezzo forte to forte. Dynamics contrasts are essential. And, text accents—no two syllables or words should be sung at the same volume, regardless of language. In just the two words “Ave Maria” we have an example of text accent treatment. “Ave” should be sung with an accent on the first syllable and a dramatically softer second syllable. The same with “Maria” where there are three syllables. The second syllable gets the accent and the first and third are unaccented.
Taking into account these considerations and steps—a great original masterwork, along with a well-written arrangement, and finally pure vowels, dynamic contrasts, and text accents will lead singers to making beautiful music with these classics.