I heard the bells on Christmas Day – performance by RMIT Occasional Choral Society

Here’s a lovely performance of my piece “I heard the bells on Christmas Day” by RMIT Occasional Choral Society, Melbourne.

I didn’t even know they’d performed it until recently!

Here’s the text, for those of you unfamiliar with Longfellow’s classic 1864 civil war poem, “Christmas Bells”. I’ve omitted a few verses, for length.

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

The piece opens with just women singing (soprano and alto), then tenor join in, then bass for a verse, then a solo tenor verse before the full choir extend to six part harmony for the final verse.

I hope you enjoy the piece. I think they did a great job of it.

What to do when your lyrics SUCK!

I’ve written about copyright before, and why it is a great move to use original text if you’re a composer.

But what do you do if your lyric-writing ability sucks? Here are some ideas on how to deal with the whole issue of finding lyrics for your work if you’re a musician – not a lyricist.

Before the money-grubbers got greedy…free stuff

There are several options.

Firstly, a lot of great poetry dates back to before copyright and can be used freely.

Examples include Shakespeare’s Sonnets and texts from his plays, poems by Wordsworth and Hopkins, and other great masters of the English language.

Many religious texts are also not copyright, and available for free use. The “Requiem” texts are a common theme for composers who write for choir:

Mozart’s Lacrimosa from his Requiem uses a freely available religious text.

The changing English language – and associated issues

However, society has changed, and meanings have changed with it, so sometimes out of copyright texts are not really ideal any more.

For example, the line “Taste my meat: / So I did sit and eat.” probably didn’t have dodgy connotations when Vaughan-Williams set George Herbert’s poem to music in his beautiful Five Mystical Songs. But few choristers can sing the line without a giggle these days!

The truth is a lot of traditional religious texts are pretty sucky too, when you translate them out of the Latin into English. This is probably one of the reasons why most composers choose to retain the original Latin, if they were being perfectly honest about it.

So – you can stick with Latin, or another language. But then you have issues related to meaning and communication. How well are your singers going to get intent across, if they don’t understand what they’re singing about?

Is audience enjoyment and appreciation lost or reduced when they don’t understand the content?

Is your audience honestly going to enjoy the music as much as a work written in a language they understand?

I know that Latin works are common for choirs, but maybe it is time to ask the question whether all that highbrow stuff is maybe keeping audience members away – particularly newer audience members not familiar with Latin, and unschooled in Church tradition.

Most schools no longer teach Latin, and a working knowledge of the language is becoming less common. Few musicians have a good grasp of that old, dead language – let alone regular audience members. And why should they? So why on earth is any composer still writing in Latin?

Dead, Dead, DEAD! Even in Italy they speak – you guessed it! – Italian! Not Latin!

If all else fails…make it up!

You could try adding lyrics in a made up language – Welsh Composer Karl Jenkins used this to great effect in his well-known choral work Adiemus:

La didly ya ya ya bay Ya didly ya ya ya bay! This is deep and meaningful stuff! But it is still a good piece.

Ok. But what if you’re more a modern music person? It can be really difficult, and most of the music that you’ll find on iTunes is under copyright, as is its lyrics. So you can’t borrow lyrics from other musicians – these days that’s going to get the copyright lawyers sending you nasty letters.

Finding a lyricist

One option is to find someone who writes lyrics – a lyricist.

I’ve written lyrics for a while now, sometimes for other people, because not every great musician writes terrific text. Music and and the ability to write well do not necessarily go hand in hand.

Finding a lyricist is all about finding someone with a background in language use. I’m comfortable writing my own lyrics because I have an English and professional writing background. So writing is my field. That doesn’t mean I don’t write bad stuff – but at least when I do, I can tell it’s bad!

If you are looking for a lyricist, a good place to start is finding a friend with a writing / English background. You’re probably aware of friends who write well – why not ask one of them to help you out, and collaborate on your next piece of music?

Give it a go, and see if things work out. If they do, you might develop an ongoing partnership. If not, it can be a “one off” and you can try someone different next time.

Accept the suck!

Of course, you can just accept that your lyrics suck, and figure that your music is good enough that the sucky lyrics won’t matter. Several minutes of “naa naa naas” at the end of The Beatles’ Hey Jude certainly didn’t stop an awesome song from becoming a classic.

Nor did the lines “Just like a Soldier needs a gun / Like a Hamburger needs A Bun” stop James Carr’s song ” A Man Needs A Women” from being great – although I cringe every time I hear the lines!

The lyrics suck, but frankly, James Carr could sing a “Little Donkey” and make it rock.

See – even great musicians can write suck! And suck can sound awesome. So maybe the answer is just to go with it!