All Join In: A HyperHistory of American Choral Music

For a composer new to the field of writing for chorus, he or she might be interested in exploring not only some of the works commissioned by various American choral ensembles but also learning more about a few of the many choral commissioning programs in the U.S. Currently, there is no single American website listing commissioned choral works or commissioning programs for U.S. choral composers. A search of individual choruses websites, time-intensive as that is, will provide a composer with important information about a given ensemble’s makeup and mission, their repertoire, and their commitment toward commissioning American choral works. The information below can also provide a launching point. First is a brief list of recently commissioned works or composers by choirs, followed by a select list of commissioning programs involving choral music, and lastly, a story.

Commissioned Pieces – examples

Commissioning Programs – Samples

American Composers Forum (national)

  • Composers Commissioning Program supports new works by emerging composers in a variety of genres.
  • Encore (formerly the Performance Incentive Fund) expands contemporary repertoire by subsidizing multiple performances of new works.
  • McKnight Visiting Composer – Each year, the Visiting Composer Program underwrites a Minnesota residency of at least eight weeks for two out-of-state composers. While in residence, the visiting artist collaborates on a project with Minnesota performing, presenting, and community organizations.
  • Faith Partners – Through Faith Partners residencies, composers collaborate with consortia of faith-based communities in the creation of new sacred music.
  • Community Partners Program – Administered through the Forum’s chapters, the Community Partners Program place composers in collaborative residencies with community, cultural, and educational organizations to create new works designed around the needs of their specific communities, many of which are historically underserved by the arts.
  • American Choral Directors Association – Brock Commission (national)

Contact ACDA for information on the bi-annual Endowment Fund commission of a choral work performed at the next national ACDA convention.

  • Dale Warland Singers (MN)
    Choral Ventures™ program: four yearly finalists, each of which is awarded a $1,500 commission to write a 5-7 minute work to be premiered at the Choral Ventures™ Reading Session in May. Following the reading session, one composer will be chosen to receive a $6,500 commission for a 10-15 minute new work to be premiered on a Dale Warland Singers subscription concert the following season.

  • VocalEssence (MN)
    Essentially Choral (co-sponsored by the American Composers Forum and funded by the Jerome Foundation) provides an opportunity for emerging composers to develop their skills in writing for choral ensemble with accompaniment of up to fifteen instruments.

  • VocalEssence and the American Composers Forum (MN)
    Welcome Christmas! Carol Contest: Each winner will receive a prize of $1000 and the new carols will be premiered at that year’s VocalEssence Welcome Christmas! concerts.

  • Opus 7 (WA)
    Student Choral Composition Awards Program in three categories:
    students in high school, in college, in graduate programs in Washington State.

  • Harmonium (NJ)
    The NJ chorus Harmonium has a unique commissioning program for NJ high school composers. Each year Harmonium creates a new theme for the commissions. Past Themes have included “Dazzle of the Day”; “A Lot of Night Music”; “Shakespeare Songs”; “Songs of the Earth”; “Old Age and Youth.”

  • Another important source for choral commissions are churches, synagogues, and other houses of worship. Look at a random set of church music octavos and chances are more than half will have some sort of dedication from a commission. Reasons like the retirement or anniversary celebration of a pastor, church musician, or a long-time staff member, the dedication of a new building, the anniversary of a congregation or the choir, or the dedication of a new organ/hymnal/piano provide the impetus for a commissioned choral work. So also is a special event such as a wedding, birthday, birth/death of a family member, or the like. The commission could be as brief as a benediction, call to worship, or psalm response, or the request could be for a longer choral anthem. While some church music programs have an organist or conductor who is also a composer, a church might establish an ongoing relationship with a local composer. Such is the situation at First Church in Cambridge, MA where Patricia Van Ness is the permanent composer in residence.
  • Colleges, universities, and school choruses are yet another potential source of choral commissions. Conductors are not always exposed to commissioning as part of their formal education, so it behooves a conductor to be proactive and make his or her works known to local educators. I have done 22 commissions/premieres and 24 premieres of choral works. Each one has an incredibly unique story and each has left the singers with a sense of music being real, relevant, theirs.

Finally, I want to leave you with a story about a commission. A true story, one of those serendipitous moments that you could not have scripted into a commission for a million dollars, a reminder to me that commissioning is as much about process and context as about the product. Will this piece, the context of learning it, of engaging with the creator-composer in rehearsals, of “birthing” it into a concert, service, or celebration carry both singers and listeners into a new understanding, insight or experience?

I began my third year in a newly created position as the only music professor on a seminary faculty. Our dean was superb at development and had a growing love for opera, but choral music and the arts were a puzzle. I noticed that when he led a worship service, he always closed with the same benediction, favorite verses of his from one of Paul’s letters in the New Testament. So I asked Mark Gresham, a composer here in Atlanta, if he would set this text for a cappella choir and we would sing it as a surprise at the end of the Dean’s next chapel service. Now, it happened to be that Archbishop Desmond Tutu from South Africa was a visiting scholar at our university/seminary and had spent that particular semester writing the final version of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report on the horrors of apartheid. It just so happened that the week of the dean’s service, Archbishop Tutu asked if a brief order of commission and blessing for his trip back home to South Africa to deliver the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report could be added to the end of the service. Two days later, as chapel worship unfolded with the familiar rhythm of shared prayers, sermon, song, and communion, the moment arrived for blessing the Archbishop and the work still facing him at home. The congregation stood, silent and expectant. The Archbishop knelt on the wooden floor of the chapel. The dean walked forward, laid his hands on the Archbishop’s head, prayed and said a blessing. Then, yes, then we were to sing our commissioned benediction. In that moment, these words beloved by one became our collective, communal prayer for a difficult journey of another: “Be watchful, stand firm in your faith; be courageous, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.”

Commissioning is as much about process and context as about the product.

Coda: The Archbishop’s trip is now part of the history of South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement. The dean hung a signed copy of the score in his office before lunch. When he left to become president of a mid-western college, copies of Be Watchful were ordered for the college choir to sing at his installation.

Process and context…and a good score go a long way.

From All Join In: A HyperHistory of American Choral Music
By Marian Dolan
© 2003 NewMusicBox

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