Doxology in Lincoln
Periodically, our 2nd Person forum is initiated by a guest. This month, we are honored to have the perspective of Randall Davidson, who is leaving the AMC Board of Directors in July after 16 years of dedicated service. Randall was President of the AMC during a very challenging period, and was instrumental in the resurrection of the AMC as a strong, proactive, leadership organization. His vision of broadening the new music community continues to be far-reaching and his voice continues to be compelling and wise. Randall, all of us in the AMC family say thank you for your wonderful leadership in helping make the AMC what it is today.
- John Kennedy
I remember sitting around my grandparents’ dinner table in the parsonage next to University Park United Methodist Church with all of the extended family holding hands and with heads bowed. I can’t recall if we were there because of a funeral, a wedding, a baptism, or just because we all happened to be in Lincoln, Nebraska on the same Sunday afternoon.
Someone gave the pitch and we began to sing the Doxology. I loved singing the Doxology with my extended family because there were enough of us (sometimes more than a dozen) to cover all the essential parts so that some of the others of us could improvise "interesting" embellishments on the harmonies. This is how I came to love the sound of choral singing. It was a family of colorful, warm, embracing harmonies, and soaring, sustaining melodies that informed my composing works for chorus.
It is only years later that I have become aware of the importance of this early experience. Choral singing is not the same as singing alone, either with instruments or keyboard, because there is a communal expression that is at the root of all of the best choral music. And it is a result the communal nature of choral music that it remains a bastion of amateur music-making.
In terms of concert music, choral and "educational" music represent the lion’s share of most titles that are commercially published each year. There is a significant and constant demand for new works for chorus that significantly surpasses demand for new string quartets or symphonies or operas. Choral unions, community choruses, professional choruses, and choirs in faith communities regularly commission new works—oftentimes, there are numerous commissions each year. The premiere of a new work is a matter of course for hundreds of thousands of American choir members every year.
Composers of every aesthetic stripe must have dozens of works in their catalogue for chorus. Conservatories and universities must be offering dozens of upper level courses on composing for chorus and instruments, text-setting, and extended choral techniques. Certainly, record companies and radio broadcasters give preferential treatment to choral music in their catalogues and on their broadcast schedules.
But there is something peculiar happening here. Choral music has almost the same difficulty getting broadcast as new music. You can find recordings of choral music but you’ll be looking for niche labels and probably online. Although nearly every college and university has a chorus, it is rare that you will find a composition course that teaches how to write for chorus and instruments.
The world would seem to be a hostile place for the communal art of choral singing.
But again, wait. Something peculiar really is happening here. For one week this past August, I was very lucky to be able to witness the monsoon of music called the Sixth World Choral Symposium which took place in Minneapolis. It was chaired by conductor Philip Brunelle and hosted by the Minnesota chapter of the American Choral Directors’ Association and the International Federation of Choral Music. I was one of the 120,000 people who attended concerts, workshops, and seminars on choral music. I worked very hard to hear about half of the 35 choruses that came to perform on the festival.
Choral music may be a niche, but it is an exciting niche with hundreds of thousands of rabid fans who buy recordings and attend festivals and commission new works and perform, perform, perform.
What do you think we in the new music community might learn from this rather extraordinary community of music? Is the lesson learned that we need a national or international festival of new music? Is the lesson that we need to become supporters of each other’s work?
What do you think we might do to emulate the world of choral music? Perhaps we should start by holding hands and begin singing together.