Out of the Ordinary: Choral Music for the Ordinary Time of Epiphany

by Jonathan Kohrs

by Jonathan Kohrs

Even though the season after the Epiphany is considered part of “ordinary” time (ordered, or counted, as in “ordinal” numbers: the Second, Fourth, or Seventh Sundays after Epiphany), I’d like to share with you some well-crafted—but not too difficult—pieces for this season that are a bit “out of the ordinary,” especially regarding harmonic language and voicing.

1. Andrew Birling/"For You Alone, O God, I Wait"/SAB divisi (SSA), piano/AFP 9781506447162

Based on a paraphrase of Psalm 62 by the composer, this anthem features an accompaniment with open harmonies that complement the 99%-pentatonic Kentucky Harmony tune on which it is based. Don’t let the SAB divisi voicing designation scare you off: the baritone (non-divisi) part is easily learned; the SSA stanza that prompted the divisi designation is also easily learned by any choir with at least three strong voices to anchor each section. There’s also a surprising—and satisfying—appearance of the tune BROTHER JAMES’ AIR at the end!

2. Rudolf di Lassus/"Stars in the Sky Proclaim God’s Wonders"/SAB/in Augsburg Motet Book (AFP 9781451423709)

This three-part (SAB) setting of a metrical paraphrase of a portion of Psalm 19 is based on a Genevan psalm tune. The cantus firmus is found in the baritone, elaborated upon through loose imitation in the upper voices. In the AMB edition, the first stanza, c.f. only, is given in the original German; two stanzas in the SAB setting are given in English.

3. Hugo Distler/"O Morning Star, How Fair and Bright"/SAB/in Augsburg Chorale Book (AFP 9781506426303)

This three-part (SAB) setting (with an optional ritornello for flute, violin, and viola) could serve as an anthem, or, using either stanza 3 or 5 as given, as a choir-only stanza (or two) of the Hymn of the Day. In my college days three-plus decades ago, I thought Distler was cool. Now I think of him as “mid-century modern” (with angular and clean lines)—which is also cool.

4. Peter Hallock/"The Baptism of Jesus"/SATB, solo/GIA G-2331

Even though this piece is designated as SATB, the antiphonal nature of the piece (between a solo voice that chants the main text and the SATB choir that sings the antiphon) means that the choir needs to learn literally only four measures of music. While a good portion of the text is in Latin, an English translation could easily be substituted (i.e., “This is my Son” for “Hic est filius meus,” and “Lis-ten to him” for “Ip-sum in-tende”) with the rhythm adjusted accordingly. Hallock’s style is a fresh updating of Anglican chant that effectively expresses the meaning of the text with minimal musical material.

5. John Karl Hirten/"For Glory Dawns upon You"/2-part mixed, organ digital download (AFP 9786000175658), and in Augsburg ChoirBook (AFP 9780800656782)

This piece is a two-part mixed setting of Isaiah 60:6b (“All from Sheba bearing gifts . . .”) in a metrical version by the composer. Its harmonies are deliciously modal and quartal-quintal. The accompaniment is decidedly independent from, yet supportive of, the vocal parts. The whole compositional affect supports a text that sings of the wonder and mystery of the incarnation.

6. Jonathan Kohrs/"When to the World Our Savior Came"/SATB, piano/AFP 9781506452548, and digital download (AFP 9781506456539)

My piece, based on a text by Timothy Dudley-Smith, employs modally tinged, jazz-inspired harmonies that support equally colorful—but easily learned—melodic lines. Over the course of three stanzas, two-part mixed sections with voices in unison or in canon alternate with SATB sections that build stanza by stanza from bass only to all four parts.

7. Bruce Neswick/"Epiphany Carol: Sing of God Made Manifest"/Unison, organ/AFP 9780800653910, and in Augsburg ChoirBook (AFP 9780800656782)

In completely unison voicing (except for two notes at the end), and based on a text by Carl Daw, this piece begins in a lilting 6/8, moves to a more stately 4/4, is followed by a section in plainsong style, and returns to the lilting 6/8. The different sections could be sung by different voice parts, including a solo on the plainsong section. Anyone who knows Neswick’s style will recognize his harmonic inventiveness that avoids complexity.

8. Richard Proulx/"Happy Are Those"/SA, organ, flute, oboe/GIA G-5336

Oh, for the days when “modernism” really meant something! This setting of Psalm 1 (published in 1969 by Augsburg and thankfully reissued under GIA’s Proulx Legacy Series) is Richard Proulx doing his best impression of Hugo Distler filtered through Bach—or the other way around—with a delicate touch of George Frideric thrown in. Solidly for two-part voices (not mixed, with flute, oboe, and organ), this is the pièce de résistance for those über-capable children’s choirs still lurking among us.

9. David Sims/"O Laughing Light"/SAB, organ/AFP 9781451498929

This truly is a de-“light”-ful setting! Based on a Transfiguration text by Sylvia Dunstan, the composer liked the fact that the text showed “that light could be playful and humorous.” This setting would benefit from the accompaniment of an organ whose registration can “convey the notion of joyful, buoyant light”—in many ways the organ is the star of the show. That being said, this anthem really makes the most of its straight-ahead SAB voicing without being too challenging.

10. David von Kampen/"Arise and Shine in Splendor"/SA, piano/CPH 98-4243

Hands-down the easiest piece in this list to learn, and most likely also the most easily appealing harmonically. The vocal parts consist, simply, of the 15th-century Heinrich Isaac melody plus a second part that is mostly in parallel sixths below the melody throughout most of the last stanza. The accompaniment is likewise simple, but, significantly, it adds a sweetly subjective, contemporary feel to the otherwise objective, 450-year-old tune.


Posted on Feb 5, 2020 9:00:00 AM
Filed Under: Music Ministry,

Jonathan Kohrs

Written by Jonathan Kohrs

Jonathan Kohrs is assistant professor of music at Concordia University Chicago, where he conducts Schola Cantorum—CUC’s chapel choir—and Resonanz—its contemporary ensemble—for which he regularly composes music that crosses the boundaries between “traditional” and “contemporary.” In 2015 he received an honorable mention in the Association for Lutheran Church Musicians’ Raabe Prize for Excellence in Sacred Composition for his congregational setting of the communion liturgy, scored for piano, synthesizer, vibraphone, bass, flute, clarinet and oboe. He recently received an MFA in music composition from Vermont College of Fine Arts through which his compositions received subsequent performances by internationally-known pianist Stephen Gosling and Pittsburgh’s Chatham Baroque trio. His compositions are published by Concordia Publishing House, Augsburg Fortress Publishers, and World Library Publications.