This past May, I started and completed my setting of the Prayer of St. Francis in one sitting. To date, it is the only piece I have written in one sitting. I have had compositional "sparks" like this before, but never so bright and so clear. The melody came to me as I was walking outside of my apartment to check my mail and was finished at 4:00am the night before I had to catch a 9:00am plane to Puerto Rico.
A Hall High student asked me the other day "When you compose, do you hear everything in your head first and then write it down?" This is probably the #1 most popular question for composers of all levels. There are (at least) two broad categories of compositional processes for me, and I do not prefer one over the other. One is the workmanship approach, where the composer decides to sit down and start writing at any moment in time. Stravinsky often treated his compositional career as a 9:00-5:00 job. I have written some great things like that, by just sitting down and letting the music come. These tend to be my more technical compositions, like "Fugue on a Bud Powell Lick," and my suite for the Modern Chamber Ensemble, or the two process music pieces I have written: "Sonic Diversity" and "Variations on a Single Point of View." The second type of compositional process involves some kind of a spark at a given moment where something comes to me and I have to write it down. Now that I think of it, the third section of "Sonic Diversity" was like that too. I was in college and had 10 minutes between classes and sat down in a practice room and it just sort of came out of me.
I have never experienced anything like the four hours it took me to write the Prayer of St. Francis. The whole structure was so clear in my head before I even started. However, using my better judgment I probably would have gone to bed leaving the piece unfinished had other circumstances not come into play. I had just loaded my old copy of Sibelius 4 onto my new MacBook and this compositional spark was my first trial with the software on the new laptop. As I finished the first stanza of the prayer, I was ready to save and go to bed when I found I wasn't able to save anything. I googled "MacBook Sibelius problem" and low and behold, there is some glitch with the new apples that doesn't allow saving with Sibelius 4 unless you install a little plug-in that corrects the problem. Well, I looked everywhere for this plug-in and did find it, but since I had already opened the application, my current work was doomed. To make matters worse, my printer wasn't working! I could however export the file as a PDF, though I'd have to re-input the whole verse and compose the ending all at a later date. Left with the choice, I decided to finish it to completion and then export it in full as a PDF. Looking back, that was totally the right decision.
The first thing that kept repeating in my head was a beautiful melody. The contour is somewhat unusual but very singable. I didn't necessarily hear it in Ab as written below, but when I decided to set it for SSAA choir, I knew Ab would be the right key.
As I continued to set the rest of the melody and other voice parts, I stuck with a homophonic texture throughout the entire piece. The harmonic language I chose was not unlike Morten Lauridsen's use of first inversion "add 9" chords. Most of the cadential phrases include a V chord with both the third and fourth present. Writing this piece opened my eyes to a new type of simple diatonic harmony. Seconds and sevenths aren't as dissonant as we like to think, especially when sung. If you are interested, go to the "list of compositions" section of my website and look at "Ave Regina Caelorum." I actually started this piece right before bed, but since the "save" function was working on my computer I didn't feel as bad about sleeping! It was completed in Puerto Rico, after I did catch my flight on no sleep from writing St. Francis.
I do not alter the text too much, but there are some important alterations. Below is my version of the prayer (in prose to conserve space). To lengthen the piece, I often repeat words that aren't needed in the prayer. The hooks of the piece are the "Alleluia, Amen" sections at the end of each A section. A number of people told me this was stuck in their head for the rest of the night after Voce di Coeli's premiere of the piece. We will talk about this melody later! For now, here is the poem:
"Lord make me an instrument of thy peace. Where there is hatred let me sow love. Lord make me an instrument of peace. Where there is injury, let me sow pardon. Lord make me and instrument of peace. And so Lord, I say Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia Amen. Where there is doubt, Lord, let me now sow faith. Let me sow love where there is despair. Where darkness looms Lord let me sow light. Where there is sadness, let me sow joy. Lord of you I ask all these things. And so Lord, I say Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia Amen. O Lord Divine! Divine master grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console. To be understood, as to understand, to be loved as one must love. For it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned. And it is in dying that we receive eternal life. And so Lord, I say Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia Amen. And so Lord, I say Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia Amen."
Not to keep comparing this piece to Lauridsen who is on a much higher level than I am, but I think I created an "ear worm" of similar caliber as some of the melodies from "Sure on This Shining Night" with my Alleluia, Amen. Check out the score sample below:
In case you are wondering what happens on the next downbeat, it is a diatonic cluster of scale degrees 1-5 in Cb Major on the syllable "-vine!"
The piece has been performed by Voce di Coeli and the women of the Asylum Hill Church sanctuary choir. The premiere performance was in Montreal, Quebec in 2009.