Composition Notebook: December 2014

Subject: SATB arrangement of The Face of Christ, originally written by Susan E. Bloomfield.

So in the time leading up to Advent this year, we were handed this simple piece to sing as our gospel acclimation (if you visit the link above, you can download the lead sheet, at least as of the time of this post). I think the idea was to choose something that both our choir and our praise band could sing, to create continuity between two services that typically have vastly different music.

Here is the piece in its original form, with the melody played on violin and a simple chordal accompaniment on piano:

From the outset, there were two things that bugged me about the original work. The first was the range, which sits at the bottom of the soprano/tenor tessitura. Given that the range of the entire piece only covers a fifth, it could have easily been transposed a few steps higher and not stressed out anyone.

And second thing I thought the work was missing was, of course, harmonization.

I began the process by taking care of the first issue first, bumping the whole thing up a perfect fourth, from C major to F major. This moved the melody line in the soprano high enough to leave room for other voices.

Conveniently, the original lead sheet provided the chords, so I didn’t have to develop my own harmonic structure. Of course, adhering to the provided harmony was more constraining and presented its own challenges.

One of the interesting considerations involved is that the melody line frequently anticipates the chord change. This meant I needed to decide whether some or all of the other voices should do the same, or whether they should directly follow the provided harmonic rhythm. After some experimentation, I decided to stick close to the provided chords and leave the melody contrasting.

Since the song is fundamentally pretty simple, I also decided to keep to a strict chorale style harmonization, maintaining the same rhythm in all four voices.

I was really flying by the seat of my pants to begin with, as we hadn’t even gotten to studying non-chord tones or basic voice leading by the time I did my first version. So I was pretty much just applying my choral experience to make it sound good and stay within the provided chords. Here’s how it turned out:

After completing the first draft, I ran it by a composer friend in the choir, who offered some helpful suggestions. I set it aside for a while, but then updated/tweaked it again when getting it ready for this post. Having some basic voice leading under my belt made clear some of the basic errors I’d made. Here is an updated version:

Fundamentally, however, it hasn’t changed too significantly from my first try. For a first arrangement, I’m happy to say that I’m not too embarrassed!