Composition Notebook: March 2015

Subject: When the Wedding Became a Marriage, by Aaron Giles, words by Vera Giles

The origin of this one came from a conversation I had with my wife about how there were tons of songs about Mary but almost nothing about Joseph. We came up with a couple: Joseph Dearest, Joseph Mine obviously, and The Cherry Tree Carol. But not really much else.

Then she mentioned that she had written a poem a while back about Joseph, and I thought maybe I could work it into a composition.

The poem is essentially about the idea that the physical reality of holding the newborn baby Jesus broke through all the fears and doubts that Mary and Joseph had been experiencing and brought them together in love. I mean, you have to admit it must have been pretty a socially awkward nine months.

So I really liked the content of the poem, but when viewed as a potential subject for composition, it had its share of challenges:

  1. Utterly unstructured. My wife writes most of her poetry in free verse, so there was really nothing that I could latch onto.
  2. Short. It’s not a very long poem at all — a sum total of less than 100 words, in three sentences.

So I let it ruminate for a while in my head, not sure what to do until one day I got my “hook.” The poem as written is in the third person. But what if I did it as a duet, with one voice taking on the role of Mary, and the other taking on the role of Joseph? At the end of the poem, the voices would unify and end together.

To make it work, I had to convert all instances of he/him/his/she/her to I/me/my in one voice, while leaving the other voice as-is. Clearly this meant that the text of the two voices had to diverge. For example, the opening line starts:

As he laid the baby tenderly in her arms

When the woman’s voice (Mary) sings that, it becomes “As he laid the baby tenderly in my arms.” And the text from Joseph’s perspective becomes “As I laid the baby tenderly in her arms.”

Of course, this creates clashing text, so my plan was to ensure that the two voices separated at the divergence points to avoid the clashing.

I started with the upper melody (Mary) and just came up with something that I felt was reasonable. Then I wrote harmonizing chords underneath the melody, and wrote the lower melody with those chords in mind.

I also tried to do a little bit of painting with the music, in order to emphasize some of the emotions. The whole piece has a bit of a somber feel to it, starting in F minor and eventually moving to B-flat minor, with a few odd chords thrown in.

So how did it turn out? Judge for yourself (sans words):

From my perspective, the short answer is: Eh. The lack of structure—and the fact that I didn’t try to artificially create structure on top of it—meant that the end result was kind of meandering.

If I had to do it over (and I may eventually), I would probably figure out a few places to incorporate some kind of unifying motive and ensure the whole thing held together better.