New psalm composition #6: Warrior Peace

Well, this was an unexpected mammoth!

(If you are not aware of my current composition quest, click here to read the introduction.)

I knew that composing for larger ensembles would take time, and was sort of risking things a little when I decided to write for a larger-than-normal ensemble but I didn’t plan for this piece to take a full month. Think of a chamber orchestra that plays Mozart and Haydn symphonies. Then take away all the string players. That’s what this composition is for! It’s not a standard combination of instruments, so I decided to call it a “Chamber Orchestra Non-Strings” ensemble. Says what it is, right?!

Conductor Composer Stephen P Brown completes composition #6 in his 7 year questThe actual difficulties were not the size of the ensemble, or the tone colours I was exploring. It was not even hard to distribute voices or create strong or interesting textures. Actually, the hardest part was the harmony – the chord progression.

It seems like I would have had as much trouble with this composition if it was for solo cello as for a large ensemble.

This piece is based on Psalm 144. It’s structure (as explained previously) is in six sections with two of them repeated: A B C, A C D. In summary, the story starts out with “bold praise” followed by a reflection on how fleeting life is in the scheme of things. Then there’s a request that God lead the battle and if the pray-er’s side prevails, then the author will sing another song of [bold] praise. Finally, the nerves settle in as there’s another prayerful request that God get involved but the author begins to dream about future possibilities, especially the peaceful joy of living that soothes the people after a warrior (in this case, God) has won a victory.

Stephen P Brown Composition Warrior Peace

Psalm 144 reflects on the peace that follows a warrior’s victory in battle.

I started writing (I’ll explain what that means in my next “How I compose” post) but didn’t like it, so deleted it and started again. And again. And again. Six iterations of section A before I got into a groove. Section B, the fleetingness of life, is hardly fleeting but was very satisfying to write and contains some of my favourite parts of this composition. Section C was fun and as a timpanist, I could not resist basing it on a drum-based warrior-like call-to-arms song (even though the word “drum” does not appear anywhere in the entire Bible! Check out opposing responses to that here and here.)

Section A repeats, then Section C repeats.

The last section, D, also went through several iterations before it eventually settled as a chorale. Chorales are a form of four-part harmony that Bach used a great deal to explore (define and break) some basic rules of composition, including harmony and voice-leading (making each part tuneful, singable, and likable). Most composition students study and experiment using the chorale form but it can also be a beautiful entity unto itself. So the last section begins with solo flute, moves into the chorale proper, and ends with a joyful upbeat melody (that reminds me of the March at the maze scene in Harry Potter IV:)

Anyway, I like this composition. It passed the ‘run-through’ test (forcing my wife to sit through it and give feedback) and so here it is for your listening pleasure:

Click here to get your copy of the score and parts (and give a copy to your local orchestra if you’d like to hear it live!)

Please let me know in the comments below what you think – your feedback is important, helpful, and usually quite fun to read. Thank you!

How I compose: Step 1

dna structure musical composition stephen p brown spb

The structure of DNA forms the foundation of physical life. Music also needs a structural foundation.

I am now working on the 6th piece in my composition quest. This is not the first time I’ve composed music but in the past I have approached pieces from a variety of angles: systematically using someone else’s process, systematically using someone else’s process that I adapted slightly, systematically using a process I developed myself (which begs the real question: is there anything brand new, or is everything an adaptation of what we’ve already experienced?) and there were even pieces that I approached system- and process-free; meaning, I just sat and wrote something.

However, in order to accomplish my current task it makes sense to stick with a systematic approach, and each of the 6 pieces that exist in this project so far have been put together starting with its “source structure.”

Step 1: Structure.

You may be aware by now that for a variety of reasons I chose the poems in the Book of Psalms as my inspiration to compose music that will improve my skills. (“Psalm” in English means “Song” so think of the Book of Psalms as an anthology of song lyrics! However, when translating into English most Bibles rightfully focus on the content and meaning of the text and ignore the temptation to maintain any of the original Hebraic meter or rhyme.)

So, I look at my listed of psalms sorted by type and calculated for even distribution, and read the next psalm on the list. For piece #6 it is psalm #144. After a couple of readings I usually sort of get what its about, but to make sure I also read an old narrative text by R.E.O. White (A Christian Handbook to the Psalms) that summarizes the poem and puts it into context alongside other psalms and stories in the Bible.

Next, I carefully look at the overview and detailed analysis as prepared by Longman and Garland in their edition of  the revised (2008) “Expositor’s Bible Commentary” Volume 5, a massive and heavy volume that contains detailed topical, language, structural and historical contexts of every psalm – all 150.

So far I have used the Longman and Garland structural analysis as the foundation for the structure of my compositions. For piece #6 psalm #144 the structure has three main parts with poetic meter and rhyme (in the original Hebrew language) divided up as follows:

  • Section A (Hymn of Praise)
  • Section B (Human Need)
  • Section C (Prayer for God’s involvement)
  • Section A’ (Hymn of Praise)
  • Section B’ (Prayer for God’s involvement)
  • Section C’ (Prayer for Blessing on God’s people.)

Well, I like to keep things consistent only to make my life easier, so based on the section titles above I’m restructuring the structure to: A B C A C D. This will tell me to use the same theme/ melody/ style/ for both sections called “A – Hymn of Praise” and “C – Prayer for God’s Involvement.” Sometimes this is sufficient but these section titles don’t really tell me what the psalm is saying, so I keep a note of what the author is expressing, such as:

  • A – Bold praise
  • B – Fleetingness of life
  • C – Lead the battle
  • A – Promise of wild abandon praise (a new song will be composed!)
  • C – Re-request for deliverance
  • D – The peace and results of winning

And now I have the structure of my musical inspiration.

Next week: either composition #5 will be published (the piece that started out as a traditional choral work but didn’t end up that way) or I’ll share step 2 of how I compose… which would you prefer?