As we continue to look at new ways to “think outside of the loft” during the spring and summer seasons, let us consider some creative methods of writing and utilizing descants.
Certainly, we are all familiar with the exhilarating sound of a soaring, lyrical descant ringing out during the final stanza of a traditional “concertato” arrangement. However, one does not have to purchase a hymn arrangement to get your choir singing a beautiful descant (Although, as an editor for a music publishing company, I certainly will not argue with you if you would like to purchase a few new anthems!). But, with a little creativity, the thoughtful director can create usable descants for use with almost any hymn in the hymnbook. Here are a few pointers:
• If you have a background in theory or composition, or if you would like to develop your skills as an arranger, why not try writing a descant from scratch? A good first step would be to pick out a hymn that would be complemented by the addition of a descant, and then complete a harmonic analysis of that hymn. Yes, I said harmonic analysis. (Am I bringing up painful memories of freshmen music theory? If so, then I offer my most profound apologies!)
Once your harmonic analysis is complete, you should have a good idea of the chord tones that are used throughout each measure of the tune. Remember that descants are overwhelmingly consonant, so the notes you choose for your descant should harmonize nicely with the notes of the hymn tune. Chord tones that harmonize against the melody in thirds and sixths are often great choices!
Descants come in three varieties: the first variety utilizes the exact same rhythm as the melody, the second variety utilizes a different rhythm than the melody, and the third variety contains a combination of the two approaches just mentioned above. Experiment with all three methods to find the most suitable match for the hymn in question.
• Some folks might be a little intimidated at the thought of writing a descant from scratch. Although this fear is unfounded, it is certainly understandable. So, if you fall into this category, let me offer the following method of creating a good, useable descant: Assuming that the hymn you have chosen has an alto part, simply take the alto part, transpose it up one octave, and “Voilà!” instant descant! This is a time-tested method that has been taught in countless choral arranging classes. It is amazing how well it works!
Regardless of the method you choose to create your descant, here are a few final hints for you to ponder:
• Consider having the remaining voices sing the primary melody in unison during the descant. This will reduce the sonic “clutter” that can arise when a listener is being asked to comprehend a variety of vocal sounds at once.
• It is not always necessary, or even desirable, for many folks to sing the descant. Sometimes, all you need is a solo voice, or perhaps, at the most, a trio. Also, do not always assume that descants are the exclusive domain of the high sopranos. Consider having the tenors join in the fun as well!
• One way to add variety to your descant usage is to omit the hymn text, and sing the descant on an oo, ah, or oh. This is something I do frequently in my own choral arranging. There are at least two advantages to this technique. First, it once again reduces a bit of sonic “clutter,” thus ensuring that the primary hymn text is better understood by the congregation. Second, it might make the descant easier to sing from a technical point of view, as it eliminates the need to sing certain difficult vowels in a potentially high range.
In closing, let me offer the following anthems, written in the traditional “concertato” format, as possibilities for your choral ensemble. Each features a descant on the final verse, and also includes the possibility of incorporating brass, percussion, and timpani into your presentation.