Mendelssohn + Spiritual + Pop Harmony = This?
I thought I’d try something different in this blog and write about one example of how I used the music that inspires me from other genres to create something new in musical theater. The moment I was writing in this case was the last ensemble number for my musical “Tiananmen,” where the students, in a quiet moment, affirm their determination to see their protest effort through to the end.
My inspiration for the song came from two seemingly unrelated sources: the Felix Mendelssohn chorale “Verleih uns Frieden” and the African American spiritual “We Shall Overcome.”
The Mendelssohn piece (below) was one of my favorites from my chorus-nerd days. What I admire most is the simplicity and control of the composition. The baritones state a very simple melody in the first third of the piece, then the melody is repeated with a countermelody in the altos, and finally it is repeated a third time in four part harmony. The simplicity and control of the composition is incredible, and the effect is stunning.
For construction of the lyric, I looked to spirituals, which I was exposed to in church growing up. While there is great variety in the genre, several of them have a very short phrase that constitutes the “verse” which is repeated several times, and then a short chorus that tags to the middle before the verse line is repeated again at the end. A great example of this structure is the beautiful “We Shall Overcome.”
Equipped with these “influences,” I set out to create something new for my moment. From Mendelssohn I took the compositional technique of stating the melody and slowly layering in the parts (in mine: 1 part, 2 parts, 3 parts, 4 parts, 8 parts) while not overcomplicating the accompaniment. From “We Shall Overcome” I took the structure of the lyric. From my musical theater experience I took the harmonic language and arrangement. Below is the result. I hope it is a nice synthesis!
See “They Will Hear Us” at Tiananmen: A New Musical In Concert, with Ruthie Ann Miles and Telly Leung, at 54 Below tomorrow night! Use the code TIAN5 for $5 off the cover charge.