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I am writing the text of a significant musical work that will be sung by a chorus. I will also be composing the music, but this question is specific to the lyrics that the chorus will sing. Note that this is not a "dramatic work" like an opera or music theatre work, but rather a "concert work." None of the singers in the chorus are trained as actors, nor will there be roles, acting, characters, costumes, or a set.

The subject of the piece is a significant historical event in the 19th century, for which I have found several good sources:

  • diary accounts and letters from people who were there
  • poetry by people who were there, both narrative poetry and more abstract
  • newspaper articles from the days and weeks after the event
  • historical accounts written in the last ten years

Stylistically, I do not want to use a [spoken] narrator to tell the story. I want to tell it entirely in music. But how to I make sure the audience grasps what is going on? I could write explanations to be printed in the concert program, but wouldn't want to rely on these because sometimes it's too dark to read them, people who listen to recordings after the fact won't have them, etc.

One of the poems written about the event uses a detached, third person perspective. It's a simple narration, in rhyming verse. But then, how do I transition the text back to the first person accounts, which tell parts of the story in dialogue? I could break the work into movements and give each movement a descriptive title, but I worry that this won't be enough to tell the story fully.

Using some of the more abstract poetry is easier to do - that suits itself well to chorus - but it doesn't really advance the narrative.

I would love ideas for how lyricists/librettists would approach thinking about handling narrative voice in such a setting.

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    Speaking as an experienced choral singer - Most choral works that don't set well-known words benefit from a few programme notes, as it's often difficult to follow all the words even with well-trained singers. Without knowing what historical event you are writing about, it's not easy to give general advice. Personally, I don't see why you shouldn't transition between simple narration, perhaps by a soloist, and dramatic dialogue. May 5, 2023 at 8:18
  • @KateBunting I will have the entire lyrics printed in the program. The question is whether it is jarring to switch between narrative "telling about" and in-the-moment text. But the idea of setting one with a soloist and one with a chorus is a good one. Maybe the change of forces will smooth the transition?
    – nuggethead
    May 5, 2023 at 9:44
  • Well, I recently took part in the 'St. Matthew Passion', which constantly alternates between the Evangelist as 'narrator', dramatised scenes from the Gospel and passages of meditation. If it was good enough for J.S. Bach it should be good enough for you! May 5, 2023 at 9:51
  • Fair enough! @KateBunting
    – nuggethead
    May 5, 2023 at 9:55

3 Answers 3

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I'm an amateur composer and choral singer who has written choral music for children and lyrics for dramatic songs. My experience as a listener is that it’s usually possible to follow text that is in my native language, provided the singer enunciates clearly and isn’t being drowned out by any accompaniment. As a composer/lyricist, my view is therefore that as long as the audience can hear the words, you can write whatever you want and it’s not necessarily harder than listening to an audio book.

I know you’re asking specifically about text but I think in choral compositions the lyrics and music are inextricably linked. Clarity and word definition is dependent as much on the music and setting as on the text itself.

But how to I make sure the audience grasps what is going on?

You mention splitting the work into movements with descriptive titles, which sounds like a good idea. Rather like how chapters break up a book, it will help give listeners a moment to take in what they’ve heard.

Some other things you could consider that might help the words come across more clearly to the audience:

  • Use soloists for some sections and perhaps mark the music to be sung with little vibrato.
  • Give different narrative accounts to different voice groups, to help the audience know when you’ve moved to a different narrative (e.g. diary of person A – sopranos; letters of person B – tenors; newspaper articles – full chorus).
  • Use homophony rather than polyphony for key phrases or sections that are important to moving the narrative along.
  • Set important sections syllabically.
  • Repeat key phrases.
  • Use short phrases rather than full sentences and aim to convey the gist/atmosphere of the source text rather than setting the full text word for word.
  • If the source language reads old fashioned, convert it to more modern-day words and phrases.
  • Take care with balance if you have accompaniment.
  • Consider the vocal register – this may be just an amateur issue, but I find that as a soprano, I don’t enunciate as clearly at the top of my range because the shape of the mouth is different.
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Your question is rather complex, and much of the necessary information seems to be missing, or I didn't pick up on it. Here are some thoughts that I hope you will find helpful:

An oral narrative, for examply by a bard or minstrel, a dramatic enactment in a theatre, an opera, an audiobook read by a narrator, or a "story" such as yours sung by a choir, are essentally the same. It does not make a difference if there is music or not, or if the actors perform the actions or just speak, or if one narrator switches from role to role or there are different actors for different roles — the basic narrative structure remains the same.

Traditionally, in the Greek theatre, the choir had a function similar to the text that surrounds the dialogue in a novel: It provided reflection, moral assessment, and comment on the actions of the protagonists. Even though the function of the choir in opera or musical plays and the narrator figure in drama and prose fiction has become quite varied, the basic distinction still applies: The individual actors play characters, the choir/narrator provides commentary and summarizes events or adds descriptions of what the audience cannot see on the stage.

If you transfer this principle to your work, you can have soloists who sing dialogue or first person narrative, and a choir who sings third person omniscient narrative or background information. Or, if you don't want to have soloists, you can split different narrative perspectives among different voices. For example, let the tenors sing the dialogue and the bass sing the narrator, or the women sing one narrative voice and the men sing another.

Also, I would look at how existing narrative compositions for choir handle this. Maybe there is a convention that you want to follow.

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I admit that I'm not sure what you're trying to do, and I'm confused by your claim that you don't want any characters or roles.

The way I see it, you have pretty much three options:

  1. One narrator in third person. The whole choir is this one narrator's voice.

...You let the narrator tell all the events, from an outside perspective.

  1. One narrator in first person. The whole choir is this one narrator's voice.

... Again you let the narrator tell all the events, this time from an inside perspective, but it's still a single perspective.

  1. Multiple characters. You assign roles to either soloists, or groups (most likely, voices: sopranos form a group with one perspective, altos form another, and so on).

...A work that I'm reminded of is Česká mše vánoční (Czech Christmass Mass) by Jakub Jan Ryba, which you probably don't know and I don't think there's an English translation. Anyway, that's a work that works in exactly this way. It's usually performed on the choir of a church (choir here meaning the upper floor/gallery/balcony where musicians are), out of sight of the congregation, no physical acting. Still, there are characters and roles: The bass is the Master (older shepherd), the tenor is his apprentice (a younger shepherd), the soprano and alto are angels / other apprentice shepherds. And they sing in a dialogue:

(Paraphrased and shortened a lot. Some of these are a whole verse or more.)
T: Hey, master, wake up! Look at this light all around! And listen to the music!
B: What's going on? Why don't you let me sleep?
Both: What's this beautiful music?
T: I'm hearing this all night today.
B: That must mean something.
T: That's why I woke you.
B: I'm glad you did.
Both: Let's go find out what this is all about.

You don't need costumes or physical acting to pull off something like this, and this is what I'd deem the most viable and interesting way to do it.

There's no reason why you shouldn't be able to tell the whole story this way. Just have your characters describe everything they don't act out:
"The stars are more beautiful today, the sky is brighter..."
or
"Everyone ready to go?"
"Yes, we are."
"Dressed warm for the journey?"
"Let's go!"
Yes, that's from the Christmas Mass again. The story isn't hard to follow at all (if you know the language).

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