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Working With Dead Composers

If you follow this blog (both of you), you know that in recent months I have collaborated with some pretty impressive folks – like say, Edward Grieg, Jean Sibelius, Erik Satie. The fact they are all long dead has not deterred me at all. As collaborators, dead people rarely disagree with my creative choices. I like that.

So anyway, I’ve been at it again.  I recently adapted Claude Debussy’s “Claire de Lune” as a sacred choral piece. Jubilate Music, a division of Word, will be releasing it in the spring.

The idea to do this piece emerged from Word. Originally, I was asked to meld “Claire de Lune” with the hymn “Be Still My Soul.” Though an interesting concept, I could not make the two tunes work with one another. Like a couple of independent toddlers, you can put them in the same room but there’s no guarantee they will play together.

Still, I really like “Claire de Lune,” and so I begged Word’s indulgence to see if I could adapt the primary music themes and write new words for them.

Keep in mind, “CDL” is a piano piece. An impressionistic piano piece. Debussy had no concern about the range of the human voice, the need to breathe, or the niceties of a repeated lyric hook. And since “Claire de Lune” refers to “moonlight,” I’m pretty certain he wasn’t concerned with any sort of sacred or spiritual message, either.

The finished piece took me five full days to complete. Six, if you count the basic editing. Crazy, I know. I can do the typical pop choral arrangement with full orchestra in a day or two. This piece is for SATB with piano only. But it took two days to absorb the original composition and distill it to a workable song form. Another day was spent crafting a lyric for the new tune. And two more days were devoted to crafting the SATB choral parts and a piano accompaniment that evokes (and occasionally quotes) Debussy, but still accompanies the choir effectively.

There will be purists, no doubt, that blanch at the idea of altering Debussy’s work. In my defense, every musician borrows from those that came before. And for the record, Mr. Debussy never once offered a single criticism of our collaborative effort. There’s a lot of Claude in the piece. And there’s some of me, too. Interestingly enough, the lyric that evolved for it is very much in the mood and message of “Be Still My Soul.” In fact, the new piece is titled “My Soul, Be Still.”

I don’t know if this latest piece, following on the heels of the Satie and Sibelius pieces, constitutes a trend for me.  Maybe it’s simply a season. Regardless, I’ve enjoyed the process each time. I think the results are interesting. And being the lesser musician in each of these collaborations, I have definitely benefitted from the greatness of my collaborators.

I just hope they don’t mind the company.

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