Behind the scenes
Have you ever wondered how a hymn arrangement is made? Well, I sure have! Of course, what I’d really like to see are the intermediate sketches from a project by John Rutter, Arvo Pärt, or Eric Whitacre, etc., but I don’t have any of those laying around the house. Instead I’ll share some of the work from my arrangement of “Nearer, Dear Savior to Thee” for SAB choir and piano.
At this point in the project I had written the first two verses and really liked it, but I had no idea what to do next. I was totally stuck.
I liked the key change between the first two verses, but I couldn’t reuse it because it would put us into G major, which is not a place that this melody can be sung by normal ward choir voices. I was also undecided about using all four verses, because that’s a lot of nearer for a choir number. It works beautifully in a congregational hymn where everyone is singing along, but generally during a choir number the listeners are not singing. How do you do enough with the hymn to justify the fact that you have cancelled the congregational hymn and they must now silently observe? Maybe three verses would be enough, and yet I liked the third stanza of every verse so much.
The solution I found, as you may already know, was to include only three full verses, but to use the extra third stanza to move smoothly into E major—a very good key for the melody. As soon as I stumbled upon this I wrote it down in my book of scribbles and ideas, along with an SAB voicing of the third stanza with the chord I liked so much (click on the image for the full scan):
You can see that my hurried scribbles use a weird mixture of pop chord symbols (B7sus, A/B) and more classical notation (E6/4, B4-3). I got this new stuff into the computer and printed it out so I could add the accompaniment at the piano:
There’s a few things here worth pointing out:
I can’t be bothered writing stems and beams for all the eighth notes when I think nobody will ever see it.
The note at measure 75 reads ‘some word that means not too fast’. In the final version I never found a word that I liked, so I left it blank.
I had to add a measure at the bottom of the page, so the piano part gets very squishy.
The optional tenor notes were added after the first three parts were written, so the song should be fine with or without it.
Finishing the project requires entering all the new notes and lyrics into the computer, and fine tuning all the page layout. For example, in the picture above you will see some ugly collisions between the stems of the alto notes and the lyrics. Finale (music notation software) is not smart enough to solve this by itself, which seems silly, but I’ll talk about that some other day. I extract a separate choir part to save you some work in photocopying and in page turning, and I convert it all to PDF and MIDI files to post. For this song, I also had to write this page, which was almost as hard as getting the song finished!
If you want, you can read through the completed version.