American Choral Music: 1940-1960

SBO Staff • ChoralMarch 2012Repertoire Forum • April 5, 2012

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By John C. Hughes

The United States enjoyed a very prosperous period after the second World War. The strong economy and increased college enrollment (due to the GI Bill) fostered public support for and appreciation of music. Below, I have selected a number of choral compositions by iconic American composers: Thompson, Persichetti, Barber, Copland, Rorem, Dello Joio, Bernstein, and Pinkham. Many of these pieces also feature American poets. Consider programming these examples of the rich and never-dull American choral repertory.


Velvet Shoes 
Randall Thompson,
E.C. Schirmer

Randall Thompson’s setting of Elinor Wylie’s poem is a standard within choral literature. This secular winter poem describes walking through pure, white snow, which serves as a larger metaphor for a bride meeting her husband. There are many opportunities to discuss poetic meaning and literary devices in a classroom setting. Except for three measures at the very end, Velvet Shoes is entirely in unison. The piano part, which is reminiscent of those found in “Frostiana,” reinforces and supports the melody. Singing this unison melody will help choirs come together as an ensemble on issues such as lyricism, phrasing, and intonation.


sam was a man 
Vincent Persichetti,
G. Schirmer

Composed in 1948 as part of “Two Cummings Choruses,” “sam was a man” is one of Persichetti’s first settings of e.e. cummings poetry. Throughout his career, Persichetti set many of cummings’s poems. Written for flexible performing forces (either male voices, female voices, or mixed voices), Persichetti enables all ensembles to be able to perform these works. If performing “sam was a man” with a young ensemble, it can serve as a good introduction into music outside of traditional functional harmony. Choirs will enjoy its quirky nature and dramatic shifts. For more information about Persichetti’s choral settings of cummings, consult Justin S. Smith’s article in the April 2011 Choral Journal.

dominic has a doll
Vincent Persichetti
Theodore Presser Company

“dominic has a doll” is the first piece in Persichetti’s suite, “Four Cummings Choruses” (1964). This piece stands out because of its fast tempo, sudden shifts, and dramatic piano part. Persichetti intended these works to be interesting, yet accessible, and they can be sung by male voices, female voices, or a mixed ensemble. Not a typical two-part piece, ensembles of all skill levels will enjoy “dominic has a doll.” Consider introducing students to the great American composer Vincent Persichetti while at the same time introducing them to e.e. cummings.


Sure On This Shining Night
Samuel Barber
G. Schirmer

Samuel Barber’s choral output is somewhat small; however, every piece has tremendous artistic merit. Barber’s setting of James Agee’s poem was first a solo art song, which the composer later adapted for choir. Barber’s manipulations of textures demonstrates his compositional mastery. The simple piano part supports the harmonic underpinning and contributes to a wonderful climax. Barber’s setting of “Sure On This Shining Night” is a wonderful piece to teach about texture and phrasing.

Zion’s Walls
Aaron Copland
Boosey & Hawkes

“Zion’s Walls” is an excellent example of Copland’s style. The sturdy folk melody and jaunty rhythms portray a quintessential sense of Americana. The time signatures switch between 6/8 and 9/8, which provide a good opportunity to discuss the dotted-eighth note as the beat. Some duplets also exist, which might be new for some students. “Zion’s Walls” is a wonderful closer for any concert.

Randall Thompson
E.C. Schirmer
Medium Advanced

Randall Thompson’s “Alleluia” has been an American choral classic for half a century – and for good reason. Thompson explores all the emotions within the single word “Alleluia.” The mood of the music moves through trepidation, reverence, and unbounded joy. Thompson’s understanding of voice leading and dramatic build-up are obvious. While students should always be exposed to new and exciting music, they should never be deprived of pieces like “Alleluia.”

“From an Unknown Past”
Ned Rorem
Peer Music
Medium Advanced

“From an Unknown Past “is a set of seven short pieces by Ned Rorem. The title of the set comes from the fact that all the poems are either anonymous or the author is uncertain. Anonymous poetry can be very poignant because one can only infer meaning from the poem itself (without the distraction of biographical details). The seven pieces are all very short and can be performed as a set or excerpts can be drawn. The harmonic language and rhythms are advanced; however, choirs will enjoy the texts’ themes of love and youth.

A Jubilant Song
Norman Dello Joio
G. Schirmer

Norman Dello Joio’s “A Jubilant Song” is a fantastic way to end a concert. Its bright harmonic language, effervescent rhythms, and uplifting text (Walt Whitman) will send the audience home very satisfied. The piece is in three parts: a joyful opening, a majestic middle section, and frolicking ending complete with “la-las.” A fantastic piano part incorporates jazz and boogie-woogie elements but is extremely difficult. This piece is well worth the extra time and effort.


Chichester Psalms
Leonard Bernstein
Boosey & Hawkes

Choirs can enjoy Bernstein’s iconic style without having to mount a full-scale production of West Side Story. “Chichester Psalms” combines his characteristic tonal language, rhythmic vitality, and musical sensitivity. While a full orchestral instrumentation is available, a reduced version for organ, harp, and percussion is also available. Or, consider performing the piece with piano accompaniment. The piece is in three movements and lasts roughly 18 minutes. The Hebrew language may be a stumbling block for some; however, Ethan Nash and Joshua Jacobson’s Translations and Annotations, Volume Four: Hebrew Texts (Earthsongs) gives significant guidance to the language and includes an audio CD of a speaker reading the texts.

Wedding Cantata
Daniel Pinkham
Edition Peters

Many choir conductors are familiar with Pinkham’s “Christmas Cantata.” However, fewer know of his “Wedding Cantata.” Lasting about ten minutes and divided into four movements, this piece would fit nicely into many choral programs. Pinkham draws all the texts from the “Song of Songs.”  Pinkham’s “Wedding Cantata” will stretch choirs’ sense of intonation and independence of voice parts, but it is worth investing time and energy.

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