Unearthing EWB: Sweeter Still

As we daily approach Christmas and lift the daily flaps on our Julekalenders, here is a few words on a little holiday piece that has had a very interesting life, filled with change, adaptations, and anomalies: Sweeter Still.

COMPOSITIONAL CONTEXT

I was asked a long time ago (2004), one Minnesota summer, to compose a piece for the wedding of a college acquaintance, Marcus Aulie.  I was honored to have been asked.  It was to be sung by a gaggle of his friends who were recent members of The Bemidji Choir, from Bemidji State University.  This choir at that time was quite good, with members who went on to sing with prestigious professional choirs, so I felt like I could write whatever I would like.  I knew that it would receive at most 2 rehearsals though, with most of the singers rehearsing at home, so I didn’t want to overdo it.  I thought I would settle on something simple, but pleasing.  I had only been composing for a few years at this point as well, so I’m glad I didn’t try for something more.

I will say this plainly – it is difficult to find a meaningful poem to set for a wedding.  (At least for me, maybe other choral composers would say differently).  There are scriptural texts that speak of love, general love poems, but nothing I saw truly represented what I wanted to use for this opportunity.  I chose rather to break my now golden(ish) rule: write my own text.  I never recommend this to anyone who asks.  Perhaps only someone like Stephen Sondheim has proven that it could work for him with excellence.  In my youthful way (I knew no other), this I did: I wrote a fairly simple piece with my own simple lyrics that would honor my friend at his wedding.

It was a year or two later, when talking with Gunilla Luboff at Walton Music, that this piece took its first turn.  It was still fairly early on my composing career in 2006 and I treasured my relationship with Dr. Jo-Michael Scheibe.  I often relied upon him and his series with Walton.  If I remember correctly, I was talking with Gunilla about getting more than one piece on the docket for 2007 (a common thing I sought for in those days), and she asked if I had anything for the holiday season, and I had to say no.  (I was transitioning to writing only commissions and hadn’t yet been asked to compose a holiday piece).  After the phone call I sat at my desk looking at my material and decided that this piece was maneuverable and had a melody that could suit the holiday season.  So I changed the words… again, heresy.  Absolute heresy, looking back upon it now.

https://www.giamusic.com/search_details.cfm?title_id=25124

It was published in 2007 as a “Holiday Carol” in the Jo-Michael Scheibe series with Walton Music.  In the end, it will have been only heard once in its true context with the text it was meant for.  Only those present that summer day in 2004 will have heard or sung the original.  There is a tinge of sadness about that, in that the importance and elevation of text is something I contend for quite seriously.

ELEMENTS OF STYLE
(…E.W.Barnum not E.B.White)

pages-from-sweeter-still-2nd-version

Page from original manuscript, after word changes. (Notation errors included!)

This piece has is a very simple idea: memorable melody, simple homophonic choral accompaniment with slight deviation, and a traditional ABAB(coda) structure.  Sometimes simplicity works.

The lights shine brightly all over the town,
as Christmas bells toll for miles around,
the wind blowing gently, snow falling softly,
the stars brightly shining for you and for me.

And Sweet is the sound of a carol sung by a choir,
and sweet is the warmth of the soft glow from a fire;
but sweeter still, is the joy when I see
the family round the Christmas tree.

Silently children dream, hearts full of love,
until they hear footsteps from up above.
They rush down the stairs hoping to see
the bright smile of Santa before he disappears.

And Sweet is the sound of a carol sung by a choir,
and sweet is the warmth of the soft glow from a fire;
but sweeter still, is the joy when I see
the family round the Christmas tree.
— EWB

It was never meant to be difficult to sing or difficult to understand.  It was never meant to challenge taste.  It was never meant to excite or thrill.  It was always meant just to warm hearts and make people smile in its simplicity and texture.  It was meant to allow people to ‘feel’ the season.

I do not want to overstate something or make this piece more grandiose than it is, but I can mention a few things.
– If I would have known that it was meant to be a holiday piece, I may have composed it in F, not in G.  (I say this, because for some reason, not only is F blue to me, it also speaks of the Christmas season…not sure how to explain that).
– I would have written different lyrics today than I did when I was 27.  I do not completely regret the lyrics, but I think Chanticleer’s Joe Jennings was right to manipulate them slightly for their CD (and secretly, I like the changes he later made to the lyrics much better than the ones I initially wrote, especially when he changed ‘Santa’ to ‘St. Nick’ and ‘see’ to ‘spy’).
– Though it adds to the saccharine nature of the piece, I kind of wish I would have thought of the key change that Chanticleer later added as well.

BETWEEN THE NOTES – MEANING

Sweeter Still walks a fine line between Christmas nonsense and true holiday nostalgia.  Dismissing the part about the children hoping to discover Santa delivering their presents, this piece does speak to a very real feeling that one gets during the darkest time of the year.  When the lights are on the Christmas tree after the sun sets with a hot chocolate in your hand… When the fire pops and crackles… When the laughter dies down… When you start to stare and your mind wanders to memories and smiles and joys and thankfulness… Well, then you really can start to know what this piece is embracing.

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– Viggo Johansen (1891)

What is most interesting to me about this piece is how it speaks about itself.  “Sweet is the sound of a carol sung by a choir” is exactly what one is doing when you sing it.  Yet it acknowledges how it (itself) profoundly dims in comparison to the joy, reverence, and greater sweetness of a gathered family at home.  Yes, there will inevitably be a mess, oddness, and conflict…and laughter…it is family after all.  But it shines much brighter than the fire or the songs we sing.  It is a basic and whole idea.  And what tragedy that some know this feeling of family and will not be able to experience it this winter or in winters to come.  A great hope is that this grief will melt into the joy of memory and stinging nostalgia so many of us know and bear.  Perhaps the people with this experience know most of all how sweeter still is the joy of seeing the family around the Christmas tree.

FURTHER DEVELOPMENT

Sweeter Still has experienced much change and growth through the years, starting immediately after its publication.  I received one of the more interesting calls of my choral career soon after the piece was published from Joseph Jennings, the emeritus Artistic Director of San Fransisco’s Chanticleer.  After some laughs and small talk, he said that they wanted to add Sweeter Still to their new holiday album Let It Snow, but in doing so they would change some words, add a piano accompaniment, and add a key change….well now…how could I say no?…Of course I didn’t say no.  There was a frantic call to Walton, followed by the acceptance of a “Chanticleer” version, and then a long wait until the CD was released.  When I finally got to hear it, I understood what he meant all along and what the men of Chanticleer brought to the moment.  Oh, to hear my friends in the group sing this simple song!  Though the CD was not necessarily met with overall critical success, I was humbled and supremely grateful to be included.  I dearly thank you Joe.

In the years following, many have performed the published version, but others have made slight alterations or additions here and there depending upon their needs…with harp, with piano, with orchestra…  I will highlight here what Dr. Jo-Michael Scheibe has done in that he has brought it with him from Miami to USC and continues to perform it year after year at their Winter Gala — yet it has evolved, changed, and has grown into something wonderful.  The link below is a most recent adaptation with a new orchestration by Kenneth Regan:

https://www.dropbox.com/s/2htvfae69yaj9d1/Sweeter%20Still.mp4?dl=0

And finally, a 2014 performance by USC Thornton choirs conducted by Dr. Jo-Michale Scheibe.

I wish a Merry Yuletide to all, and I hope you get a taste of what this piece speaks of.

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