The art of composing for children’s choir

It’s an old truth that where good ensembles arise, the composers are inspired to write for them. This is also the case with the Nordic children’s choirs. MIC and Nordic Sounds present the second part of the article about children’s choir. Steen Lindholm discusses distinguished composers writing for young voices, among them Norwegian composer Sigurd Berge.

Sigurd Berge

Many works have been written for equal-voiced choirs, not least a cappella, and these also include works that must be described as nothing less than trailblazers in the children’s choir literature. If I were to chose one exciting composition for children’s choir from each Nordic country, for Sweden I would unconditionally choose Mellnäs’ Aglepta. The work was composed in 1969 over a magical formula from Smĺland: “Say these words to your enemy: Aglaria Pidhol Garia Ananus Qepta, and blow at him; so he does not know where to go, or what to say.” The singers in the choir are confronted with the maximum demands on accuracy, extremely difficult intervals and complex harmony.

There are effects ranging from whispers to screams, unusual vocal techniques, and above all an atmosphere of mystery and magic in this work, which involves and fascinates the listener. Everywhere in the world Aglepta has been received with enthusiasm, and today it is in the standard repertoire of the elite children’s choirs. Other Swedish composers who have written important works for children’s choir include Karin Rehnqvist, Jan-Ĺke Hillerud and Bror Samuelsson.

World triumph for Jaakobin pojat
From Finland the choice must fall on Pekka Kostiainen’s Jaakobin pojat from 1979. This is the Biblical account of Jacob’s sons set to music with a twinkle in its eye. In the piece the list of ‘begats’ is presented in the form of Sprechstimme, whispering, glissandi, extremely high or low sounds of indeterminate pitch and the exploitation of the
spatial dimension. At the same time the tonal idiom is very moderate. Unlike Aglepta, Jaakobin pojat is a relatively manageable piece for many children’s choirs who will undoubtedly find it fun to rehearse. In fact it is rather a stroke of genius. But otherwise there are plenty of exciting Finnish composers to choose from: Erik Bergman, Bengt Johansson and Olli Kankainen, just to mention a few. I experienced the last composer’s avant-garde Water Music in a remendous performance by Tapiola a good ten years ago.
While both Aglepta and have gone from triumph to triumph all over the world, the same is not quite the case with the following Nordic compositions.

Effective piece
The Norwegian Sigurd Berge’s Illuxit, composed in 1974 over a Norwegian medieval chorale, a pioneering work when it appeared. For the performance of the work the composer decrees a highly detailed lighting programme, and some of the choir members have to be equipped with pocket torches. Berge used many different kinds of sound, from imitations of rain to the soughing of wind and readings – stamping and clapping are also included. The instrumental element consists of a French horn, an alpenhorn and a jazz pianist: a highly effective piece that is certainly not boring to experience live.
Other Norwegian composers with important works for children’s choir are Kjell Mörk Karlsen, Bjřrn Kruse and Yngve Slettholm, and in the more traditional genre we have Knut Nystedt, 83 and still going strong, the big name with his many harmonious choral pieces for equal voices.

There are no pioneering compositions in the above sense for children’s choir in either Iceland or Denmark. But there are other exciting works.

Full length children’s opera
A few years ago, for example, I attended the premiere of a children’s opera in Reykjavík, written by one of Iceland’s major composers, Ţorkell Sigurbjörnsson. The work, with the title Stúlkan í vitanum (The Girl in the Lighthouse) was a full-length children’s opera, composed to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Tónmentaskólinn (the Children’s Music School). The source of the text was a tale by the Icelandic national poet Jónas Hallgrimsson, and the libretto was by Böđvar Guđmundsson. It was a highly entertaining work, written for and performed almost exclusively by children, in the orchestra as well as the singers. The orchestra therefore included no viola (too big to handle), while the double-bass was replaced by an electric bass etc.

Thus although both vocal and instrumental parts allowed for the fact that the performers were children, this was very demanding – and exciting – modern music. A number of other Icelandic composers have written for children – for example Atli Heimir, Sveinsson, Hjálmar Ragnarsson, Jón Nordal, Jón Leifs and Mist Ţorkelsdóttir. These are usually shortish pieces.

Fine neoclassical music
From Denmark my choice has fallen on the composition Nu og Da (Now and Then) by Ib Nřrholm, given its first performance by the Danish National Girls’ Choir/DR in 2001. This is very fine neoclassical music, and the ensemble is a stimulating combination of girls’ choir and string quartet. But other composers, for example Svend S. Schultz, Jakob Lorentzen, Jesper Madsen and the conductor of the girls’ choir Michael Bojesen, have written excellent things for equal voices.

However, Denmark is undoubtedly best known for the more easily accessible rhythmic children’s choral music, where John Hřybye is the predominant composer name. His appealing melodies, combined with very good musical textures, have won a response from many socalled ordinary children’s choirs in the other Nordic countries, and the inciting rhythms and accompanying percussion instruments appeal greatly to the younger age groups.

Finally I really must emphasize that with the choice of one choir and mainly one composer from each of the Nordic countries, I am well aware that I am passing over a number of ensembles and composers who could just as deservedly be singled out in an article like this.

The author of the article, Steen Lindholm, is Principal Conductor of the Danish Boys' Choir and has conducted and held workshops on the theme of children's choirs in most parts of the world. As chairman of the music committee of the Nordic Choral Committee in 1983-98 and as a member of the board of the International Federation for Choral Music (IFCM) for twenty years, he is thoroughly familiar with the children's choir area in the national as well as the global perspective.

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