Classics

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen

Felicia, my awesome and talented sister, wanted to arrange God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen for Vox Singulae. “I might reharmonise it,” she said. “Go nuts,” I told her.

A while later, she sent me an arrangement-in-progress that was the twenty-first cousin of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, five times removed. The resemblance was there, but only if you knew what to look for and looked very, very hard indeed. It was in no way bad, but it wasn’t very recognisable as the tune we all know and love.

“Umm… could you dial it back a little? Actually… could you dial it back a lot?” I said, rather sheepishly.

That’s how we ended up with this Glee-inspired arrangement of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. (Maybe next year we’ll revisit the reharmonised version.)

Felicia’s comments on the arrangement

First things first: this has got to be one of my favourite Christmas songs, ever. (The fact that it’s in minor just makes it a whole lot more beautiful.) There were a few versions of lyrics when I was looking up this song. I discussed this with my sister and we decided to use the lyrics that were used in the Glee version. I’d been so, so tempted to do some strange reharmonisations but… no… not this time.

I started off in a very cliché and classic way, one voice starting alone. I couldn’t help myself, though, and threw in a short second voice soon after. This happens twice before the second voice starts singing a harmony line under it. The second verse sees the continuation of the soprano 1 carrying the melody, and the official entrance of the soprano 2 and tenors as the accompaniment. The tenors stuck to the root notes or the fifths or the passing notes, and the soprano 2s were the main time-keepers, marking every quarter note. I did start having a bit of fun with the soprano 2 line, as I sought an independent melody of sorts for it.

The third verse is when all four lines enter the verse together. The melody is handed over by the soprano 1s to the soprano 2s, and the soprano 1s went above the soprano 2s. I kept the soprano 1s relatively close to the melody till the end of the verse, where I moved them up, in anticipation of the fourth verse. Here, the altos and the tenors were the accompaniment. The previous accompaniment lines had half notes in the first verse, and quarter notes in the second verse, while the third verse was mainly filled with eighth notes.

The increasing movement in the rhythm culminates in the fourth verse, where all the SSAT parts sing together with the melody, which is still carried by the soprano 2s, snugly cradled by the other parts. Here, the tenors leave their post of singing the root tones, and the soprano 1s get stretched to sing the high G. They all end unisono on E.

The finale is started by one voice, and the melody moves down the parts. The soprano 2 and alto share one repetition together. The tenors take the last repetition, while augmenting the rhythm. It all slows to an end, a tierce de picardie on “joy”.

Grace's comments on the recording process

One thing I learnt about my own voice and singing ability in recording God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen was that I’m not equally adept at using my voice up and down its entire range. If I stand in front of a piano and sing notes in isolation, I can go down to D3 and up to G5 pretty comfortably. However, singing a G5 note as part of a passage is challenging, and you can clearly hear me reaching for the note all throughout the song. Just take a listen from 1:22 onwards, and you can hear how challenging the G5 notes are for me. That’s something I’ll have to work on.

These three songs – Stille Nacht, O Tannenbaum and God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen – are all I’ll be doing this Christmas season, so I hope you’ve enjoyed them. Merry Christmas!

O Tannenbaum

This song was arranged by Felicia Teng, my awesome and talented sister, and performed and recorded by me. I’ve got some of her comments on the arrangement, followed by my own comments about the recording process.

Felicia’s comments on the arrangement

I kept this piece in F major, based off a little score of a four-part thing I’d found on Wikipedia. The form for this piece, as with many Christmas or folk songs, is simple. One verse that repeats: melody stays the same, while the words change.

I don’t like keeping things the same two or more times in a song. So… I had one voice start alone for the first verse with an occasional comment from another voice. The other voices join in more frequently, though clearly at the sidelines, and by the end of the first verse, most of the voices are in. Because I’d thought of using the first verse as an introduction, a prelude if you will, I put in a one-bar rest.

From the second verse onwards, the voices sing together. Here, the soprano 2s carry the melody, with the alto and tenors providing the harmony. The soprano 1s sing over the melody, though still keeping the melodic contour of the main melody. It got to pretty high at the end of the second verse, with the sop 1s on high F, and I decided to tide it over and start the final verse on a high note. The obvious alternative would be to start on a low note and build up the third verse that way but that had already been done twice. Under that high F, I snuck in some brief reharmonisation.

At the end of the song, I had the voices sing different notes in unison, because I wanted it to be harmonically rich as possible, and to be able to create a contrast when it all ends on the F.

Grace’s comments on the recording process

After doing a few Vox Singulae recordings, I’ve settled into a rhythm while recording. I study the score and practise singing each part to a reference track. Then, I decide which track to record first. In a professional environment, drums and bass usually go first, accompaniment and harmony next, and the melody lines get recorded last, after all the other tracks have already been laid down.

I’m far from being a professional, though. For the sake of my sanity, I often record the melody line first, the baseline next, and the harmony lines last. I try to record four tracks per line to create a fuller sound. In this case, the arrangement is for SSAT voices, so that makes for a total of four tracks per part x four parts = 16 tracks total.

Let’s say I’m recording the alto part. I’ll record onto Alto Track 1, and sing until I make a mistake. Then I stop, trim the mistake out, and move on to Alto Track 2. I’ll record until I make a mistake on Alto Track 2, and again I’ll stop, trim the mistake, and move on. After laying down the beginning of Alto Track 4, I’ll go back up to Alto Track 1, and pick up where I left off, singing until I make a mistake… and so on, until all four alto tracks are filled out. That’s how a 16-track recording can require 75 takes – and imagine, not a single one of those 75 takes is a “good” take all the way through!

This is an unconventional way to record, and it reflects the fact that Vox Singulae is about practice and process, not about product and perfection. Hopefully, over time, I’ll get better at singing a track all the way through without mistakes – but right now, I’m working with what I have and building on it.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy this little song we’ve put together. Merry Christmas.

Stille Nacht

Christmas season is one again upon us, so naturally, I wanted to try singing some vocal-only arrangements of Christmas songs. Time constraints whittled down my long list of candidate songs to just three, but Stille Nacht was always going to be first on that list.

This arrangement is pretty straightforward. One soprano part, tracked four times, provides the main melody line. One alto part, tracked four times, provides the harmonisation. One tenor part, improvised one and then tracked three more times and hummed without words, provides the bass line. A single vocal percussion track undergirds the rest of the music, and one improvised solo soprano voice provides the variation on the theme from the second verse onwards.

Enjoy, and merry Christmas!