Robinson McClellan on Future Classics and Christmas Transformation

Dec 5, 2018

The holidays aren’t always happy for everyone—for many, it is  a complicated emotional season.  Robinson McClellan shares his thoughts on the complex nature of winter and on the similarly complex relationship between composer, performer, and listener. Robin is this year’s Composer-Not-in-Residence; his new work, “Comfort and Joy,” will premiere at “Jingle! Angels! Silent! Merry!”.

The theme of this year’s holiday concert,  “Jingle! Angels! Silent! Merry!” leaves a lot of room to interpret the Christmas spirit. How do you approach writing new music for a season so rich in the familiar?

For this concert, I was inspired by the idea of taking something familiar and reinventing it—taking an old chestnut and re-roasting it. I thought it would be an interesting creative challenge to take a familiar carol (“God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen”), strip away everything but the bare bones of the text, and try to write a “future classic” from it, something new and catchy and enjoyable. I worry sometimes that our musical community assumes that all the good melodies have already been written, that you can’t write a classic anymore. But I’m optimistic that there are infinite new classics to be sung, and I might as well try to come up with a few. To me, the most important feature of a good Christmas tune is that it’s fun to sing as a group. About two thirds of the way through this piece, you’ll hear the unison tune that represents my attempt at this.

On the idea of writing something that’s “fun to sing”—as you’re writing music, and when you envision the final work, do you picture yourself in the audience or the ensemble?

In an ideal world, I strive for both — I have a pretty hard time choosing. When you spend a lot of time with a piece of music, you get to know it more intimately than you might as a listener. You see and hear layers and elements that you might miss otherwise. I do a lot of research into any text I set, so that I can try to use the music to draw out meanings or layers that wouldn’t be obvious from just reading it. There’s huge value in that, and I think that when conductors and singers learn a piece deeply like that, and come to love it on that level, it’s part of the process that brings a lot of works into frequent performance. But on the other hand, the music has to speak through clearly and easily to the listener. As an audience member, I’ve heard performances of works I had sung, that were wonderful to perform, and realized they can get lost in translation.

So it’s a tricky balance, writing something that rewards both the deep work of preparing a performance and the one-time experience of hearing it. Some of the greatest pieces, the ones we consider classics, accomplish both at once but it’s very difficult. I don’t know whether I’ve ever achieved it.

Your new work, “Comfort and Joy,” takes excerpts from the text of “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen” and sets them to new music. What drew you to that text?

Looking into possible texts, I found it interesting that people often re-locate the comma in the opening phrase of this one — it’s not “God rest you, merry gentlemen but rather God rest you merry, gentlemen.” It’s an archaic phrase that captures a wonderful mood and feeling that may not feel familiar to our modern ear. So I got rid of the gentlemen and focused the opening section of the piece just on that phrase ‘God rest you merry’. As added benefit, this makes the emphasis more universal. I wanted to write a piece that could speak broadly.

How did “Comfort and Joy” take shape?

I started off trying to write something closer to a simple carol, and the first melody for the refrain came easily — this is the unison tune heard a bit past halfway through, after the main ‘Joy’ moment. But then it became a struggle to get the whole thing to hang together. The first version was quite different. It felt too busy and relentless. As usual, a faulty conception leads to compositional problems: I was trying to make two different beasts fit in the space one naturally fills: it was trying to be somewhere between a straightforward “carol” and a more involved “piece.” So in that way perhaps it was doomed not to work.

Then I finally I made myself let go of the verse/refrain structure I had envisioned, and instead gave the piece a more narrative shape. It starts off bleak, even lonely, with long silences and sparse textures. When the word “joy” first appears, it’s more of a question, as if asking ‘is joy possible?’ Then there’s a warm, embracing “comfort” section because, really, before we can feel joy, we need to feel safe. From there, comfort can transform into joy, and then my original happy carol tune (surely a future classic!) becomes possible.

To me, that transformation from bleakness to celebration is very much in the Christmas spirit. Traditionally in the church, Advent is a time of penitence, even sorrow, that comes before the Christmas season, which really lasts only the twelve days of Christmas. This is a piece that tries to acknowledge the surrounding winter and answer it with some warmth.

Composer Not-in-Residence Robinson McClellan has received commissions from the Albany, Fort Worth, and Knox-Galesburg Symphonies, Macalester Concert Choir, Parthenia Viol Consort, and many others. His choral music is published by E.C. Schirmer, Augsburg Fortress, and See-a-Dot Publishing. He has been awarded artist residencies at MacDowell and Yaddo. Robin earned his doctorate in composition from the Yale School of Music and Yale Institute of Sacred Music. He is a product advisor and subject matter expert for Noteflight music notation software. He teaches music theory at Rutgers University, composition and theory privately and at the Lucy Moses School (NYC), and he serves as a composer mentor and board member for the Young Composers & Improvisors Workshop. He is the founding instructor of the innovative ComposerCraft, a workshop for advanced composers aged 10-16. He lives in NYC with his family.