Sally DeFord’s “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night“

As I mentioned in my welcome blog post, one of the things I intend to do on this website is to highlight quality pieces by other composers, explain how they work musically, and what factors you may consider when programming the piece for your choir.

If you have pieces you’d like me to review, please send them my way! I’ll look at everything though I may not publish a full review.

This week we’re going to look at “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night,“ as arranged and expanded by Sally DeFord. I’ve sung this piece in ward choirs multiple times. It’s long been a favorite of mine, and I’m excited to share it with you.

Details at a Glance

  • Voicing: SATB, flute, and piano
  • Lyrics: Nahum Tate, with additional lyrics by Sally DeFord
  • Language: English
  • Key(s): D, E-flat
  • Difficulty: Choir—easy, but with a half dozen tricky passages. Piano—moderate. Flute—grade 2 (based on wind band levels).
  • Duration: 2:30 min.
  • Pages: 6
  • Price: free
  • Alternate versions: SATB and piano
  • Download Site: defordmusic.com/song-list/while-shepherds-watched-their-flocks-by-night/
  • Listen:

Review

Among LDS musicians, Sally DeFord needs no introduction. Although it is fashionable in some circles to dismiss her music, DeFord’s best songs and arrangements have a depth and imagination that rival some professionally published composers. Her arrangement of “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night” is a prime example.

As she rightly says in her description of the arrangement, the hymn book’s 4/4 version of the melody is rather “ho hum.” Recasting the tune as she does in 6/8 turns it into a real ear worm, giving it an infectious vitality and playfulness. The florid flute obbligato and the piano’s opening pealing bell motive add to this mood. Although spritely and energetic, the music would be at home in any LDS sacrament meeting.

The arrangement’s four verses fall into the familiar pattern of “women in unison — men in unison — four parts a cappella — four parts with piano.” Although somewhat clichéd, this pattern is effective and inoffensive here. It also has the virtue of making the music easier to learn, since the choir can master the first two verses simply by learning the ear-wormish tune.

The part writing is mostly good, and DeFord gives the inner voices more interesting lines than they normally get. In the process, however, she sometimes sacrifices gracious-to-sing lines for the sake of a harmony she wants.

You will need to sing through verses 3 and 4 for parts slowly at least once. For most choirs, this will entail singing each part separately. A choir with confident aural skills should be fine singing through these verses together and then spot checking specific passages for each section.

These are the specific passages that may require careful rehearsal:

  • basses, mm. 51-53: The chromaticism on A/A-sharp, combined with the leaps may give some of your men trouble. Harmonically, the passage makes complete sense and is spelled correctly. It’s also reasonably easy to sing. It’s just a lot at once to read or learn by rote for untrained singers.
  • basses, mm. 57-58: The G-sharp isn’t hard, but some of your basses may struggle to hear the secondary dominant and want to sing it as a G natural.
  • tenors mm. 49-62: This passage is more fun to sing than your usual tenor part because it moves and leaps more often. That will also make it more difficult to learn for untrained singers. They may particularly struggle in m. 55 with the leap to B because they’re singing a major second with the basses. Harmonically, what’s happening in this passage is that the basses are singing a pedal point on A, which the upper three voices sing their own harmony. Practice having the upper three voices sing together then add back the basses.
  • altos, mm. 51-52: As with the tenors, the whole verse is more florid than your typical alto part. The first tricky passage is holding the C-sharp from m. 51 to 52. Some of your altos may instictively want to step up to D in bar 52, because that’s how the leading tone (in this passage, C-sharp) normally functions. Here, however, it temporarily gives up its leading tone function to the basses in m. 52 (who sing the A-sharp, leading to B).
  • altos, mm. 54-58: This is probably the trickiest part of the verse for the altos. Some of these leaps may be a little confusing, particularly the F-sharp to the D in mm. 56 to 57.
  • basses and tenors, mm. 73: Both parts are missing a dot on the second quarter note. Be sure to write that in.
  • basses, mm. 73-77: The leap down to B-flat may be a little confusing but the real problem passage is 75-77, where they leap to F, step up twice to A natural, and then leap down twice, back to B-flat. The bass part makes sense with the rest of the harmony, but as a line, it’s awkward to hear and sing.
  • tenors, mm. 72-77: Singing the anticipation in bar 72 (the C) shouldn’t be too bad, nor should be the leap to A-flat in 74. The biggest difficulty of the passage is leap from C to A-natural followed by A-flat. What makes it particularly hard is the cross-relation between the sopranos (A-flat) on beat 1 and the men (A-natural) on beat 2 — and then chromatically (* see note below) back to A-flat in the next measure. Be sure to write in a courtesy flat for the tenors in 78. It was save needless confusion.

Despite the impression this list may give, a choir consisting of mostly non-reading amateurs can learn the song in 3-4 rehearsals as long as you have a strong pianist or a handful of choir members who are confident in their parts. Furthermore, this is the kind of song choir members will enjoy woodshedding, because it’s a lot of fun to sing and hear.

For choirs with unequal numbers, particularly with few men, DeFord’s writing is such that you won’t necessarily miss them in verses 1, 2, and 4. For the third verse, you would need likely to have the piano play along to fill in the gaps. Even though it would get rid of the a cappella effect, it would still sound fine.

Conclusion

Overall, Sally DeFord’s “While Shepherds Watch Their Flocks by Night” is quality Christmas programming your choir and congregation will enjoy. Just be aware that some of the part writing is confusing and there are a couple of minor notational issues that need to be addressed before you distribute copies.

Theory Corner: A Word on Chromaticism

Note that the presence of accidentals does not mean a passage is chromatic. Chromatic passages occur specifically when you change the accidental of the same pitch. So for instance, in the key of C:

  • E-F#-G#-A is a diatonic line, even though it has accidentals, because the accidentals still create a segment of a diatonic scale. You never hear, say, F and F# in juxtaposition.
  • E-F#-G and E-F-G are a diatonic lines for the same reasons.
  • E-F-F#-G is a chromatic line, because the accidental alters the previous pitch and because diatonic scales never feature consecutive half steps. The half steps in diatonic scales always follow and proceed whole steps.

Thus in the key of E-flat, the line C-A-Ab (mm. 76-77 in the tenors) is chromatic.

It should also go without saying that chromaticism is also not necessarily harder, stranger, or wrong. It’s simply a different relationship between pitches than a diatonic one.

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