Mode, tempo, instrumentation. They make the difference between a piece of music that breathes and has life and one that qualifies as a dirge.
I was looking over my Advent/Christmas repertoire some months ago, thinking of some addition of plainchant–something other than O Come O Come Emmanuel. But it got me wondering: why so much music from the Middle Ages is set in “minor” modes. I remember pulling this chant out for rehearsal at the student center some years ago. Why bother, I was asked. Lux de Luce, a similar reception. For communities unaccustomed to chant, I’m inclined to meet people part way.
Is it a hard thing to ask for something less obviously celebratory? My Christmas choice for a Gospel Acclamation, something that served well in other places, my arrangement of an old GIA publication from Howard Hughes. Major key, polyrhythm, and percussion instruments: is this what is needed?
Someone recently referred to “Savior of the Nations, Come!” (NUN KOMM, DER HEIDEN HEILAND) as a dirge and I was a caught a bit off guard and not sure how to respond to this.
Advent isn’t Christmas yet. Without hearing the piece as it was performed, it’s hard to know if it was indeed a dirge, or just an unexpected or unwanted injection of minor key. I arranged it for flute, piano, and hammer dulcimer a few years ago and the response was positive.
So many factors go into assessing “dirge.” The first one is tempo. That can affect the listener, but if people are asked to sing some hymns at a slow pace, it can affect their breathing. If a body can’t breathe well, it might not enjoy the singing so much.
If played on an organ, the choice of stops can also make a difference. On the other hand, here’s a contemporary arrangement played at a pace that might be considered “dirge.” But there’s a big difference with the accompaniment, like it or not, wouldn’t you say?