Before writing my own four-part melismatic setting of the “Amen” exercise I wanted to study some examples of melismatic word settings.
Instead of having words set to music that are rhythmically structured around their syllables (syllabic), a single word can be set across many notes; this is called Melismatic.
This dates back to the Gregorian chant but has been seen across many genres of music including baroque and gospel.
I wanted to see its effect in choral music and the first piece I looked at was Handel’s “For Unto Us A Child is Born” from his Messiah. I remember learning this when I sang in The Wells Cathedral Oratorio. It was really hard:
This line is written for the sopranos and the word “born” stretches across 57 notes. It is technically difficult to sing and daunting, too, but it does demonstrate the decorative nature of Baroque music.
Another example I have looked at is part of the “Kyrie” from Mozart’s “Requiem in D Minor”. The tenors sing “eleison” in this extended passage across 28 notes:
Both these examples demonstrate the many notes that can be set to very few syllables.
My personal preference for word setting is syllabic; I find it emphasises the words and their meanings more clearly. Melismatic is undoubtably decorative, and I know that modern-day contemporary performers like Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey and Leona Lewis use this technique vocally in their songs, but I dislike it’s showy quality and find it distracting and trite.