I was originally introduced to Sicut Cervus by Palestrina as a 17-year-old, when I got a chance to sing with a regionally-selected choir comprised of high schoolers from all across the Pacific Northwest (a music event called All Northwest). That piece was one of six we performed as a choir, and getting to bring the sound to life as part of a choir moved me deeply. I loved the weaving parts and simplicity of the text.
The entire text of the piece is only a few words:
Ad fontes aquarum
Ad te deus
It comes from Psalm 42:1, in Latin. The English translation is this:
As the deer longs for fountains of water, so my soul longs for you, God.
The piece stuck with me and inspired me. I wanted to apply similar concepts of interwoven parts to a piece, but with a more symbolic sense of longing woven throughout.
So, like Palestrina, I also used the Latin text of Psalm 42:1. And while the piece I wrote derives a lot of inspiration from Palestrina, my Sicut Cervus is very different. Sheet music is available for free at the bottom of this post.
Watch my recording of Sicut Cervus
I cranked out the entire composition in a feverish writing session of two hours at a coffee shop. Manic rush-job aside, it remains one of my favorite pieces I’ve written.
I decided to take a highly minimalistic approach to composing, and created limitations for myself, which is a tactic I use a lot when coming up with drawing ideas.
Creating limitations allows you to get into problem-solving mode. You find yourself asking the question “how can I make something as interesting as possible despite these limitations?” It’s a trick that I love that combines both creative and rational types of thinking.
Instead of writing for a four-part choir, I narrowed my options down a bit. This piece would be for three female voices—no more than that. If I wanted any percussive sounds, they had to come from the voices. If I wanted any ambient sounds, had to be coming from the voices.
Palestrina’s Sicut Cervus has a sense of perpetual waxing and waning sound that never relents until the end of the piece. It builds a sense of longing, and finally, resolution.
I tried a more extreme limitation to create an exaggerated sense of longing. It was quite the challenge that I posed for myself to do this. The entire piece (with only three voices) had to sustain a specific note through the entire piece, without ever letting it up once.
If you pay attention as you listen, you’ll notice that one note passes from one voice to another, and there’s never a time in the whole song that it’s not being sung.
I also used a modal chord structure so that the idea of resolution seemed ambiguous; what is the resolution? When will it come, if ever?
Toward the end of the piece, I introduce dissonance for the very first time, which acts as a climax before finally resolving back to the same note the entire piece started on.
This piece had its debut performance at Western Washington University in 2008 with two of my three sisters. To create a dimensional panning effect, one of us stood at the center of the stage, and the other two stood at opposite edges.
You can hear a recording of the performance on my Soundcloud account.
After that, we performed it at a few small gatherings, and it pretty much disappeared into the archives.
During a break in my latest music project I dug up the sheet music I’d written long ago, and recorded it. I’m working on something called AnthemBible—specifically a leg of the project where I arrange and record a song for every Psalm. The weekend I recorded this video, the melody we came up with for the next Psalm had escaped us, and we needed to try to find it again.
Get free sheet music for Sicut Cervus
If you know three vocalists or a choir who would like to learn and perform Sicut Cervus, I’ve made the sheet music free to download. Here’s what page one looks like.
Note: the piece is written in the key of Eb minor (which you’ll hear on the Soundcloud version), but my performance in the video is in B minor.
To get the sheet music, just enter your email address below, and you’ll get access to the PDF. Once you confirm your address, you’ll get an email with your own personal link to the download.
And if you end up learning and performing Sicut Cervus, I’d love to hear about it. If you capture a recording, I might even feature it on this page. :)
If you like this piece, you might like my solo piano album, The Marks It Makes (which you can stream for free here on my site). It employs similar minimalistic approaches.