Noteworthy: A "Nonsense" Poem Becomes A Full-Length Choral Work

Using text from beloved author Lewis Carroll, composer Maurice Saylor adapted a well known "nonsense" poem into a full-length choral work for Cantate Chamber Singers (Washington DC). Gisele Becker, music director of the Singers and director of choral activities at George Washington University, explains the process of collaborating on a new composition derived from this unlikely source. 

"The Hunting of the Snark, an Agony in Eight Fits"
By Maurice Saylor
Recommended by Gisele Becker

From Gisele Becker:

"Working directly with a living composer (and a lively living composer in Maurice's case!) is the ultimate music-making experience."
~Gisele Becker

As part of Cantate's composer-in-residence program, Maurice Saylor tailor-made this composition for us by attending every rehearsal, trying different sounds and adapting the work to our sound. I would recommend it because it is FUN—something you can't say about a lot of choral music! When Maurice and I first met to discuss a project (at the late, beloved Colonel Brooks Tavern in DC’s Brookland neighborhood), the first thing he said was that he didn't want to compose another dreary requiem but wanted something quirky like himself. He then proceeded to recite almost the entire poem "The Hunting of the Snark," complete with character voices. I was stunned and impressed—and sold.

Fit the First: The Landing

Fit the Second: The Bellman's Speech

Fit the Third: The Baker's Tale

Fit the Fouth: The Hunting

Fit the Fifth: The Beaver's Lesson

Fit the Sixth: Brief Snarkestral Outburst I

Fit the Seventh: Brief Snarkestral Outburst II

Fit the Eighth: The Vanishing

The piece was very challenging for the chorus, in part because of the special effects and naked entrances that occur. But having a chance to return to the piece a few years after premiering it, we found that it fell together very easily. Finding the right instrumentalists was a bit of a challenge too. Our keyboard artist, Andrew Simpson, actually LEARNED to play the accordion for this occasion. Fortunately, he is unbelievably gifted. The five wind players are all doubling anywhere from three to five instruments—from piccolo all the way down to bass sax (with a sweater in the bell for one desired note!). Working with the girls of the Holton Arms School was a joy. Their expert preparation by director Ann Vaughn made their portion of the piece simple to put together. Possibly their favorite memory of the recording sessions was auditioning for the screams of terror in Fit the Fifth.

Working directly with a living composer (and a lively living composer in Maurice's case!) is the ultimate music-making experience. We are literally completing the piece together. It is often a daunting task, but one worth taking financially and artistically. If an organization as small as Cantate Chamber Singers can do it, so can you.

Date of premiere: May 1, 2004
Commissioner: Cantate Chamber Singers
Author/source of text: Lewis Carroll
Length: 46 minutes
Parts: SSAATTBB plus three-part children’s chorus and "Snarkestra" (five woodwind doublers, banjo, electric violin, accordion, harmonica, piano, and percussion)
Publisher: Unpublished
Recording information: Cantate Chamber Singers; Gisele Becker, conductor. Naxos 8.572685

View score
View theme chart


Gisele Becker has been the music director of Cantate Chamber Singers since January 1994. She serves as director of choral activities at George Washington University, where she conducts the University Singers, Chamber Choir, and Women’s Chorus. From 2006 to 2008 she was a conducting professor at The Catholic University of America, where she also conducted the Women’s Chorus. For 26 years Ms. Becker served as assistant conductor of the Washington Bach Consort, and she also has served as chorus-master for the Cathedral Choral Society. She also has served on the faculties of Trinity College in Washington and the Shenandoah Conservatory of Music in Winchester, Va. In addition to her conducting activities, she is actively engaged as a recording producer and as a festival adjudicator and clinician.

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