Autmn is almost upon us!
Chorale’s autumn repertoire could be subtitled “core curriculum.” Frank Martin Mass for Double Chorus; Samuel Barber Agnus Dei; J.S. Bach Jesu meine Freude: few serious choral singers will go through life without singing one or more performances of each of these works. One sings them in college and graduate school; one writes papers about them; one hears them on many a concert program. Most conductors and teachers, if asked to designate a “top ten” or “desert island” list, will include one or more of these. And they appeal to non-academic listeners and audiences, as well: they have emotional and rhetorical qualities which reach far past their mapable, describable qualities.
Each work is quite difficult to perform, in its own way. The Martin Mass is thirty minutes of a cappella singing for double chorus (eight parts, divided four plus four), in five movements; each movement has a distinct character, distinct tempos, distinct key relationships, and requires something very different, expressively, from the other four movements. Martin clearly owes a debt to the clarity, the architecture, and the contrapuntalism, of the Roman Catholic church music tradition represented by Palestrina and his contemporaries; but the range—the pitch range of the individual vocal lines; the tremendous distance between high and low volumes; the emotional expressiveness required to satisfy Martin’s vision—is rooted in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; it expresses modern artistic trends, and taxes an ensemble’s physical and emotional resources far more than do those earlier models. I first sang this work under Robert Shaw; and his guiding principle was the necessary embrace of this tension between sixteenth and twentieth century styles, neglecting neither; a tremendous feat for a choir to accomplish, and a spellbinding experience for an audience.
Agnus Dei is Barber’s own transcription of Adagio for Strings, his most famous work, for a cappella choir, which sings the music to the Agnus Dei text from the mass. Undoubtedly the most beloved American musical work of the twentieth century. the Adagio has a haunting, elegiac quality which lends itself to great and tragic events, such as the death of John F. Kennedy, and the collapse of the World Trade Center on September 11; and because it is heard so continuously and ubiquitously over radio and television at such times, it has become almost the music of America-- familiar and evocative to people who have no idea what they are hearing. Barber composed the original, for string quartet, when he was very young; his career subsequent to this work was reasonable, but somehow never reached the heights which the success of this work seemed to predict. A personal style so deeply and obviously rooted in the nineteenth century, especially in the music of Brahms, did not appeal to academics and critics during most of Barber’s active career, and this lack of acceptance depressed him deeply, cutting into his potential productivity. Only since his death, seemingly, has the establishment granted him the position in twentieth century music which he deserves; yes, he drew heavily on the past, but his musical energy, drive, and personal vision transcended his roots, giving voice to his individual genius, rather than smothering it.
The Barber, like the Martin, requires extended range, in every respect—pitch, volume, expressivity. The Bach motet, Jesus, meine Freude, requires something very different. One sees, looking at the page, that Bach does not ask so much in these terms: pitch ranges are reasonably narrow, the necessary volume and richness of tone do not exceed anything that can be produced by pre-pubescent boys, and the emotional expression is almost completely communicated through Bach’s writing and text setting. The greatest challenging in singing Bach, is to gracefully sing only what he has written on the page-- intonation, rhythm, melodic line, text presentation; Bach’s genius lies far more in what he has already laid down, than it does in anything the performer adds. His technical requirements are fiendishly difficult—but difficult in small ways: the performer must continually cut back, trimming, narrowing, expressing in a manner that seems almost miniaturist, compared to what one does with the music of Barber and Martin. Intellectual engagement is crucial-- if a performer does not appreciate Bach’s intricacies, his harmonic language, his theology, he cannot present them convincingly. Rodion Shchedrin, the contemporary Russian composer whose Sealed Angel Chorale presented last fall, has said that Bach is 75% mathematics, 25% emotional expressiveness; and all that math can give a performer quite a headache.
So, Chorale has its work cut out. I program these pieces because I am convinced that everyone who ever sings in Chorale, should know them; and that anyone who attends Chorale concerts, should hear them. They are, and should be, our cultural common language—the medium through which we say the best, the most reasonable, the most generous, the most profound things we have to say. The fact that Chorale is a group of amateur singers, gives us all that much more reason to do them-- art this profound should belong to the people, not just to the professionals. It is our patrimony.