Komm, Jesu, komm and Friede auf Erden

Chorale has completed five rehearsals in our current preparation; we have five more to go.  The Vierne Messe Solenelle is no romp;  but much of the greatest difficulty lies in the organ part, and in coordinating with the organist in terms of balance, sight lines, time lag—all things which the choir cannot work on, until we get together with our organist, Tom Weisflog.  He is really the star of this piece.  From the choir’s point of view, the more difficult, and less noticeable, portion of the coming concert, is our two extensive, a cappella motets, J.S. Bach’s Komm, Jesu, komm and Arnold Schoenberg’s Friede auf Erden.

These are quite distinctive pieces, but they do share several things in common.  Most importantly-- they are built on a very sophisticated harmonic base, and find their very life and being, as well as expression, through accurate presentation of their mutual harmonic journeys.  In practice that means pitch accuracy and understanding.  Both Bach and Schoenberg are extraordinarily concerned with harmony; each and every note they put on paper, has its special and irreplaceable role in the story they tell.  If a pitch is out of tune, or altogether wrong, the journey is obstructed.  In rehearsal I ask the singers to strike each pitch right on the head--  as if they were hammering in nails;  if they miss, they will hit your thumbs, perhaps cripple themselves, and the house won't be built solidly.  The image of threading a needle comes to mind, as well:  one has to get all the strands together, and twist them tight, to get them cleanly through the needle's eye; if you just try to cram the thread through the eye without taking that kind of care, not only will you not get the needle threaded, you'll ruin your piece of thread.  These pieces present a new needle for threading, a new nail to strike, with alarming frequency, often on every beat of the bar.

Yes, these motets are really difficult to pull off.  It is not that Bach and Schoenberg ask us to hear and reproduce unconventionally-- Bach, in fact, asks nothing unconventional at all:  I challenge anyone to find a chord change in our motet which is not actually a commonplace in our Western, common-practice tradition.  He just throws them at us in such rapid succession!  and expects the performers of each each vocal line, in perfect unison, to accomplish his will over a very broad vocal range.  Schoenberg of course is a different matter;  but at base, he does much the same thing Bach does, throwing chord changes at us in such rapid succession that they even overlap each other, sometimes over the course of many beats, and expecting us to hear where, in the end, it will all resolve itself.  Our solution has to be--  to understand, aurally if not theoretically, what is happening;  and this can come only through familiarity and experience.  Some Chorale singers are more accustomed to the tasks the composers present us; they have sung these works previously, they have sung works like them, they are fluent enough in this harmonic language to hear what will happen next, as well as what is happening around them-- and they have trained their voices to be similarly fluent and responsive, so that they can physically accomplish what their ears require of them.  Others have less experience, less training, less innate quickness; and they find this music intimidating, irritating, even defeating.  That is the nature of amateur singing-- we combine a broad range of performers and talents in a single project. I, as conductor, am requiring more clarity and precision than ever before, in the Bach motet—and because so many have sung it previously, they are accustomed to a certain, in most cases lower, standard, than we are now demanding.

I expect Bach had good choirs, despite his many complaints about them.  They sang his music every day of their singing lives, and knew what he was doing.  If what I read is true, they could sing a funeral motet like Komm, Jesu, komm with instruments in the church, then without instruments at the grave site, and it would be all the same to them. This was their language.  Schoenberg, on the other hand, did not compose much choral music; and I doubt any singer, soloist or chorister, would ever claim to have become comfortable with his language, particularly 105 years ago, when Friede auf Erden was composed.  He intended it to be performed without accompaniment; but the first attempt to do so, failed, and he was forced to compose an orchestral accompaniment, doubling the choral parts.  Schoenberg was a revolutionary, a pioneer; following his lead, subsequent composers have adopted many aspects of his harmonic language, or invented their own-- and singers have adapted.  I dare say the best professional choral singers today are expected to be ready for just about anything, and can sing whatever they see on the page, so long as they are given a starting pitch.  Very few singers are in that elite group, of course-- and the tendency of composers after World War II to compose music so difficult that it could only be performed by such singers, has pretty much died out-- there simply are not singers, or audiences, to support the composition of such music.  We know it is out there, and our ears are looser and more accepting than the ears of Schoenberg's singers; but Friede auf Erden has not become easy for anyone.

So why sing it? So much work, so much frustration, so much headache, for about ten minutes of music.  Most choirs do not sing it—it absorbs too many resources for too little product. It is peculiarly Chorale's mission-- a mission admittedly shaped by me-- to work on such pieces almost out of stubbornness, as an assertion that we, too, have a right to this music, that it is too good to be left to the professionals.  I never thought I would be a musician, and certainly never planned my life so that I would end up doing what I do: it just happened that way, I got lucky-- and once I was there, I thought, if I can do this, just about anyone can.  And should. Chorale happened because I acted upon this assertion-- not just for me, but for all of us.  Friede auf Erden, Komm, Jesu, komm, and all the rest, open for us our own window on the divine;  rather than just eavesdrop on the pros, listen to their recordings, go to their concerts, and accept a bottomless gulf between them and us, I would erase the gulf altogether.

In the meantime, preparing for this concert, I ask our singers to listen to good recordings of Friede auf Erden; to listen over and over again, following in their music; to sing along;  to do everything they can to jump start their understanding of Schoenberg's language and intent, and to become, if not quite comfortable, at least solidly competent in doing what he asks.  Figure out why, later.  I believe that they, and our audience, will discover that these two stupendously difficult works, when understood, are also stupendously beautiful, wondrous expressions of the human spirit and its aspirations.