On to our next concert: Bach, Schoenberg, and Vierne

Two weeks into our current preparation, I am struck, first, by the similarities between Bach and Schoenberg; and, second, by the dissimilarity between these two composers, and our third composer, Louis Vierne.  The three works on the program—Bach’s Komm, Jesu, komm;  Schoenberg’s Friede auf Erden;  and Vierne’s Messe Solennelle – are strongly individual; each presents its composer’s language sharply and clearly.  No listener would mistakenly attribute a single bar of any one of these pieces, to the wrong composer.  I find that Chorale’s singers are comfortable moving between the Bach and Schoenberg, but awkward and non-fluent when we switch to the Vierne.   This despite the fact that the Vierne and Schoenberg pieces are closely contemporary, composed in 1899 and 1907 respectively, while the Bach received its first performance in 1731-32!

Through my vocal studies I was drawn particularly to the art song genre; and within that genre I identified particularly with the German subgenre, exemplified in the works of Schubert, Schumann, and Wolf, and with the French songs composed by Fauré, Debussy, Ravel, and Poulenc.   I found it challenging to perform works from these two subgenres on the same program-- I would tune my brain, my ear, my feelings, to German music and poetry, and then have to accomplish the major switch to “feeling French” in order to sing the French pieces.  The most obvious difference, of course, is linguistic:  not only are French and German different in terms of vocabulary and grammar, they are different in word order, in accentuation, in emphasis; a singer must learn to recite poetry accurately and expressively, to sing these songs. Even in large, universally recognized works like the choral pieces on Chorale’s program, especially those composed to texts in the composers’ native languages, great care must be taken with the way in which these languages influence articulation and accentuation of text.  Bach and Schoenberg, native German speakers, set meaningful, complex German texts, and intend that these texts be understood on multiple levels by their listeners.  Vierne on the other hand sets a “standard” Latin text; and this complicates any clear comparison between German and French linguistic styles.

Question:  how does Vierne’s setting differ from Bach’s settings in the same, neutral language, for instance in the latter’s B Minor Mass?  Answer:  in too many respects to discuss in a weekly blog.  I think we conclude, though, that Chorale’s challenge is far more than linguistic.  In fact, much of our current rehearsal time is spent singing on neutral syllables—yet the awkwardness in switching from German composers to French composer persists.

I tend to grapple with this perceived awkwardness as a function of “Lutheran” versus “Catholic” music.   For all kinds of reasons, the Gregorian chant background of Catholic music does not inspire the rational, orderly structure and progression we associate with Bach and those who follow him—the best, most idiomatic French music is characterized by uneven phrase lengths, and by surprising, “nonfunctional” harmonic progressions, inspired by melodies which follow and express the irregular contours of language, more than the regularity of dance rhythms.  I think that the later nineteenth century turn, in France, away from Wagner and his influence, toward a more idiomatic French style, made this inevitable-- Fauré’s music in particular exemplifies an almost complete break with German models, and his thorough grounding in Roman Catholic church music is always evident in his non-church music.  As head of the Paris Conservatory 1905-1920, he greatly influenced the overall character of French musical composition; but the reforms and development he represented predated this appointment, and were a more general aspect of French musical composition, influencing Vierne and other contemporaries.

Bach’s music, on the other hand, grows out of the Lutheran chorale tradition-- and without minimizing in any way Bach’s incredible breadth and universality, I still think it is important to acknowledge the mathematical logic and regularity of his tradition, and his ingenuity in manipulating this tradition—harmonically, melodically, structurally—while never deserting his sources.  Bach not only inherited functional, common practice harmony; he built upon it, strengthened it, made it the rule for all who followed him, up to the time of Schoenberg.  In many ways, it really was Bach that the French were repudiating, rather than Wagner.  It seems far-fetched to call Schoenberg, a Jew living in Vienna, a Lutheran composer-- but in musical terms, it was Bach’s influence that he inherited, and which he attempted to overthrow in developing his twelve-tone practice, soon after the completion Friede auf Erden, one of his final tonal works.  The chromaticism of Friede auf Erden is dense, far-reaching, and very difficult to perform; but at base Schoenberg follows Bach’s rules, and I think performers sense this, hear it, when they sing the work.  Schoenberg puzzles the ear and the brain in the same way Bach does, and the brains and ears of Chorale’s singers pick this up, and respond appropriately.  Vierne’s basic rules and assumptions are different, and require that ears and brains be attuned to a different set of rules.

Chorale’s concert, on May 13, will express this quintessential German/French dichotomy, through performances of these canonic works.  We will do our best to express German structure and spirituality in the first half, from the choir gallery; French grace, charm, and monumentalism in the second half, from the chancel.  Our goal is to do both traditions justice, and to present, quite aside from other considerations, three glorious pieces of music.