Sadness in choral music

Dvořák’s Stabat Mater is the saddest choral music I’ve ever sung.

From the opening 20 minute movement, throughout most of the first half, it functions as a musical personification of a grieving mother before her dying son. And even the later movements, excluding the apotheosis and redemption of the final movement, all have an undercurrent of yearning and loss, representing the prayers of a supplicant asking to share the burden of her grief.

Don’t get me wrong – I’ve sung many sad moments in lots of musical pieces.  The lament for Oedipus at the end of Oedipus Rex is sad, but in a less personal, Greek chorus sort of one-minute farewell-to-thee.  Every Lacrymosa of every Requiem Mass has its own brand of sadness, though they’re often tinged with fear, too.  And other Stabat Mater settings, such as Verdi’s, also try to capture sadness.

I’d argue, though, that most sad choral music is melodramatically, stereotypically sad.  It screams, “Look at us, we are SAD!”  Minor keys, wailing violin accompaniment, soaring melodies that decrescendo as the line lingers on the seventh of the scale before falling to a hushed cadence.

The Dvořák sadness is personal, not ostentatious.  It’s a crushing, persistent grief.  It’s a mourning that sees no future without more mourning. Its consolation is only by crying it out through nine movements before it approaches a sense of hope and redemption at the end. As I wrote about in my previous post, Dvořák had suffered through the separate deaths of his three children, two within a month of each other.  I’ve been fortunate in my life not to have lost any immediate family so far, but this is how I expect that to feel when it happens.

Next time you see me (or anyone singing the piece this week) in person, ask us to sing the opening lament by the soprano section.  It will break your heart.

To accomplish this effect requires a lot of precision, but without looking precise — the musicality still has to shine through the proper cutoffs and rhythms.  Our choral director James Burton has been reminding us of the important of shaping every phrase,  not just when the hairpin dynamics are explicitly indicated.  We’ve played with the balance of voices, as different parts take control of the melody or serve as the tonal foundation that others play around.  (That’s personally fun in the third movement, where the basses take command of the melody… though Andris Nelson’s deliberate tempo will be challenging for us!)  We’ve had mixed success capturing the dramatic changes in dynamics.  With all the things going on, sometimes it’s hard to remember that pp doesn’t mean “mezzoforte,” and that not all fortes are equal — we have to hold something back for those dramatic buildups or there will be no climax left for the audience at their peaks.

After an admittedly shaky initial piano rehearsal earlier in the week, though, we redeemed ourselves in the first full orchestra rehearsal last night with some magical moments.  We’re looking forward to bringing this emotional piece to life this weekend.

 

 

Dvořák’s Major Surprises

I’m thrilled to be on the Tanglewood Festival Chorus roster for the performance of Antonin Dvořák’s  Stabat Mater at the end of February.  We are deep into the rehearsal cycle, exploring the choral blends, hairpin dynamics, and unusual tonalities that mark Dvořák choral music.

There’s one particular musical bookending in the Stabat Mater that’s so full of emotional payoffs it gives me goose bumps every time I hear it.  Here’s some background and music theory to explain why:

Dvořák’s first movement sets the opening stanza of the Stabat mater text:

Stabat mater dolorosa
Juxta crucem lacrymosa
Dum pendebat Filius

It translates to The sorrowful mother stood, weeping by the cross where her Son was hanging.  Once you learn that Dvořák wrote this piece after the deaths of his three children — Josefa two days after her birth, then later his one-year-old daughter Ruzena from phosphorous poisoning, and within a month three-year-old Otakar to smallpox — you understand just how much emotional anguish Dvořák poured into composing this piece about a parent watching a dying child.

Dvořák sets the first movement in b minor, but makes heavy use of diminished chords.  Because diminished chords are four symmetrically spaced minor triads, they don’t really belong to any one key signature.  They are “scary” music chords – not discordant, per se, but implying anger, passion, fear, or danger.  They also muddy what key you’re in, because they can resolve in a lot of different directions.  (By no means did Dvořák discover the effectiveness of these chords; even baroque composers used them.  My favorite is the crowd screaming to release Barrabas instead of Jesus in the St. Matthew Passion.)

See and listen to how he builds up the drama, about 9 minutes into the first movement. The chorus crescendo peaks as the timpani join the orchestra for a giant diminished fortissimo chord, echoed two measures later.

Stabat Mater diminished chords

This is repeated again a minute later, before the soloists join in… and again about 140 measures later at the recapitulation right before the end of the movement… and again after that!  So he’s pretty much established that giant build up leads to big scary diminished chords, suitable for a despondent Mary weeping at the feet of Jesus.

Fast forward to the tenth and final movement of the piece.  The text has moved from lamenting Mary’s fate to praying that she’ll defend us on our days of judgment:

Quando corpus morietur
Fac ut animae donetur
Paradisi gloria.

The final movement takes this translation — When my body shall die, grant my soul the glory of paradise — and puts it in doubt.  “Please, please, PLEASE let me into heaven when I die!” And then… uh oh!  The same theme that we heard at the beginning plays again.  We had this beaten into us already: this is the sad, scary music!  We’re not gonna make it!

Until… instead of dramatic, unresolved tension… it’s a psyche out!  Paradisi gloria bursts forth in a G major chord instead of the diminished chord, taking us back to D major.

Dvorak paradisi gloria

Love.  It.  This is the introduction to the end of the piece, where suddenly this lugubrious lament turns into a celebration of making it into heaven, including a thrilling a capella confirmation of yes, we made it to paradise that echoes the major twist above.

Dvořák must have liked this trick, because he did it again about 13 years later in the Dies Irae his Requiem mass.  First listen to his build up on cuncta stricte discussurus as the chorus sings about the Final Judgment.  Then listen to the recapitulation when, instead of going back to the day of wrath, the piece charges forward into a major key, bells ringing, to talk about the majestic trumpet sounding to call all the dead forth to God’s throne.

These are the music theory equivalents of whodunit plot twists.  Setting you up with foreshadowing, then zig instead of zagging with an unexpected progression.  They hit you over the head and say, “Pay attention!  Something momentous is happening here!” in a way that dynamics and rhythm alone can’t achieve.

The Return of Pizzetti

Last summer, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus sang an absolutely gorgeous, sumptuous a capella Requiem from Ildebrando Pizzetti.  It may be one of my all-time favorite concerts that I’ve ever performed in.

This January, we get to do it again.

The unusual encore presentation is during one of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s four “Casual Friday” concerts this season at Symphony Hall: lower priced tickets, casual dress, a free pre-concert reception, and a post-concert affair with live music, snacks, and a cash bar.  In this case, there’s a shorter program (28 minutes of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24, 35 minutes of Vaughan Williams Symphony No 5), and then, according to the BSO’s site:

In a special one-night-only performance, following Friday’s concert, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, led by conductor James Burton, will perform Pizzetti’s Requiem, for a cappella mixed chorus, on the Symphony Hall stage following a short break.

From a programming perspective, this is a first.  While I’ve seen the TFC prepare and sing complete programs before, it’s always been as a prelude concert out at Tanglewood, or an occasional program in Jordan Hall — never unaccompanied as part of a BSO concert.  It’s a testament not only to the closer collaboration between our conductor James Burton and the BSO team but also to how mesmerizing the performance was last summer out in the Berkshires.

I wrote previously about preparing for the performance last July, though I didn’t complete the story. One day before the concert, we were still not ready.  James Burton was visibly upset as we continued to miss cues, to botch entrances, to look down at our scores instead of up for his direction, and to lose the rhythmic intensity needed to propel the piece forward.  It was a harrowing moment, that last full rehearsal.  But we came back after the break and pulled together a showing that demonstrated that we were committed to getting it right.  In the 24 hours between that last rehearsal and the performance, it felt like every single singer went back to the hotel rooms and hunkered down with the score anew, re-running it in our minds, re-studying each pencil mark he had given us, re-imprinting it in our minds so that we’d really be ready.  By the time we hit our pre-concert warmup, it was clear that as a group we knew the piece cold and were ready for him.  He spot-tested a few transitions and we were responsive and deeply attuned to his intentions.  The performance that followed was breathtaking.  (We have private recordings that we can’t distribute; those of you who know me, find me some time and ask to hear it, and I’ll try not to point out all the flaws.  Even a breathtaking performance is not perfect.)

Now we get to do it again, though with some new additions who weren’t on the previous roster who are playing catch up.  Some ad hoc groups have already formed to go over the piece together before the two official rehearsals, because there’s only so much study you can do on your own.  The lines of each part, on their own, aren’t particularly complex.  It’s the way they interact with each other that’s tricky: different parts taking over the melody, dovetailing rhythms, harmonic progressions that require vertical tuning, and subtle dynamic changes that play off of other parts.  Mastering this required not only learning your part but also how you fit into the whole, with listening more important than  singing.  The result is a many-layered polyphony that has shape and meaning and drive.  Many choristers are already looking forward to a chance to repeat what we feared might be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

If this outing is a successful one, then we may see summer prelude programs make more regular winter appearances at Symphony Hall.

Assume someone special is listening

When I was growing up, I remember practicing flashy piano pieces and thinking to myself, “Imagine there’s someone important walking down the street right now who’s going to hear me playing – maybe a talent scout, or a future girlfriend, or someone with a paying gig.  I want to make sure they get the best show I can give them.” And I’d use that to fuel my concentration and make it my best performance yet… even if no one witnessed it.

Whenever I’m performing with a chorus, there’s usually some sort of audience, be it the Tanglewood grounds, the crowd at Symphony Hall, or the congregation in the pews… so there’s no question of witnesses.  But it’s somehow more special if there are people close to me in the crowd — that whole “look for your mom” mentality ingrained in us since grade school holiday concerts.  I wanted to make sure they got my best performance.

But I don’t want just the people-I-know-attending concerts to be special, though.  So these days I always assume there’s someone there to see me.  And if I don’t know who it is, I’ll even play a little mental game and try to make some sort of connection with the audience – pick someone out to sing to, imagine they’re there to see me.  This is important because when you’re doing nine Holiday Pops concerts, you have to do something to make each one fresh.  You may be doing nine, but that audience is only doing one.  Sometimes the results are kinda hilarious — like the year I befriended a gaggle of grandmas on the walk from the parking garage, then had them all waving at me crazily from their seats because they proudly considered me a de facto member of their family.  Fun.

There’s another reason to sing like someone you know is there to see you.  Sometimes they’re really there.  As I was leaving my most recent Holiday Pops concert, I received a text from a friend.  “My sister, her family, and my mom are at the concert tonight,” she wrote, and included a picture to prove it.  I didn’t know they’d be there beforehand, but I was sure glad I pretended that they were.  It turns out concerts can be retroactively special, too.

Pops view from the crowd

Music, Moving Invisible Internal Objects

During the rehearsal — not even the performance! — of the Mahler 2 symphony this morning, despite having studied the piece and performed it several times… there was a moment where I felt tears glistening in my eyes.  It’s in the 5th movement, during the “sunrise,” where the music swells and blossoms forward and hugs everyone and says it’s all right, it’s amazing isn’t it, there’s beauty and joy everywhere, you are loved.  (Here’s a clip, though as usual, a recording doesn’t do it justice.)

It reminds me of a great story from a welcome address to freshman parents at Boston Conservatory, given by Karl Paulnack, the pianist and director of the music division there.  He pointed out that the Greeks related Music and Astronomy, saying that while Astronomy may be about the relationship between large objects such as planets, Music “is the understanding of the relationship between invisible internal objects.”  He then told this story, which I’ve condensed here:

The most important concert of my entire life took place in a nursing home in Fargo, ND […] We began, as we often do, with Aaron Copland’s Sonata, which was written during World War II and dedicated to a young friend of Copland’s, a young pilot who was shot down during the war. […]

Midway through the piece, an elderly man seated in a wheelchair near the front of the concert hall began to weep. This man was clearly a soldier — even in his 70’s, it was clear from his buzz-cut hair, square jaw and general demeanor that he had spent a good deal of his life in the military. I thought it a little bit odd that someone would be moved to tears by that particular movement of that particular piece, but it wasn’t the first time I’ve heard crying in a concert and we went on with the concert and finished the piece.

When we came out to play the next piece on the program, we described the circumstances in which the Copland was written and mentioned its dedication to a downed pilot. The man in the front of the audience became so disturbed that he had to leave the auditorium. I honestly figured that we would not see him again, but he did come backstage afterwards, tears and all, to explain himself.

What he told us was this: “During World War II, I was a pilot, and I was in an aerial combat situation where one of my team’s planes was hit. I watched my friend bail out, and watched his parachute open, but the Japanese planes which had engaged us returned and machine gunned across the parachute chords so as to separate the parachute from the pilot, and I watched my friend drop away into the ocean, realizing that he was lost. I have not thought about this for many years, but during that first piece of music you played, this memory returned to me so vividly that it was as though I was reliving it. I didn’t understand why this was happening, why now, but then when you came out to explain that this piece of music was written to commemorate a lost pilot, it was a little more than I could handle. How does the music do that? How did it find those feelings and those memories in me?”

[…] For me to play for this old soldier and help him connect, somehow, with Aaron Copland, and to connect their memories of their lost friends, to help him remember and mourn his friend, this is my work. This is why music matters.

I look forward to connecting with our audiences over the next few days.

The Enigma of Einfelde’s Lux Aeterna

My next concert series with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus is two pieces: the triumphant joy of Mahler’s 2nd (“Resurrection”) Symphony, and an unfamiliar, lightly accompanied 2012 choral arrangement from Latvian composer Maija Einfelde.  I’ve already expressed my love for the Resurrection Symphony elsewhere on this blog, so this post focuses on the more mysterious offering from Einfelde.  It’s certainly off the beaten path for the BSO and our chorus — we don’t often perform contemporary pieces, or works by Latvian (let alone female) composers.

Here is the only professional recording I could find. It’s by the Latvian Radio Choir, for whom Einfelde originally composed the piece.  If you have 6 quiet minutes, it’s really worth listening to (though our choral director urges us to stop listening to this so we can own our own performance.)

To appreciate any piece, it’s always helpful to understand its context. Who is the composer: a church music director, a struggling loner, an underappreciated royal appointee? When and where was it written: during a war, at the start of the Romantic period, under a repressive regime?  WHY was it written – as a commission, as a protest, as a celebration?

Alas, this piece has very little written about it. One brief review of the recording describes Einfelde’s music as “often harsh and abrasive, such as her award winning work Pie zemes tālās (At the Edge of the Earth),” but suggests that her Lux Aeterna represents a departure with its “great power and depth.”  The write-up in the BSO’s program notes makes it clear that she’s an accomplished composer and artist from her awards and previous works, and that she’s benefited from the sophistication of Latvia’s choral tradition.  The notes accurately describe the piece as:

strongly tonal, its harmonies sometimes transparent, sometimes rich and dense under soaring melody. At the beginnings of phrases, the texture thins to a chantlike simplicity, allowing the words to emerge clearly before being woven into the contrapuntal fabric. The layering and repetition of the phrases in the sustained choral setting of this short text reflect the metaphor of eternal light.

That’s great, but what does it mean?  What is the emotional message that we are conveying to the audience?

Our former conductor, John Oliver, described the purpose of the conductor as

“to distill the soul of the composer, and give it the orchestra, chorus, and soloists so they can communicate it to the audience through the piece.”

In this upcoming week of rehearsals — assuming we achieve the compulsory task of getting the notes tuned properly — I expect James Burton will communicate that vision to us so we can deliver it with uniformity during each concert.  But until then, it’s left to us individually to pull emotional content from the piece as we internalize it.

Here’s where my head is.  Most Requiem movements about eternal light shining upon the dead are stable, hopeful, peaceful counterpoints to Day of Wrath judgments elsewhere.  Consider Rutter, Verdi, Mozart, Duruflé, Faure, Dvořák, and even the tumultuous Berlioz, all of which feature a change of color to tell listeners a glorious ascension is happening.  While the beginning of the Einfelde certainly shimmers; I hear uncertainty, concern, and maybe even desperation within that eternal light.  I hear prayers being offered as a plea, by disturbed mourners who aren’t convinced that their loved ones are at rest.  After the first two minutes of those questions, we get this amazing (and vocally challenging!) tone cluster of voices, with layers of complexity, undulating like a turbulent sea in the wind, and a pleading soprano line rising out of it.  It’s then, once we’ve made it through that unrest, do we reach a hollow, tentative acceptance, as if we’ve worked through the troublesome emotions of the first half of the piece.  Finally, and only at the very end, do we achieve a deep and satisfying consonance — reinforced by the low basses as we drop down to confirm a powerful C major chord, hidden until then, as if to say, “Shhhh… it’s okay.”

So I see this stand alone Lux Aeterna, bereft of any Dies Irae to play off of, as bringing its own narrative conflict by representing the stages of grief.  The opening is denial and anger. The tumult in the middle is the bargaining and depression.  The ending, however, is too powerful to be a passive “this sucks” acceptance of grief; to me, it’s a more active decision to absorb the grief, incorporate it, and move forward with life.

We’re all looking forward to getting lost in this tapestry of sound… before settling into the risers each night to await the final movement of the Mahler.

Finding Triumph in Haydn’s Nelson Mass

Our final choral performance this weekend is Haydn’s Missa in Anguistiis, known more commonly as the Lord Nelson Mass.  Of the 14 different mass settings Haydn composed, this one is considered his greatest — in fact, his biographer calls it “arguably Haydn’s greatest single composition,” though my vote would be for The Creation, which he had just finished writing.

Haydn started writing the “Mass for Troubled Times” at a time of intense fear.  In 1789, the terrified public knew that Napoleon Bonaparte had defeated the Austrian army in four major battles, even crossing the Alps and threatening Vienna itself.  (One effect – his patrons stopped paying for wind players, so he was down to only strings and a few hired trumpets and timpani!)  The opening Kyrie, in a dark D minor, echoes this public mood.  By the time the piece was first performed, however, Britain’s Lord Nelson had dealt Napoleon a stunning defeat – and when the work was performed in Nelson’s honor during his visit in 1800.  Since then, the piece has been more about the triumphant victory over that menacing opening movement, as D minor becomes D major in the later, more celebratory movements.  And with the smaller orchestra, it means that our smaller roster is more than adequate for the sound – we’ve had double this chorus size for pieces like the Mozart Requiem before.

Our conductor for this piece is the 91 year old Herbert Blomstedt.  We can all only hope to be as active as Maestro Blomstedt at that age, given he’s conducting 90 concerts a year. in venues around the world.  His devout lifestyle is all well and good, but as a chorus we wondered coming into the week of on-site rehearsals at Tanglewood: would this be like Boston’s beloved Harry Ellis Dickson conducting Holiday Pops in the twilight of his career (i.e., “don’t watch him, watch the first violinist”) Any concerns we had were quickly abated when he took the podium and immediately began shaping our sound.

Maestro Blomstedt’s strong opinions ran counter to many of our initial musical instincts. For instance, he is vehemently against vibrato in the chorus, especially in the upper voices, making it vocally challenging for our sopranos to hit those high As and Bs. His rationale is that senza vibrato produces stronger harmonies, and allows the soloists to stand out over our tapestry of sound.  He also favors rhythmic intensity over natural melodic lines, urging us to add marcato stresses — for instance, we now heavily break up the syllabic Ky-ri-e-e-le-i-son motif in the first movement rather than the legato shaping we had been rehearsing.  I personally find it harder to maintain the lighter, cleverer sound that one expects with any Haydn classical-era piece when we’re pummeling the rhythm this way, but as basses we’ll continue to fight to be more about rhythmically intensity (and less about elephantine plodding).  Blomstedt has also created great things with special moments in the piece, like taking the chorus way down during the text of cum sancto spiritu so that “the spirit” (a flautist playing a lilting tune) is audible as if it were a flute concerto for about four measures.  He is always about driving the tempo forward, even barking at some BSO second violinists (“TEMPO! KEEP UP!”) at one point in the orchestra rehearsal.

It’s always tempting, for these well-known chestnut pieces that could be sight-read at a summer sing somewhere, to simply sit back, relax, and enjoy the musical ride.  Between conductor James Burton’s prep work, and Blomstedt’s urging, we have the luxury of not having that luxury.  That means we can take it off autopilot and really dig into the music, focus our concentration, bring to bear our copious notes scribbled in our scores, and shape its direction to create a performance that can make an audience sit up and listen.