Why is the greatest choral music frequently the most difficult to sing?

Gabriel CrouchTue 5th June 2018

'The composers who break new choral ground are often those who are not so familiar with the medium'

Everyone in our business can identify the composers who ‘write well for voices’ - those who understand the singers’ need for breath, for movement between registers, and for periods of rest. Conventional wisdom maintains that the human voice has rhetorical limitations, and since our moving parts are more difficult to reach and tweak than, say, a piano’s damper assembly or a violin’s bass bar, it’s understandable that many composers play it safe and keep it simple. Who wants to risk failure by asking unrealistic questions of singers? There seems to be an entirely separate strand of musical composition now that is exclusively ‘choral’: composers who write only for voices, and whose music, well crafted, effective and wildly popular in the choral realm, struggles to draw the interest of contemporary music at large. Perhaps they don’t find it sexy or dangerous enough.

So it shouldn’t surprise us that the composers who break new choral ground are often those who are not so familiar with the medium. We think of Poulenc as a choral great, but it’s worth remembering that he had virtually no previous choral experience when he unleashed his amazing Mass in G in 1937 and asked his baritones to sing that rising scale at the end of the Gloria. Arvo Pärt was an uncompromising serialist in the early 1960s when he brought his austere sound to the unaccompanied choral realm for the first time with Solfeggio, and prepared the ground for half a century of European choral minimalism. More recently, I can remember some awkward rehearsals when preparing Joby Talbot’s incredible Path of Miracles when a contingent of Tenebrae’s low basses took polite exception to a relentless succession of fortissimo bottom Ds … and yet I listen to that miracle of a piece now and revel in Joby’s willingness to write at the very edge of a choir’s practicability, as a composer making his first proper foray in to choral music. 

I sometimes think about how this notion of ‘writing well for voices’ translates to older music. Mention Missa Solemnis to a roomful of singers, and you’ll hear both derisive howls and ecstatic swoons, depending on the degree of gluttony which these singers bring to Beethoven's particular mode of choral punishment. Looking back further, some singers baulk at the endless melismas of the Eton Choirbook and its ilk, or those curious alto/tenor parts of the late English Renaissance which don’t seem to suit any modern voice particularly well; but it would be absurd to question the innate ‘quality’ of this writing – it’s the pinnacle of musical achievement of its day.

I happen to find the music of Orlandus Lassus especially challenging to sing, and it might explain, given my penchant for making life difficult, why I program and record it so often. There is rarely only one interpretive option with Lassus, or one way to navigate a peculiar harmonic diversion, or a witty piece of text painting. (I often wonder if Palestrina’s greatness lies in the fact that you always know what note is coming next, whereas with Lassus, it is the precise opposite – that sense that we never know what this absurdly gifted maverick has in store for us.)

A couple of years ago, we ran a graduate course here at Princeton, which aimed to help students in the art of writing for vocal consort. We began by surveying music for the medium, from Josquin’s Praeter Rerum Seriem to Ligeti’s Nonsense Madrigals, and then looked in closer detail at the youthful masterpiece by Lassus which sets words of the legendary prophetesses known collectively as the ‘sibyls’ – Prophetiae Sibyllarum. Students were then invited to compose responses to the Lassus work, all of which were then workshopped and performed by Gallicantus. There was a heartening amount of musical diversity in this body of works, but I took a masochistic pleasure in the number of times I was left scratching my head, wondering how to make this music, often microtonal or polyrhythmic, work.

At the same time, two of my illustrious colleagues, Professors Dan Trueman and Dmitri Tymoczko, were composing their own responses to the Lassus work which served as a benchmark for the efforts of the students, and which we have now performed many times on both sides of the Atlantic – and which, in their own ways, pushed us humble singers in to unfamiliar and thrilling territory. Dan’s piece magically relocates the sibyl of Delphi into the world of Irish Gaelic using microtones mingled with traces of folk music, whilst Dmitri’s work creates fierce new sibyls for the cities of post-industrial America (with texts by Jeff Dolven), each of which preaches, with dazzling rhythmic complexity, the sad news of the suffering of children. Like the great works I mentioned before, these pieces represent the composers’ first unaccompanied vocal works; we hope that Lassus would approve of these efforts to emulate his spirit of adventure.

'Sybilla' is out now on Signum Classics. Visit: signumrecords.com for further information

Gabriel Crouch

Gabriel Crouch is the Director of Gallicantus and Director of Choral Activities and Senior Lecturer in Music at Princeton University

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