There are so many different ways to enjoy sacred classical music. It can be an expression of faith, as it was for these composers. But you don’t have to be religious to enjoy it, because it’s beautiful to hear. If you like complex thinking, it has challenging melodies, harmonies and surprises. I like it because I love hard tasks. You can never quite get it right, but the closer you get to perfection, the greater the transformative effect. This kind of music is human culture at its best, where reach exceeds grasp. And there’s an excitement to be found in hearing it “live” that no amount of recording skill can duplicate.
Mary survived her concert last night. She had flesh-colored band-aids on her cuts and makeup over the cheek laceration. She stood at the end of the row so she could use a music stand. Everything went well, but I wasn’t listening with my usual critical ear. I knew how much it meant to her to be able to sing at all. It’s a good group, the venue was medium-sized with nice, natural reverb, and two of their four selections were notorious “choir killers”. Every chorus with a decent amount of ambition attempts to perform them, and most can’t fully accomplish it. If you do succeed, it’s a sublime experience for the singers and listeners.
They opened with Pavel Chesnokov’s setting from Psalm 74 “Salvation is Created“ (1913). At the time he had already written 400 sacred choral works. Because the revolution soon followed, Chesnokov was only allowed to write about secular themes afterwards and he never heard it performed, though his children did years later. The melody is adapted from the chant style used in Kiev, and the lyric is simple:
- Russian Script: Cпасение coдeлaл еси посреде земли, Боже. Аллилуия.
- Phonetic Alphabet: Spaséniye, sodélal yesí posredé ziemlí, Bózhe. Allilúiya.
- English: Salvation is made in the midst of the earth, O God. Alleluia.
You sing the text once through the word “God”, then the same notes are repeated using only the word “Alleluia”. The bass parts are extremely low, characteristic of Russian liturgical song. The trick is to control the swell when the melody rises. It takes real skill. Those with the higher parts tend to push too hard and miss the pitch. Like with instruments you hold, tension and release is what you are practicing when singing this kind of music.
Next came J.S. Bach’s cantata “Christ lag in Todesbanden”, which he wrote in his twenties, possibly as an audition piece to try and get a better job in a new town. Bach wrote in a contrapuntal style that came to be regarded as “old-fashioned” during his lifetime. His sons were more famous than he was then. Fortunately for us, his reputation has grown. No other composer produced so much work with this kind of complex symmetry. Bach has a way of making you think you know exactly where the next notes will go, and he allows that illusion to continue, until suddenly there will appear a brilliant, unexpected turn, tempo change or resolution. Among experienced choristers it’s called “Bach logic”.
The third work was Ariel Ramirez’ Argentine folk mass “Misa Criolla” (mee-sah cree-oh-jah) from 1964. It’s written for voices and different kinds of simple instruments. Mary’s group performed it with guitar, piano and two percussionists. I hadn’t heard it before, but apparently it was very popular when it was a new work and it influenced other composers to write folk masses. It was a big hit with our audience.
The finale was Randall Thompson’s “Alleluia” (1940). It’s only got one word, and contains no difficult or dissonant chords. However, I’ve sung it hundreds of times with a dozen different kinds of choirs, and I estimate no more than one out of four get away with it unscathed. There’s a trap door in the middle of the piece, where the sopranos have to zoom up really high. The end of the piece requires the basses to sing at the bottom of their range. If the ladies don’t hit that high, the whole choir will go flat, and the basses won’t be able to sustain their pitches at the end.
The other obstacles are the dynamic range and the tempo. This Alleluia goes from super-quiet to as loud as you can sing. If you start out too loud, you’ll sound pushed when you get to the fortissimos. The work is composed to unfold and inflate, building energy like a locomotive progressing slowly from the station until it hits a full head of steam. It’s a thrilling piece to perform, so the adrenaline tends to make singers begin too loud and/or too fast.
I hope these small samples will help encourage you to seek out more concert music in your own locale. The pyrotechnics are acoustic and the lights rarely move, but your ears won’t ring at the end and it’s usually a cheaper ticket price. You might even find yourself inspired.