Four Hard Songs

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.


Filed under Music

25 responses to “Four Hard Songs

  1. You’re a multi-talented guy or multi-passionate guy. I have no musicality, meaning I don’t know how to play an instrument nor have I ever successfully auditioned even for a high school choir. I started to become familiar with, appreciate and attend baroque music concerts and chorales. So Bach, Vivaldi, etc. are my faves.

    I am by formal training and career-wise have been a librarian until the last 8 yrs. I could never be a music librarian though. Music is another language to me. It’s foreign to read and to listen deeply. But I can simply listen to the colours and let the vibrations intonate me.

    • You know, Jean, Mary had never sung a note before the age of 47. Once we became friends she took voice lessons, worked out with various choirs and choruses and within a couple of years she was singing at this level. If you have the interest and the love for it, you can learn this! Anyone can learn to sing, and I think it’s a fine thing for people of all ages. I basically learned “on the job” because I never had money for lessons, but I’ve been singing since childhood.

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  3. I love classical music and sang in many choirs growing up and I wish I could understand the music on this level. We used to go see a lot of live performances but we’ve fallen off in recent years.

    Glad to hear Mary was feeling well enough to sing.

    • I expect you do understand it, Paul, but I feel the same way when I read your theater posts. There are terrific plays a couple of hours from here, and I never seem to put aside time to go. We’ll both have to live longer so we can catch up on all our artsy interests.

  4. lizfruitberry

    Hey, Mikey read the post. It was great. However, I have been looking at the Showcase in the forums section and your comments made me laugh outloud. I actually wrote a little blog on the Showcase about all of the harilous stuff on their lately at:

    I could not stop laughing at your comments on the one guy talking about cramps etc.

    Delete this if you want. I am actually laughing outloud. Thank you! 🙂

    • Nah, I only delete when a reader requests it. It’s all ok to me as long as it isn’t cursing or selling.

      When I’m in the Forums, I’m channeling a character I call “The Great Buttinski”. He can be quite the snob, but I try to temper his opinions a bit.

  5. lizfruitberry

    Forums-Showcase – I read all of your comments last night and they made me start giggling. I was laughing so hard I had tears rolling down my face. Did you see how mad people were getting, and the mean comments they left for me on the forum? People are so serious these days. I found Ron’s blog to be just the funniest thing ever, and my ACNE description to be the dumbest description I have ever written on the Showcase. Then, did you see my whole argument about Facebook on their under “FRIEND OR FRIENEMY” That’s why I was laughing. That girl tore me a new one on the showcase. Can’t believe some of the comments I have made on their and yours are just hilarious. You are like the “godfather” of WordPress. You really have a great sense of humor, that I find hysterically funny. Your sense of humor is Seinfeld funny!

  6. lizfruitberry

    Can’t believe I did a bulleted list on the showcase. I am the bulleted list queen. Every single post I have written has a bulleted list. Love them, can’t help it. 🙂 I am sure my husband thought my bulleted list love letter, “Two peas in a pod” was just so romantic. Who writes a bulleted list in love letter? That’s hysterical.

  7. lizfruitberry

    I am going to have to look up your comments on the political and religious blogs. Going to have to read your opinion blogs.

  8. lizfruitberry

    I will see you around. Probably wont’ be back for a while. Due to this:

    Thanks for all of your support and nice comments, since I am fairly new to

  9. A very interesting and insightful post. As a crabby old man who has lived through the Eastern Orthodox mass of St. John Chrysostom, I found Pavel Chesnokov’s choral work rather rather spirited and light.

  10. Oh how I miss being part of a choir iMikey. because it wasn’t about standing out, it was about being part of something so dynamic. I LOVE choral music. It’s so soothing, like “Allelujah” and at times so intense that it makes your heart jump up in your throat waiting for something amazing to happen, without realizing that it just did. Classical and particularly choral music are some of the first types of music that opened my mind to make me realize how notes , when executed properly, can literally control a massive amount of people, their emotion literally follows the music. My love of music is because it is the only thing in the world I could ever completely submerse myself into without any other influence aside from the notes, singularly and collectively. What beautiful gifts we have been given, to hear music. To FEEL it. Thank you for sharing! xo

    • I’m so happy you got to read this one. I knew if you did you would understand it completely. I didn’t know you had choir experience, but you do know how to sing from the soul.

      • I’m happy I read it too 🙂 Yes, in school my only extra-curricular activity was in fact choir, from 5th grade until 12th. I love love love choir. I learned a lot there, not as much as I would have liked, but to be honest I probably could do choir music more gracefully than my own works lol. 😉

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