Northern Mummy

General thoughts and wittering about all sorts of things

Catch-up: part three

on April 17, 2011

On to singing…

Last Sunday was the choir performance of J.S. Bach’s St Matthew Passion.  I have to admit I approached this term with trepidation for two reasons: firstly the fact that I have never really liked Bach.  An overdose of Two-Part Inventions in piano lessons convinced me that his music was boring and predictable and music GCSE confirmed that indeed nothing interesting happened musically until about 1750 when it began a general upward trend to the early 20th century!  It wasn’t the composers’ fault, I thought, it was the fact that they didn’t have enough instruments and were far too constrained by conventions.  I’ve always tended towards the more romantic end of the spectrum (as in everything) and Wagner, Mahler, Rachmaninov, etc. and my belief was that the bigger and more multi-layered the sound, the better.  So to spend a whole term rehearsing one piece of Bach wasn’t a prospect I relished.  In addition, I’d been told repeatedly all of the Christmas term that the Easter piece coming up was daunting to say the least, and that even the people who had done it before were nervous.

So this term’s rehearsals have been full of pleasant surprises.  The first was that the music was easier than I’d expected (most things are, I think, if you’re fearing the worst!): many of the the Chorale movements are to the tune of a doxology we sang at school called Commit Thy Way to Jesus (which then turned out to be one of them) and the others were no more difficult to learn.  The other choral movements (by which I mean the movements in which the choir sings but which are called something other than Chorale!) were more of a challenge, but not impossible.  Yes, I had to practise at home with the help of my recording and of Cyberbass, but the sense of achievement when I managed it added to the enjoyment of learning the piece.  Over Christmas and the New Year I had struggled with colds and flu which had an effect on my voice and I actually started to wonder during a “Join In and Sing” day at The Sage Gateshead whether I had forgotten how to sing!  During the second rehearsal of the Bach I realised that I had fully recovered and was able both to cope and to enjoy singing again, which was a wonderful feeling.  I also realised that it was a year since I had started singing with the choir and that I had made real progress over the year in terms of strength and stamina: last year I regularly used to go home croaky and hoarse and on the day of the Easter concert the afternoon rehearsal left me with no voice whatsoever!  I’m glad to say that doesn’t happen any more!

The more we rehearsed this term, the more I began to enjoy the music as well as just the feeling of singing it.  I have actually felt quite crestfallen since the concert and have listened to the recording several times even though we’re no longer rehearsing, and I’m looking into studying more about earlier music (I’m not sure whether the term “early music” includes Baroque so “earlier” will have to suffice!)  so I can find out about how different composers worked within the conventional and technical constraints they faced.  I’ve been impressed by the depth of sound that can be created with a relatively small group of instruments (and an organ which I think is what makes a lot of the difference).

Something else which I’ve really appreciated in my 4 terms with this choir is the opportunity to work with 4 different conductors.  This is partly by chance – apparently they don’t always change conductors for every concert (!), and indeed but for unforeseen circumstances we would have had the same one this Easter as last.  Initially I was disappointed when I heard he had pulled out but I am now glad we have had the opportunity to see Magnus Williamson from Newcastle University’s International Centre for Music Studies, albeit only for two rehearsals and the concert day.  Each term we have learned something different about how we sing and present the music and this term Magnus taught us several things which included the value of listening carefully to the other parts whilst singing, and also the way that Bach and other Baroque composers used a style feature  called a Seufzer (sigh) to bring more expression to the singing, and how to emphasise that.   (It is this sort of information that I’m interested in discovering more about in order to understand better the particular features of the music from different times and how composers were able to express themselves within the restrictions placed on them.  For my degree I learned a little about a similar concept in drama and poetry and it increased my admiration for the writers no end!)

Next term we are going to be singing two works I have done twice each before: Vivaldi’s Gloria and Fauré’s Requiem as well as something by Byrd (which will extend my early music experience even further!).  I’m looking forward to it immensely and hoping that the summer concert will be as enjoyable as this one was.  In the meantime I am taking part in another day at the Sage next week with several of my friends, to sing Handel’s Messiah.

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