Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Bach bites! And the perils of musicality

It's the final week of rehearsals before we perform the Bach Christmas Oratorio with City Choir.

This is a challenging work. I find the German language tough. My German is normally restricted to following what's going on in German movies without having to read the subtitles most of the time. Preferably movies with a lot of action and not much talking. When it comes to German pronunciation, forget it.

So while everyone else is nastying over the runs, I'm struggling with the text. Why couldn't Bach be English, hey?

I've been a good girl. I've done plenty of homework, although it hasn't felt like enough. I've looked at all the choruses, but my cutoffs are still scratchy - they're always scratchy, it's a fault of mine. I never could count.

Learning music as a child

In many ways, I wish I'd had the opportunity to come to music as a child, not as an adult. I never sang until I hit my twenties, and a friend heard me singing in the shower and suggested I come along to choir. The rest, as they say, is history. For me, anyway.

Because I didn't start early, I had to learn all the technicalities as an adult. That's hard. I still don't understand key signatures (my other half was trying to explain to me at eleven o'clock the other night something about A minor being the same as C major - I think that's what he said. I told him to shut up and let me sleep!)

Every piece I compose needs to be respelled, because it turns out I've written it in one key but its actually in another. And I won't even go into how difficult I find it to write down the rhythms I hear in my head when I write music.

All of these things are probably just taken for granted by musicians who trained as children, but for me they're hard work. Only now, after years of choral singing, am I getting to the stage where I can grab a piece of music and sing it straight off the page, without needing an accompanist. And I still make heaps of mistakes!

Only now am I starting to be confident enough to assume that if the person next to me is singing a different note, chances are that I might be right after all, and they might have mucked up, instead of the other way around! These are the rewards of choral singing. Music is a hard master - he carries a whip, and cuts me hard, but I love him for it and demand more even while the sting hurts.

And so to Bach. I don't think I'll ever love Bach - it still sound like mathematics to me. You just find the numbers and the pulse and go with it. It's too clinical, and probably always will be. I work with computers a fair bit - maybe that's why Bach turns me off. It's like one big computer wrote it. Maybe HAL (Good evening Dave!). But I love what I'm learning from the Oratorio.

And if Bach bites the dust in the too-hard-basket?

I've heard a few people in the choir grumble about this work. I've grumbled too. They've said it has been too hard for us, and we've taken on too much.

Maybe. But how can we improve if we don't tackle works that challenge us? You never get better at doing anything if you don't try the hard stuff. And when we rise to meet the challenge, that can be truly glorious. And if we fail - we try again next year with something else that's also hard, and know that at least we did our best.

What do I think?

I think we will be spectacular at the concert, and we will stun even ourselves with what we can achieve. Why? Because we can. We all know we can do this. That's why we're all here, working hard and selling tickets and attending rehearsals. If we didn't think we could do it, we'd have crawled off somewhere to hide by now. But we haven't.

As for me, I'll be singing along with my recording again tonight, until it is time for bed. Hopefully I won't fall asleep on my score, like I did the other night. I'll do what I can to be the best I can, then whatever I do on the night I'll know I did my best, and I'll be proud of that. That's all we can ever ask of ourselves.

I think challenging ourselves is a fine thing to do. Music teaches us what we can do, and the great masters such as Bach teach us why we do it. Choir teaches us friendship and perseverance, and gives us the rewards of fabulous wow moments during the concert, and great memories of a job done well.

We're amateurs who strive for a professional standard, and I think we'll come pretty close. But in the end, we have something that professional musicians will never have. You see, although the professional musicians teach us what heights we may one day achieve, we - the amateurs - remind the professionals of the love and pleasure that can be derived from music when it isn't a job but is instead simply a great joy in life. We teach them why they became musicians in the first place.

So here's to a great concert on Saturday. Let's bring the house down!


Leta said...

Thanks Leanne, this is an excellent post. I agree with you all the way. Bach is hard, but we need to be challenged and I am confident we'll come out on top on Saturday.

Have you noticed how much we have improved since last week Tuesday? It's a pattern I have noticed before - the choristers always put in a huge effort just before the concert so that the performance on the night is a triumph!

Now wouldn't it be great if everyone would start a little earlier, putting in that extra effort? I'm sure that would save David a worry or two! He works very hard at directing the choir and I hate to see him being disappointed by people not paying attention, not turning up regularly, and not doing their homework in good time. We are lucky that he has such a good sense of humour!

Even if we are only an amateur choir, each one of us still has a responsibility to ensure the success of the whole group.

It would also make the actual performance on the night a more enjoyable experience for the choir - if we can sing with confidence we can live the moment and glory in the music.

Actually, I love Bach. There is a certain comfort in the metronomic regularity with which the notes follow one after the other. And don't you like those wonderful syncopated phrases? Yum.

Yes, I truly believe Saturday's Christmas Oratorio is going to be a great concert!

daharja said...

Hi Leta - I think we're going to be great. The difference over the last couple of rehearsals has been awesome, and I was pretty stunned to see the pace at which David was taking some of the choruses, and the fact that we were doing just fine with them for the most part!

I don't know when people in Dunedin will get a chance to hear this work again. Possible not in our lifetimes. Some big works (the Messiah springs to mind!) get performed regularly, but this doesn't. I'm encouraging everyone I know to trot along - they won't regret it. It is certain to be a fabulous night out.

Yes, David has done a terrific job. We're lucky to have him.

As for me, I'm really looking forward to hearing how it all sounds together with the orchestra and soloists for the first time. I've been listening to my recording for practice, but recordings are NEVER the same as a live performance!

Yes, we'll be awesome. Can't wait! Yay! Much happiness :-D

MMT said...

I wrote this a coupe of days ago...

Bach sensibility

Bach bites? I can’t let the man go undefended. Bach nibbles and entices! You just haven’t noticed yet…

The beauty and genius I have noticed in his works are that each part has a line of music with enough complexity to keep interest, but a true sensibility as well. This was especially apparent to me in the Mass in B Minor, eg the Kyrie. The master stroke is that while each part has its own musicality, it is when they are sung together perfectly that you realize there is a higher meaning to it all – that the sum is greater than the parts. The perfection of the performance leads to the understanding of it.

Yes, the style is somewhat old-fashioned, perhaps less intent on dynamics than more modern composers, but I haven’t encountered anything else that has this duality and complexity. It’s as though he took hundreds of chords, broke them down into individual parts, then linked the notes next to each other all along the page. Thousands of notes dancing along each line of music, lining up with their counterparts above and below – brilliant! Perhaps his ability as an organist, playing with all 4 limbs, gave him the ability to operate in 4 parts independently and together…

So, when we are encouraged (a euphemism by this week?) to sing without attention to the notes, but with attention to the line of music, that is how the higher meaning is revealed.

And we haven’t even heard the orchestration yet!

daharja said...


I thinks you raise some good points, and I can see clearly why a lot of people really like Bach. I like some of his stuff too. But he just doesn't rank up there with the 'greats' for me.

Maybe I'll change my mind one day - I just haven't yet...

As I said, the maths comes across too strongly for me. His work is so clinical that it hardly rates as music. It loses its lyrical nature and moves from the world of art into the world of science, and it is the scientific part of my brain that recognises and appreciates it.

The style isn't the problem. Nor is any sense of potential datedness. It is how I relate to the work that is the issue, and that's an entirely personal thing.

Yes, Bach was brilliant, and yes, his work can be enjoyable. I like his work, don't misunderstand me. But in a death match between Beethoven and Bach, or Mozart and Bach, or Handel and Bach, or Bernstein and Bach - or The Beatles and Bach for that matter (who took some considerable inspiration from the guy), the competitor wins, hands down. Bach comes second.

Then there's the interesting anomaly that his stuff is so darned nasty to sing. In my mind, I don't think Bach was ever a singer. I'm not a music expert, and don't know this for a fact, but I can guess. His lines are pretty atrocious to sing, and generally read far more like lines written for the violin or the keyboard than the human voice.

I see this as a flaw - he fails to write correctly and well for the instrument in question (in this case, the choral voice), and the result is lines that are difficult to pitch, awkward to sing, and ungainly on the ear. I point you at bar 135 of the soprano line of the first movement of the Oratorio as a typical example.

Similar examples exist in every choral line in not just the Oratorio, but in other major works by Bach as well. It is one thing to challenge a choir, yet another to write poorly. In this instance, I believe the latter is the case. Bach has simply not thought out the limits and constraints of the human voice at a typical choral standard.

Compare this to the vocal lines of Mendelssohn - who was actually influenced by Bach a fair bit, but did a much better job of writing for choral voices - and I think you might see what I am getting at. I actually think Bach was a far more gifted composer than Mendelssohn, and certainly more creative, but he was nowhere near as proficient at writing for the voice.

In the end, everyone's taste is different. Composer's voices are as unique as different writers - and blog posters! - and just as we all have our own favourite writers, so too we all have our favourite composers. You clearly like Bach. I like Beethoven. I'm right and you're wrong. Just kidding ;-)