Learning to love choral music

I have been participating in a weekly blog series called the Monday Music Medicine Show, hosted by Fimnora Westcaw, the Quantum Hermit. As a violinist whose tastes tend toward the traditional and classical, and as a non-Beatles-lover, I wasn’t sure at first whether this was going to work out for me, or where I would fit in. The bands and solo artists I liked growing up tended to be ones other people made fun of, or that they called “guilty pleasures.” But I am finding the blog to be an interesting and even broadening experience. It turns out there are people outside of the orchestra with whom I can talk about music.

Then came this week’s questionWhat choral songs fill you with the exquisite allure of voices beautifully blending together, and wrap you in their embrace?

Bizarro: Shootout at the OK Chorale

Choral music? Oh dear. I’ve always wished I could sing better than I can. I can read music and carry a tune, but my singing voice has always sounded weak, breathy, sometimes shrill, and otherwise vaguely unpleasant to my own ears. I also have lingering PTSD from trying out for the musical in high school. And it doesn’t help that still, even now, I sometimes cry when I sing in church.

I was in a church choir a long time ago in my old church in Watertown, MA. I was a more a member for social than musical reasons, but we sang some beautiful pieces. One of them was an arrangement of Vivaldi’s Gloria. I’m showing it here with baroque orchestra, Trevor Pinnock and the English Concert.

We had our lovely music director on piano, playing a reduction of all that cool orchestral stuff. (There were times, I admit, when I thought I’d be doing a better job if I’d been able to play a violin instead of singing.)

But there was and is something about the combination of the elaborate, almost fussy, noodling in the violins and the soaring melody of the voices above.  It’s especially satisfying when one of the inner voices changes, holding a discordant interval for some time before the resolution, of both the chord and the line of praise together. I could lose my voice among all the others and be one with the music.

Several years later, I quit the church choir when I started playing the violin again after a long break. I joined a community orchestra, the Arlington Philharmonic Orchestra, part of the Philharmonic Society of Arlington. I didn’t have time for two evening rehearsals a week. The Philharmonic Society included a chorale, in addition to an orchestra, and we played and sang big oratorios, masses, and requiems. For the 75th Anniversary of the Philharmonic Society, I got my wish: to play the violin part accompanying a choral masterpiece, when we performed Handel’s Messiah.

(At minute 11 to 11:30, you can see me (the concertmaster) pretty well, to the left of the conductor, Barry Singer. In the video I’m still playing my old violin! I bought my new violin about 5 months later)

I’ve played the piece several times since then, at Messiah sing-alongs, and I have had the privilege of accompanying some wonderful choral musicians. Being in the orchestra for his Mass even helped me appreciate Bruckner.

But some of the coolest choral music doesn’t need instrumental accompaniment at all. I first heard the Bulgarian women’s choir, “Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares” about 20 years ago. Here they are performing at the Konya Mystic Music festival in 2012:

It’s so different from what we tend to think of as choral music in the West. What is especially remarkable to me is the lack of traditional vibrato in the voices. I’ve often wondered why classical opera singers use so much vibrato; the sound of it is not really to my taste. My own voice has no natural vibrato at all– something I’ve mentally catalogued as one of its many shortcomings. I’ve been told that vibrato helps solo voices carry and fill a concert hall. This use of vibrato is also true for the violin, an instrument that has a rich literature both solo and in groups. So it makes sense on one hand.

But on the other hand, what if choral music had developed differently, with less emphasis on the individual soloist having to fill a concert hall? Would groups like this choir be more well-known, more revered? Would children hope to grow up and some day be members of famous choirs, the way they now fantasize about playing professional sports?

I’ve never sung this way; I’ve never sung this type of music. But someday I’d like to try it.

7 thoughts on “Learning to love choral music”

  1. “I’ve been told that vibrato helps solo voices carry and fill a concert hall.” Maybe so, but it’s entirely possible that the causality runs the other way: we design the kind of music-listening spaces that we do because they are for this form of Western music.

    I have mixed feelings about a lot of vibrato. My voice has a lot and if I were to get any voice training, I’d ask for help toning it down. (I should go to someone who trains rock singers, not classical singers.)

    Thinking of calensariel’s comment, another place that we encountered a different kind of choral music recently was in the opening song of Frozen. It uses a hymn that I think is based on a German folksong (you don’t hear this part in the opening snippet, but it’s in the UU hymnal as #42, “Morning, So Fair to See”), but it doesn’t sound like what I think of as Western classical choral music. I love it.


  2. The Vivaldi was beautiful. I’ve always loved the Four Seasons. I fell in love with it watching Leonard Bernstein conduct. I think I had quite the crush on him! LOL The Messiah, well you can’t live in Utah without hearing the MTC sing that ALL the time. Especially at their sing-along at Temple Square at Christmas. The Bulgarian women’s choir was interesting. That would be an acquired taste for me. My exposure to choral music has been much more classical.

    But we had The Children’s Choir from Imani Milele, a nonprofit organization helping orphaned children in Uganda, come stay and sing at church a while back. Talk about a confusion of music and color! It was wonderful. I think I could REALLY like African music.(https://youtu.be/ls64E5wYKFk) In fact, on my Saturday post Shannon posted the lyrics to what the African children’s choir sing on Neil Diamond’s Soolaimon (which I did NOT know means “child song”) and I pulled it up to listen. Gorgeous!

    I wanted to say, long-winded as I am, that we get exposed to choral music without even knowing it these days. I am a HUGE LOTR fan and had the great opportunity to go see Howard Shore perform the music from Fellowship of the Rings for the very first time in public at the Hollywood Bowl in California. Imagine my surprised when this whole choral group walked out on stage and took their place.I had never paid any attention to them in the soundtrack. And much to my amazement, MOST soundtracks have some kind of choral arrangement included in them. But it’s almost hidden. That was very eye-opening for me.

    And, btw, vibrato, in my experience from high school choir, just gives people a chance to show off! (Yes, you do hear some annoyance in that comment!)

    Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Karen, thank you so much for sharing these choral pieces with The Monday Music Medicine Show! I am quite fond of Vivaldi, though I had not heard this. Of course, Handel’s Messiah is very familiar! Quite impressive is the Bulgarian acapella choir! Terrific post!

    Liked by 1 person

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