As someone who is about as musical as a boiling kettle, hearing a song in Latin doesn’t give much of a leg up. But after attending the Gloriana choir’s quarterly concerts over three years you do get used to it. (Blogged here, here and here.) You just sit inside these phrases as they billow like a cloud of steam:
Gloria in excelsis Deo, et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis.
Laudamus te. Benedicimus te.
Adoramus te. Glorificamus te.
The shock of English
Which is why it was shocking to hear lines in English. On Sunday the choir performed an all American program with the Latinos in the first half. After interval the twentieth century Northerners followed with Samuel Barber’s Adagio in Strings for choir, transcribed as Agnus Dei. It’s a tune famous-unto-cliche but hearing it in living voice is pretty moving (Accentus Chamber Choir version). The choir then took to Eric Whitacre, that superstar among modern choral composers. The third of the three selections had the simplest of texts:
When David heard that Absalom was slain he went up into his chamber over the gate and wept, my son, O Absalom my son, would God I had died for thee!
It comes from 2 Samuel 18:33, and read with even the slightest empathy can shake you a little. The point of mentioning lyrics in English — is how markedly my engagement, my enjoyment, deepened when I could connect the emotional suggestion in the voices with the words they were singing. When you hear ‘My son … my son … my son … my son … my son …’ the mourning is stark in a way that would be muffled if that was in Sanskrit, or Inuit.)
In the program notes, choir director Andrew Raiskums’ technical description sounds, rightly, tremendous:
The opening section, scored low for all the voices, sets a dark and sombre tone … From this comes a single note, intoned by the sopranos that pile up into an extraordinary cluster of no fewer than eighteen notes … the next section [is] formed around the juxtatposition of different meters … and contrasts between sudden bursts of sound with the breaking up of the music into a series of gasps and sighs.
Raiskums adds that ‘it’s the only piece I’ve ever conducted where a chorister has been so overcome with emotion as to be unable to sing.’ When the choir comes to ‘over the gate, and wept,’ they repeat ‘my son’ as an escalating phrase — an angelic grieving. It is sublime, simultaneously heart-rending and hair-raising. And they sing it loud.
Hear When David heard on youtube
Whichever you try, you gotta play it loud. Excerpt of composer Eric Whitacre rehearsing a choir (2:15). British group Polyphony performing Part 1 (7:14), and Part 2 (which begins with the ‘my son’ phrase, 5:48). And by Molto Cantabile, a small choir in Switzerland.
His CD, Eric Whitacre: The Complete A Cappella Works, 1991-2001, looks a very appealing package. But, alas you may not be able to buy it locally.
Pain and pleasure
Have you noticed how faces singing often look like they’re stressed or in in pain?
Bach Mass in B minor
Here’s a pre-Christmas choral tip: Gloriana is attempting Bach’s stupendous magnum opus on Friday November 26th. The undertaking is so big they’ve had to move church venues. Check their website later for more details (not there yet).