Lay a garland on her hearse…Upon her buried body lie lightly, thou gentle earth.
Pearsall’s setting of these mournful lyrics came to a gentle close, but no one spoke… no one could speak. Never before had I experienced a work so beautifully sung and the experience will remain with me as long as my mind endures. Everyone that day knew he had taken part in something incredible, something otherworldly that might never be repeated. Such was and is the power of music.
I have heard it said that magic shows up at every concert but usually goes home disappointed and George Guest, the legendary conductor of the Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge, noted that those otherworldly moments in music were rare indeed. Nevertheless, in striving for those moments I believe we raise our choirs to an unbelievably high standard and create music worthy for the temple (if ever we could do such a thing), music that possesses the power to move minds and hearts. Of course this begs the question, How does one do that?
Fr. William Finn, whom I wrote about last week, noted that most conductors who came to him for advice usually wanted nothing more than a few tricks they could take home to their choirs. They rarely desired to learn those things necessary to breathe life into the music. Yes, choirs need to sing on key, to come in together and to cut off together. They should blend their vowels and produce their consonants rhythmically, but a choir might do all of this and still never reach the outer bounds of beauty’s realm. In short, such a choir would utterly fail to communicate. It isn’t enough to merely understand the words, one must needs enter into the words and ultimately into THE WORD. Quite frankly, this is a herculean task that requires a lifetime of education. For those of you who have read David Clayton’s The Way of Beauty (which I highly recommend), you will understand when I say that it also requires the gift of grace. Regardless, I do believe it possible to point the budding musician into the Way of Beauty.
First of all, it must be said that the mechanics of beautiful music must be present. The right notes matter, as do a host of other things. Beyond the mechanics, however, especially if I were pressed to give one piece of advice, I would point to the text. The text is paramount. Unfortunately, though, we inhabit a very un-poetic world unable to cope with anything deeper than the merely technical in language, which has crippled our ability to understand and finally to communicate.
I would like to delve more into this topic next week, but I will leave the reader with this very simple example. Below is a video of the Regensburger Domspatzen singing two verses of Adeste fideles, the first verse in Latin and the second in German. Listen specifically to the way in which the words and phrases are shaped as well as the way in which the rhythm moves the text. Is there a deeper understanding we gain of the carol’s meaning through the way in which this choir sings it? How does the way in which it is sung convey that deeper meaning? This is where the true are of the choir master begins.