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Mendelssohn's Lobgesang

macro shot of my music, titled 'FELIX MENDELSSOHN BARTHOLDY - Lobgesang - Hymn of Praise, op. 52, Symphony Cantata' and orchestration written in German - Soli SST, Chorale SSAATB, 2 flutes 2 oboes etc

Had a concert Saturday, performing Mendelssohn's Lobgesang. We were paired with another choir (larger than us), and an excellent symphony orchestra. Altogether I would guess there were at least two hundred people on stage - rather cozy and quite warm on stage, but the sound was absolutely tremendous and tremendously exciting to sing in. And Mendelssohn is a very rewarding sort of composer to sing in large choruses with, especially in a piece like this: a "hymn of praise", written to commemorate the western invention of printing - I think on one of the major anniversaries of it?

We were conducted by the conductor of the symphony orchestra (the choirs share a conductor, so there were just two conductors running around). The conductor was sort of funny and acerbic with it, the kind that really tries to get a lot out of you. I'm not sure what he's like when it's all being put together, but he kept exhorting us to get out of the music and watch the conductor. (One of the most common refrains of conductors I've known).

The parts got a bit jogged around by our choral conductor. He asked the alto 2s to help the tenors when they had to sing by themselves to open a movement, and in some parts asked the entire soprano section to sing alto to lend more power to the middle section - this, at least, is very rare. The last movement in rehearsal we basically didn't have a soprano line; those were being worked on by the other choir, who would cover for us there.

I like this rendition on youtube. There are more if you search "Mendelssohn Lobgesang" though I only have timestamps for this particular one.




The piece starts with several orchestral movements. I never did hear much of it; the orchestra practiced their solo bits by themselves, and on concert date we were lining up outside and underground while those parts were playing, mostly. We walked in during I think the gap between the 2nd and 3rd movements, since the third movement flows into the sung movements. There's a bit of musical foreshadowing of the theme - the music that accompanies "alles was Oden hat" is instantly recognizable.

The first sung movement (22:06) opens with the orchestra starting up a big crescendo (with the theme played ringingly by the brass), and then a big fanfare of voices together singing "alles, alles, alles was Oden hat" ("Everything that has breath" praise etc), kind of like a call. Then it starts to split off into different voices, though always with each parts' line coming out clearly. When new text is introduced eg "Und alles Fleisch", the other parts drop out to give it clearer prominence - both the new words and musical theme. Lots of layering: the tenors will begin a phrase, then in the next measure the basses will repeat it, and then the sopranos and then altos. The parts usually diverge once its moment in the limelight is past, to make harmony, but the effect is one where all the voices have to carry the melody, which is always fun.

After a cadence by the choir, the soprano has a solo which is punctuated by a 4-part female chorus (26:33). This is one of my favourite parts, I think. One of my many favourite parts. The melody is so lovely, and the chorus - missing the two lowest voices - is a lot lighter and perfectly complements the soprano. The choir doubles the words the soprano sings and sometimes the melody, too, so that all the singers, including the soloist, are singing the same melody.

The next movement is a tenor solo, first a recitative lightly accompanied by orchestra, then an aria. Oddly enough I like his aria better than the recit (arias are usually much more flourished, fleshed-out parts and tend to be more virtuosic and repetitive, which I often don't have patience for, but this one was a joy to listen to.) The tenor aria talks about redemption, and more importantly is also repeated later; Mendelssohn bridges the gaps between the soloists with similar/identical text.

(31:19) The chorus then sings "Sagt es", which is in a minor key and has a lot of dramatic volume changes. While rehearsing, this was one of the more boring parts; it's rhythmically very simple, but it does move. (Thankfully.)

Then there are soprano I and II solos plus chorus, starting at 32:53, starting with soprano I's solo, back in a major key ("he heard my prayer" etc). The chorus comes in to affirm the soprano's sung portion, and which is then followed by a duet between the two sopranos. Here Mendelssohn (or the two sopranos we had, at any rate!) avoid the classic problem of two soloists' voices clashing - sometimes you get this awful interaction of vibrato. Maybe it's because it wasn't one voice providing harmony and the other melody, but both singing melody, just one coming out at a time. The soloists are accompanied by bass and tenor, then the whole chorus joins in. I really like how Mendelssohn will sort of echo the soloists' melody in the chorus. For example, near the end, you hear how the sopranos have a more chromatic (moving up the scale semitone by semitone, not in a major or minor scale) at 36:47 and a few seconds later you hear a similar chromatic harmony progressing downwards by the chorus soprano/altos. I also really love this melody. So lovely!

Tenor solo! Again back in a minor key, singing about tribulations (37:27). I especially liked the latter third, the recitative, when he asks, "We called in the darkness, Watchman, will the night soon pass?" first accompanied by the double basses running a sort of ostinato under him, low and urgent, during most of the phrase, and then after he sings "will the night soon pass?", shriller brass rising up in dissonant question (no nice cadences here, just open-ended dissonance). There is a big moment at the end, at 41:04, when the orchestra stops playing and he asks again, this time into silence and with the freedom to stretch it all out - with a fermata (discretion pause of silence) after "night". Our tenor soloist held that word for a long time, and sung it with the vowel of "nacht" changing (raising his tongue to constrict the back of the mouth's space, I think), which is a gigantic no-no in choral singing because if everyone did it, the pitch appears to (or is sometimes) distorted five hundred ways. As a solo moment, it is enormously effective; he let his voice trail off. The youtube video's soloist is a lot more controlled, which I feel makes it less emotionally affecting, but to each his own.

The recitative is capped by the soprano (41:13) singing "Die Nacht ist vergangen" (the night has passed), again unaccompanied. She holds the last word, a high A, for a good few seconds - indeed the whole phrase is an upwards sweep. The orchestra joins for that last note, and then starts gathering huge energy into the next moment.

The chorus enters in a crash of triumphant sound. This movement is also in 6/8 time, unlike the 4/4 of previous movements. 6/8 is a very forward moving sort of tempo; it's sort of like waltz time except with two emphases 1 2 3 4 5 6 and really moves with a clip. The conductor really conducted it more in 2, and we "felt" it in 2 (ie he would signal 1 and 4, not all six; in say the 4/4 time he would usually conduct 1, 2, 3, 4. You can see this conductor conducting in 2 too, since it would be too exhausting and probably ineffective to do 6). That gives it a lot of energy; you're always looking and moving toward the next beat 1 or 4, so all the little subdivided notes really have to get slotted swiftly in; you don't linger. It is very, very, very energetic, and as you can see in the video, sung rather quickly. The whole movement textually is about day coming and in particular, "putting on the armour of the light". Again Mendelssohn introduces new text/music settings by having it repeated four times by the different voices, each in their own ranges, but same melodic structure.

This is also one of the two movements where there's any real melisma (one syllable over many notes), where the basses start at 43:25 and the whole chorus joins in. He first builds up it into an ever higher progression before starting the melisma, which sort of takes the edge off by going lower. The melismatic section is really, really fast, and keeps moving upwards, sort of repeating its own loop.

The movement ends with the sopranos jumping a big interval really high (I think the sopranos 1s do a full octave jump into high A, and the seconds sing the F sharp just below) and the other voices joining in a moment later in support. That's sort of the emotional climax of the whole thing. Then the men sing "the night is past" and the women answer with "the day has come", without that same frenetic energy, but as a statement to cap it all off.

This then flows into the chorale-only eighth movement (45:32), which is in praise. To be honest, this is probably my least favourite movement; it's not very difficult and it's written in very ordinary 4-part harmony, with voices moving together rhythmically. It is good though because the previous movement is very energetic, loud, and attention-grabbing; there needs to be something to set it off. Midway through the orchestra joins in - I mostly notice because the alto part has to sing very high all of a sudden. But as I said. Quite boring. It sounds nice...I guess...but they're fairly conventional harmonies and a lot of sustaining, which is quite easy with a choir this size, and basically for me, meh. NEXT!

Soprano and tenor duet: during the actual performance I was mostly conscious of the fact that, uh, the girl behind me was now squatting on the floor, obviously not feeling well. I felt her music brush my leg, which was alarming; I was standing in the first row of the highest riser and couldn't exactly bend around and ask what was up. Not much to say about this one either - the tenor and soprano soloists sang sort of call-and-response at first, then blended together. Our scores also did not contain the soloists' music to save space, except small excerpts near the end, so we knew what was coming.

The last movement starts very martial (53:32), and is accompanied kind of bluntly. The basses start, and they are given a single beat/note by the orchestra. They sing "Ihr Völker! bringet her dem Herrn Ehre und Macht!" ("Ye people, bring Him glory and might") and then after this phrase is sung, the tenors join in, this time ordering the kings to bring might and glory, then the altos telling the heavens, then the sopranos last telling the earth to do so too. All the same melody, at least initially, before fracturing. The orchestra gives an almost disjointed accompaniment; the strings especially just sort of jump in to give a rather staccato note in every few beats, for emphasis, though there is lots of support from other sections (the strings tend to be very easy to hear because there are so many of them and they have a high clear sound). This vid is a bit frustrating because initially the orchestra and the chorus are a little out of sync initially, though it's pretty much fixed by the time the tenors have gotten into it, so you can hear the accents there.

Then the whole movement changes - "all thank the lord" - huge and solid and together and loud, before fragmenting in a more fugue part "Danket dem Herrn und rühmt seinen Namen" etc. Both this part and the 7th movement (die Nacht ist vergangen, "the night is past") are kind of marathon-like; since each part sings its own thing, without always having obvious interlocking parts where you can feel the notes lock in, you have to sort of hunker down in your own section, make sure you're not going off tempo by watching a lot, and sing into any dissonances that appear. The other reason it's difficult is because it requires a lot of energy and power, even when the notes are short and you're all split up; everyone really has to pull their own weight (you can cheat when it's a long sustained note in unison - cheat a lot because lol your fellow singers are not lost, which happens in those long complicated sequences. It's quite easy; if you are out of tempo for a few beats it is sometimes hard to get back in, especially if you can't hear your own section well.)

The fugue-ish movement really starts building up in a climax with "preiset seine Herrlichkeit" at 57:40, which is frankly a relief, because the previous bits are very marathon-like, except un-marathon-like in that there's not an obvious conclusion we're building up to. But with that section a lot of the phrases start trending up and gathering more steam, with the brass almost announcing the beginnings of the phrase - also you can hear the sopranos at the upper edge - and culminates in a huge "Herrlichkeit" - well, actually, just the last syllable of "keit" - at 58:15 (you can see the conductor gesturing for even moar volume here to extend the moment). This is a very dissonant note too; no resolution at all, like holding someone off the edge of the cliff. Then there's a nice long dramatic silent pause. And into the silence the brass plays the central theme - the "Alles was Oden hat" - for two measures and then the basses and tenors join in to reaffirm the theme (it is a treat to hear this in person), and then the whole choir and orchestra joins in. Very satisfying.


Crosspost: http://silverflight8.dreamwidth.org/172159.html.

Comments

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
bluegerl
Dec. 8th, 2015 10:00 am (UTC)
This is a lovely post. Being an ex choir-girl and singing in great lumps of like this. And it seems always that the tenors DO need altos to help out, and even your sopranos helping altos. Mind you, why not. I love singing deep... deeeeeep. I can go along with the Bass as well!

So glad it was all so successful and - gosh, all that number on one stage! Oh its so UPLIFTING and ROARINGLY WONDERFULLY ELEVATING! wheeeee.

I've got this one on right now on my other PC.. and my blootooth! Sounds super. Thanks, going to be a good morning this is!
silverflight8
Dec. 16th, 2015 02:19 am (UTC)
Choir girl high five! :D

Yeah, there's never enough tenors/basses. I feel like it's a bit better in auditioned choirs since I guess the voices are kept in proportion?

It was such an epic sound - so loud sometimes I couldn't hear myself sing. And the very end, omg.

Glad you enjoyed! :) Mendelssohn is fantastic.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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