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I've talked about choir a couple times already, but I haven't really talked about the music yet, which is because it usually takes me about 2,000 words every time. Here goes!

This season was the French composers concert: Duruflé, Fauré, Poulenc, and Gounod.

We opened with Quatre Motets by Maurice Duruflé. He basically created choral renditions of Gregorian chants: Ubi Caritas, Tota pulchra es, Tu es Petrus, and Tantum Ergo.

Really great recording on youtube: turn up your speakers, it's kind of quiet.

For our audition, we could choose between two pieces, and one of them was the first motet, Ubi Caritas. The alto part, coincidentally, is the original Gregorian chant, and it sounds hauntingly strange. You can't exactly fit it into the equal temperament/major-minor paradigm; for example, conclusion of each four-bar phrase is a cadence of I-II (words: ibi est). Conventional cadences are usually I-V, V-I, IV-I, IV-V etc. I think that Duruflé makes gorgeous motets, but I think his harmony, added by the bass and tenor sections mainly, take away from that strangeness. It makes it more conventional.

Tota pulchra es (it's in celebration of Mary) is SSA, which is--to me--also rather unusual. I have several friends who sang in SSA choirs as children, and to them, it's a nostalgic song. If you listen to the recording, it's very airy, very beautiful. As an alto who's always sung in SATB or SAB, it feels distinctly like the bottom's fallen out of the choir! We are now the lowest voices! Where did the foundation go?! Nevertheless, I quite like the sound; it really just floats. For a motet celebrating Mary, it seemed appropriate.

Tu es Petrus is about Peter (specifically the line about Peter being the rock upon which he builds his church) and it's like a very complex polyphonic layering of sounds and voices. There is nowhere that the different voice parts really sing the same words or hold similar rhythms; everyone's off doing their own thing, which makes it sound very full. The mix of harmonies isn't precisely major/minor either, which makes me happy. Tu es Petrus also changes time signatures measure by measure--there was a lot of 3/8 measures sprinkled in. When were learning this (and Total pulchra es, which has similar rhythms), the 3/8 bars were like tripping over one's own feet. But it's in keeping with the Gregorian chants, which emerged before the advent of musical notation and rhythm being boxed in; plainchant has a much freer rhythm, following the emphasis of words, and the mixing of time signatures is, I think, an attempt to capture that.

I didn't really enjoy Tantum ergo, for a couple reasons that pertain not to the music and more to the conducting (this was one of the pieces that we had an assistant conductor do--i.e. a chorister.) It was slow and I did like some of the dissonances; for examples, the sopranos start with a G and then the altos come in next with an F. Yay!

Then we sang Gabriel Fauré's Cantique de Jean Racine. I like this rendition the best; it also comes with lyrics.

Ahhh, this piece! I want to roll around in it forever. It's beautifully put together and there are lots of dramatic crescendos (accompanied by jumping around augmented fourths) which make it so much fun to sing. The lyrics, the cantique itself, is pleading (e.g. "jette sur nous les yeux, divine Sauveur" - cast your eye on us, divine Savior) and the music plays it up beautifully. Sometimes tritones are played for grating, off-kilter feeling (like Cool, from West Side Story!) but sometimes it's to introduce a dissonance that creates anticipation. Like a passing note--it clashes now, so that the resolution is sweeter.

The main piece of the concert was Francis Poulenc's Gloria. It was written in 1959, and I mention this upfront because when we first started learning the music it was all ugh, everything I hate about 20th century music. And it is also a piece that could only have been written and played in the modern period; I still--as an atheist--think it is almost irreverent.

This playlist has the six movements all divided up in separate videos, and I quite like it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NFUsJ0ZWaEk&list=RDNFUsJ0ZWaEk It won't let me embed, but anyway, it's a playlist. (It's not just the Gloria, the playlist author added other pieces into it).

I think it's very listenable. I keep erasing my words trying to rephrase this. What I'm trying to say is the whole thing is very very bizarre on so many levels, and yet is put together in a way that's distinctly different and still makes sense. To the ear.

Oddness! Firstly, it is sacred music. If you listen to the second movement, Laudamus Te, it's a movement glorifying God (i.e. "we laud you"). In most masses and settings of this sort of text, the composer will take advantage of the harmonies that a choir can produce--you know the sound that a choir warming up on a triad sounds like? It's glorious, it's perfect for ears accustomed to diatonic scales. Lots of composers take advantage of that and make the glorifying parts very, well, glorious. But the Laudamus Te here is literally call and response between soprano/tenor and alto/bass. It's almost mocking, as the two joined sections parrot back the melody line, sometimes directly, sometimes by modulating up and down and changing notes. It's like they're having fun with the line more than anything else.

On the tour I was talking to friends about the Poulenc, and they felt Poulenc was contemptuous of the whole thing. Looking through it, I can see why: for example, the first movement (Gloria in excelsis Deo) heavily emphasizes the words "et in terra pax hominibus" (and on earth, peace to all men). It does so with very dissonant harmonies, and then launches into "gloria" in much more conventional harmonies, and smashes together these two contrasting phrases again and again. Later, in the Domine Deus, Rex caelestis (Lord God, King of Heaven), the choir alternates with the soprano in minor-ish keys. The soprano will sing "domine deus", the choir will echo her, and it's as though she's throwing the title--of king, of god--back into his face. My friend interpreted the setting as asking what have you done for us? God of Gods, lord most highest, what have you done for us? Again, it's full of tritones, like when she sings his title "rex caelestis" and the tenors practically shout it with the soprano (glorious1). The orchestra (or piano, in our case) follow suit. In the little parts where the soprano is singing a sort-of major line, the orchestra is undercutting her with distinctly ominous tones. It really does sound like a horror-themed music.

Secondly, I would like to offer as evidence the statement a fellow alto said to me, during rehearsal (she is the best sight reader I have ever met, hands-down): "It feels like a sight-reading exercise."

IT IS REALLY WEIRD. So as a listener, you generally hear the notes all compiled together in a line up and down (a chord--you know, on the page, the chords all line up vertically, to represent they happen at the same time?) And the chords follow each other. But singing music, you read horizontally (across time) across the page because you can only sing one note at a time. The whole thing was full of very strange intervals. You get used to certain intervals, like perfect fifths (Twinkle Twinkle Little Star), perfect fourths (Away in a Manger), major or minor thirds. Well, not so much here, because it was augmented fourths and minor sixths and augmented fifths and moreover, it wasn't just the intervals but the melodic line in general that was weird. The key changed all the time (so you know, F-sharp to D-flat is a perfect fifth, but it sure doesn't look like it on the page like that). In some movements, the orchestra would jump in between phrases and play a single chord completely and totally unrelated to the choral setting before and after it. It would simply unsettle things.

Then you had stuff like movement IV, which was "Domine Fili unigenite" and light and fast and nimble and happy sounding. I especially loved the orchestral opening--the modulations from key to key hit just the right spot. Even so, the tenors were always singing a dissonant note in an otherwise totally clear chord, and the (nominally) G major movement ends on a chord of almost E minor there instead. Or in the sixth movement, where the choir will sing, and the orchestra will blare a horrible chord really loudly. The choir is addressing God, pleading for mercy (miserere) and the orchestra plays almost a perverse fanfare.

Finally, there's really a lot of focus on the human part. In the fifth movement, the soprano will address God/Jesus "qui tollis peccata mundi" (he who bears the sins of the world) and the choir will crash in loudly on "suscipe", "receive", i.e. receive our prayer. It repeats again and again. Same in the first movement, when the choir keeps repeating "et in terra pax hominibus" amongst the "gloria" parts. The emphasis is less on the glorification and more of the human, imploring side.

At the very end, in the rounds of "Amen", the soprano and the choir first sing a loud amen with the orchestra. Then the choir makes a tiny one, and the soprano leaves a lingering "amen", quietly, on the D--this movement is nominally in G major, by the way, so it's not even the tonic. The lingering, very quiet amen makes it feel as though the rage/anger has been exhausted and all that's left, finally, is a simple plea.

Though maybe I'm reading too much into it.

Evidently our conductor felt that this ending wasn't final enough, so we actually switched it around and did Charles Gounod's Sanctus (from his Messe de Sainte-Cécile) last. I couldn't find a rendition I liked on youtube, but there are renditions up there.

This one is in 9/8 time, which initially was very hard to read. I think of it as 6/8, except with three "whole" beats (3/4) instead of two (2/4). (You know in six-eight, it goes 1-2-3, 4-5-6? In 9/8 it was like 3/4 time, except with triplets in each: 1-2-3, 4-5-6, 7-8-9.) This was, like the Cantique de Jean Racine, really enjoyable to sing. The soprano had some truly lovely runs that convinced me that 9/8 was the perfect time signature; I didn't exactly love our two sopranos' vibrato, but the slipping up and down the scales was legitimately beautiful. I think I would be quite happy listening to her run scales.

The choral parts were very harmonic, and they were kind of a balm after the Poulenc (though I love the Poulenc). The most fun part, I think, is when the bass, tenor and soprano parts set up a C#-E-G chord, and then the altos arrived with the loudest B-flat to make it a diminished seventh. Then it resolves beautifully into an F major--in root position, even--at fortissimo, so you can imagine the effect.

All in all, I liked all the music! It took the Poulenc awhile to grow on me (ditto Gounod), albeit for different reasons, but I love all of them. Next term: THE CREATION. Words cannot express my excitement.

1 Around 1:44 in the third clip.

Crosspost: http://silverflight8.dreamwidth.org/143524.html.


( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 5th, 2013 08:33 pm (UTC)
Thank you for the youtube links! That was some really lovely music. I was also fascinated by your explanations of it; I know extremely little about the technical aspects of music, but it's so interesting to learn about.
Dec. 6th, 2013 01:40 am (UTC)
Aw, I'm glad you liked it! One of the reasons I love choir so much is the sound we make--it's so different from an individual's. And I'm glad you enjoyed the ramble about music! I love talking about it.
Dec. 6th, 2013 07:28 pm (UTC)
I also love the sound of a choir; the human voice really is the best instrument.
Dec. 6th, 2013 10:18 pm (UTC)
<333 It's totally the reason I do it.
Dec. 8th, 2013 02:59 am (UTC)
Ooo, the music is indeed, lovely. Going to have to be honest, all the technical lingo leaves me hopelessly lost, but still is a bit fascinating. :)
Dec. 8th, 2013 04:55 am (UTC)
It really is, isn't it? :D

Aww, I keep forgetting >.< I should really try to explain more!
Dec. 8th, 2013 06:32 pm (UTC)
Hee, that's okay. My understanding is so basic, I think it would be more trouble than it's worth. :)
Dec. 9th, 2013 12:47 am (UTC)
No, it's my fault. I keep assuming! And I mean, it's not like the concepts are super advanced or anything--it's just you gotta know the words :)
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )



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