Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Embracing Beethoven's Missa Solemnis

What great music is Beethoven's Missa Solemnis! The Hartford Chorale (of which I am a member) is in the midst of preparing the Missa for performances with the Hartford Symphony Orchestra on May 16 and 17 at The Bushnell in Hartford.

The Chorale has the privilege of working with two distinguished musical leaders as we prepare the Missa. The Chorale's Music Director, Richard Coffey, leads our weekly rehearsals and guides us in understanding and presenting the music and text. In the week or two before our performances, Edward Cumming, the HSO's Music Director, will take the rehearsal podium to prepare us for performing the work under his direction with the orchestra. This hand-off does present challenges, though, as the two maestri employ very different conducting styles; it takes a good deal of concentration and commitment to transfer months of preparation from one baton to the other. But Mr. Coffey and Mr. Cumming enjoy a warm relationship which infuses our sessions together.

It's also a challenge to make the change from rehearsal hall with piano to concert hall with orchestra. Though the richness of the orchestral sound completes the colors and textures that Beethoven imagined, I think that during the long weeks of preparation the singers come to rely on the percussive quality of the piano as an aid to maintaining rhythm and tempo. Thus, two factors -- working under a different conductor and perhaps being challenged in perceiving rhythm and tempo -- can create new opportunities for thinking and learning during the last few weeks before performance.

From musical and vocal perspectives, Beethoven's music seems to break all the boundaries and dashes to pieces what we think we know about music of the "Classical" period and about sacred music, especially settings of the Mass. If we expect the conventional "classical" symmetries of Mozart or Haydn, we will be shocked by Beethoven's reinterpretations of the harmonic language of his day and we will be challenged to understand his transformative expansions of classical forms. If we expect his vocal writing to continue the graceful, lyrical, rather restrained style perfected by Mozart and Haydn, we will struggle to present with clarity and beauty the unrestrained vocal joy which characterizes Beethoven's Missa . If we expect a reverent interpretation of the ancient words of the Mass, we may feel uncomfortable with Beethoven's frankly dramatic setting. Like Verdi's Requiem (which the Chorale and HSO will offer in 2009), the Missa is more akin to opera than to traditional sacred music.

From the singer's perspective, the Missa can indeed be vocally terrifying. Many singers are challenged to sing chromatic melismatic passages as quickly as Beethoven required (e.g., consider the break-neck speed of the convoluted countersubjects in the Credo) or to negotiate the extremes of range and dynamic that contribute to the drama. Unlike most oratorios or masses, where the choir can rest during solo arias or solo ensembles, the Missa calls for almost continuous choral singing from beginning to end. Thus, each singer must learn to sing lightly and 'healthily" throughout the work, saving the "big sound" only for the several moments when it is truly required. With 160 voices, none of us needs to shout too much. And of course, heavy or forced singing is ugly, and as Mr. Coffey tells us, "Never make an ugly sound." Such a simple concept, and so apt.

Beethoven either loved sopranos or hated them; the tessitura of the soprano part is almost too high to be believed. Vocally, I am thrilled that I can pop up into "the zone" and zip along pretty easily above the staff without tiring. For me, lightness and clarity is key to not getting tired; the more vibrato I allow, the heavier the voice becomes, and the more quickly I tire.
The Credo is my favorite movement; I revel in the vocal acrobatics and musical challenge.

Yes, the Missa can be daunting, but only until one can embrace Beethoven's larger-than-human-life conceptions. Clearly, he thought in larger ways than we can conceive, and as one can see from his own score (shown at left), he struggled with it, too. If we can abandon our conventions and expectations, we can enter into his larger, more expansive world, which is full of possibility. Perhaps Beethoven's deafness released him from convention, as in his aural imagination he could conceive of more than he, or anyone, had ever heard. Perhaps as singers and musicians we can approach the Missa with a similarly clean slate, free of expectations and ready to understand this music, embrace it, and sing it with conviction and love.

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