Friday, May 9, 2008

The Mighty Missa Solemnis

In a few days, [an ensemble in which I used to sing] and The Hartford Symphony Orchestra enter "production week" for performances of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis ....
Production week (also called tech week) can be daunting: we rehearse every night but one, the evenings are very long, and our first few rehearsals this week will be held in a crowded, airless room that is visually and acoustically barren. Thorough preparation and utter attentiveness on the part of every singer will be key to good rehearsals and satisfying performances. Later in the week we move to the stunning and graceful Mortensen Auditorium at The Bushnell, where we'll have better light, space, room, and acoustic. In an earlier essay, I wrote about the challenges of transitioning from piano rehearsals to orchestral rehearsals. Much to think about as we work through our final rehearsals.

Adding to the challenge will be grappling with the work itself: Beethoven's mighty and magnificent Missa Solemnis. Beethoven's dramatic quasi-operatic score calls for a degree of vocal , physical, and intellectual stamina that surpasses anything that most composers dare to contemplate. Of course, the vocal challenges of the Missa Solemnis are well known, as I wrote about in the same earlier essay. We sing VERY HIGH! We sing very low! We sing VERY LOUDLY! We sing very softly. We sing suddenly, we start, we stop. We shift, we soar, we dive, we grovel. We embrace, we reject, we reconcile. We weep, we pray, we rejoice, we shout, we rage.

The choir sings nearly from start to finish; there are no solo arias or ensembles during which the choir may sit for entire movements, as happens in many masses or oratorios. (We will be seated very briefly — just 60 seconds — between movements.) ... I was about to write "And we must also contend with the orchestra," meaning that we must be able to sing over, through, and with the instrumental forces that are seated between us and the audience. But "contend with" sounds adversarial, and that is not at all the case. Rather, the chorus is part of Beethoven's orchestra. The Missa is not really vocal music, is it? It's instrumental music overlaid with text.

By calling the vocal writing "instrumental," I do not mean to imply that Beethoven writes without regard to text. On the contrary, his mastery of the texts and their historical and theological subtleties is complete. (I could write an entire essay on the word-painting and textual expressiveness in the Missa Solemnis.) Rather, I mean that Beethoven does not write sympathetically for the voice, as, for example, Mozart did so instinctively and so successfully. When singing Mozart, one always senses that the composer understood the vocal instrument completely and had it in mind as he wrote, much as he completely understood the clarinet, writing for that instrument the two seminal works (Concerto, K. 622 and Quintet, K. 582) that remain the best in the repertoire. Bach might be a better contrasting example; his vocal music is also essentially instrumental, yet he wrote with innate understanding for the voice, such that performing his music is a physical and vocal pleasure even as it is intellectually and spiritually fulfilling.

Beethoven, on the other hand, seems to have made no effort to accommodate the vocal instrument. On the contrary, the vocal writing in the Missa seem to be deliberately imitative of orchestral instruments, and I believe that we should sing them that way. Beethoven expects that the choral singers will be able to sing the Missa with clarity, conviction, and command. To do so requires finding the right voice for this particular music; I'll explore that topic in my next essay.

More of my essays on the life of a chorister, and more about choral rehearsals and choral music, may be found here: