Thursday, October 16, 2008

Finding the Right Voice – Singing Beethoven’s 9th Symphony

An ensemble in which I [used to] sing is in rehearsals for upcoming performances of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 (the Choral). The choral finale (“Ode to Joy”) is perhaps the most taxing choral music I’ve ever sung. In a recent essay, I explored some of the questions and issues I consider in preparing choral music from varying periods, traditions, and styles. Here’s what I have been thinking about as I prepare for rehearsals and performances of Beethoven’s remarkable Choral Symphony. (And yes, one must prepare for rehearsals, as well as for performances: vocally, musically, and intellectually.)

It’s interesting to compare the vocal challenges of singing Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis with those of his Choral Symphony. Though the vocal portion of the Choral Symphony comprises only 15 or 20 minutes of singing, compared to the 80 or so minutes of choral singing in the Missa Solemnis, I find the Symphony much more difficult from a vocal perspective. Why? Mostly because of its tessitura; that is, the vocal range in which most of the singing is concentrated. While the soprano part for the Missa Solemnis requires a greater range from top to bottom, and includes a great many tension-blasting melismatic passages where one can race around (vocally!), the soprano part for the Choral Symphony requires long stretches of pretty-similar singing, much of it sustained at the very top of the range, around high A.

The sopranos of the chorus must sing about 75 high A s (yes, someone has counted them), and many of these are sustained forte or fortissimo over many measures. Try singing a note near the very top of your range, very loud, and holding it for about half a minute. No vibrato! Perfect intonation! It has to be beautiful! Don’t let the pitch sag! Clear as a bell! Blend with the rest of the section! Enunciate the German! Decrescendo, sustain the pitch, don’t breathe! then crescendo to fortissimo! Don’t faint! Ach du lieber! Now, try doing that about 20 times, and in between, sing low, medium, high, soft, low. And every time you get back to those high As, they have to be as fresh and pure as the first time around.

High A is definitely not my favorite pitch to sing. I have a minor passagio (break) around that point, which means that I shift from the middle part of my range to a higher, lighter part. High B-flats are always better! (I would have been very happy if the whole Symphony were in E-flat major instead of D major, which Beethoven probably chose to take advantage of the brilliancy of the trumpets and timpani.)

So, how does one sing the Choral Symphony without blowing a gasket, developing an aversion to ledger lines, or hating Beethoven altogether? It takes some preparation and consideration of historical, musical, and vocal contexts.

Scoring and Vocal Assignments. Beethoven calls for larger vocal and instrumental forces than had generally been used previously, and he often calls upon the musicians to play and sing very loudly for very long periods. Sometimes the instruments double the vocal parts; sometimes they are playing contrasting parts. In either case, the voices need to be heard over, through, and beyond a very large orchestra. Singing without vibrato and with a clear, focused tone will help the voices to blend and carry. Lightness, clarity, purity of tone.

Ensemble Size and Distribution. It’s easy to get carried away with the energy, emotion, and sheer physical exuberance of this music, but one does so at the risk of vocal injury. The [ensemble] has 170 singers; at least 72 of these are sopranos, and 37 are first sopranos like me. With that many voices, none of us needs to scream. Only at a few places do we really need to sing very, very loudly. It’s too easy to get too loud, at which point the voice becomes…ugly.

Program Considerations. The Choral Symphony is the only work on this program that the [ensemble] will be performing, so our voices should be fresh,. But we have performances back to back on Friday and Saturday, so we’ll need to pace ourselves so as to be fresh for the second performance, as well.

So, What is the “Right Voice?” For me, lightness and clarity is key to not getting tired. The more vibrato I allow in this sort of singing (especially in loud passages), the heavier and less pleasant the voice becomes, and the more quickly I tire. 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.

To read all my essays on my experiences as a chorister, including more on technique, click here:


  1. May sound weird, but I find singing high notes very soul cleaning, somehow.

    Years ago I had upstairs neighbors who played punk music at 2 AM on Friday nights. I asked, I complained, no go... finally, one Sunday morning I turned on the last movement of Beethoven's Ninth at about 8:00 AM. Played the whole thing, all the way through, twice.

    Never had a problem again.

    I think LVB would have approved.

  2. Hello, and thanks for your message! I love singing high notes, too, and yes, there is a sense of freedom associated with high singing. I love those ledger lines! The trick in Beethoven is to take care with the voice so that one is able to sing high, loud, and BEAUTIFULLY for 20 minutes. --Sarah

  3. I've sung both the Missa Solemnis and the 9th and I agree about the challenges of the latter! I have no problems with the top As. I used to be able to get top C, but now I find Bb a bit of a challenge as I get older. My "break" is around the E at the top of the stave. However, I find changing down from can belto to a quieter volume more difficult nowadays. My voice isn't as flexible as it used to be.


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