Songs With Words

2008 With the MIT Concert Choir and Chamber Chorus

Fundamentally, choral music is difficult to listen to. Certainly, there are technical issues that are prevalent throughout all of music — unusual dissonances, uncompromising forms and lengths — but choral music, in particular, adds another significant complexity.

Take, for instance, Brahms’s Op. 82 setting of Fredrich Schiller’s Nänie that begins with an oboe solo in a surprisingly sullen D major, accompanied by occasional arpeggios from the strings. This is incidental music in any other context. The notes wash over the audience with no real comprehension or effect. But the music begins to take purpose and direction when the choir enters one voice at a time in Brahms’s characteristic late-Romantic counterpoint, coalescing around the somber paean: “Auch das Schöne muß sterben.” (Even the beautiful must die.)

Or we can turn our attention to a particular moment in Benjamin Britten’s Cantata Misericordium, Op. 69. The scene is arresting in its turbidity: a tenor soloist sings a tender lullaby, gracefully careening between F sharp major and A sharp minor in triple meter, while a vulgar chorus chants the moral of the cantata, a meditation on the power of compassion (jarringly set in the D Lydian scale, duple meter). It’s tempting (and were it solely an instrumental piece, easy too) to let these harmonically and rhythmically difficult moments pass by in confusion. But here, as in most choral music, text is the sticking point. Whereas music by itself can be ignored, words draw immediacy and attention to these distressing sounds.

Perhaps that’s where audience and chorister come to an inevitable impasse, why radio stations such as WCRB-FM will deliberately substitute orchestral arrangements for famous vocal or choral pieces, why, despite being one of the oldest forms of continually performed music in the western canon (prototypes of most of the instruments in the modern orchestra appear roughly three hundred years ago, while the human voice has remained relatively unchanged since its inception), the most well-attended venues are reserved for orchestral and instrumental chamber performances. Let there be no doubt: choral music is difficult to listen to.

While the virtues of studying choral music might seem unclear in this light, there is yet much to learn from the exercise and the choirs at MIT are exemplary in this pursuit. This past year being no exception to its strikingly ambitions programming, members of the MIT Concert Choir and Chamber Chorus (both ensembles under the direction of Dr. William Cutter) performed works by the leading thinkers of choral music in history, spanning most of modern choral history.

It’s a curious, but important, list that exposes both performers and audience to a wide variety of music: over the past year, the MIT Chamber Chorus, a smaller ensemble optimal for performing chamber choral works, learned and performed works by the baroque composer J. S. Bach (Cantata BWV 21, “Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis”), early twentieth century composers Benjamin Britten (Cantata Misericordium, Op. 69), Irving Fine (The Choral New Yorker, selections from The Hour Glass) and recently deceased MIT professor Edward Cohen (Invisible Cities). A larger ensemble, the MIT Concert Choir saw almost as great a diversity in their repertoire, performing works by the baroque composer G. F. Händel (Alexander’s Feast, HWV 75), romantic composers Hector Berlioz (Symphonie Funèbre et Triomphale, Op. 15, in collaboration with the MITSO) and Johannes Brahms (Nänie, in collaboration with the MITSO), early twentieth-century composers Maurice Duruflé (Requiem, Op. 9) and Ralph Vaughan Williams (Five Mystical Songs, in collaboration with MITSO and Mass in G minor) and contemporary composer Randall Thompson (Peaceable Kingdom).

What’s surprising about this list is its omissions. Although MIT offers concentrations in music, the members in these groups run the gamut from amateur musicians with little or no musical training to formal musicians. It’s surprising that the Concert Choir and Chamber Chorus programs don’t offer pieces that are written specifically for choirs of mixed training — études meant as choral lessons — that often plague programs of choirs of this level. The works performed in both of these groups are real in the truest sense of the word: the Duruflé Requiem (Op. 9) or Ralph Vaughan Williams Mass in G minor were composed for choirs of musicians intimately familiar with their respective sonorities musical languages, Mr. Cohen’s almost neurotically internalized work, Invisible Cities, setting portions of Italo Calvino’s work of the same title (often more parlando than song), to music, posed equal challenges for hired professional soloist and orchestra as it did for choral members.

What is perhaps most striking is that much of this music is reserved almost exclusively for conservatory and professional choirs. Both the Cantata Misericordium and Irving Fine pieces were performed independently by Cantata Singers at Jordan Hall this season, while many of the other works regularly appear in the programs of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus or Emmanuel Music.

It may be surprising, but it’s true: the result is that the music works. The pieces performed by the Concert Choir and Chamber Chorus are fundamentally serious works considering and detailing serious texts that form a canon of Western music as much as the instrumental tradition. Certainly, the intrinsic technicality makes the music difficult to perform, but, in a sense, these are only the most rudimentary concerns when performing choral music. It’s after the notes are learned, in consideration of how the text and the music inform and augment each other, that the choral ensembles at MIT are at their most successful: how remarkable and moving to hear Randall Thompson’s setting of texts from the book of Isaiah in Peaceable Kingdom (his setting of “The paper reeds by the brooks, by the mouth of the brooks, and every thing sown by the brooks, shall wither, be driven away, and be no more” is, at its least effective, haunting), to hear Ben Jonson speaking through Irving Fine’s music, John Dryden through Händel’s, to listen to Benjamin Britten proselytize the power of human mercy, to witness Brahms quietly sobbing over the death of Anselm Feuerbach.

Certainly, the virtues of studying, performing, or listening to choral music aren’t clear. Singing in a chorus doesn’t command nearly the same respect or awe as an orchestral instrumentalist of similar abilities and, given current state of WCRB-ization of choral music, any appreciation of the complexities and challenges of this music is sure to be rendered socially irrelevant and obsolete in the foreseeable future. It’s hard to remember that this music, for better or worse, isn’t about that at all. To be sure, it’s very different and, considering the amount of time and energy that students in these choirs spend tending to the seemingly sisyphean task of learning and performing these works, of approaching and reconciling the gaping void between text and music, it’s hard not to be proud of them.