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two messiahs

Earlier this evening, I had the very great pleasure of attending a concert by the Bach Collegium San Diego which included a few pieces I had sung before.[1] There was Eric Whitacre’s Lux Aurumque, Morten Lauridsen’s O Nata Lux, and also Komm, Jesu, komm by one J. S. Bach. It is relatively recently that I’ve sung the first two (2011), but for the last one I have to go back all the way to 2005. Considering that I first heard and joined a choir in 2002, and did not know the first thing about music notation, I think that 2005 counts as my choral infancy, so it is interesting that there are fragments of that Komm, Jesu, komm that are still completely clear in my mind. Floating soprano lines can do that to you, I suppose. And being a YouTube addict probably helps as well.

A double choir piece by Bach must have been well beyond my abilities in 2005, and probably is somewhat so even now, but it is still “mine” in some strange sense. And Lux Aurumque and O Nata Lux are unquestionably “mine,” because, rightly or wrongly, I felt this evening that I could just jump up and sing my part in them, as if I had been rehearsing them all this time. (Yes, I know I am kidding myself.)

I had the same sense last December, when I heard Marc Charpentier’s Messe de Minuit pour Noël, being sung by a local choir. This is a piece I have sung not once but twice, and the first time was in fact the first time I ever sang in a choir at all, back in the Fall of 2002. My reasons for joining a choir are obscure at best, but I clearly remember a moment in an early rehearsal, when I was sitting somewhere in the middle, and could hear all the parts. I probably had no idea where in the music we were, so complete was my cluelessness, but I had the sensation of being inside a well of stereophonic sound, with all the parts weaving in and out around me, a bit like walking inside an aquarium. It’s probably fair to say that it was the moment when I got hooked to this “choral singing” business.

The great thing about continuing any activity over a long period is that you can see your relationship to the same things develop over time. When I did the same piece again in 2009, not only was it much easier, as if Charpentier had gotten simpler in seven years, but I also noticed that I was enjoying the Les Arts Florissants recording that I have of it much more. There was room in my head to appreciate the energy of the singers, the contrast of tempi and dynamics, and the quality of the playing.

Other pieces that I have repeated are Handel’s Messiah (naturally) and the Bach Magnificat. In both those I sang a different voice part (or “changed teams” as a fellow alto commented) when I repeated the piece (alto and soprano for Messiah, alto and mezzo for the Magnificat), so it wasn’t quite the same as repeating the piece, but in some ways it has made the pieces more “mine” because I’ve sung more than one part.[2]

I suppose what I am really saying, as I live through my choral adolescence, is that I am slowly having a sense of personal musical history, and, to be perfectly honest, this thought gives me the warm fuzzies. Also, I realize full well that it isn’t really about me. Just as a classic novel rewards reading and rereading even centuries after its creation, these pieces all reward singing and resinging. There is a reason they have survived so many centuries. With them there is always something new to discover or improve. And there is always something about revisiting the piece that makes it more “mine”. If sightreading a brand new piece, happy in the knowledge that there will be a chance to learn it properly, gives me a high, revisiting something I’ve sung before is like a familiar, comfort blanket. There is nothing quite like it.

[1] Their rendition of Hieronymus Praetorius’s Factum est Silentium was perhaps my favourite piece of the evening. Lively, athletic singing, and they were clearly having so much fun that it was infectious. And Jenny Spence ruled, as always.

[2] Additionally, singing soprano on Messiah gave me quite a high, pun intended. And above all, I learnt this: the single thing to most avoid while singing soprano is yelling. It ruins everything. Yes.

Also, even though the Hallelujah chorus is almost certainly the most sung piece of choral music in the English-speaking world, it is not true that choristers can just sing the parts on sight on the first go, even if they have done it once before. I should know, I was there at that first rehearsal.