What language we sangin’ in, anyway?

Monday night I saw our Chorale and the members of the Mid-Columbia Master Singers in Richland, Washington. Our first challenge was getting used to a venue nobody had sung in before- the Master Singers’ usual venue was not open. I was a little nervous about having only one rehearsal with the singers before the orchestra rehearsals, although the OES Chorale has been working with our chorus master for a while and the Master Singers recently performed the piece with their MD, Justin Raffa. One of the difficulties of doing such a well known work, one which most of the choir will have sung before, is that everyone comes in with their own history with the piece. This can be enriching, but it also means people are often used to doing things a different way, and sometimes singers need time and incentive to change their ways. The guys who have done the prep work have had my tempi and diction instructions, so I had to trust that the foundations of a unified performance were there.

The sanctuary of the church was warm (not always something you can count on) and the piano was pretty good, but it was a hard room to hear in. The excessive carpet made it sound a bit like everyone was singing through a paper bag at first. I hate carpet.

I’ve asked the choir to sing using Austro-German pronunciation. It’s not the first time for us- we did the Dvorak Stabat Mater that way a few years ago, and our last collaboration with the Master Singers was the Mozart C minor Mass, also in German Latin. It’s never posed any particular problems, but our chorus master this time has made clear he’s not a fan. For me there are two obvious and compelling reasons for using German Latin. First, it seems most likely that this was the language as it would have been sung in Mozart’s time, and perhaps this gets us just that little bit closer to his world. Second, German Latin is a harder, more austere sound-world than Church Latin- I find that austerity and all those hard consonants give the music even more spine and severity, which seems appropriate in this piece in particular.

There is a third reason- left to our own devices, we sing most carelessly in the languages we feel most at home in. American choirs are often at best unintelligible in a piece like Messiah, at worst, our regional accents can come through in Handel’s music to hilarious effect. Church Latin is everyone’s next most comfortable language, and the vowels one hears from many of our choirs are not what Mozart, even with his fluency in Italian and Latin, would have recognized! Of course, it’s every conductor’s job to fix that, but a foray into a different Latin can let us hear plain-old American Latin with fresh ears.

Whatever the language, this piece needs a lot of it. I’ve heard over 100 Mozart Requiems, and only a few of those were really alive on every consonant and vowel. The music is in the language in this piece- it tells you the phrasing and the articulation all the way through. I just heard a very strange performance of the Kyrie the other day- I always have the strings play very marcato in the fugue subject to match the “K” in “Kyrie.” This group was a period ensemble, and the conductor had obviously asked the strings to begin with one of those soft-edged swell-ey bow strokes we all love. In order to reconcile this with the choir, they sang something like “ear ee ay?” Bizarre. I don’t know if I’ll achieve everything I want to in this piece, but you’ll certainly get a “K” on “Kyrie” if I have any say in it….

“Sing the words, not the music, because in the words is the meaning, and in the meaning is the music.” Benjamin Britten

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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