The American choral Bible begins: In the beginning, there was Olaf Christiansen, who begat F. Melius Christiansen, who begat Paul Christiansen. A couple of states over, Fred Waring begat Robert Shaw, who then proceeded to grow up. Roger Wagner in California, Robert Fountain in the Midwest, and Gregg Smith on the East Coast, along with the Shaw Chorale, constituted the first Golden Age of American choral singing in this century. Then Shaw disbanded the Chorale, Roger Wagner and Robert Fountain confined themselves to their regions, and Gregg Smith's Singers seem to change to an ad hoc bunch for recordings. All these groups shared the serious exploration of great choral music at a highly professional level. When they disbanded or crumbled to powder, the United States had lost its best and the choral tradition entered a dark period, from which it now seems to have emerged. More really good new American choirs have appeared and, even better, are recording. We still need a viable commercial atmosphere for them, however.
There are essentially 3 types of choral groups: the large symphonic choir, almost always associated with an orchestra (the Mormon Tabernacle Choir is the best-known of these, but Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Atlanta make them look very bad indeed); variations on the vocal quartet, from 4 to 8 singers (eg, the Deller Consort, King's Singers); and the chamber choir (25-60 singers; the Shaw Chorale and The Tallis Scholars, for example). The symphonic choir mostly ignores a cappella singing, because it exists to do the large choral-orchestral works of Handel, Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Verdi, Bruckner, Mahler, Vaughan Williams, Britten, and Stravinsky. Yet a cappella singing is to the chorus as string quartets are to chamber music. The core repertoire lies there. At the other end, the "one-to-a-part" group is largely confined to a cappella music, but only with complete success to a small piece of it – in effect, "household music." The chamber choir can do both, but the meat of its repertoire lies in a cappella masses, motets, Bach cantatas and motets (not necessarily a cappella), Mozart's Missae Breves, Romantic part-songs, Brahms' motets, and a mountain of 20th-century work from all countries, in every conceivable style. Its advantage over the large choir lies usually in its flexibility and greater subtlety of expression. It scores over the small group in its greater range of dynamics and in its greater vocal weight.
England, Scandinavia, and the Baltic have always had strong traditions in fostering this kind of ensemble. It has led a more precarious life in the United States. Over the last twenty years, however, we've seen the rise of the L.A. Master Chorale, Chanticleer, Dennis Keene's Voices of Ascension, the Kansas City Chorale, Robert Ross's Voces Novae et Antiquae, John Oliver's Tanglewood Festival Chorus, and the Dale Warland Singers. Each of these groups has its distinct sound and aesthetic. Dale Warland's group, to my ear, seems strongly influenced by Scandinavia, particularly by the Swedish and Danish state radio choirs. Yes, just about every country around the Baltic actually puts government money into maintaining crack choirs, the degenerate bastards.
Without debating the political appropriateness of such an action, I believe both sides of that particular argument would have to agree that the presence of that support has a detectable effect on the musical life of the country. Our top composers don't normally write choral music, and when they do, they often write something unrelated to their style in other genres. Barber, William Schuman, and Elliott Carter are exceptions to this, and Copland (who admitted he simply disliked the sound of an a cappella choir) produced nevertheless one outstanding work, In the Beginning, which makes no concession at all to the executants and which shares the musical concerns of his other music of the 40s. These examples are fairly rare. Most others somehow dilute their style or produce something "other," mainly because American choral music is usually seen as catering to high-school abilities, although with the demise of music programs in schools (other than the sports marching band), this is probably not as lucrative as it used to be.
In Scandinavia and the Baltic, one can perceive no such schism. Norgaard, Tormis, Pärt, Görecki, Penderecki, and Rautavaara are pretty much their usual selves whether they write for choir, chamber musicians, or orchestra.
Furthermore, the presence of such top-flight ensembles provides an audible standard and a route to that standard. Because the human voice is the instrument, more people potentially have access to the route. No expensive strings or horns or keyboards involved. I wonder how many first made active contact with great music through an amateur choir. It seems to me a very powerful raiser of a country's general culture.
I wouldn't call the Dale Warland Singers the best the United States has because at their very high level, "best" has little meaning. The sound is an American one, which in general values clarity of texture and independence of each part over homogenous blend and which favors the sound of grownups (as opposed to boy trebles) singing with a natural vibrato, neither straightened nor excessively wobbly. The link with the Scandinavian choirs lies in its precision of attack and in its serious commitment to "hard" modern and contemporary repertoire. No bon-bons here.
In this view, the Allegri Miserere – the early Baroque masterpiece the boy Mozart, having heard it in performance, "stole" from the Vatican by writing it out from memory – becomes the program oddity. The piece, nine minutes of nearly total block-chord writing and dissonance by suspension, broken up with chant, severely challenges a choir's intonation and stamina. As the Miserere proceeds to its conclusion, singers tend to go flat. In addition, Allegri throws in a ear-opening high C (more than once) to the soprano cantus in a contrasting solo group. The choir can't hide behind contrapuntal fireworks or exotic harmonies. Switching from full choir to chant to solo group – in short, the work's sectional nature – exposes a choir to the danger of sloppy attack as well as of loss of momentum. Warland's singers sail through the reefs unharmed and muster a great deal of intensity besides. This is classy singing. I quibble only with the sound, not that the disc is badly recorded, but with the sound of the recording hall (St. Bernard's Catholic Church in St. Paul, Minnesota). It's bright enough, but a bit "metallic." For comparison, try Peter Phillips's Tallis Scholars in Oxford's Merton College Chapel. Also, I'm not convinced that the American sound is right for this music, and I favor the English one, more homogenous and "creamy." Again, the Tallis Scholars' tone is for me the beautiful exemplar.
Frank Martin (he's French Swiss, so pronounce his name Frahnk Mar-TAN) is a modern composer notable for the strong religious component in his output, including two very large oratorios modeled on the Bach Passions: Golgotha and In terra pax. In this aspect of his music, he follows the Honegger of Jeanne d'Arc au bucher. In others, he puts an individual twist on Stravinskian neoclassicism – for most 20th-century French composers, the lingua franca. In my opinion, his Mass stands as one of the finest extended a cappella works of the century, along with Vaughan Williams' Mass in g, Hindemith's Mass, Distler's Weihnachtsgeschichte, and Schoenberg's Friede auf Erden. It comes closest to the Vaughan Williams Mass, in that it too looks back to Renaissance choral writing.
The very title – Mass for two 4-part choirs – implies its difficulties. At one level, the composer explores virtuoso choral "orchestration" – antiphony, various mixtures consisting of selected voices from both groups, solo against mass, simultaneous independent material on both sides of the aisle, and full choir. At another, the title implies independence not only of line (counterpoint) but of two sources of sound. The opening Kyrie demonstrates all of it, beginning with a soprano line and ending in the massed choirs. The choir sings thrillingly in tune, to the extent that its intonation comes off as an "effect" during long passages of enharmonic modulation. The individual lines of counterpoint stand out as clearly as tropical fish in a glass tank, and the singers control dynamics from triple-p to fortissimo. Furthermore, once they get loudest, they can fall back to build up the next climax without tripping up or resorting to a hokey subito. I've heard Ericson's Swedish Radio Choir, Darlington's Christ Church Cathedral, Sjokvist's Stockholm Cathedral, and Robert Shaw's Festival Singers as well. None comes up to Warland's level, technically or poetically.
Samuel Barber arranged or approved four different versions of the Adagio for Strings: the original movement of his string quartet, the version for full string orchestra, William Strickland's arrangement for organ, and, finally, the composer's recasting as a standalone Agnus Dei. This particular incarnation has never convinced me, either as an Agnus Dei or as a choral piece. The words stick to the music like Post-its. The long pedal points, so effective in the lower strings, seem lame in the voices, as if the composer couldn't come up with a really interesting part. Barber certainly knew how to write idiomatically for chorus, and in those original works sharing with the Agnus Dei a general emotional locus, everybody has something better to do than hold a note. I first heard Harry Christophers and The Sixteen in this work. I put down my dissatisfaction to lack of vocal weight. Although I love the work in its original form as part of a string quartet, the string-orchestra version overwhelms me. The Adagio becomes for me two different pieces. As an independent work, its unashamed Romanticism cries out for big sonority, and The Sixteen are just too few. I started to drool when I saw the Agnus Dei on the Robert Shaw's Festival Singers CD Evocation of the Spirit (I intend to review this later), but dried up pretty quickly once I heard it – bad intonation, poor blend, forced tone. Again, Warland beats those I've heard. The difficulties of the piece are essentially those of the Allegri Miserere – keeping pitch ranking as the chief obstacle. Strings have less of a problem sustaining pitch while holding notes. They also don't confront the problems of breath the way singers must, so the phrases tend to stretch out. Choral singers accomplish sostenuto by "staggering" breath – ie, not everyone breathes at the same time, and this can become tricky. I've heard plenty of choirs suddenly drop the musical thread. The Warland Singers' pitch is spot-on and the tone clear as a silver bell, while they summon up the necessary weight for the sound and length for the phrase. Even more important, the piece is essentially a series of builds and fallbacks, and for a choir, louder is usually easier than softer. Again, the Warland Singers give the impression that it's simply the most natural thing in the world. I marvel at the performance, even through the flaws of the piece.
Herbert Howells's music never really moved me. The composer always seemed to be holding back a full commitment to his ideas or committing to ideas essentially very small. I admit the music very well made. For many years, the exception to this was his Hymnus Paradisi (1950), a complex work for orchestra, double chorus, and soloists – written as an artistic response to the death of his 9-year-old son. It was long available only in a performance led by the admirable David Willcocks, but it's the kind of piece that needs at least 20 performances before someone finds the handle. Despite wonderful moments, this account meandered. I found the same true of Handley's reading on Hyperion. Two years before he died, Howells released his Requiem for unaccompanied choir, written in 1936. For over four decades, he kept it shut in a drawer, because he found the music – again written as a memorial to his son – too painful to listen to. The ideas of the Requiem found their way into the later Hymnus, where their full impact hides behind the panoply of forces, which suggests that the composer intended to bury the Requiem forever. For me, this is his greatest work, full of grief, pain, and the (to me, tenuous) hope of acceptance. I'm happy he opened the drawer.
Howells avoids the usual requiem mass. Instead, he provides two settings of a Requiem aeternam, a Salvator mundi, Psalms 23 and 121, and "I heard a voice from heaven." To some extent, the musical idiom derives from Vaughan Williams, but the emotion of the piece is far from Vaughan Williams. The older composer did seem to accept the death of others, perhaps because he saw so many of his own family die from his childhood on. Vaughan Williams was not exactly complacent about death, but his music's serenity does seem genuine. In the Requiem, Howells's nerves are exposed. It attempts to come to terms with death in its choice of text – "Blessed are the dead which dieth in the Lord" – but the effect on my ears is almost pure grief. No wonder he couldn't listen to it.
I know one other performance of this work: the British Matthew Best and the Corydon Singers on Hyperion. Right out of the gate, they have the tremendous advantage of "the English sound" in an English work. Most British composers, quite understandably, have that sound in mind when they write for chorus. Howells, in particular, was unusually sensitive to conditions of choral performance. To my thinking, almost all the masterpieces of this school change character (not always for the worse) when performed by Americans, Scandinavians, or Germans. Warland doesn't even try for the English sound. The Brits own the authenticity of context, or place.
However, they struggle with pitch, usually ending up a few cents flat at the end of a section (not really enough to worry about). More importantly, tones passed from voice to voice often don't match, and the Corydon Singers often lose their harmonic focus. It's not entirely their fault, either: Howells wrote a tremendously difficult work. Despite the struggles, however, their performance remains at thoroughly professional level.
Again, the Warland Singers' intonation and clarity of choral texture do nothing less than amaze. Warland never allows the group to let up their emotional intensity, an unfortunate side effect of the chordal fuzz from the Corydon Singers. Which group you prefer will probably depend on your view of the work. To some extent, the Corydon Singers' technical imperfections seem to enhance the sincerity of their performance and remind us of the humanity of grief. On the other hand, Warland's reading keeps the sheer beauty of the music in front of us. It does not ignore grief, but it does do its part to console.
For choral fans and for those who want to begin exploring this repertoire, a must-have.
Copyright © 1996, Steve Schwartz