Singing styles
  • IanWIanW
    Posts: 749
    There's been discussion here and elsewhere of liturgical choral styles, their variety and merits (or otherwise). It's mostly been in relation to polyphony, but discussion of plainsong has also touched on it.

    All this was brought to mind when preparing for a friend's wedding, in which the choir had been asked to sing Purcell's I Was Glad. I didn't know this setting, so put some time aside to look at it before the big day. There was clearly some scope for interpretation, so it occurred to me to see if there were any broadcasts of it on YouTube, and lo and behold, there were six, all from the same event: it was chosen as a compulsory piece at this year's International Chamber Choir Competition in Marktoberdorf.

    Now I know it's not a mass-setting, and the performance context isn't liturgical, but: it's unaccompanied sacred music (a setting from the Psalms); it's a mixture of homophony and polyphony; and the singers are competent amateurs, of the kind a parish might look to attract or develop, as opposed to those who are paid to sing at the centres of excellence we all revere. There isn't an Anglophone or Italian ensemble in sight. The choirs are from Argentina, Germany (*2), Norway, the Philippines and Russia, and the wide range of sounds and interpretations reflects both their places of origin and the ages of the singers. To my mind, all these styles would "work" liturgically, and that serves as a word of caution to those who are fixed on one particular sound.

    To watch and listen, just go to YouTube and search for "Purcell I was Glad Marktoberdorf" (minus the quotation marks).

    Then come back here and tell us what you think about varieties of liturgical choral style.
  • Not sure that this is the best example. A pure piece of liturgical music can be easily destroyed but the high-drama, thick vibrato stylings that people are often taught in music school. In our own schola, we've learned to be very wary of anyone "trained" to sing because they have a hard time adjusting to chant and polyphony. We are fortunate to only deal with people whose main experience in singing has been in early music, mostly with our own schola.

    This is a very serious subject that, so far as I can tell, hasn't been aggressively tackled by the sacred music community.
  • OK. I listened. Unfortunately, the sound quality suffers from the technology a bit. YouTube always seems to have a wobbling artifact in its sound. I have pretty good bandwith too. Anyway, most of the groups understood the centrality of the dance in baroque music, although the Russian conductor didn't. I guess I don't have quite a good enough ear to pick up the regional differences outside of that. I could hear, mainly, the different sounds of the groups based on their composition and the tempo taken by the conductor. One big difference between these groups and the Sistine is that these choirs employ diction, tend to intonation (some better than others), and sing ... wait for it ... as a group. We can talk tradition all day, but I won't be sold until the Sistine attends to the essentials of choral singing. Right now they sing like some opera choruses, which try to out shout each other. The best opera choruses are made up of folks are not trying to be "heard" in hopes of getting a solo role. The Met chorus is a good example of a group that knows its job.

  • IanWIanW
    Posts: 749
    I think Jeffrey's right that this isn't necessarily the best starting point for the discussion, but it's available, and has some relevance. If anyone can point us to similar side-by-side amateur performances of Palestrina, Victoria et al, that would be great.

    There are some notable differences among the choral approaches. Consider the two choirs from Spanish-colonial countries. The Philippine and Argentine choirs are very different creatures in terms of approach and accomplishment, but they both display a certain Latin vibrancy that's a blend of phrasing, tuning and well-controlled vibrato. The Argentine choir in particular shows that this can be successfully combined with good diction and lightness of touch.

    The German choirs produce a much straighter sound, more akin to what the Anglophone world thinks of as the 'early music' sound. I don't think, however, that this makes them 'better' than the Argentines - just different. The Russians are different again. They're - well, very Russian. Rich, mellow, a hint of the nasal at times and bags of well-controlled vibrato, which doesn't get in the way of intonation or diction (all the more remarkable for singers whose first language is Slavic). It works for me.

    The Norwegians are interesting. They have a number of older singers, particularly noticeable amongst the Sopranos, and so are more typical of the range of singers likely to be available to a parish DM. Their Director has, however, shown that it is possible to combine such voices to good effect, with satisfactory diction, blend and intonation.

    None of these approaches is inherently 'better' than the others. Rather, the performances suggest that what matters is a combination of discipline, proficiency and musicality, at the service of music and text; and that this can achieve good results in a variety of choral styles. If only a certain choir in the Vatican would get the message ...
  • Lawrence
    Posts: 123
    A few things to add here:

    1. I am suspicious of any dogma when it comes to stuff like this. The essential problem when it comes to the choir's sound is respect for the texture of the music. Polyphony requires transparency, so excessive vibrato doesn't work. However, this does not seal the victory for the Early Musick approach. (Think of the Westminster Cathedral choir, which has issued brilliant recordings of polyphony that is nevertheless sung with a full-bodied sound.) Instead of "performance practice" standards, it's often more productive to ask the question, "What works with this piece of music?" The answers will often indeed be manifold.

    2. Trained singers are not the problem. It's the trained singers who have been poorly trained that you need to watch out for. It's a case-by-case basis, really. You never really know how good someone is until you hear him sing.

    One of the characteristics of a true professional musician is that he knows what he's capable of. Some sing only opera; some sing only "early music" or sacred music. Some can do both. Some went to school, others didn't. But the bottom line is that competence is competence, and incompetence is incompetence. Only the hopelessly incompetent think that a screeching warble is what a trained voice sounds like.
  • Right about the historically-informed approach. I use 3 examples in my classes: Westminster for the a capella large-group sound of larger cathedrals (Seville, Papal Choir, Munich, et al.); The Sixteen for what might have been a super provincial cathedral or collegiate church (say Vallodolid or Bergamo); and a group called the Orchestra of the Renaissance (on Glossa) for showing how instruments may have doubled voices and interpolated improvisations. All are good, but quite different.

  • francisfrancis
    Posts: 9,289
    I tend to agree with MEL. Straight tone allows for harmonics/overtones to appear; and for transparency you just can't get it if you have warblers. Of course, we are assuming you have an acoustically live environment. (There is nothing worse than a church in the round with carpet. That has got to be one of the worst enemies of choral music.)