Delicate Allegri Conversations
  • JesJes
    Posts: 508
    Hi all,
    Just wondering how I can explain to the man that I work with that I think this is a project for another time or possibly a never to be accomplished project in the pipe dreams with the current ensemble...

    I've been working on settling into one area, building the nest (and maybe family) so to speak.
    I really love the parish I'm working in right now.
    The singing is ordinary but the heart and soul and faithfulness is there.

    The old chap that has built the ship and who has graciously allowed me to codirect tries incredibly hard.
    He has, like few directors I've admired across the years, made his own hymnal, compiles the schedule of music every week, is incredibly devoted to making the music special in the parish.
    He is faithful and prayerful.
    However, unlike the other geniuses I've worked with he is lacking in experience of true quality of music.
    His input of effort seems to be equal to quantity over quality and there appears to be a group who all think it is wonderful (the choir) and a larger group that suffer it in silence (the congregation!)
    We have a plethora of instrumental noise, a descant for nearly everything sung (including responses in mass), solo singers who are hired "professionals" etc.
    It can feel like overkill. It's overkill with its heart in the right place.

    I believe that my partnership with him has been great. I've won him over to see beauty in the church. I've managed to show him that quality exceeds quantity a great deal of the time.
    I've done this by reducing organ stops, giving more silence at communion, hiring a Catholic singer who sings the words not random concert style melismas And increasing unaccompanied music in advent and lent, offering to lead and sing chant propers.
    We have gotten really far. The other day I really felt like he agreed with me about the singer we have who is not pulling their weight and appears to not only disregard the church but also disrespect it.

    But... I can't seem to convince him that simplified versions of music are not always possible when it comes to meeting the beauty criteria we have been working on...

    Allegri. Miserere, transposed, unison, accompanied, and in English.
    I think it's too hard for the ensemble and the group are singing it poorly.
    1. The group struggle to sing unison even when singing repetitive Taize music. I'd argue we need to master unison first before trying difficult music in unison that isn't designed to be written for unison singing.
    2. The work is transposed down so the highest note is A. It is still too high for the ensemble.
    3. The English words are accented in awkward positions when using the rhythm of the Latin.
    4. The non Catholic "hired professionals" are missing the solemn aspect of the work despite the translation... recording the words in rehearsal to "vegan sacrifices" and simply just singing la la la when there are words they don't agree with I don't put it past them to do this also in the actual mass at the microphone whilst swhooshing their hair around like they're on a L'Oreal commercial...
    5. The rhythm is incorrect, the pitch is bad and simply this does not sound beautiful but rather quite the opposite, the singers are frustrated when we try and tell them it is incorrect and are backchatting towards this man saying they have it right. He's not got the cooperation he needs to make this work.

    When we last spoke he said he was losing sleep over trying this in the mass because he agreed it sounded pretty trying.
    I personally will be doing this with another choir (of capable and sensitive liturgical singers) as part of tenebrae and I know that should he hear it he will realise that the work is really designed to be done true to form and with skilled singers who understand the brevity of the work. I will find it challenging enough with this group to achieve this.

    I understand the hype people have about this work is the soaring high C sung by a pure voiced singer.
    But... I dont know that people fully realise it is the other singers that make that note really happen...
    A beautiful finial on a rooftop is no good if the house below is crumbling or worse the foundation was just never laid.
    Organ accompaniment is actually no substitute for the voice in this work. Just as much as cello tape cannot replace gaffa (cloth) tape.

    I'd much rather he stopped losing sleep and drop this work from the list to be honest.
    I don't want to see him embarrassed because he does some truly good work for the LORD.
    I imagine over the coming rehearsals I can be more convincing as it is unlikely to improve and id like to believe my diplomacy will work this time around.

    I know I myself had to face a situation where I couldn't sing tenor for a whole week and then sing the top C for Miserere in lieu of an absent soprano and I've had to ask the director to can the work because I don't feel up to it.
    And I also recall having a conversation with someone who wanted me to try sing the high C for it but their tempo was so slow there was no way I could get through the whole phrase... let alone the phrases before.
    As someone who is not primarily a trained singer but more organist and conductor I've had great difficulty trying to explain to various groups that the high C in and of itself isn't hard but the turn following is the harder part, especially if the vocalists break is on the soprano G. (Where mine sits.)
    This year I've teamed up with another mezzo soprano like myself and we will be taking turns each time it comes around. Even the great group I have doing it, I'm likely to pull the plug on it if it isn't nice. (Holy week being a particularly cold and dry week in Melbourne's cold and flu season usually.)

    I feel like I've been very lucky to not have to have this conversation with a prima Donna soprano set on hitting that note for concert like purposes.

    I guess what I'd love to know is how many others have had to have a delicate conversation about the Miserere?
    How did it go down?
    I imagine many have had some of the conversations I have had about this...
    After all... we can't just rely on the helium balloon method some use.
  • Incardination
    Posts: 617

    That's a challenge for certain. The bottom line is that sometimes, "you can lead a horse to water but you can't make them drink it."

    I've done it with 2 choirs, both of whom had the high-C and the ability to make it work. (Not a choir I was directing the 1st time; and urgently sought by my assistant director, led by her (she had the high C) the 2nd time). Although it was successful in both groups, I personally would rather not do it in any choir I direct - it's too much investment of time for too little use.

    However, you also are in a somewhat delicate position. Perhaps the best thing would be to record the next rehearsal and share the Miserere section with him alone, expressing your concerns that he would be receptive to. Those might be
    a) this is where we are right now with the piece - are we going to truly be ready in 2 weeks?
    b) is this the overall sound we want to present? The text rhythms and pitch may not be working. I don't know that it will be what we want to present when we do so many other things well.
    and / or c) I'm concerned that we are going to have to invest so much time to get this to an acceptable point that we will compromise other things in the larger scheme of Holy Week that would be more effective use of our rehearsal time.

    Ultimately, there is little more you can do except grit your teeth if he doesn't pull the plug.

    In the second situation I had with the Miserere, I shared my overall concerns with my assistant before we started practicing it - she was not to be dissuaded. We sang it for a Passion Sunday concert where it largely went well... but she was without voice to sing it for Good Friday as originally intended, and when we had the conversation after Holy Week, she reluctantly agreed that it wasn't worth the time investment and it fell off the repertoire list. (I left that position - I hear she is bringing it back this season, some 4 years later).

    Best of luck to you!! Let us know how it goes!
  • JesJes
    Posts: 508
    @incardination that is fascinating.
    I must admit the time that has gone into this is exorbitant and definitely not worth it we could be refining something the choir are doing really well "Abide with me" in harmony is probably the first successful harmony they have ever sung! This could be a convincing point to add. Thanks.

    The other groups I've done this with and indeed my little scratch group do not spend much time preparing this together as it is expected that we can either read already or have sung this before or can put in the private rehearsal prior to meeting. Admittedly if this was a community choir I would need to spend a lot more time.

    I think I'll succeed in convincing him. Given he's lost sleep over this. It does sound THAT bad and he's not tasteless. He knows what he wants just not yet how to achieve it. I have managed to help improve their sound with the regular mass setting but like you know, it takes time to cement and even more time to be able to apply this to other works.
  • Liam
    Posts: 3,687
    Generally, once out of school, music in performance is not a terrain where "fake it 'til you make it" is sound advice, pun intended. Music in rehearsal is that place, not in final performance. There can be sound reasons to stretch rehearsal repertoire. But unless it's truly "ready", what happens in rehearsal should stay in rehearsal....
    Thanked by 1CHGiffen
  • JesJes
    Posts: 508
    @Liam great little anecdote. I guess my problem is that no amount of rehearsal will fix things.
    And the attitude of seeing mass as a performance has to stop. It is very much the view of performance that has led to the most problematic of our issues. Clearly our parish is the only place generous enough to listen to these "professional singers" in our community group. Performances are for the stage, not for the loft, lectern or trancept.
  • Liam
    Posts: 3,687

    "Performance" has many shades of meaning. It has a simple factual meaning when used in contrast to "rehearsal" as I was using it - the consummated public offering. It does not always connote ego-serving musicianship. The consummated public offering of sacred music is a performance (as is all ritual), but it should be without ego-serving musicianship.
  • Jeffrey Quick
    Posts: 1,490
    Miserere for unison and organ? That's the sort of thing I'd do. Except in this particular case, I wouldn't.

    I don't get the mystique. It's just a falsobordone. Granted it's a nice falsobordone, with particularly nice ornamentation on top. And if you have an opera-quality castrato on hand (or nearest female equivalent) and can pull it off, why not? But if you have a group that might be challenged by the unornamented version (as Allegri wrote it) and might better sing the psalm tone with accompaniment, why not do that, and do it well? And in English? There's a reason that Anglican chant was invented, and that reason is that English doesn't have the same rhythmic structure as Latin, and singing English to psalm tones always seems a bit awkward.

    What most disturbs me here is the attitude of your "profess...", er, paid people. One of the things they're getting paid to do is to fake being Catholic. You can't control what's in their head, and they don't have to fake devotion. But mocking the company's product and business goals is a good way to get replaced, in any business.

    Apparently, it's not really your gig. And this is a hard thing to deal with. The man takes great pride in his work. But that's the problem. He wants to do amazing things, without regard to whether they're suited to purpose, or successful. I know this temptation, and succumb to it on a regular basis. And then I get praised for the most boring things we do, and if we pull off something amazing, there's crickets. Perhaps that kind of subtle reward system from parishioners could turn this around.
  • canadashcanadash
    Posts: 1,395
    We tried it twice.
    It was better the second time.
    The first time it was like swimming in an ocean with lots of big waves. Think of each wave as a key change that should not be there.

    We did have the high C capability, but it was the choir that could not sustain the pitch over time. Then I had two men with perfect pitch who kept bringing the chant back up.

    It wasn't horrible, but as mentioned above, it was an awful lot of work for one performance.

    I've since found the Willan setting of the Reproaches and it works much better.
  • SalieriSalieri
    Posts: 2,373
    Canadash: That's part of a grand performance tradition! When Mendelssohn heard it at Tenebrae in the Sistine Chapel, the choir started in E minor (transposed up a sixth from G minor) and ended in B-flat minor--Don't be too disheartened!
    Thanked by 2canadash matildac
  • irishtenoririshtenor
    Posts: 1,029
    Salieri, so were the highest trebles aiming for an A above high C (up a 6th--which would really be something!) or an A below high C (down a minor 3rd)?
  • SalieriSalieri
    Posts: 2,373
    Irishtenor: No, only an E above high C. The familiar version of the Allegri a4 falsobordone is a 20th century error. It was cobbled together by a musicologist named Robert Haas, who corrupted the a4 by replacing the original second phrase with the now-famous high C bit sketched by Mendelssohn, which is simply the first phrase of the a4 chant, transposed up to C minor. Haas hadn't realized this, nor that Mendelssohn's sketch assumed a transposition of the entire piece up a fourth. This version was then used by Sir Ivor Atkins as the basis of his English version; it was this edition which popularized the piece in modern times. (Go ye to CPDL, and compare the a4 chants as found in the version from the 1661 Sistine Codex, and a modern Haas/Atkins version.)

    An interesting paper may be found here. And a recording by the Ensemble William Byrd, which alternates (historically accurately!) the a5 chant by Tomaso Bai with the a4 chant by Allegri, I believe they sing the whole piece in c minor (or so, maybe b minor): here.
  • SalieriSalieri
    Posts: 2,373
    Jes: I hope that you can convince him not to do it--it sounds like a disaster waiting to happen, something that neither you nor he wants. And the 'hired workers' are truly unprofessional. They've been hired to sing something, and it isn't up to them to not sing it properly because they don't agree with it--They have to sing it, its their job. (Goodness knows that in my time I have had to sing things in various groups that I don't agree with, but I do it anyway because its my job.) Frankly, if they worked for me, they'd be out before you could say "Miserere mei, Deus".
  • canadashcanadash
    Posts: 1,395
    Canadash: That's part of a grand performance tradition! When Mendelssohn heard it at Tenebrae in the Sistine Chapel, the choir started in E minor (transposed up a sixth from G minor) and ended in B-flat minor--Don't be too disheartened

    Oh, you just made my day! lol! Thanks Salieri!
  • Jeffrey Quick
    Posts: 1,490
    Wow, that paper is wild. It's almost as if there's no such piece as the Miserere, just a tradition.
  • JesJes
    Posts: 508
    @jeffreyquick yes... It's a fauxbourdon... I love all fauxbourdons! It is a big deal to get rid of that among the voices and put it in organ because that makes it a real bourdon haha.
    The thing I like about it, the drama of the fauxbourdon, is that if sung correctly it can resonate so beautifully in a building, like a resonant note has all it's harmonics going. The harmonic writing is simple but hey simple is pure is beautiful is wonderful.
    It's the mystical aspect of nature to relish in the natural harmonics of notes. I realise it is a childish way of seeing things. It is.
    Look at children who are very little babies. They hold a pine cone and hold it and look at it intently. They hear their mother's voice and despite the difficulty in turning their heavy head on their small neck they will turn towards that sound.
    That is what fauxbourdon is to me when sung well. It is what organum is to me, it is what well sung unison is to me. It really is what sound is to me. Mystical. Why did God create sound and the hearing sense if it were not to be mystical in some way? Why is the ear so close to the brain? Why is it inside the brain? Those three tiny bones in the ear do an incredible amount of work but are so tiny and there are THREE of them. Word is heard before it is read. Word is heard before it is spoken.
    I couldn't give a rats rear end about the high C so much but the organic sound of voices truly in tune, such as singing a true third is spinetinglingly magnificent to me a chord in that particular resonant state is wonderful when refined and made as perfect to true.

    Indeed I quite like anglican chant for this reason also.

    I think we agree on this cos I love what you're saying but I will stand by the word mystical when it comes to the humble fauxbourdon. If it cannot be done right. It shouldn't be done.

    Rehearsal last night got a little closer to the canning of the unmentionable. It has to be dropped. I think it will be.

    Thanks for the support all. I do love hearing the stories though. Keep them rolling.

  • Schönbergian
    Posts: 231
    The "professional singers" need to be canned ASAP. That behaviour is blatantly unprofessional and, more importantly, highly unmusical. Better to have a loft full of well-meaning volunteers who give it their all than lazy "real singers" who can't be bothered to give a damn. Music is a ministry after all.
  • JesJes
    Posts: 508
    The strife is over the battle won. So to speak...

    Managed to make a "compromise" to the original fauxbourdon without high C and use more chant like rhythmic structure than how we had it in our old edition.

    Choir director agrees it would have been distasteful to launch as it is on Good Friday.


    Special shout out to you guys who woke the battle station within me to fight for what's right. Thanks.