If you’ve never experienced the almost ferally visceral adventure of hearing a performance where the formally clad male chorus belts out the lyrics of each work, each man in perfect time with what would ordinarily be his voice part (first tenor, bass, baritone, etc), but screaming so loudly that there’s no discernible key singly or altogether—then you’ve never heard the Finnish performers known as Mieskuroro Huutajat (Screaming or Shouting Men). In their performances, even the most famous and familiar songs are deep mysteries to be unmasked gradually by focused—if slightly frightened—listeners. If you haven’t had the Shouting Men experience, however, you might still have had such a hair-raising listening adventure in a supposed concert or rehearsal. Many an ordinary choir has its moments of being involved in an almost unbearable shout-fest.
Sitting in the back of a hard-surfaced rehearsal space packed with a mass choir in prep for the famously big and bombastic Beethoven Nine‘s ‘Freude, schöner Götterfunken,’ with a chorus of big-voiced collegians full of energy and enthusiasm, no less, could conceivably deafen you. Or drive you mad. ‘Ode to Joy‘ becomes almost insufferably opposite to joyful, the choral equivalent of being carpet-bombed, if the singers haven’t already been subject to a goodly quantity of training prior to your visit.
The recent evening where the latter experience reminded me of the aural dangers with which such rehearsals can be fraught was, thankfully, not that group’s first foray into the depths of the piece. They had worked past the awkward or tuneless point of flogging notes and were more focused on nuances of the sound in various parts of the composition where phrasing and textual emphasis begin to be more significant than learning individual notes or when strictly turning the volume ‘up to eleven‘ is the goal. Now it was time to be subtler, to learn why Ludwig van Beethoven or the text’s poet Friedrich Schiller might have chosen a particular word, or what singers in the rehearsal might need to be prepared for when they were handed off in a week or two to the symphony conductor who would lead the public performances. And, of course, it was time to be untying some more of the knots in the choir’s German pronunciation.
Getting the sounds of the language right and even, sometimes, appropriate to a period in history when the language was significantly different from the present version, if that’s when the composition was written, always makes as much improvement in the overall sound of a piece as getting the notes right. Most composers’ works are heavily flavored as much by the natural vowel and consonant sounds and rhythms of their textual languages as by their personal compositional styles and languages. If you’re singing in German but your first language is English or Korean or Spanish or Chinese, as is the case with most of these students, that can take some serious learning and practice.
On the night in question, the big Beethoven rehearsal was followed in less than a half hour by a full concert performance of another massive German choral classic, the Johannes Brahms ‘Ein deutsches Requiem.’ This piece was performed by the most advanced and experienced of the university’s choirs, with even bigger voices among them, in the main concert hall of the campus. That group was, of course, at the end of its whole rehearsal period of work on the Brahms, and was in concert dress and on stage in the far finer and more refined acoustics of the performance space. Attending audience members would hardly think about it, most of them not having just sat in the foregoing rehearsal, but despite the potentially deeper well of experience among the singers, their later stage of preparation, the improved acoustic, and the attentive state of the choristers that arises in performance mode, the problems and possibilities remained pretty much the same. If the German pronunciation was any less accurate, the pitches any less solid and informed, the changes in meter and volume any less clear, precise, subtle, and graceful, there could still be the risk of concert attendees being deafened or merely battered about the head by the cacophony. You might not always think of concert attendance (especially outside of death-metal arena performances) as being dangerous, but there it is.
As a favorite opera educator was fond of saying, practice and preparation could mean the difference between Bel canto (beautiful singing) and Can Belto (a humorous American coinage meaning, roughly, I Can Shout). The zone between these two can be remarkably small when the music is as grand-scale, powerful, and emotionally charged as Beethoven and Brahms’s superb works. No matter which the piece, far better that both performers and audience leave feeling joyful than near to needing their own requiems sung. Yelling “songs” can be an interesting stunt (and one I have experienced in a small and resonant space with that chorus of Finnish gentlemen blaring away at me), and it’s often a state that must be visited sometime during the preparation of a major choral work, too. But unless the goal is actually having listeners’ heads explode, it’s ever so much better that everyone does his and her preparation diligently until the big sounds, even in rehearsal, are not constantly terrifying but in fact mostly soul-stirring. Nice when we can save the shouting for a good standing ovation’s “Bravissimi!” at the end of the concert.
In fond memory of our dear James Dale Holloway, who was known to exhort his singers to “never sing louder than Lovely!”