Choral Stillness

After a concert, or an especially good rehearsal, I find I can’t listen to other music for several hours. Certain compositions and performances set up a resonance inside me, for lack of a better word, echoing and reverberating. A stillness lingers, a song-shaped silence that allows nothing to disturb it. To turn on the radio in the car seems, not a sacrilege, but something almost as unwanted.

Z. Randall Stroop’s “Amor de me Alma” is one piece that does it, but Ola Gjeilo’s “Luminous Night of the Soul”… Oh, it is there with the “O Nata Lux” by Morten Lauridsen and Tallis’s “If Ye Love Me.” There’s just something in those pieces, and how the choirs I’ve sung with respond to them, that turns the music and the musicians into something greater than I can describe, when all goes well. When we’ve all learned the music well enough that we’re no longer hunting for notes, when we get the balance of parts, and we can start letting the power of the composition shine through.

Part of what always moves me to tears with “Luminous Night” is the opening vocal movement:

“Long before music was sung by a choir, Long before silver was shaped in the fire, Long before poets inspired the heart, You were the Spirit of all that is art.

“You give the potter the feel of the clay; You give the actor the right part to play; You give the author a story to tell; You are the prayer in the sound of a bell.”

“Praise to all lovers who feel your desire! Praise to all music which soars to inspire! Praise to the wonders of Thy artistry Our Divine Spirit, all glory to Thee.”

Poetry by Charles Anthony Silvestri

From the first time I read through the piece, I felt as if the words had been written for me. What gave me a story to tell? What gave me music to sing? How could I not give thanks to the power, the spirit, the beautiful universe that made such things possible? I thought back to the miserable days in high school, when I’d go out at night, under the stars, and sing to the night and stars because I couldn’t sing my feelings to people, couldn’t speak or write what my heart needed to say.

You know it’s gone right, you know in your heart and mind and soul, when the conductor finishes the piece, looks up, and slowly, so slowly lowers his hands because he doesn’t want the moment to end either. When the listeners, or just the choir and accompanist, don’t breathe, don’t move, held motionless by the power of what we’ve just created. It doesn’t happen often, and sometimes it comes during a rehearsal. I’ve felt it during a dress rehearsal, and the conductor let the sound die, the echoes still rising from the stone walls fade into nothing, and half-whispered, “We ought to stop right now.” We couldn’t, of course, but everyone agreed with him.

Imagine: You stand inside a cathedral, stone and glass, the sun turning the world into a jewel box. Perhaps a few other people move through the great space, but quietly, and the faintest memory of incense drifts in the air. The tall columns rise up, up, as if to touch the residence of the Divine. Something moves, a sound, quietly at first. You can’t understand the words, or perhaps you can. But the voice, be it instrumental or human, slowly fills the world, soaring, brilliant, drawing an echo from inside you, touching something dry with fresh water, calling forth joy, or easing an old pain even if only for a moment. The music carries you into a different world, a joy deeper than bone and older than time. Then slowly, slowly it fades, gently returning you, until only faint echos hang, gently caressing the stones.  Then silence, a silence you want to hold inside your heart.

That’s as close as I can come to putting the feeling into words. And if you could be part of that voice, adding to the song, sending your spirit out with the notes as the music flows in? When everything works, that’s what it’s all about; all the time spent rehearsing, the mental exhaustion, the long hours tuning and polishing and sweating rhythms and harmonies.

I have a strong feeling that Gjiello is going to be my generation’s Lauridsen. Eric Whitaker has his moments, but there’s something missing from his compositions. They shimmer, but there’s a depth to Gjiello and Lauridsen’s music, a dark color, a foundation that Whitaker doesn’t have yet, for all that he’s written some amazing (and fiendishly difficult) pieces.


5 thoughts on “Choral Stillness

  1. I’ve felt what you are talking about. I remember sitting in an old church one time and listening to the choir and just being absolutely blown away. It’s an amazing sensation to feel the music in your soul like that.

  2. Some thoughts on two recent columns:

    I’ve spent some time in the WW2 YouTube sections on Vera Lynn and Joan Stafford. I have thought that if I were teaching WW2, I’d have the class listen to the songs to give the history a personality. (Dad was with Patton, so that world is interesting to me.) Also, when I first heard Lili Marlene in The Guns of Navarone, my reaction to the song (my German wasn’t much then) that I’d heard it before. Probably Vera Lynn’s.

    Also, your classes might recognize that the “Jimmy can go to sleep in his own little room again” in the “White Cliffs of Dover” is something they know from the Narnia stories when the Hevesi children are sent out of London during the war.

    WRT your discussion of the choral works of Lauridson, Whitaker, and others: It reminded me of the Lumia Suite which used to be at the MOMA. I spent many undergraduate hours watching it. It’s also on YouTube. The choral works are a bit static for me, as is the Lumia Suite. I prefer music which goes somewhere. As in German vs. French music. Or, as Professor Higgins said, “the French don’t care what they say, actually, as long as they pronounce it properly.”

    Hal Davitt
    Rehoboth Beach, DE

    • I’ve played ‘White Cliffs of Dover,” “The Last Time I Saw Paris,” “London Pride,” “Der Führer’s Face” and I also usually do Glen Miller, but the school band is doing Glen Miller right now, and so I skipped him this year. I used “Lili Marlene” with WWI.

      • I thought Lili Marlene first appeared from Lale Anderson in 1939. I seem to remember she escaped to Switzerland shortly thereafter.
        I remember a whole lot of Joan Stafford’s “I’ll be seeing you” on the radio in the late 40’s in the Midwest.

        • Hmm. I’ll have to go back and check my sources. I’ve got two German books from the 1950s and 1970s that put “Lili Marlene” during the First World War. It could be the German version of an urban legend. I’ve never dug into that, since WWI wasn’t my field.

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