Alma 1: Beethoven 2

So, I successfully survived Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy. It is a miniature version of the Ninth Symphony. The pianist has a solo for about five minutes or so, then the orchestra begins passing around a theme and variations for another ten minutes before the chorus and soloists enter. We get five very challenging minutes, then the orchestra gets the last word (or note, in this case).

The Ninth Symphony follows the same pattern, but longer. More people know at least the choral melody of the Ninth, because it uses the same melody that became “Ode to Joy,” the hymn.

At the same time, I’m part of a group that is working on the Missa Solemnis.  This is a mass, but not quite the standard mass setting, as you would expect from Beethoven. It is considered one of the—if not the—hardest choral works in the western literature, and is rarely done. As with other works, you need Choir of Unusual Size to balance the size of the orchestra, depending on which orchestration the conductor has selected. The tempos are also a challenge, and the range is enormous.

I’m having trouble because I am a mezzo-soprano. Beethoven wrote for coloratura sopranos, so we get parked up on A and B, or race up there at full voice and linger, then race down. The temptation is to force your voice in order to get the needed volume and pitch. If you do that, you will ruin your voice. This is true of other parts, and is one reason why the piece is considered a choir-killer. You cannot scream Beethoven. You want to, and if you lose concentration, you will. That ends very poorly, because you lose the very vocal tone that allows the voice to carry over the orchestra. And because you ruin your voice.

As I practice the piece, I’m starting to wonder a little. I’ve been singing choral music since I was five, and singing with professional choruses since 1999. The modern compositions keep the sopranos down lower, D-G, with A often reserved for a soloist, or as a climactic note that only comes once or twice in the piece. Eric Whitaker is an exception, but he tends to write for younger, purer voices and to “park” sopranos as a soft obligato. Beethoven is high. Rossini is high. Verdi is high. Or are sopranos becoming lower?

Thirty years ago, my piano teacher observed that true sopranos were becoming rarer and altos more common. Girls were singing along with pop-musicians as teens and children, and inadvertently forcing their voices lower. I know I can sing along with baritones, but not tenors or altos (Kathy Mattea might be ab exception). If I try to match tenors, I hurt things. Over the past ten-fifteen years, I’ve watched more and more choirs struggle to find true sopranos. Are composers writing lower for the new generation of mostly-mezzos, leading to less use of the uppermost range, leading to further loss of that range? If so, it might explain some of the complaints about the Classical repertoire.

I rehearse the really high stuff an octave low, in order to lock in pitch-relationships and rhythms. Only when I am very, very warmed up, and am standing, do I venture into the stratosphere. And then I know there is a week out every four that I don’t have anything above G. I don’t even bother anymore. And I don’t go above A natural. The chance of doing something dumb is too great, and I have zero tone quality at that point. It is a piercing blat, if there is such a thing. Nopity nope no.

15 thoughts on “Alma 1: Beethoven 2

  1. I know a couple women with very nice voices, who love to sing and perform; but when they perform in front of an audience they almost invariably want to sing in a high soprano. And frankly they sound like crap. Most solos can be done in whatever your natural voice is, and it will sound much better that way than forced either high or low.

  2. People are bigger now than they were back then. That has to influence voices a bit.
    And singing along with lower toned voices on the radio can’t help either, as you said. You become what you practice as a teen, to some degree.

  3. I’m exactly the wrong person to ask.
    My grandmother was a phenomenal soprano. I find myself watching professional soprano singers out of nostalgia, and see them ducking notes she hit all the time. (Which leaves me feeling cheated.)

  4. Sing-along to digital music is the key. The kids are hearing only part of the spectrum, and it’s all frequency equalized; equivalent to thinking the world looks and acts like what you see on an EGA display. The world is a lot more complex when not filtered through a machine. They don’t hear the full spectrum or full range, unless they hear a live presentation by singers who were trained properly (lessons, scales, breathing, etc).

  5. in my amateur chorus we have a lot of sopranos and a fairly wide age range. FWIW. I sing soprano, always have, and don’t like listening to most unless the volume is turned very low – they hurt my ears.

    Do you know if your Beethoven is tuned to his time’s tunings, which I’ve read are a bit lower than ours? It would stil be hard, of course, but more possible. I’ve never sung his work, except the hymn you mention.

    • The edition we are using at the moment for the “Missa” is modern 440 A because of the piano reduction. I don’t know if we will shift once we start singing with the orchestra.

  6. Never thought of the dropping of women’s voices, but that would explain things. I’m sorry, but with my hearing loss, y’all (Sopranos) are in dog whistle range for me.

  7. Another reason to expose children to classical music. Though maybe not the Carmina Burana lyrics-in-translation.

    • No, probably not. When I’ve done the Carmina with boy or girl choirs, they are given an edited summary of their text. And shooed off before the countertenor comes in. (Last time I sang it, the countertenor was waving a bottle of Shiner Bock beer. The audience loved it. The conductor just rolled his eyes.)

      • I don’t think we’ll have much of a youth section in the chorus when singing Carmina Burana this summer, but those kids from the local high school know what the countertenor sings of. The local newspaper’s police log in the winter has a LONG string of DUI, DWI, cousin Elmer taken home by Officer Y, his cousin’s brother-in law, and so on. Reminds me, I need to keep working on pronunciations, then get them up to speed.

        My problem with sopranos is that most try to sing one class above what they can do justice, and many of the firsts really try to be operatic divas. The result is thin and screechy notes, until figuratively thumped on the head again. Basses have to hit from the top and stay on note, or we sound like a herd of walruses bellowing out of tune.

  8. We’re doing the Choral Fantasy in a couple of weeks as part of an all-Beethoven program with Emanuel Ax. I’m always grateful to be an alto when doing Beethoven.

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