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.