It’s Almost Easy!?!

Last week I was sight-reading some of the choruses in Part II of Handel’s Messiah. There are two that are done fairly often, but more solos from Part II are sung than choruses. In fact, aside from recordings, I have only heard the entire Messiah done once, and that was over twenty years ago. Most people do parts of Part I, then a bit of Part II, and bits of Part III.

Anywho, I was sight-reading along. I could not hear the piano well, and had basses behind me, so I had no other sopranos to lean on. It was a challenge. Handel is not easy. Or at least, he shouldn’t be easy. Baroque music has a certain technique and sound, and requires precision. You can’t just slide up and down through all those runs and melismas. Each note has a reason, likewise each variation in the pattern, and you the singer or instrumentalist have to be aware of those and hit each one precisely. Otherwise you get mush. Melodic mush, but mush, and the point and proper sound of the music gets lost. Sight reading is not performance, but if you start with bad habits, you learn the wrong thing and have to unlearn it. Not fun.

Except this time it seemed almost easy. Which made no sense. I don’t do much Baroque music any more, and this is Handel we’re talking about. Unsupported, so I had to trust my sense of relative pitch and count like mad. I should have been sweating notes and rhythms a lot more than I was. I’m not a professional any more, and listening to the music in the background is very different from following along with a score or woodshedding notes on my own (as I’ve done for the Christmas Oratorio). So what had happened?

Beethoven. I spent almost a year learning the Missa Solemnis. That is considered one of the hardest, if not the hardest, piece in the Western choral repertoire. The range for all vocal parts is enormous, the tempi and harmonies change frequently, and it is long – over an hour. It makes the Choral Symphony (9th Symphony) almost easy. Then I’d done a fair amount of acapella modern stuff, so lots of odd harmonies and timpi. In comparison, Handel is predictable. He has simple harmonic shifts, and while the vocal parts intertwine, you are not hanging in space. Baroque music is challenging, but not in the same way as Beethoven, or Eric Whitaker, say. And I play Baroque on the organ, so I hear the harmonies fairly often.

If/when we ever perform the Beethoven Missa Solemnis, I’m still going to get a tee-shirt made that says “I survived Beethoven [year].” But it’s good to see that the year of learning was not “wasted” if I never do get to perform it. (There are rumors that we might, might, perhaps, do the entire Messiah some day. I’m not holding my breath. I have a dreadful fear that true choral singing, high-level choral music, will not come back from the follies of 2020-21.)

Sight reading – singing music you have never seen before.

Melisma – those long runs up and down the scale. Technically it is any group of notes on the same syllable, but it is usually reserved for things like “And He Shall Purify the Sons of Levi” or “All We Like Sheep”, where you have dozens of notes on one syllable.

Wood shedding – spending time going over and over and over a piece of music, or part of a piece of music, until you have all of the hard parts down cold. Choirs do not like to hear “Take it home and woodshed it!” That implies work. Choirs do not like to work. Sing, yes. Work? No.

16 thoughts on “It’s Almost Easy!?!

  1. How do Mahler’s vocal works compare with Beethoven’s =Missa Solemnis= and with the baroque repertoire? I’m thinking particularly of the Second and Eighth Symphonies, not so much of the lieder and song cycles.

    • I’ve only done Mahler’s shorter choral works. My impression of his larger choral works, based on listening, is that they are far less complex than Beethoven, although some of their harmonics are more challenging than are found in the standard Baroque repertoire.

  2. Even after looking it up AND reading explanation here, I still am unsure what “melismas’ truly ARE (were I more musical inclied rather than… declined?….) but I read that as “miasmas” and I am not sure I erred in that.

    • When you hear someone singing something like “And he shall,” from the chorus I mentioned, each word/syllable is on one note. “Pur-if” of purify each get their own note, so the first five syllables bounce along. Then “y,” of purify is something like “Aye-y-y-y-y-y-y-y-y-y-y-y-y-y-y-y-y-y-y-y-y-y the sons of Levi.” The last four notes of the phrase get their own syllable. The middle 22 or so notes all share one sound, and it races up and down in four note batches.

      In the Christmas carol “Angels we have Heard on High,” in the chorus, the first note of “gloria” gets the syllable “glo-.” The next batch of notes all share “oh” until you get to the “-ri -ah.”

      My late paternal grandmother was known to observe that “Sons of Levi” put the “mal” (as in evil) in “melisma.” [It is often pronounced “mal-isma” instead of “mel-isma.”]

      • While I am sure that make perfect sense and is obvious to the most casual observer… who knows of & from music.. I fear you are trying to explain ‘puce’ to a blind person. I admit I don’t truly *know* what 3/4 vs 4/4 vs whatever else time is. Nor could I tell someone “That’s eight to the bar” vs “That’s four to the bar” and so on. I am NOT asking you to research youtube or such, but I suspect I’d have to *hear* examples as being told of them for this to make any sense to me. You have *experience*. I have… well…. and Pastor Schulz did a *GREAT* jobe fo driving to saty as far away from anything ‘church’ as I can manage. (He wasn’t abusive, no. But.. his fire & brimstone take on things also took such liberties with the truth where I can confirm it that I cannot, and will not trust anything, so…

        The odd thing? I I like the Gospel *style* of music. But can’t stomach the subject. If there’s such a thing as that style without that subject, I’ve not encountered it.

        • I’d be reasonably sure that there would be basic videos on music bits on Tube of You or the other sources. One time I picked up a VHS tape explaining blues playing and there was another on basic drumming. I assume much of this has migrated to video. (I like music, but lost the ability to sing on key when my voice changed and I got out of practice. A certain lack of coordination makes instrument playing “interesting” in the Chinese sense.)

          One book that might help (though it’s kind of like a Braille book explaining water colors) is the New Harvard Dictionary of Music. Current editions run too expensive new ($98 new, $48 Kindle), but a used copy shows on Amazon for $9 and change, plus $4 shipping. One or another edition might be in a public library. I have an older edition and it comes in handy at times.

        • I’m sorry I don’t have a way to explain better. As you say, to paraphrase a famous Supreme Court opinion, I know it when I hear it. Trying to communicate what I hear to someone who hears differently . . .

        • Here is a somewhat austere performance of the fourth movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony: https://youtu.be/hdWyYn0E4Ys . The first two minutes or so are recapitulations of the first three movements, punctuated by orchestral spasms that must have been shocking at the time. The famous Ode to Joy melody begins around 2:30, and the orchestra explores it for a while. Then, at 6:18 or so, the first vocal soloist begins. Listen to each syllable. Some are a single note, but some, like the “freud” in “freudenvollere” are a whole cataract of notes tumbling precisely one after the other within the syllable. As you listen to the three verses that follow, you’ll hear Beethoven do this to highlight words in the text (which is both poignent and pointed in translation).

          If I’ve got this all wrong, I trust our hostess will upbraid and humiliate me thoroughly and efficiently.

        • If you like gospel style you might want to give a listen to “Valhalleluja” by Nanowar of Steel. Hysterically funny gospel/metal with not the usual gospel message. Trust me on that one…

      • Melisma. So that’s what it’s called. For unto us a child is bo-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o……rm. (I was tempted to put in all of them, but it’s been too long since I sang it and I decided that would be too much.

  3. You baroque me quickly with this one… 🙂 Being mostly deaf I can only stand on the sidelines and watch lips move… Sigh

  4. Wife was on the way to nervous breakdown for Missa Solemnis. Adding to overall choral stress was guest conductor Sir Jeffrey Tate. They sang well, but I could see relief when they finished the concert.

    Your description sounds like one of the nature videos of a single penguin picking her way through a herd of elephant seals. 🙂 Although, once I know the tempo and count, most Baroque is keeping on the note count.

  5. Melismas are pretty darned important in chant, especially when singing settings of the Alleluia.

    The idea behind the name is that it’s like there’s a whole tune (“melos”, Greek) in a very small section, like a word or a syllable.

    Sometimes you hear them called “runs,” especially if they are made up spontaneously in bel canto/opera, by the singer as an ornament, instead of being inserted by the composer.

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