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.