Two Countries, Divided by a Common Notation System

Two things are generally true about choirs as compared to orchestras. Orchestras don’t breathe, and choirs don’t count. Specifically, it is rare for the entire orchestra to have a lift or hesitation for a catch breath. The brass and woodwinds might, or they might just take turns grabbing oxygen. Choirs usually have musical cues written into their scores, or a piano reduction for practice, and so don’t count constantly the way most instrumentalists do. It is very unusual to see the markings for, oh, a 12 measure rest, then a time-signature change, a three measure rest, and then choir notes.

That is, unless an orchestral composer writes something with a choir in it . . .

I was reminded of that recently, when grousing about crazy key signatures with some symphony members. The composition we had performed had, at one point eight sharps. [Waits for music people to finish face-palming]. There is no such thing as a key with eight sharps, as normally written. If you need something that odd, you toss in a few accidentals (notes that are raised or lowered a half-step temporarily) or just use the key that matches the sound you want. This led to grumbling about “composers who are showing off,” and use way too many keys in their music. Key changes are not, in themselves, bad. Changing which notes are sharp or flat, oh, say, nine times in a six page church anthem for choir? Not a way to win friends from either the choir or the organist.

So . . . Some years back, the choir I sang with got the choir parts for a joint forces exercise, er, choir with orchestra, composition. The composer was not used to writing for choirs, and thus did as she would do with instrumental parts and just put in a bunch of resting time before the choral entrance. And a few key and time changes, but nothing too wild. However, there were no hints for the choir (or accompanist) as to when we came in or what our cues were.

Predictable chaos ensued the first time we rehearsed it with orchestra. After perhaps ten measures of no choir, the conductor (who is primarily a choral conductor) realized that four parts were missing and stopped the orchestra. “Come in this time,” came the order. Fifty pair of eyes glowered down from the risers, because we had neither cue nor clue. “I’m starting seven before the choral entrance.”

Right. The handful of us who had some orchestral experience started counting under our breathes. One of the others held up a hand behind the music folder and gave the folks behind a count down. Four measures. Three measures. Two measures. [Rather like the start of a Tour de France time-trial, actually]. Launch.

After the third run-through, I sorted out some cues and where they were in relation to the choral entry, and marked that on my music. It helped. But I still had to spend — a while — counting like mad.

I’m not sure some of the alti ever forgave the composer for that. We sopranos had our own beefs. (“We’re not violas – that’s LOW.”)


11 thoughts on “Two Countries, Divided by a Common Notation System

    • No, because it was an otherwise lovely piece . . . once the wee, minor translation difficulty got sorted out. Plus the composer is a really, really good orchestra teacher. Those are rather sparse, and thus valuable.

  1. *Joins in the 8 sharps facepalm*

    In equal tempered tuning G sharp equals A flat, or if it’s minor, e sharp equals f. If your composer intended it for the handful of people who still can and do play just tempered, then forget it. The retuning requirements for our keyboard and harp friends are prohibitive: it’s an intellectual exercise in composition never intended for performance. (Yeah, yeah, I started as a comp major. Changed my major after it became clear I was not going to get through three semesters of the modern prof to get to the historical prof. Twelve tone and I don’t work. Lots of intellectual exercises in composition, none of them musical.)

    Just use a double sharp as an accidental if your keys progression requires a couple measures in something that obnoxious to read. We can probably sight-read that. Stop orchestral bullying!

    It’s a known fact that only the people with perfect pitch in the choir care what key it is, the rest just sing the intervals. Or is it? Orchestra generally thinks so. We may be wrong. (Yeah, I do sing, but perfect pitch, so I’m the one in the middle to keep the a capella on key and/or give starting pitch, you know how that works.)

    • I have near-perfect relative pitch, and decent true pitch. I do know that there are some keys my professional choir Does Not Like. For some reason E flat gives us headaches, especially acapella. A minor likewise. Personally, I’m not a fan of F sharp, but that has more to do with the apparent tendency of composers to start there and then toss in a lot of accidentals for reasons I fail to understand.

    • Reduction – doeesn’t the sauce get stringy if kept too long?

      There’s a modern “Mass setting” that I was learning with a local collegiate choir. Orchestral setting, and our conductor was doing counts constantly on Zoom. Also cues to come in. Pretty, but messy.

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