Bare Ruin'd Choirs

Paul Hillier. Photo: Benjamin Ealovega.

Bare Ruin'd Choirs

A crisis of identity in choral music is leaving it professionally sidelined and with little status in society

The world of professional choral singing is in crisis. The same may be said of classical music in general, and often is, but the choral world has problems of its own that merit separate attention. We are accustomed these days to hearing about financial crises, but money is not the subject I want to address here. Some choirs are losing their financial underpinning, and prospects don’t look good, and there is much one could say about this. However, the crisis I want to talk about is one of identity, not money. Identity is linked to having a sense of purpose, being wanted, fulfilling a need. These are criteria that can eventually have financial implications too, but here I want to pretend that money is not the matter with art.

No one appreciates what they have until they are about to lose it. It is hard to explain in a few words why choral music is an important and powerful means of expression – but when people hear a really outstanding choir, they understand for themselves what a glorious thing it can be. Anyway, I don’t believe I should have to ‘make a case’ for choral music. History has shown that choral singing – singing together – is a necessary and fundamental part of any living musical culture. A country that does not sing will soon have no music. But choirs today have little social status. Choral singing is in danger of being debased as a functioning art, and is being sidelined even inside the music profession. And this is precisely where my questions (three of them) about identity begin.

A while ago I asked an internationally-renowned composer to write me a new choral work. Her response was sympathetic, but she observed that the choral tradition was something set apart, something different, almost like an alien culture – it was a way of saying ‘no’. I found not the no, but the observation, the reason advanced, depressing. I felt like saying, ‘If you think that’s the case, please help to change it. Singers are musicians too. How can composers like you ignore such a heritage, such a fundamental way of making music?’ I didn’t say these things, because I could see that it wouldn’t make much difference, but the experience highlighted a reality that we do have to contend with: the perception that choral music is perceived as an alien culture by many of today’s composers.

If you go back some five hundred years you find a very different situation. In the early 1500s the most famous composer was probably Josquin Desprez. His entire output as we know it consists of choral music. He himself was a singer, was a member of a choir, and later became its director, and most of his music was written in this context. He was an innovative composer, at the forefront of stylistic innovation of his day, and his works were widely disseminated throughout Europe and later even found their way to the Americas.

The important thing is not just that composers like Desprez wrote only choral music, but that they belonged to the choral tradition. They were singers. The art of composition meant essentially setting words to music for groups of professional singers to sing, and on a daily basis.

If we halve the distance in time to approximately two hundred and fifty years ago we land in the time of Bach. No longer a singer at the helm, but an organist and the composer of instrumental masterpieces. And yet – it hardly needs saying – the core of his work was still vocal music, including hundreds of cantatas and three of the greatest works in the history of music, all three of which can be classified as essentially choral music.

Since that time, orchestral music has gradually and firmly taken over the central role which had once belonged to choral music – this is a generalisation, of course, but it is generally true. Composers tended more and more to be pianists, and eventually the profession of composer was born – the composer who didn’t sing, who didn’t play an instrument in a band or orchestra and who sat at home writing music to be performed by people he mostly didn’t know.  One result of this is the situation I described just now – the composer who thinks of choral music as an alien culture.

This is the biggest single problem we face. I don’t mean to suggest that no new choral works are being written – as we all know, they are, and quite a lot of them. But with very few exceptions these works, even the good ones, are at best of a secondary nature. They do not shape the language of contemporary music to any significant degree, because they do not represent the composer’s main line of thought. For him or her, musical life is elsewhere.

The new choral works have a tendency to sound like music written for professional choirs to perform. This music (again, with exceptions) does not sound as if if had to be written; it does not sound as if the composer is in love with the choral instrument, nor reveal any acquaintance with what it means to be a singer in a choir, keen to tackle something new, but with only their voice as instrument.

I believe that new choral music has to be accessible, technically accessible – even, and perhaps especially, to professional singers. The music needs to make sense at the first rehearsal. I don’t mean it has to be easy, but that the musicality needs to be perceptible so that the work is immediately felt and understood as a musical experience. It doesn’t make economic sense to spend several days just learning notes. Nor does it make cultural or artistic sense to use singers in this way. It is not being ‘musical’ to do so.

The only way in which this can be improved is for composers to become involved in what singers do. Instead of commissioning new works, perhaps we should create outreach activities: not just to schools, hospitals, and prisons, but to that even more remote section of society – the composers. 

The second question of identity follows quite naturally from the first.

We are all familiar with the idea that singers are not musicians, at least not to the same extent or in the same way that instrumentalists are. We talk quite freely about ‘the singers’ and ‘the musicians’ as if they were two utterly distinct groups of people. And perhaps they are. This distinction is sometimes humourously applied to the detriment of singers, but I have always been keen to accept the idea that singers are indeed something separate from instrumentalists and anyone else whom we describe as a ‘musician’. Which is not to say that singers are not musical; rather that the art of the singer involves music and words together. A singer who is merely musical, is only half a singer.

This not a new issue. About 750 years ago we can read: omnis enim musicus est cantor; sed non e contrario. Every musicus is a cantor, but not every cantor is a musicus. But here musicus means theorist or composer, one who understands what he is singing about, both words and music – and note, each one is a singer. We cannot say that this condition exists today, because every composer is unfortunately not also a singer.  (In the same treatise, by the way, instrumentalists are at the bottom of the heap and don’t even get mentioned!) The recognition that a singer is not only a musician but has also to perform words – with understanding – reminds us that a singer is a rhetorician as well – maybe an actor too, but rhetorician is a better job description, covering drama and lyric poetry, oratorio and even sacred ritual as well.

Because singers are also rhetoricians, they stand and they face their audience. Their performance persona is therefore quite different from that of the musician. This is obvious enough with solo singers; but not always in choral performance. In choirs so many of the singers bury their eyes in the score and their faces betray little or no sense of what they are singing about – and yet when they do, the performance can be transformed! Singing is different from playing, and the difference lies in the fact of the words to be sung, their meaning and their social and historical significance; and the fact that choral music, if it is to have vitality, needs to present texts that matter in some way both to the performers and to the audience – and not simply as the pretext (or excuse) for another new work of music.

In our concerts, however, it seems to me we all too often ignore this issue as if it simply doesn’t matter. We provide texts and translations of what is to be sung, but do we ever really stop and ask ourselves why these words should be sung to this audience, here, now, today?

There is no contemporary story behind most choral works. No shared cultural narrative binds them together. They belong to no meaningful social context. They have no real identity. The works are there because of the composer, or because the choir sounds good in the piece, or because the programme needs a slow work here or a fast work there, a motet to balance the madrigal, or vice versa.

This absence of identity does not, of course, prevent us from enjoying any individual piece of music, but it adds up to something more problematic. I think it illustrates one of the reasons why choral music no longer matters in the way we might like it to. It has lost its social moorings. And if the words don’t really matter – other than momentarily, aesthetically – then why have singers, why have choirs? Performing masterpieces from the past is not enough of an answer.

The last of these three questions of identity lies within the actual profession of singing itself.

Few singers study music with the intention of becoming professional choral singers. I suppose you could say the same thing about string players, for example; but the realisation that a solo career may not happen seems to set in earlier with them, and orchestral playing is usually included as a very necessary part of their training. With singers it is quite different. Not only do they tend to nourish solo ambitions for much longer and see choral jobs as tedious and entirely subordinate steps in that higher direction, but their teachers reinforce this attitude as strongly as they can. In some places, every voice, no matter how delicate its beauty, is assessed purely for its operatic potential. It is force-fed with a diet of vibrato and other technical tricks in an attempt to make it as broad and loud as possible. Numbers of voices are destroyed in this process, which is reckoned I suppose as a kind of natural selection.

One of the benefits of the early music revival has been to create a role for the non-operatic voice and to raise awareness that a singer need not be either a soloist or a choir singer, but that there is indeed a continuity joining these extremes together.  The vocation and craft of being a singer, whether international opera star or chorus member, has to be viewed as essentially the same thing. I suspect that a lot of singers are ready to accept this, but as long as singing teachers work against it, and critics reinforce the primacy of vocal dynamics, then the craft will be viewed in a very lopsided manner, and as a vocation it will remain a flawed enterprise.

I hope the title I have given this essay is overly dramatic. I would like nothing better than that to be the case, and to be proven wrong. It is drawn from Shakespeare’s sonnet (no. 73) from which I will quote, making a few small changes:

That time of year thou mayst in us behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs where late the sweet birds sang.

…This thou perceiv’st which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must lose ere long.

It has been suggested that the image of ‘bare ruin’d choirs’ is a passing reference to Henry VIII’s Reformation. This was a political act, which in some places resulted in the physical destruction of great churches (such as Fountains Abbey) leaving them just ruins – today picturesque, but in Shakespeare’s day still raw reminders of recent history. In a more direct interpretation, the ‘choirs’ are the trees, now bereft of their foliage. The poem describes the autumnal condition of the poet-lover, and left alone at that, the image is comfortingly sad and expressive. But if the choirs are indeed those physical locations in churches where the singers – the sweet birds – stood and sang their Offices, then the poet is reminding us of something with a much broader significance: that things of beauty really can be destroyed.

Published on 1 June 2009

Paul Hilier is a baritone and a choral conductor. He is currently Artistic Director and Chief Conductor of the National Chamber Choir of Ireland.

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