Music Monday #5: Nice Place You Got Here

I always nearly forget about my Music Monday post, and then I always freak out a little trying to decide what piece to give you. But this time, I remembered early enough to keep both things from happening. I was sitting in church yesterday, between song-leadings, listening to the readings while trying to keep my bra from peeking out of the neckline of my dress, and one of the readings was about the many rooms in God’s house, and that led me to this week’s post.

It’s one of the better-known movements in the Brahms Ein deutsches Requiem. It’s called “Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen.” Translation: “How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling Place.” Though it was composed in German, it is often sung in English, so you might recognize the piece and not the words. The scripture is quite familiar to Christian singers and classical composers alike; it is taken from the book of Psalms. But the reason for the piece is much more touching.

Brahms lost his mother in 1865, and it was a loss so devastating that he needed to write an entire work to help him cope. Ein deutsches Requiem is a requiem in the emotional sense, but not in the literal sense. As I think I mentioned in last week’s Music Monday post, a requiem is a traditional Catholic funeral mass, using the rites of Christian burial as prayers, imploring God for the forgiveness of sins. But Brahms defied tradition when he wrote this work in a way that would have scandalized Vienna, where it was premiered, movement by movement, over the course of a couple of years.

First, he wrote the thing in German.

That’s not right.

It’s supposed to be in Latin.

Second, he wrote it in the wrong key. Requiems are written in the morbid and sad D minor. He wrote his in the more uplifted and hopeful D major. By the second note of the first movement (“Selig sind, die da Leid tragen”), the audience would have realized his folly. Ornate fans would have stopped flapping so people in powdered wigs could mutter to each other in shock over his defiance and sacrilege.

But it wasn’t folly at all. Brahms wasn’t writing the traditional requiem, because the traditional requiem focuses on the dead, and his or her supplications and appeals for forgiveness, as well as the appeal for eternal rest.

Brahms wanted to focus on the living, those left behind.

(Apparently, the Rapture would have made this selection apropos, as well, if it had happened. There’s wifi in heaven, right?)

When I performed this work with the chorus I belonged to, our director gave us a great little piece of history for reference. Brahms was writing Ein deutches Requiem while the Civil War was ending here. Not so long ago, really. Our director also shared this incredible tidbit: Ein deutsches Requiem ends with a sentiment about one’s works living on after they’re gone. As Brahms was nearing the end of his life, he one night sat in his kitchen with a friend, throwing manuscripts into his wood-burning stove.

Throwing manuscripts into the fire.

Because he didn’t think they were good enough, and didn’t want them to be found after his death.

Um, Hey, Johannes... you've LOST YOUR MIND! STOP IT!

I’m sure they would have sucked. Seeing as how they were Brahms.

Killin’ me, Johannes. Killin’ me.

Here (linked with the word “listen” below) is a recording of the Philharmonia Orchestra and chorus, under the direction of Otto Klemperer. It was digitally remastered in 1997, but originally recorded in 1961. It is generally regarded as one of the best and most faithful recordings of the work. (Apparently, Brahms is hard to conduct; my own director calls himself “Brahms-impaired,” though I can’t understand why.)

Close your eyes and listen. Happy Music Monday.

And Now For Something Completely Different…

There’s more to me than snark, you know.

No, really, there is.

And so I’ve been thinking. I’ve been thinking about mercilessly exposing you to what is probably my greatest passion in life, without even asking you if you want me to.

I’m talking to, like, five people, so it’s not like I’m jeopardizing a massive following, here. But I kind of like you guys, so hopefully you won’t desert me. I’ll get back to funny snark on Tuesdays, I promise.

What I’m thinking about doing is a Music Monday series. I’ve worked this out scientifically, based on the following transitive property of singlecell’s version of math: Mondays suck.  Music makes us happy. So, if I do a Music Monday series, then theoretically, I could make readers/listeners happier on a day that is famed for suckitude.

I like it.

Here’s the catch: my passion is classical, choral and opera music.

Ohhhhh, you say. If you could look worriedly at one another, you would.

So why am I doing this to you?

You could blame it on my middle school music teacher, Amy Sullivan. She recognized that I had a fair voice, and recommended me for the Indianapolis Children’s Choir’s Choral Festival, held every summer since the ICC’s founding in 1986. The festival is like camp, but without the sleepovers and mean pranks. I went, and spent a week immersed in music. At the end of the week, the camp kids got to sing a concert with the choir kids. And after that, the choir held auditions for the camp kids interested in becoming members.

You know I totally signed up. And I made it.

For the next three years, I sang under the incomparable direction of Henry Leck, the founder of ICC. He taught us sight-reading, technique, mechanics, theory and solfege (that Do Re Me stuff that Julie Andrews whipped out in The Sound of Music… only actually educational). He also taught us discipline, focus, self-confidence and listening. And languages. In three years, I sang in 15 languages. Kids are sponges. They absorb this kind of stuff so easily it’s ridiculous. And I was a total sponge for this. I fell in love.

At 13, I was part of a 65-singer ensemble who traveled to New York City for an international children’s choral festival. We sang in Carnegie Hall, performing several pieces ourselves, and then performing several others with about 750 other kids.

Let me say that again: when I was 13, I got to sing in Carnegie Hall.

Hi. That’s insane.

Two years later, I had the incredible fortune of going on tour to Australia, New Zealand and Hawaii. We sang in Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne and Auckland. (Hawaii was just a two-day respite before we got home.) We stayed in homestays with the families of the kids we performed with in Canberra, Melbourne and Auckland. I’m still friends with my Melbourne family.  In Sydney, we sang in the Opera House, just to see what it sounded like. (There are several concert halls and performances spaces in the Opera House, each one represented by one of the “sails” of the architecture. Each hall is acoustically built for a specific type of music performance. You can learn more about it here.)

That choir was the single most formative experience of my life. When I was too old to sing with them anymore (women’s voices change, too, and at the time, the choir limited singers to age 8 – 15; it’s been expanded greatly since, as other subdivisions have been added over the years) I kept singing with my school choir. In college, my classes, internships and jobs interfered with choir, so I took voice lessons instead. After I graduated, I was working all kinds of screwy hours and couldn’t sing anywhere; I stopped  four years. Then one day I was sitting in church, thinking about how much I missed my music. Duh. I joined my parish’s choir and started cantoring at mass (leading the congregation, without the choir).

Life carried me to other states after ICC. In 2005, I heard my local choral arts society perform. I’m referring to them as the “local” choral arts society because I’m mysterious and don’t tell the blogosphere where I live, exactly, but don’t take it to mean this is a podunk group. We’re talking the best talent in the (culturally significant) city, under the direction of a stellar musical mind, and in a strong and mutually beneficial partnership with the “local” (astounding, amazing) symphony orchestra, which is captained by a world-renowned conductor.

I had to audition. Somehow, I got into the group, and found myself surrounded by brilliant singers with far more knowledge and training than I– several of whom had taken classes from Henry Leck. I was challenged, I was learning… I was loving it. In 2007, I went with the choir to France to perform Mozart’s Requiem in Paris, Oiron and Montelimar. I can’t go into the absolute awe of this trip here, but I’m sure I’ll tell you about it another time. When I took my current job, I had to give up the choir; it was the single most difficult part of taking the job, and my heart still aches for having left.

Music is a universal truth. Not everyone is touched or moved by paintings or sketches, architecture or sculpture, dance or literature. But somewhere along the line, some kind of music will move everyone to tears, or to chest-swelling, breathtaking awe. It has done this to me so many times, because I have been so blessed as to be part of the groups with which I’ve sung, and I’ve been exposed to such wonderful, miraculous music in the process. That’s what I want to share with you, to give you the chance to cry with an indistinguishable, but immutable, emotion at the turn of a phrase… or to feel your breath catch in your throat as a note soars… or to wonder at the brilliance of a composer who knew just exactly how to make a feeling sound.

Don’t worry. It won’t hurt a bit.

First installment comes now. This is a piece we sang in New York in that festival. Imagine 800 trained children’s voices filling Carnegie Hall with this sound. “I’m Goin’ Up A-Yonder” is a spiritual, arranged, in this recording, by Walter Hawkins. I’m pretty picky about finding these recordings, so what I find will always be the best representation of my best judgment, though I can’t swear the recording quality will always be top-notch. This is a performance by the Lenoir-Rhyne Youth Chorus in Hickory, NC. I would suggest, with no offense to these beautiful kids, that you close your eyes and listen, rather than watch. I hope it moves you, as it has moved me every time I’ve heard or thought of it for the last 21 years.

Happy Music Monday.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aK5EQnEFwA8