I have a particular fascination with books written around the turn of the 20th century. They’ve climbed out of the soup of “thee” and “thou” and “thine” into a more conversational style but still have an innocence that’s really refreshing. Yeah, the Clive Cusslers and Stephen Kings of the world are fantastic at their craft, but there was a special skill used to create pictures with words back in the late 1800’s. For example, you could call someone’s response to a question “deadpan” or “expressionless” or you could go for a little nugget of great writing:
“His countenance (which served the ordinary purposes of a face, inasmuch as it contained the principal organs of special sense, with the inlets to the alimentary and respiratory tracts) was, as an apparatus for the expression of the emotions, a total failure. To a thought-reader it would have been about as helpful as the face carved upon the handle of an umbrella; a comparison suggested, perhaps, by a certain resemblance to such an object.”
– from “The Vanishing Man” by R. Austin Freeman
I’d love a peek inside the head of the author of THAT little gem. Creative and just a little twisted; a great combination.
Music is much the same way (and not isolated to a particular time period or genre). The message/mood/theme/lesson isn’t just blurted out, it’s explored. Sometimes the composer will just haul back and smack you in the head with their piece and then spend the rest of the time telling you why they did it. Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 5 in C minor:” (you know the one, “bum-bum-bum-BUUUMMM, bum-bum-bum-BUUUMMM”) is a great example. Blam. Here you go. Enjoy.
There are composers who do it like a golf swing. Calmly tee it up, take a moment to gather yourself, look off in the distance….and hammer it. Aaron Copeland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” is a great one (the Emerson, Lake & Palmer version even more so), so is “Also sprach Zarathustra” by Richard Strauss, the theme from “2001: A Space Odyssey”. (If you have 30 minutes to spare, here’s the whole piece. Epic stuff.)
Sometimes a simple and beautiful picture is painted. No misdirection, nothing mysterious, just a few minutes to stroke the brush and make you smile. Na Hoku award-winners Kaukahi gave us “Life in These Islands” a few years ago, a perfect example. Or maybe the composer will take a not-so-straight route to where you’re supposed to end up, making the journey more important than the destination. Guitarist Earl Klugh always loved that sort of thing, “Whispers and Promises” is a good one.
What does this have to do with a choral composition? Well, take a moment and think about it as a piece of well-written literature like that paragraph I started with (not mine, the other one). The author (the composer) has written something that he or she wanted to (or more often needed to, I bet) share with the reader. Susie (the conductor) turns the pages in her own way, at her own pace, interpreting the message. And you? The choir is the words themselves. You provide all the substance and power and emotion and then push it on out there for everyone else to read and enjoy.
If everybody gets it right, it’s sure to be a New York Times Best Seller.