Choral music as storytelling

I’ve been a member of Vivamus since 2018, and for the last nine years I’ve been a professional actor.

Such is the breadth and variety of what you’d call ‘the acting industry’ that sometimes it’s hard to explain exactly how rehearsing an Ibsen play, making an audition tape for a beef jerky commercial, and brandishing a fatal frying pan in an immersive murder mystery party all in the same week can possibly count as the same job. And in between weeks like this are the mind-numbing ones where nothing’s happening at all, which are just as much part of the job as the busy ones. You can see how, some weeks, singing in a choir on a Thursday evening is the sanest, most normal thing I do.

I love singing, and I often do it for work. But singing with Vivamus is also an incredible escape – as it is for all the choir members – in that it has nothing whatsoever to do with my career, and provides one evening in the week in which I can wholly forget everything else. The feeling of being part of a collective sound that you could never hope to achieve on your own, and the technical challenges of choral singing (Am I making that quaver rest too long? Oh God, what key are we in now?) are two of the most enjoyable aspects. I love being around singers who are much better musicians than I am. Being a choral singer, especially in the early stages of learning a piece, can feel like a mixture of being a rusty mathematician and a novice oarsman on a massive ship.

But the best part? The storytelling. Every piece is telling a narrative of one kind or another, and every choral singer is part of telling it. Sometimes you’re actual characters (such as the demons and angels in Elgar’s ‘Dream of Gerontius’) but most of the time you’re narrators. And if the piece is well written enough, often all you need is clarity and practice, and the story will tell itself.

Two great contrasting examples of this are two pieces which Vivamus performed in our last concert. Purcell’s ‘Hear my Prayer’ is a remarkable piece of storytelling given that, despite its eight-part polyphony, it’s very simple: ‘Hear my prayer, O Lord, and let my crying come unto thee’ are the only lyrics. Starting with one part, it builds and builds, sometimes shifting down in pitch and sometimes up, appearing to ebb and flow but always reaching for something. The word ‘crying’ is lovingly painted over a series of discordant three note intervals, sometimes ascending and sometimes descending, which single out the word in unnerving, clashing resonance. The parts intertwine, separate but overlapping, all asking for the same thing, as if trying to compete for God’s attention in a melee of human pleading. Only in the last few bars do the parts fuse and a modicum of resolution is reached – but the prayer is still unanswered, and the audience and singers are left wondering whether anyone is listening. It’s a complete treat to sing, but it feels as if you’ve performed an entire three act tragedy in three minutes.

Harris’ ‘Faire is the Heaven’ is a great companion piece to the Purcell. It almost acts as a sequel. From the first line, the struggles of life are now over: ‘Faire is the heaven where happy souls have rest’ – but the adventure is, we gather, only just beginning. The words and music take us through the hierarchy of heaven, getting nearer and nearer the throne of God – cherubim, seraphim, angels, archangels, and ending with ‘God’s own person’. Each of these has their own distinct melodic flavour, the cherubim bright and golden, the seraphim rather more threatening, the angels and archangels resembling pealing bells. And the final lines describing – or, rather, not describing – God, ‘How then can mortal tongue hope to express the image?’, return the melody to the eternal contentment of the happy souls at the beginning. Harris toys with the listener as the singers repeat, in apparently infinite variety, the words ‘endless perfectness’, dragging out the suspension of the final notes, and eventually fading out into nothingness. Throughout, the 2-choir structure informs the content, each choir repeating, then building on, then exceeding the line of the choir before, building as the narrative builds. It gives the giddy impression of two overexcited friends falling over themselves to tell you an amazing story at the same time.

Perhaps I am especially prone to finding narratives in everything we sing in Vivamus, but it always seems that there is rich material wherever you look. And we are, ultimately, a performing choir – not singing just for the hell of it, but to present these pieces to an audience as they were always intended to be. It’s our job to take the audience on a journey. It’s a journey you can get swept up in as a performer as well, and it’s one of the many reasons I’m so delighted, and proud, to sing choral music every Thursday evening.

Find out more about Vivamus.

Post written by Monica Nash.

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