Beethoven, Missa Solemnis. Colin Davis. BBC Proms 2011
If you want to hear validation about the text being secondary in a mass, listen at the 3:00-minute mark to Sir Colin Davis. However, the chorus hits the "k" pretty hard, but the soloists all basically start on an "ih" vowel and just skip the "k".
Warning: This article is critical of some current choral practices. If you’re a singer in a choir, you’ve been warned.
Let’s talk about this explosive “k” at the top of every mass. The opening text of the Latin Mass is actually a Greek phrase, “kyrie eleison.” You may remember that Mr. Mister song from the '80s also started with this phrase. The '80s were so pious.
The Mozart Mass in C minor is no exception. On Saturday night the Master Chorale exploded the “k” to start the piece. I want to emphasize that this isn’t just a San Diego Master Chorale thing. It’s a disease that infects almost every concert and church choir in the country — not that I’ve done an exhaustive study of the subject but I’ve been around enough to observe the trend.
When these great masses were written — Haydn’s, Mozart’s, Beethoven’s, Rossini’s — all of them — everyone knew what the text was. There is no need to try to cram the text down our ears. The composer did not write the music for an audience that was ignorant of the text. The music is primary and the text is secondary because it’s assumed the audience knows it.
A member of the modern audience either knows the Latin mass or they don’t. If they know it then the crazy “k” sounds... crazy. If they don’t know the mass they’re not going to learn it by having explosive consonants hurled at them. Does this make sense? When the “k” is the loudest part of a musical phrase it’s like a fat guy in a little coat. It’s just wrong.
Yes, the “k” of “kyrie” needs to be heard. I’m not saying that. However, the word is “kyrie” not “K!-yrie”. If you go on YouTube and listen to several top level recordings you start to hear that the “k” ranges from present to almost unvoiced but is never emphasized.
This might seem like a small thing — and it is — but there is another issue at play here. Choruses that focus on diction do so because they are unable to focus on tone. To my mind there is no worse insult than to say a choir had great diction. That means they can talk well, but a choir’s function isn’t to talk, now is it?
When I hear a choir smash beginning and ending consonants, yet constantly singing out of tune on an “eh” vowel, it tells me one of two things: the chorus master doesn’t have the ability to teach vowel production or the chorus doesn’t have the voices to produce a unified vowel. I’m sure there are instances where both occur.
The average American choir seems to be worried about three things: clean entrances and cutoffs, overly-distinct consonants, and blend. These are elements of a great chorus but they are not the foundation of a great chorus.
The foundation of a great chorus is great singers who understand — without a doubt — how to produce each vowel and how to navigate their own individual passaggio.
A great chorus master knows where the passaggio is for each voice type and reminds each voice type about the intricacies of negotiating the passaggio in specific instances of the music being performed.
Choral singers have this passaggio issue in common with soloists. Just because a singer is in a choir doesn’t mean they’re exempt from having a solid singing technique.
Each and every singer in the chorus needs to be singing well enough and with enough polish to sing their part as a solo that would be beautiful. If that is not the case then the singers should be taking voice lessons until they are able to do that. Yes, altos, that means figuring out how to make the alto part sound good enough to be a solo. If a soloist has a series of repeated notes they figure out a way to make the phrase musical.
The bar is way, way, way, too low for choirs and a big reason for that is the unwillingness of orchestras to pay the members of the chorus. Tune in next time for that can of worms.