In our first couple of meetings in January, we launched straight away into preparing for Tenebrae. This year, we are working on one of the most compelling musical works for Holy Week - and that is the "Miserere" by Gregorio Allegri (1582-1652).
A number of stories have contributed to the mystique surrounding this work. The first is that the Pope of the time placed a prohibition on its use outside of the Sistine Chapel. Church regulations also forbade its transcription - and the prohibition called for excommunication for anyone who sought to copy the work.
The other intersecting story involves the twelve-year-old Mozart. In 1769, young Wolfgang and his father embarked upon a tour of Italy - and they happened to arrive in Rome just in time for Easter. Like any visitor, they visited St Peter's, and they heard the famous "Miserere" sung in the Sistine Chapel. Upon arriving back at his lodging that evening, Mozart sat down and wrote out from memory the entire piece. On Good Friday, he returned with his manuscript, to hear the piece again - and make a few minor corrections.
Not to downplay Mozart's amazing memory and ear, but the piece is repetitive and has many places where the voices sing the same pattern and the same harmony recurs. Its greatest demand is that it calls for a soprano who can sing a high C - and over the next two weeks, we will see if any of our female students have the nerve to try this out.
The tenors, of course, are not happy that I am restricting this particular part to females only....
Malcolm V. Edwards
At the time of writing this segment (late November), the Senior Choir is up to their ears in Christmas music. In no other season of the church year is there so much musical choice - and so much music of high quality. Many of the carols that everyone knows such as 'Away in a Manger' or 'Silent Night' are products of the 19th century, and are rendered in safe, secure four-part harmony. But if one goes further back - say to the 16th century - then one can find music that has a very different flavour.
'Gaudete', which we will be singing as a part of "Nine Lessons and Carols" is from a collection of songs with the title 'Piae Cantiones' (Holy Songs) and the date is 1582. 'Gaudete' has a rhythmic drive - a constantly changing meter (or no meter at all) - and was probably performed with a hand drum and singers who sang and moved. It is interesting to reflect that our word 'carol' comes from the French word 'caroler' -which means to dance in a ring.
However, I can reassure parents that we will not be doing any kind of Renaissance dance in the Cathedral - even if such an activity might be an authentic 16th century practice.
Meanwhile, out in the real world, at my local Safeway, 'Christmas Pop' music started playing on November 13 - two days after Remembrance Day. I know - because I was there and talked to my check-out lady. After suffering through multiple renditions of "Do they know it's Christmas" or "I saw Mommy kissing Santa Claus", employees have every right to run screaming from the store, claiming that this amounts to cruel and inhuman punishment.
To all, best wishes of the season:
Malcolm V. Edwards
We are seven weeks into the Fall term, and, in addition to the large choir, we now have a Chamber Choir of 22 students and a 'Girls Only' choir. This latter group is brand new - and it's proving popular. Girls always outnumber boys in choirs by a large margin, and so an all- female group could be said to be long overdue. I have also heard rumours of a male 'Barbershop' group that rehearses and meets in secret. I am very content to let them chart their own path.
October has also been a big 'Bach' month, as we will be singing a movement from Cantata 147 at the November Mass. The industry and artistry within the cantatas is astonishing. He wrote over two hundred - one for every Sunday of the church year over a four-year cycle. The majority were written for St Thomas Church in Leipzig, where he spent the last twenty years of his life.
What was it like to go to St Thomas's on a Sunday morning in 1742? First of all, the service started at 7 a.m. and went on for about four hours -with a very long homily and, of course, a newly composed cantata. For Bach there must have been constant frustration. His letters often mention having to discipline the choir boys; in addition, the town players often did not have the musical skill to pull a work together in two or three rehearsals - and the soloists were of a temperamental nature. No matter, Sunday morning was the performance, and then the cycle started all over again.
Did the congregation in Leipzig realize what they were hearing, or did they value the name of J.S. Bach? Probably not. They had no idea that this man's music would become universal -that it would transcend its Lutheran origins, and that, across the planet, millions of children would be learning Bach at the piano, orchestras would be playing his Brandenburg Concertos, and students in a choir school in a city that didn't even exist when Bach was alive (i.e. Calgary), would be trying to get their heads around his music and the German language.
Malcolm V. Edwards
Senior Choir outreach to Manor Village, followed by refeshments and mingling.
The new school year has got off to an excellent start with eighteen new Grade Sevens, and nine other new students in the senior grades. This brings our total to seventy - and of this number, twenty-three are tenors and basses. This then gives us an excellent balance among the voice parts.
Most of the males in grade seven, eight and nine are going through the voice change. Back in the 1950's, especially among the churches of Europe, boy sopranos (who were losing their top notes) were advised to stop singing for a year or two until their voice had stabilized. Fortunately, that view no longer holds. Nowadays, boys are encouraged to sing in a comfortable range - and usually by the ninth grade, the traditional parts of tenor or bass can be commonly assigned.
Males undergo a much more dramatic change in their voice than females. Their vocal cords double in length - and as Pythagoras found out in Ancient Greece, if you double the length of a vibrating string, you get the pitch of an octave below.
So when men and women sing a melody together, they will normally be singing an octave apart. This is a musical universal - and it holds true whether it's a tribal chant in the Amazon rainforest or a 'Happy Birthday' sung around a family candle-lit cake. Given the myriad of musical cultures on our planet, it is difficult to find a universal that applies to them all. The octave is one such universal - and it all comes down to the inescapable fact of biology and the human body.
Malcolm V. Edwards
Malcolm Edwards was born in Halifax, England and emigrated to Canada in 1967. He is a graduate of Sheffield College of Education (UK), Trinity College of Music, London, the University of Lethbridge, the University of Montana and has done further graduate work at the University of Northern Colorado. He taught music in junior and senior high school for twelve years in southern Alberta before joining the University of Calgary as a Professor of Music Education in 1980. He retired from the university after thirty-one years of service in 2011. In the community he was affiliated with the Youth Singers of Calgary for 21 years directing the Act Three and Senior divisions. In his retirement, he is now employed as an Adjunct Professor of Music at St Mary’s University, as the Artistic Director of the Calgary Men’s Chorus and as the Senior Choir Director at St John’s Choir Schola. He has held leadership positions within the Alberta Choral Federation, the Association of Canadian Choral Communities, served on the Board of the Alberta Foundation for the Arts and is active as a choral adjudicator and workshop leader in schools and churches. He is the recipient of two awards from the Provincial Federation – one in recognition of advocacy in arts education and the second in recognition of exemplary service to choral music within the Province of Alberta. In 2004 he received recognition from the national body (ACCC) for twenty-five years of service to the Canadian choral community.