Musical Memories: Sing Amen, Everybody

The Archaeologist is Irish-American-Catholic, and a chorister. This entails two deeply felt but diametrically opposed things: church singing and old-style Irish-American Catholicism.

In my Catholic youth, everybody sang pretty much all the time until they got to church, where they clammed up and glared at anybody who dared so much as intone an Amen. Churches were places of reverent silence, muttered responses and rigidly maintained personal space. (During my adolescence the Vatican enacted the Sign of Peace, a part of Mass ritual in which you shake your neighbor’s hand and say “Peace be with you.” For many in my hometown parish, this was the emotional equivalent of requiring a raised middle finger and a raspberry.)

Music was show-offy, vaguely suspect. Especially the good stuff. (Was Mozart’s setting of the Regina Coeli OK for church? Oh, Mozart was Catholic? Seriously? He wrote that stuff for Catholics?)

As for Handel … well. He belonged to the Protestants. You could hear him in a concert hall, if you wanted. But not in church, not on Easter Sunday.

Happily, that has changed. My present-day parish revels in its music program. We have adult choir, children’s choir, bell choirs. And we do Handel, especially at Easter. This year at the Vigil we took a gander at “Worthy is the Lamb,” with its majestic, endlessly textured Amen.

It’s kind of a monster. But a great one. Here’s an old-school version conducted by Otto Klemperer, with a big fat chorus and orchestra. Not the Baroque-authentic, smaller-scale sort of production favored today, but delightfully rich and ripe. Enjoy.

 

P.S. For a penetrating and frequently hilarious dissection of American Catholics and their love-hate relationship with music, read Thomas Day’s Why Catholics Can’t Sing. It’s a treat.

 

 

 


Musical Memories: Songs of Irish Children

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day here’s a special moment from Columbia’s live recording of an early 1960s Clancy Brothers concert at Carnegie Hall.

This clip revisits the unforgettable “Children’s Medley,” wherein the group shares an encyclopedia of traditional songs sung by Irish kids. They run the gamut of funny, vulgar, angry and even a bit mysterious. Clocking in at 12 minutes plus, it’s a fascinating journey, fantastically performed.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!


Musical Moments: Easter

As a choral singer of long standing at my Roman Catholic parish (and believe me, the standing is looooooonggggg between Holy Thursday and Easter Sunday morning), I am always amazed at the power of music to galvanize, unite and transport. It doesn’t always do the trick — what can? There are some stretches in every season where sore feet and hoarse throats seem far more prevalent than grace notes.

But there’s nothing like a Big Fat Oratorio Chorus to power a person past those awkward moments. Of course we associate those with Handel, but Joseph Haydn put up some pretty respectable points on this particular board, including “Achieved Is The Glorious Work,” a grandly ornate chorus from The Creation, an oratorio he composed between 1796 and 1798. I was charmed by the interpretation below, an all-woman version sung in 2011 by the Georgia Music Educators’ Association (GMEA) All-State Senior Women’s Chorus. It’s lovely, despite the audience member who just had to cough at the 2:37 mark. (OK, I forgive you; I’ve been there, too.)

Wishing you a Happy Easter, and a joyous spring after a harsh winter.


Handel, With Care

Continuing the blog’s tradition of Easter musical moments, I offer a collection of Fun Handel Facts! Plus, some sheep!

First, the fun facts:

• On Messiah’s opening night (Dublin: 13 April 1742), a nasty divorce was complicating life for contralto Susannah Cibber – quel scandal! But her singing of the aria “He was despised and rejected of men” so moved a clergyman among the listeners that he jumped from his seat, crying, “Woman, for this be all thy sins forgiven thee!”

• Speaking of jumping up: It is not documented beyond a doubt that George II of England surged to his feet during the first London performance of the “Hallelujah Chorus.”  But still, this is why tradition demands one stand for the “Hallelujah.” (N.B.: There is no related royal tradition that supports checking phones for messages during a performance. Please stop that.)

• George Frideric Handel could be scary. Faced with a soprano who resisted his direction, he threatened to throw her out an open window, yelling: “I know well that you are a real she-devil, but I will have you know that I am Beelzebub!” (P.S. Those of us who have labored to tackle Handel’s more florid melismatic runs will agree with this. P.P.S.: Why is it always sopranos in these stories?)

• Handel composed Messiah in an incredible 24 days. I mean, holy cow.

• One possible reason Messiah premiered in Dublin: Handel was playing things safe. He’d gotten some depressingly so-so notices in London the season before for other premieres.

• Back when Messiah was new, clergymen did not entirely approve of it. Biblical texts in a theater? As entertainment?  Oh, well, you know how long those shock-value novelties last, amirite?

Many of these tidbits are from this wonderful history of Messiah by Jonathan Kandell in Smithsonian magazine. Or, for more Handel fun, you can take a very entertaining quiz.

Finally, for your listening pleasure, here is the chorus “All We Like Sheep.” This is also known as “one of the choruses with all those ridiculous melismas” or “All we like sheep! Geddit?”

Please remember that were we to punctuate this text in contemporary fashion, it would read: “All we, like sheep, have gone astray.” Commas: They matter.

Still, I think the sheep pictures add something. For those who celebrate, have a joyous Easter!


Irish Voices

I was telling a friend the other day about my dad, who was a wonderful singer, a real Irish tenor, and who was also kind of terrifying when it came to Irish music. And Irish accents. And Irish everything.

It was all about the authenticity. I wouldn’t say my dad was a stickler for Aran-Islands style authenticity in these matters. But I suspect he knew what he knew — the accents of his Irish-born maternal grandparents, and the kind of Irish immigrant culture you used to find all over Red Hook once upon a time. And he was a merciless critic about Irish music that was not being done right.

Whatever that meant. I mean, we were all Americans, what did we know, really?

I was about to go away to college when I screwed up the courage to ask him for his version of “The Wild Colonial Boy.” He considered for a bit and said he’d see. I expected him to sing it for me, if he were to agree. But at the end of the working day he presented me with a typewritten version of the verses, which is the version I use to this day. (For more thoughts on the “Wild Colonial Boy,” see link below).

Every so often, through the magic of YouTube, I encounter some Irish music I believe even my dad would have loved. This year’s St. Patrick’s Day offering is a crystalline version of a song called “Love is Teasing,” sung in 1967 by a radiant Dolly McMahon.

Past posts on St. Patrick’s Day matters:

The Soda Bread Post (No Raisins!)

How to sing The Wild Colonial Boy (or how not to)

Maura O’Connell: a seasonal appreciation

Danny Boy memories


Sentimental Sunday: Musical Legacies

As someone who can’t imagine life without singing and playing music, even as the stalwart amateur I am, I think one of the nicest heirlooms a person could pass along would be a musical instrument.

I am the owner of a pretty good piano, as well as a totally mid-range guitar that for some reason has a really nice sound that impresses people who own much more fabulous instruments. I hope someday that someone in the next generations of our family will like the idea of owning them after me.

But most of all, I hope they’ll be played by somebody, anybody. Silence is not golden where musical instruments are concerned. There’s a mystique around a fabled antique like the “The Messiah,” a 1716 violin made by Antonio Stradivari that is said never to have been played, and was left to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford with the condition that it will continue never to be played. Which seems sad, but then, I don’t really get the attraction of a gorgeous violin in a glass case.

Yesterday we struggled through a January snowfall to hear my younger daughter play in her winter violin recital. The program contained a poignant footnote. One of the other young violinists was playing a three-quarter-sized violin once owned by Tyler Clementi, a young man whose tragic death made national headlines, but who is also remembered hereabouts as a gifted violinist who had an awful lot of music left to play.

It is sad beyond belief that we can’t hear more from the former owner of the beautiful smaller-sized violin. But the instrument sounded undeniably lovely yesterday, as the snow fell quietly outside the hall, and its current owner played selections from Handel’s Sonata No. 3. There is comfort, and no small sense of wonder, at the lasting power of music to touch hearts, and endure.


Happy Easter: ‘Festival Alleluias’

The Archaeologist spends a lot of time in choir, and never more so than in the Easter season, with its abundance of beautiful music. One piece that practically screams Easter (well, sometimes it just screams, if you aren’t singing it right), is ‘Festival Alleluias’, a choral arrangement by William Ferris (1937-2000) set to a famous toccata for organ by French composer Charles Marie Widor (1844-1937).

First, you take this awesome organist’s tour-de-force:

The Famous Widor Toccata (5th Symphony in F)

On The Righteous Organ at Notre Dame, Paris:

Add a pinch of percussion and a troop of choristers proclaiming “Alleluia” at the top of their respective ranges, which gives you:

2. Lots. Of. Singing. Oh, And Organ Too (Finale):

Judging from some of the comments on YouTube, many instrumentalists are outraged at the intrusion of vocals into this intricate piece. I can’t hate on them for it. Here you have this fantastic display of the organist’s art, and for what? To have all that beautiful ornamentation battle against a gale  of choral singing?

Yeah, a pretty thankless proposition if you’re an organist. And a lot of us choristers aren’t always thrilled by it either. The challenge of singing and not screaming those Alleluias at the end of a marathon week of choral services does not always … appeal.

But audiences love the choral/organ mashup. In the end, I do, too. There are always people standing around with smiles on their faces listening for the last echo of that last note at the end of the Easter Sunday service.

I can’t help smiling back.

That’s probably one reason why you’re always going to have non-organists who can’t resist this toccata. For instance, these determined percussionists at the University of Utah:

3. Chimes! Tympani! Xylophones! Sorry, Organists! P.S. Happy Easter!


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