Music is omnipresent in the modern world. Everyday life today is rarely silent: restaurants and boutiques use musak, we are treated to Vivaldi on the telephone while waiting to be put through, and in other areas, too, silence must be avoided at all costs. But this is passive music. What about all the people who actively enjoy music? There are those who go to concerts, buy CDs or DVDs, download music from the internet, but there are others who like making music themselves. What is it that drives them to take this step? It is certainly a different, and perhaps more satisfying, way of enjoying music.
Children learn to play musical instruments, often at school, sometimes from a very early age, and some of these go on to become professional musicians. For others, the chosen instrument is the voice and this, too, can lead to a musical career. And it is singing which is surely the most popular aspect of music for the vast majority. Most children are introduced to choral singing at school and many continue for the rest of their lives. Some take lessons in voice production and derive great enjoyment from this activity, but it appears to be singing with others that gives the greatest pleasure, for both trained and untrained voices.
There appear to be two routes to singing in a choir. The obvious one, the “professional” route, is to take singing lessons, possibly as a result of a music teacher at school noticing a pupil with a particularly attractive voice or a good ear. The vast majority, though, come to it via the “amateur” route which relies mainly on chance: seeing an interesting notice advertising a choir, or knowing someone who is already in a choir. Nowadays, once a potential choir-member's interest has been piqued, there is plenty of information available on the internet for finding a suitable choir. And “suitable” is the operative word because amateur choirs are of all different levels so it's a question of finding a choir where one will be neither out of one's depth nor bored to tears! The repertoire, too, is important in the choice of a choir. Some have very eclectic tastes while others concentrate on a particular period in the history of music. Some choirs audition, others not.
What is the attraction of choral singing? Why do people spend precious time out of busy lives to meet and sing together? This can be an hour a week on a particular evening, a regular afternoon during a weekend or, for the seriously smitten, a week's course during the holidays. There is the pleasure of working with others towards an objective, and the thrill of being part of something beautiful and, simply, the sheer fun of it. The initial pleasure of making music together grows into something more: the sharing of this pleasure creates a deep bond and long-lasting friendships. It would be impossible, of course, to keep track of all the people you have sung with over the years, but just the other day, we went for a walk and happened to meet a man who had sung Monteverdi's Vespers with us nearly 30 years ago. We were delighted to meet up again and catch up on news. We learned that he and his wife sing in a choir near where they live, and we told him that we are still singing – in a choir of 16 singers and in a smaller group of eight. We exchanged email addresses (we didn't have them back in the days when we sang together!) and will now keep in touch. More prosaically, whenever we go to concerts, given by professionals or by friends or acquaintances, we always see choir members from the past and the memories come flooding back.
The music sung, whether in a small ensemble or a large choir, can vary from the simplest folk or even pop song to the vast repertoire of what may loosely be termed “classical music”. (In reality, the term “classical” refers to the second half of the 18th century and the early 19th.) There are different types of music in this broad category: the Medieval period, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic and on into the 20th and 21st centuries. There are, of course, different styles of music within any one category; there is sacred music and secular music, which also have their own subdivisions.
Choir members can find themselves singing in all sorts of languages, some familiar, others not, and this adds to the difficulty but also to the pleasure. Some languages more than others seem to lend themselves to music. German, for example, which is not a particularly musical language when spoken, allows the composer and the singer to express the most varied range of emotions. A few minutes listening to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing lieder by Schubert, Schumann, Brahms or Wolf suffice to make this point. But it is Italian which seems almost to have been invented for singing, from the delicate love songs of the Renaissance to the operas of Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi or Puccini, not forgetting Mozart who wrote operas in both German and Italian. This does not mean that it is impossible to enjoy singing in English, Spanish or Russian (a language which gives full rein to the deep bass voice!), but these are not languages which spring to mind as natural vehicles for the voice. Which leaves Latin, the language in which all choir members will sing at some time or other and, in some cases, all the time. The vast repertoire of works in Latin would keep any choir busy for many years! Unlike the other languages mentioned here, we don't know exactly how Latin was pronounced when most of the works were composed, but a type of “standardised Latin” is used more or less everywhere, with just slight differences in pronunciation depending upon the mother tongue of the singers. It is possible to detect, for example, whether it is a German or English choir singing, say, Bach's B Minor Mass. One recent development is interesting: it has been discovered that in France during the second half of the 17th century (Baroque period), Latin was pronounced à la française (applying the rules of French pronunciation) so, today, when a work in Latin by a French composer from that period is sung, it is commonly accepted that the singers adopt a French pronunciation.
Apart from the obvious advantages already discussed, the techniques required for singing provide excellent physical exercise, leaving the singer feeling exhilarated. The effect is both physical and psychological and all this in the company of like-minded people: surely one of the best relaxation methods known to man!
Guest blog by Vivien Millet, Department of English, University of Toulouse (retired)