The choir of St. John’s Cathedral, Albequerque, New Mexico (Maxine Thevenot, director; Edmund Connolly, assistant) was the guest choir for the Choral Eucharist at St. Thomas Church in New York City this past Sunday (June 17).
The Dean of St. John’s Cathedral is none other than Trinity’s former rector Mark Goodman, who was a curate at St. Thomas back in the day.
The choir sang interesting and engaging repetoire, and they sang it well. Listen to it here.
Erin Althoff and Doug Merritt, violins;
Jennifer Klich, viola; Patrick O’Neil, cello;
Timothy Olsen, organ
Mendelssohn: Wie der Hirsch schreit (Like as the hart desireth) from Psalm 42, Op. 42 (1837/38)
Listen to the piece here.
This piece is quintessential Mendelssohn, in all its romantic sweetness and lyricism. It works well as a stand-alone anthem, but it is actually the opening movement of a longer work.
The longer work is one of a handful of Psalms on which Mendelssohn wrote multi-movement cantatas for soloists, chorus and orchestra. (Smell Bach’s influence here? Me too…more on that another day.) This one, which sets the text of Psalm 42 over 7 movements, is a big one. It’s about 35 minutes long and requires a solo soprano, a solo male quartet, and a three-part women’s chorus in addition to the full mixed chorus. The orchestral forces required and just as big as the vocal forces—strings and a full wind section including four horns, trumpets, trombones, and timpani. Because Mendelssohn’s Psalm 42 is such a big piece, it not performed very often—after all, if you are looking to do a multi-movement work of Mendelssohn with a full orchestra, why not just do Elijah?
For this performance (for lack of a better term) we did my own arrangement of the piece, and I would like to briefly tell the story of how that arrangement came about. First, a bit of philosophy:
For me personally, I start from the premise that every musical performance is, by definition, a set of compromises. I say “by definition” because I think that the first and most serious compromise occurs at the very moment of composition: that is, when the composer writes notes on page, they are already an imperfect shorthand representation of the sound that he imagines in his head. When a performer picks up that page his job to bring his best musical knowledge to bear in rendering the notes (which are just symbols) back into sound (which is the actual thing). This too is an imperfect and reasonably subjective process. The context of our performance, the ability of our ensembles, and the resources we have available will necessarily determine the decisions—the compromises—that go into the process.
Now from general to specific: how did all this work out in terms of this particular piece?
The first and most obvious decision was one presented by all choral music in foreign languages. Singing the original German is obviously closer to the composer’s intent, and one generally finds that the right vowels are in the right ranges, and the right stresses are on the right beats. But to sing in a foreign language presents an obvious barrier to English-speaking listeners; this is an especially important consideration for music used in worship. Singing in a foreign language can also pose a challenge to an amateur choir with limited rehearsal time. Singing an English translation, on the other hand, can make things more accessible to the both the singer and the listener, but it can also be a significant degree of separation from the composer’s intent—especially if the translation isn’t a good one. In fact, some translations actually create musical difficulties not present in the original. In the case of this Mendelssohn, we elected to sing in German for a couple of reasons. In the first place, one verse of psalm text was not that much German to deal with. Secondly, all the English translations that were readily available were pretty awkward musically.
So we didn’t compromise from Mendelssohn’s original in terms of language, but we did have to make some compromises when it came to the manner accompaniment. Doing the piece as written—with a full orchestra—was out of the question because of the obvious limitations of space, cost, and time. This is a no-brainer; we are used to the compromise of keyboard accompaniments for orchestral works and we accept them freely, otherwise most church and community choirs would not have access a big chunk of the great music in the world.
As it happens, Mendelssohn himself wrote a piano reduction of the accompaniment for this particular piece. It is unusual in choral-orchestral repertoire to have a piano reduction by the composer, and this option would have provided a pretty strong claim of musical authenticity. We did not go this route, however—not only because there is no piano in the choir loft, but because we wanted a fuller sound that more closely resembled the orchestral original. To put it another way, we wanted to choose a level and method of compromise that would best suit our particular situation.
So what we did was to have a string quartet (that’s two violins, viola, and cello) play the string parts exactly as Mendelssohn wrote them. For the wind parts (flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, and horns) I arranged them for the organ, effectively making a keyboard reduction of just the wind parts. In fact, it wasn’t even a matter of arranging—I just entered each instrument’s line into a music editing software program (in the case Finale) and then let the software condense them onto two staves to be played by the organist. I found that the flute parts could be omitted almost entirely because they were usually doubled an octave lower by the oboes (and they were generally in too high a register for the organ anyway). From there it was a matter of touching up a few things so that they “laid better” for the organist to play.
I also copied the cello/double bass part into the pedal of the organ so that it would sound an octave lower, as it would with the double basses of the orchestra. We might have achieved a yet fuller sound if we had included an actual double bass with our string quartet, but I was already concerned about balance with our smallish choir.
Download the organ reduction of the wind parts here
This idea of the organ playing a reduction of the wind parts while a quartet (or quartet plus bass) plays the original string parts is one that has been knocking around in my head for a long time, and I don’t know to what degree of success it could be used. In this instance, my sense is that it worked pretty well. To those who would say, “Hey you knucklehead—that’s not what Mendelssohn wrote!” I would have to acknowledge that they are of course correct. But from where I sit, making these kinds of careful and respectful compromises is better than leaving the music on the shelf unperformed.
Listen to other hymns and anthems
from Trinity Sunday
by clicking on the links below
(download the service leaflet here):
Batten: O sing joyfully unto God
Text: Psalm 81:1-4
Kristine Chaney, soprano; Daniele Olsen, alto;
Mark Chaney, tenor; Tim Olsen. bass
Hymn 362, Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty (Nicaea)
Hymn 324, Let all mortal flesh keep silence (Picardy)
stanzas 1 and 4 are harmonizations from Hymns Ancient and Modern transcribed for string quartet; stanzas 2 and 3 are from Gustav Holst’s well-known anthem setting of this hymn.
Hymn 423, Immortal, invisible, God only wise (St. Denio)
Hymn 397, Now thank we all our God (Nun danket alle Gott)
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“There is so much talk about music, and yet so little is said. For my part, I believe that words do not suffice for such a purpose, and if I found they did suffice I would finally have nothing more to do with music. People often complain that music is too ambiguous, that what they should be thinking as they hear it is unclear, whereas everyone understands words. With me it is exactly the reverse, and not only with regard to an entire speech, but also with individual words. These too, seem to me so ambiguous, so vague, so easily misunderstood in comparison to genuine music which fills the soul with a thousand things better than words.”
-Mendelssohn in a letter to Marc-André Souchay, 1842