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Studying Performance Practice Through Sound Recordings: Choral

A guide by Historical Sound Recordings (HSR) on using sound recordings when researching performance practice since the early 20th century.

Overview

Early sound recordings of choral performance demonstrate a spectrum of performance practices that can be linked to the music of Romantic-era composers. Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, across western and eastern Europe, and North America, choral singing flourished at every turn. Amateur choirs and singing societies multiplied; opera choruses expanded; and professional-level choral ensembles associated cathedrals, academies, and private organizations earned the unwavering interest of many ardent followers, including appreciative music critics and capacity audiences. Choirs of mixed voices, as well as choirs of boys and young men, recorded during the first half of the 20th centuries, reflecting the performance practices of the prominent choirs of the period who frequently performed concerts in major European concert halls. A spectrum of major choral works by prominent composers were performed and recorded in many forms, from short, unaccompanied motets to large-scale works with full orchestral complement and soloists. The recollections of such great choral works in performance, as well as the aesthetic and stylistic manners in which they were performed, mostly were documented in personal letters, newspaper reviews, educational surveys, and instructional manuals on choral singing.

Composers such as Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, and Hector Berlioz detailed in their musical comments the impactful nature of the choirs they encountered. The stylistic qualities of the Romantic-era choir, as described in the writings of the time, can be related to the sound recordings of the early 20th century, creating a fuller picture of the choral performance practices that surrounded composers of the Romantic era. In this way, early sound recordings enable a clearer interpretation of the historical accounts, leading to an understanding of earlier aesthetic ideals that may run counter to current ideals. For instance, the notion of a light soprano sound to today’s ears has a different timbral quality than what  what is heard on older recordings, even though the same term is in use historically.

As well, to sing devoid of passion actually meant not to use vibrato, which women’s voices were being criticized for doing in excess in some late 19th century ensembles. Furthermore, certain distinctive stylistic characteristics of romantic-era choral performance are hardly or not at all discussed in the written accounts, such as choral  portamento, stepwise slides, and declamatory articulation, but they are pervasive throughout the recordings of most professional-level ensembles.

While early sound recording captured a significantly wide range of styles of choral performance, there exist a number of distinctive performance practices that appeared to be part of the common style, emerging from aesthetic ideals of music performance in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In essence, choral conductors demonstrated a communication of the text's meaning through musical expression that extended beyond the written indications of the score. For choral ensembles, some performers considered this to be a highly personalized process, which renowned Russian choral conductor, Pavel Chesnokov, describes in a 1906 diary entry about a recent rehearsal: 

"My admonition [to the choir] was as follows: "Don't think about the sound, about its pleasantness, about the difficulty of the given passage; don't think about diligently singing these difficult passages. This all has to do with the external side of performance. But in paying particular attention to the external side, you forget about the most important thing -- the inner side of performance. Try to become imbued with the content of the text; picture vividly everything the text expresses. Let the text touch your soul, and it will come alive. Then not only your throat but your soul will start to sing. You will then forget your surroundings and the agitation of the performance, since you will be creating. As you penetrate deeper into what is being performed... you will find the necessary sound, harmoniously entering into the ensemble, and without even noticing, will conquer all the difficulties of performance" (Morosan 305). 

Index

Moscow Synodal Boys' Choir, Alexander Kastalsky, conductor

Royal Choral Society, Sir Malcolm Sargent, conductor

Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Anthony C. Lund, conductor

Basilica Choir of St. Hedwig's Cathedral (Berlin), Pius Kalt, conductor

Choeur de la Société Bach (Paris), Gustave Bret, conductor

Alexis Vlassoff Chorus, Igor Stravinsky, conductor

Chor der Singakademie Berlin, Georg Schumann, conductor

Suggestions for further reading

 

Moscow Synodal Boys' Choir, Alexander Kastalsky, conductor

Historical Sketch:

The Moscow Synodal Boys' Choir thrived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. While current choral performance practice generally strives for an overall uniformity and homogeneity of blended sound across the vocal sections, practices as heard on recordings from the early 20th century sought timbral distinction, such that each vocal part would have its own character. Alexander Nikolsky, a singer in the Moscow Synodal Choir in the late 19th century, endorsed timbral distinction in the following description: 

"In many fine choirs the treatment of voices is entirely different: each section is asked to deliver... a highly individualized tone quality. The basses are powerful... the tenors sing with a broad and free sound; the altos are ringing and sturdy; the sopranos sound bright and full. Such a choir is a conglomerate of four distinct timbres; it sounds colorful, rich, and at all times captivatingly forceful" (Morosan 159). 

Nikolsky the mentions that timbral distinction helps bring out polyphony. He further notes that in choirs of boys and men, there can be homogeneity within the upper voices and the lower voices; he likens sopranos and altos to first and second violins, and he compares tenors and basses to cellos, clarifying that tenors are a cello's middle range and basses are the lower part. At the same time, the treble and bass clef ranges should maintain their distinctive character one from the other (Morosan 159).

Alexander Kastalsky (1856-1926) was the last director of the choir prior to the Russian Revolution was composer and conductor, serving from 1910-1917. The son of a priest, Kastalsky studied piano and composition at the Moscow Conservatory and began teaching piano at the Moscow Synodal School in 1887, later becoming assistant director, and ultimately, director of the Moscow Synodal Boys' Choir. In addition to his interest in sacred music, Kastalsky also studied Russian folk music, writing a book entitled Principles of Folk Polyphony. 

A Closer Look: 

In the Synodal Boys' Choir 1908 recording of Alexander Kastalsky's Khvalite, with the composer conducting, the listener can hear timbral distinction across the vocal parts, along with an expressive and flexible tempo that changes subtly from phrase to phrase. 

Suggested recording in the collection: 

Request W-906, "Synodal Boys Choir (ca. 1908)." Includes Alexander Kastalsky: Khvalite imia Ghospodne. 

Royal Choral Society, Sir Malcolm Sargent, conductor

Historical Sketch:

The Royal Choral Society was initially founded in 1871, serving as the resident ensemble for the Royal Albert Hall. The French composer Charles Gounod served as its first conductor, and over 1,000 members sang in its inaugural concert. Before the turn of the century, luminaries such as Verdi and Dvorák conducted the ensemble in works of their own, greatly enhancing the choir's reputation in the United Kingdom and beyond.

Malcolm Sargent (1895-1967) was appointed as permanent conductor of the Royal Choral Society in 1928, a position he held until his death in 1967. Sargent was renowned for his abilities as a conductor of large choral ensembles, as well as for his work in the operatic and orchestral genres. 

A Closer Look:

In the Royal Choral Society's ca. 1925 recording of "How once again our hearts we raise" (traditional), conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent, the listener can hear emphatic, declamatory-like articulations to convey an impassioned approach to the expression of the text. Each vocal section sings with a distinctive character, so that the upper voices and lower voices of the choir retain independence in the listener's ear. Notably, the Royal Choral Society sings with a broad dynamic range, applying finesse to alternating rapidly between loud and soft singing. The choir uses an immediately loud and full sound to exclaim the word "Allelujah" with rapture and excitement. 

Suggested recording in the collection: 

Request W-905, "Historical Choral Recordings Compilation." Includes "How once again our hearts we raise" (traditional). 

Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Anthony C. Lund, conductor

Historical Sketch:

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir was founded in 1847 in Salt Lake City, Utah. Beginning as a small choir, the ensemble grew to over 300 singers by the 1870s, going on its first national tour in 1893, singing at that year's World's Fair in Chicago, and making its first recording in 1910. 

Conductor Anthony C. Lund (1871-1935) served as the director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir from 1916 to 1935. Born in Utah, Lund began his studies in organ at eight years old. From 1891-1893, he went on to study conducting and voice at the Leipzig Conservatory. Upon his return, he served as professor of music at Brigham Young University, and was later appointed to conduct the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. 

A Closer Look:

In the Mormon Tabernacle Choir's 1927 recording of "Behold, God the Lord passed by," from Mendelssohn's Elijah, conducted by Anthony C. Lund, the ensemble sings with extensive tempo flexibility, which heightens the declamatory nature of Mendelssohn's text-setting. Whereas the majority of choirs in current practice sing the opening declamation in the exact speed of the instrumental introduction, here, the choir opens at about half tempo in a particularly emphatic and stretched manner. They then recover the original tempo in the section that follows, using a softer version of declamation-like singing. In this style, each syllable is sung with equal weight, regardless of whether it is emphasized or de-emphasized in spoken inflection of whether it falls on a strong or weak beat in the measure. There also is an emphatic pressing into each syllable, depending on tempo, and a necessary amount of space between the notes, however little or much is needed to underscore the text. 

Suggested recording in the collection: 

Request W-905, "Historical Choral Recordings Compilation." Includes "Behold, God the Lord passed by," from Mendelssohn's Elijah.

Basilica Choir of St. Hedwig's Cathedral (Berlin), Pius Kalt, conductor

Historical Sketch:

The Basilica Choir of St. Hedwig's Cathedral in Berlin began as a choir of men and boys in the early 19th century, later on becoming a mixed voice choir of men and women. Pius Kalt served as director of the choir from 1915 to 1929. 

A Closer Look: 

The Basilica Choir's ca. 1925 recording of Anton Bruckner's Ave Maria, WAB 6, provides a fascinating example of choral style. Midway through the piece,, at the text, "Sancta Maria," the choir supplicates through emphatic, declamation-like articulation. Strikingly, at "ora pro nobis," which translates to "pray for us," the choir softens and slows down significantly without written indication in the score. This particular tempo shift is quite dramati, moving the pulse to about half as slow as the previous tempo, continuing to slow down for the remainder of the phrase. At this moment, choral portamento, sliding between stepwise pitches, and swelled phrase-beginnings are especially apparent. In the final declamation of "ora pro nobis," the tempo picks up using the aforementioned articulations at a slightly quicker pace, only to slow down even more significantly at the end of the phrase, still with a noticeable portamento, followed by a gently conclusive "Amen." 

Suggested recording in the collection: 

Request W-905, "Historical Choral Recordings Compilation." Includes Anton Bruckner: Ave Maria, WAB 6. 

Choeur de la Société Bach (Paris), Gustave Bret, conductor

Historical Sketch:

Gustave Bret (1875-1958) was an organist and conductor, leading the the Choeur de la Société Bach of Paris in numerous recording throughout the 1920s and 1930s. 

A Closer Look:

In their 1931 recording of the Fauré Requiem, Gustave Bret and the Choeur de la Société Bach (Paris) sings with an abundance of portamento, stepwise slides, and swelled beginnings of phrases. Strikingly, the choir sings with a French style of singing of Latin, which is notable throughout the recording. In the "Libera me," one can hear the particularly French pronunciation of "luceat eis," "quando coeli movendi sunt," and "dum veneris judicare, seculum per ignem." In addition, Bret leads the choir with an expressive use of tempo flexibility, guiding an  accelarando of the tempo on the repetition on the text "quando coeli movendi sunt," with the ostinato in the celli and bassi pressing the chorus forward with increasing intensity toward the climax of the phrase. 

Suggested recording in the collection: 

Request W-514, "Fauré: Requiem (recorded 1931)": 1-11.: I. Introit, Kyrie, Offertoire, Sanctus, II. Pie Jesu, III. Cignus Dei, IV. Libera me, V. In Paradisum; [J.S.] Bach: Magnificat (excerpts, recorded 1928): 12-15. Magnificat, Quia respexit/Omnes generationes, Fecit potentiam, Gloria

Alexis Vlassoff Chorus, Igor Stravinsky, conductor

Historical Sketch:

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) was a forward-thinking composer of the 20th century, however his musical training links back to 19th century traditions, as his primary composition teacher was composer and conductor, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908), with whom he studied from 1902 to 1908. Later in Stravinsky's career, in 1931, shortly after the premier of Symphony of Psalms, a recording was made with Stravinsky (1882-1971) conducting the Alexis Vlassoff Choir and Walter Straram Orchestra in Paris, France. 

A Closer Look: 

A convergence of contrasting styles is not only evident in this recording, but part of its expressive and aesthetic interest. Whereas the music was written in a new, contemporary style, the choir nevertheless applied numerous performance practices associated with earlier styles of composition, including ample portamento, swelled entrances, occasional slides between stepwise pitches, and an emphatic declamatory-like manner of articulation, creating a dramatic affect that portrays the imagery of the text. For example, in the first movement, where the text reads, "Quoniam advena ego sum apud te et peregrinus, sicut omnes patres mei" (from Psalm 38) which translates to "For I am a stranger with Thee: and a sojourner, as all my fathers were," the application of previously mentioned performance practices conveys in the music a unique sense of urgency, astonishment, and even bewilderment -- emotions that can be related to the meaning of the text. 

Suggested recording in the collection: 

Request W-905, "Historical Choral Recordings Compilation." Includes Igor Stravinsky: Symphony of Psalms (first movement). 

Chor der Singakademie Berlin, Georg Schumann, conductor

Historical Sketch:

The Singakademie Berlin was founded in 1791 beginning as a gathering of music enthusiasts, and intended to revive music of the past, as well as perform and promote music of the present. Growing to about 100 members by the end of the 18th century, the choir became an important part of Berlin's musical life. Famously, Felix Mendelssohn led the ensemble in the 1829 revival of J.S. Bach's St. Matthew Passion. 

Georg Schumann (1866-1952) was a German conductor, pianist, and composer, leading the Singakademie Berlin from 1900 to 1950. He was a regular collaborator with the Berlin Philharmonic, first performing as a concerto soloist with the orchestra in 1887. In the same year, Schumann graduated from the Leipzig Conservatory, and later served as an assistant to conductor Felix Weingartner in Bremen. Throughout his tenure as conductor of the Singakademie, Schumann also conducted the Berlin Philharmonic, who also performed many of his orchestral compositions. 

 

A Closer Look:

Early recordings of the Chor der Singakademie Berlin provide excellent examples of numerous choral performance practices that are prevalent throughout recordings of the early 20th century. In their recording of "Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen" from the Brahms Requiem, the choir swells into prominent syllables and slides across certain half and whole steps with portamento. As well, each voice part sings with a distinctive timbre, helping to bring out the nuanced polyphonic contours of Brahms' compositional style. The final section of the movement can be characterized by overlapping, emphatic, declamation-like articulation, which yields greater passion and yearning for the sacred dwelling place, to which the title of the movement refers. The movement ends with a tailored diminuendo into the final few phrases, which are taken at a slightly slower tempo, with an ardent crescendo and decrescendo. Then, even more tenderly and at a still slower tempo, the movement draws to a gentle conclusion. 

Suggested recording in the collection: 

Request W-905, "Historical Choral Recordings Compilation." Includes "Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen" from the Brahms Requiem.