An Orchestra Made of Voices

Opus Osm

Early 'sheet music,' single-line chants on a wall at Bethlehem Chapel (Betlémská Kaple) in Old Town.

What if you want to gather an orchestra but have no instruments? There is still a chance – make up a choir! Opus Osm writer (and opera fan) Lucie Rohanová explains all.

The April 23 Rozkvět (“Flowering” of Prague Spring lecture-concert) led us through the world of choir singing, its history, practice, division, and matters of interest. In addition to the traditional lecturer Pavel Trojan Jr, the other guide of the evening was Lukáš Vasilek, the chorus-master of the Prague Philharmonic Choir, supported by a group from the choir’s singers.

We learned that group singing probably came into being earlier (at least in European music history) than any instrumental orchestra larger than a few musicians. It’s thanks to 14th-century choirs that polyphony was invented, making the sound of two or more simultaneous, independent melody lines. The monophonic (single melody) Gregorian chant was eventually replaced by polyphonic singing in church practice.

This “new” kind of music found even wider exercise in a secular background, for example, with the first aristocrats. Composers like Bach, Handel, Zelenka, Haydn, Beethoven, Berlioz, and Verdi were masters of counterpoint: they gave the single melodic lines a lot of autonomy, eventually using more and more sophisticated voice combinations. This culminates in massive works such as Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand, traditionally performed with musicians and singers whose number totals literally 1,000.

Opus Osm

Jakub Zicha, assistant choir master, leads singers from The Prague Philharmonic Choir in a music demonstration.

The samples at the “Flowering” evening, though, varied from a chant by J.C. Vodňanský over Bruckner’s homophonic Ave Maria, to Mozart’s Requiem, to an Eben song and Szymanovski’s Stabat Mater (one of the most difficult passages in the world’s choir music literature). The single sections (sopranos, altos, tenors and basses) sang first separately and then together to let us better understand the mechanics of a choir. Mr. Vasilek described the different types of chorus-masters’ work – either intrinsic leading of a choir, or following their own interpretation and ideas, or the preparation for another conductor to take over a complex musical work, like an opera.

It was all very illuminating and telling, but for us without absolute pitch it still remains a mystery (Note: add your experience to Lucie’s comment in the box below). How can they guess the right tone, singing a cappella (without instruments)? How can they hear it, singing together with an orchestra and a couple of soloists? However, not all mysteries have to be explained to everybody. The admirable can just be admired.

And the Prague Philharmonic Choir is admired not only by a musically less-talented Opus Osm writer, but all over the world – and for many years. With Zubin Metha in Israel, with Magdalena Kožená in Dresden, with Jakub Hrůša singing for Pope Benedict XVI in Prague, for several years at the Bregenz Festival, with Mstislav Rostropovich in Amsterdam … and so could we go through the famous history of the choir back to its founding by Jan Kühn in the 1930s.

The future of the choir seems bright also: like the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, they founded a youth academy for vocal students aged 16-26. Three were present at the “Flowering” evening, and the enthusiasm in their eyes spoke for itself.

Singing in such company is clearly pure joy – even for those of us who were just listening to it. –oo

– Lucie Rohanová

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