Brian’s Choral Challenges in the ‘Gothic’ – 1

Jeremy Marchant

Jeremy Marchant


In part 2, Brian gives himself extensive vocal resources which he deploys somewhat differently in each of the three movements. I have to say that some of this strikes me as less than calculated.

The first movement of the Te Deum (IV) is the one with the kids in. The children are a significant presence, at least as read in the score. They sing tutti except for a few sections which are divided into girls and boys: the main one starting Dominus Deus (fig 44). IV is also characterised, of course, by the use of the soloists’ quartet as a distinct entity.

So, how does Brian deploy these resources in the rest of part 2? The idea of resting them in the middle movement – save for the solo soprano’s two telling interventions – is a good one; but their reappearances in VI are almost nonexistent. In this movement, the children have just 13 bars (and four of these for a solo girl); the soloists’ quartet does not reappear as such – there is one substantial solo each for tenor and bass, a shorter one for the soprano, and nothing for the alto. At this point, let’s recall that the lengths of the three movements are 433, 331 and 765 bars: VI is almost precisely the length, in bars, of IV added to V. Given the space available in VI, one would have expectedBrian to want to make more of the possibilities offered by the interplay of the soloists and choirs. As it is, the three solos are with orchestra: the adult choirs are silent, as they are for the children’s short contribution.

In Brianic parenthesis, may I describe an idea – nothing as strong as making a suggestion – which is that the children should join in the fortissimo choral sections at the end of the work. Brian doesn’t allocate different text to the children elsewhere, so they can’t be thought of as having a different character to that of the adults, so it is as appropriate they sing these words as it is that they don’t. Whilst there is no previous section in which the children simply double the adults, given the variety of vocal deployment I am describing it would be in keeping for something new to happen at the end. Further, I know how stirring it is, as a mere choir member, to contribute to a vast splendid wall of sound, and I feel this, literally, once in a lifetime experience might be a gift from the great composer to the children taking part.

Brian’s handling of the adult choirs also varies between the movements. Or, rather, there are two ways he deploys all the choral singers: one is in eight parts as two SATB choirs, occasionally simplifying into a single massive SATB choir and, more often, dividing amoeba like into 16 parts, written as four SATB choirs. The other technique Brian uses is to subdivide some of the 16 parts into 2, 3 or even 4 parts, resulting in passages like fig 160 et seq, where each of the four bass groups is divided a4. Except for a few short passages, IV is written in the first technique, V and VI in both.

I would like to comment on the choral writing in various passages of part 2. These variously offered the scores subcommittee difficulty in completing the vocal score and/or will give chorus masters difficulties finding a way of meeting Brian’s intentions when these aren’t always adequately described in the full score. Before I start, may I remind readers that the adult choral forces are described as two choirs, I and II, each divided into two. Physically, they are positioned behind and around the orchestra in a vast semicircle: choir IA, then IB, IIA and IIB. Within each choir there are four voices, S, A, T and B [the
confusion of As and Bs is something the HBS Urtext will address if I have anything to do with it]. For a work involving a single SATB chorus, the conductor would be likely to place the voices in blocks in that order, from left to right, though there is no law about this. For the Gothic it is likely therefore that the singers will be deployed SATBSATBSATBSATB in a vast semicircle. My point is that the four soprano groups will be physically separated, as will be the four groups of altos, and likewise the tenors and basses.

IV Te Deum laudamus

First bar ( fig 1 -5, ie 5 bars before fig 1)

III ends, of course, on a nice long D major chord in the strings, concluding an allegro passage, followed by a silence (a pause whose duration is at the whim of the conductor); then a change of tempo attacca, half a bar’s rest and the children are in – unaccompanied and unprepared – and, to boot, having to sing their first phrase starting with a triplet in a tempo the conductor will have had just half a bar to establish. They have to find a B. If they slip up, they will either disorientate the women who come in a crotchet later with D, F sharp, A or themselves get disoriented by the adults. It’s not so much that this is unkind to the children, it risks tripping up the work before it has started.

fig 1 -5 to fig 2 +4

This passage ‘features’ the children and the women, a capella. To start with, the women of choir I sing divided into three parts, then choir II women join, also a3. The first six bars of this passage are on the first page (p 107) of the full score where, as tradition demands, staves are drawn for all (or most) of the performers who will play and sing henceforward. On this page, the choir is drawn on six staves, the top two bracketed and labelled ‘Sopran’, with a I against the upper stave and a II against the lower (this should be A and B, of course). The third stave is labelled ‘Alto’. To the left of all these labels is written vertically ‘Choir I’. All of this is repeated for the bottom three staves, except of course the leftmost label is ‘Choir II’. Given that the rule of naming as A and B the subdivisions of choirs I and II, this mistake before the music has even started causes a sinking heart. Although Brian’s intentions are clear here, this confusing of A and B with I and II will give problems later. Anyway, the issue with this passage is that the simple chordal three part writing would seem not to favour the lowest voice, but the allocation of the three parts to IA sopranos, IB sopranos and IA+IB altos would unbalance the music since one can assume approximately equal numbers of sopranos and altos (certainly the vast majority of the rest of the music assumes this). Clearly the copyist of the original vocal score saw the problem (which reappears later) because here (but only here) he/she invented the idea of a ‘mezzo’, and labelled the three parts, soprano, mezzo, alto. Since this doesn’t correspond with the full score, we have reverted to the full score’s usage. However, some reallocation of altos to the soprano parts will be needed for balance. Again, interestingly, Brian risks starting the performance of this vast edifice poorly by making these mistakes.

fig 13 et seq

The first occasion in which the full adult resources are heard, two x SATB with children in 1 or 2 parts. The music moves to a choral fortissimo, Te aeternam patrem (fig 19) before dividing – choir I into SSAATTB and choir II likewise (fig 22). Brian makes no mention of the A/B subdivisions, the top two soprano lies are merely bracketed, and the same for the remaining voices. Now, theoretically there are two ways in which to allocate the actual singers here. The obvious way is to allocate the first soprano line to choir IA and the second to IB; likewise the altos and tenors. The other way is to allocate half the IA sopranos and half the IB sopranos to the top choir I soprano line, and the other two halves to the other choir I soprano line. An advantage of the first is that it’s simple to organise; an advantage of the latter is that it is more interesting for the singers in rehearsal (not a completely irrelevant consideration). However, the clincher is that the former makes the part writing easier for the audience to hear. Each individual vocal line is physically focussed – recall that
the IA sopranos and the IB sopranos will not be near each other. This principle has been adopted throughout the vocal score unless Brian indicates otherwise.

fig 32 to fig 39 -1 (p 119 of full score)

As previously described, Brian usually writes ‘choir I’ and ‘choir II’ vertically alongside the appropriate staves in each system. This applies up to p 117. On p118, the first system is labelled ‘Tutti’ – there are two staves labelled ‘Soprano’ and two labelled ‘Alto’. Clearly the top stave of each pair belongs to choir I and the others to choir II. The same four staves appear in the second system of p 118, though they are labelled ‘Choir’. On page 119, there are two systems, each of eight choral staves: four bracketed together and labelled ‘Soprano’ and four bracketed and labelled ‘Alto’. So far, so good. However the first group of four is also labelled ‘Choir A’ and the second group ‘Choir B’. I emphasise this occurs in both systems. The question is, did the copyist really mean ‘Choir
I’ and ‘Choir II’, or should the scores subcommittee follow the full score to the letter? In the latter case ‘Choir A’ would mean choirs IA+IIB, and ‘Choir B’, choirs IB+IIB; and this is how we initially interpreted Brian’s intentions here, following our rule to replicate what is in the full score even where it is questionable. In both cases, though, only half the women are singing in this passage, which is not a way of writing for the chorus HB uses anywhere else in IV [more on this in the next instalment]. And if that was what he wanted, surely he would have indicated it more clearly.

It finally struck me after the files had been sent to UMP what the solution is. Two pages on, on p 121, the chorus is laid on two sets of four staves (labelled SATB), the sets clearly labelled ‘Choir I’ and ‘Choir II’. The two soprano and two alto lines are all a2, the tenors and basses silent. This music is clearly a continuation of that on the previous page (not a given in Brian!) where it is laid out on six staves, four labelled ‘Soprano’ and two labelled ‘Alto’ (no further labelling, of ‘Choir A’ or ‘Choir I’ or whatever) (fig 39). So the four soprano lines on p 120 must be, going down the page, IA, IB, IIA, IIB, and the alto lines are I and II, otherwise the music wouldn’t continue correctly as marked on p121. So, going back another page, to the one in question, the four soprano lines must again be IA, IB, IIA, IIB; likewise the altos. The problem solved at the expense of ignoring the ‘Choir A’ and ‘Choir B’ markings. I am certain this is the
correct interpretation, and luckily UMP were able to accept corrected files before embarking on a major print run.

fig 34

This one bar passage within the above excerpt contains an impossibly indecipherable instruction. In this bar, the stave above the choir contains what looks like “IA–BII A Choirs” (with that approximate spacing). The next bar has “Tutti” over the choir. This is difficult to interpret irrespective of the decision taken in the previous section. The problem is that the appearance of the word ‘Tutti’ over the next bar, implies fewer than tutti performers in this bar. But the same number of parts (8) have music written in them in both bars and it is hardly likely that Brian would write notes he didn’t expect to be sung. If he meant a subset of the singers allocated to each part, I cannot see how this can be inferred from the marking. The Marco Polo recording rides straight over this bar without any audible indication of how it might be different from the surrounding ones.

fig 39

As mentioned above the choral music contracts on the page turn to fig 39 from SSAASSAA to SSASSA. The texture reverts to that established at the beginning of part 2 where, children apart, firstly choir I enters SSA, then choir II enters SSA. My observation there was, essentially, that as written 25% of the singers are allocated to the top line, 25% to the next and 50% to the third, alto, line. This is unlikely to provide a good balance either at the opening or
here at fig 39. The solution is that some sopranos and some altos have to think of themselves as ‘mezzos’ and sing the middle of the three lines.

fig 118 +1 to fig 126

The alternations of choral sections go:
tutti choir (divided SABAAB) – IA (ATB) –
tutti (SATBBSATBB) – IB (ATB) – II (SATB) –
tutti (SATBBSATBB) – IA (SATB). This is very clearly laidout in the full score.

A couple of points:
The casual splitting of the bass lines in the second tutti section is characteristic of Brian’s harmonisation and indicates the need for lots of good basses.
The splitting of the altos in the first tutti section is going to result in some imbalance, particularly as the tessitura is very low for both parts (it spans just the fifth between A below middle C and E above it). As a chorus master, one would be tempted to allocate all the choir II altos to one of these two lines, and the tenors to the other.

Continued here

NL201 © 2009 Jeremy Marchant

Newsletter, NL 201, 2009