Great choral music contains chords I could live on for years. The buildup to them is always great, too, and you can’t really appreciate how wonderful the chords are when they burst forth without hearing what comes before.
I’ve had the opportunity to sing some new music this year, I am so grateful these modern, living composers are writing music with chords to live on – sounds that can cause a broken heart to soar.
(Heads-up: some of these YouTube videos may contain ads, sorry – there doesn’t seem to be any way for me to block them for you, so I wouldn’t click other than on the little “x” to close them, if I were you):
Here’s one the chorus that has graciously accepted me is doing – “A Christmas Blessing,” by Philip Stopford. The video has him conducting, in an Irish Cathedral with a much smaller choir, but you’ll still get it (the echoey-stone-pseudo-medieval church we usually perform in was unavailable, so we performed this time in a modern, brick church building that looked more like a 1970’s school or county office building – very exposed sound, not echoey – but we pulled it off).
Anyway, the big moment comes at about 1:25-1:26 on the word “joy;” there’s another at 2:00 on the word “always.” It is worth listening to the whole thing so you get the context and the run-ups to these moments. “Joy” and “Always” just open like a time-lapse film of a huge flower blooming. Yummy.
Here’s another one, by a composer I hadn’t heard of before, that will just sort of rip your heart out, if the Christmas story means anything to you. Even if doesn’t. It feels like comfort for those who feel broken, or out of place, lost or lonely – listen for “love” at about 1:40. Another good one at about 2:43 and the end is gorgeous, so I hope you listen to the whole thing – it has such a beautiful arc to it:
Another by Will Todd – the punch I get from this is on the word “all” at about 1:28:
Because I’m talking about moments in choral music that just slay me, blow me away, blast my heart open, here’s one from the Brahms Requiem, 6th movement, “Tod, wo ist dein Stachel? Hölle, wo ist dein Sieg?” which means, “Death, where is thy sting? Hell, (or grave) where is thy victory?” Von Karajan takes it much more slowly than I’ve ever heard before, but that gives you a chance to really hear the moment I’m talking about. I tried to excerpt it but it didn’t work, so the section I’m talking about starts at about 5:55 with text that means “death is swallowed up in victory” and the big moment actually comes on the word “wo” at about 7:00:
Again, it is worth listening to the whole thing.
At the time I learned this piece, when I was a college kid, it was the sheer beauty of the music that made me come undone, and I never forgot it.
Now, of course, this section holds special meaning for me. There is something so urgently hopeful about this – the music is so, almost vehement – you can feel Brahms desperately trying to convince himself of the text – trying to hang on to hope in the depth of the sorrow of death and loss that gave birth to the whole piece. Tears every time.
We have the second and final performance of our Christmas concert tonight, so I’m off for some more salt-water gargle and tea with honey, just so I can sing my part on “joy,” “always” and of course,
Sending love and hope that you find your way to joy that will be with you always,
Your tea-swilling, salt-water gargling soprano,