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Vocal Focus (Song, Choral and Oratorio)
The most widely played instrument of them all: the human voice.

Vocal Focus (Song, Choral and Oratorio)

A voice is the one portable instrument that we're all born with and doesn't need carrying around in a separate case. How wide is your range of acquaintance with the Voice and its music?

About 100 years ago, astute and sensitive musicians were aware that modern life and technology were likely to drown out the old traditions of folksong: simple songs that people had sung for generations as they walked and worked etc.. The threats seemed to come from the rise of 'mechanical music on demand' (from the gramophone and radio), the pace of life, and that people were somehow less likely to sing, singly or severally, in moving motor vehicles.
All but one of the following were gathering, recording, notating, publishing and otherwise actively preserving and using folksong at around this time; who was the odd one out?
Cecil Sharp
Bela Bartok
Jan Sweelinck
Ralph Vaughan Williams
Sweelinck (and he was by no means the only one) was making similar use of folk tunes about three centuries beforehand!
During the cantata Belshazzar's Feast, besides writing such rich and intricate choral parts that their first professional singers allegedly threatened to go on strike, composer William Walton calls on the entire chorus to shout (deliberately loud but unpitched, rather than singing it) one particular word: what word is it?
A highly dramatic moment within a masterly and atmospheric cantata.
Gerard Hoffnung, the emigre musician, cartoonist and absurdist, arranged a series of 'Hoffnung Music Festivals' in the straiter-laced days of the 1950s, during one of which a 'great living composer' was to come onstage and direct a top London choir in an excerpt from his latest groundbreaking work. Whatever the audience might or might not have been expecting, it probably wasn't this single shouted word, entirely shorn of its dramatic context!
Yma Sumac (1922-2008) was a remarkable singer who produced, among much else, an album entitled Fuego del Ande ('Andean Fire'). Why were she, and this phrase, so significant?
She had flame-red hair and sang in a Latin style akin to Flamenco
She was both attractive and eccentric in performance, and had a double-act with Carmen Miranda (she of the fruit-bedecked hats)
There were wildfires in the Andes shortly before she launched the album
Her upbringing in the thin air of the Peruvian Andes gave her a vocal range of over four octaves, compared with barely half that for most conventional trained singers
A truly remarkable lady: do seek out the recordings!
We are probably now fairly sure what a 'vocalist' is, but what is a Vocalise?
A proprietary brand of pastille, aimed at and widely used by singers to keep their throat clear and lubricated
A song without any words, sung quasi-instrumentally to an open vowel such as 'ah'
An early electronic synthesiser that mimicked the timbre of the human voice
A form of avant-garde 'workshop' in which people would sing at random
There is a very famous and hauntingly beautiful example by Sergei Rachmaninov (his op.34 no.14, of 1912, so one might [probably wrongly, but by coincidence] think of it as a threnody for the Titanic), and another in the wordless refrain of Solvejg's Song from the incidental music to Ibsen's Peer Gynt by Grieg.
The piece lends itself to rearrangement for other more conventional instruments from the cello to the organ (separately; or possibly, indeed, together!)
Which of these vocal types is the odd one out?
These are all types of soprano, except the Baritone, which is the 'middle' category of adult male voice
There was a healthy tradition of polyphony (singing in parts) and antiphony (singers, or sub-groups, singing 'against' one another across a large space such as the interior of a major church or cathedral) by the Tudors ~ say, four or even five centuries ago. Like any other technique (such as organ-building), there would always be the implicit challenge to 'go one bigger', even, than the vocal and brass choirs of that golden age in Venice.
Thomas Tallis (1505 - 85) famously made a setting of the liturgical text Spem in alium nunquam habui ... for how many voices?
36 singers divided into 6 choirs
40 singers, as 8 choirs of 5 parts each
48 singers ( = 8 x 6-part semi-choruses)
60 singers ( = 1 5-part choir to represent each of the 12 Apostles, or Tribes of Israel)
It was tempting to wax very fanciful with some of the false answers here! The piece is nonetheless a technical and logistical challenge, and rightly described as a 'crowning' achievement of early choral music in the words of more than one scholar. The copies are necessarily about as big as a traditional broadsheet newspaper, so the assembled singers look not unlike a railway-carriage's-worth of commuters whiling away the wait for their morning train! And that's without mentioning the actual sound ...
How high does the soprano/treble soloist have to sing during the Allegri Miserere, as famously performed each Ash Wednesday at the Vatican and elsewhere?
B♭ above the treble stave
B natural above the treble stave
C, two octaves above Middle C
C# just over two octaves above Middle C
Steady on! Many must have been the senior cathedral and choral trebles who have successfully managed some other solo at Christmas, but who couldn't quite reach this exposed but sublime note a few months later if their personal vocal change had begun
Readers of all taste-levels and none will presumably be aware of the stage show and film The Sound of Music in which, fairly simply put, our Art wins the day in terms of personal relationships and international / political safety.
The governess Maria (a 'failed nun') quite early introduces the seven children of widowed Capt. von Trapp to the pleasures of singing in the clear Tyrolean air; her first combined practical and theory lesson centres on the song Doe: a deer.
But the tonic sol-fa names of the degrees of the scale go back a great deal further than that ... how far, and to what?
An eleventh-century Latin hymn, each of whose lines began one note above the previous one, and these were the first syllables of each such line
An experimental system developed by a philospher who was friends with many of the 'first Viennese school' (Beethoven & co.) and who used to attend the Schubertiade
Isaac Newton, who also considered assigning one of the classic rainbow colours to each of the degrees of the scale
Elizabethan England, as evidenced by 'scat'-style (nonsense syllables) singing by drunken characters in the comedies of Shakespeare (rather than just a madrigal-style 'Fa-la-la')
Answer 2 is entirely fanciful, but there are elements of truth in nos. 3 and 4.
The original sacred text gave the syllables as 'Ut - re - me - fa - sol - la'; 'ti' for the leading-note was added later, and the first (tonic, so important) syllable also changed to the more open vowel 'do(h)' (for Dominus, = 'Lord')
Which of these is the odd one out?
The legs are the least immediately important body-part beginning with L in terms of singing and vocal production. However, it is known that standing to sing promotes alertness and better posture for control of the diaphragm (and hence the wind supply; and hence again, ability to sing long notes and phrases smoothly and under control).
For those who might not have known, the larynx is the technical / medical name for the voice-box ... without which, there could hardly be any song!
One of the most sublime pieces of choral music is Mozart's communion motet Ave verum corpus (K.618, written for the festival of Corpus Christi in 1791). How many bars of music does it contain?
42 bars
46 bars
48 bars
50 bars
This is surely one of the most sublime, complete yet compact pieces of music ever created


Author:  Ian Miles

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