I was asked to write a short piece about what it was like to sing Britten’s War Requiem for the third time. After thinking about this, I realize that singing a work more than once doesn’t mean you sing it again. Every time you come to it, it’s new. Of course, it’s easier to view a work as new if you’ve changed where you’ve sung it (once in Ontario, Canada; once in Michigan; once in California), with whom you’ve sung it (three different choirs of varying size), and under whose direction you’ve sung it. In fact, I’ve had the “sing it more than once” experience more than once.
I began singing as a pre-schooler. I think I was three or four when I, along with a bunch of other pre-schoolers, was lined up in the front row of a choir to sing Elijah. Where I was born (Scotland), kids were thrust into choir early and expected to sing out. Singing Elijah as a little kid in Scotland was just a tad different from singing it as a young woman in Canada or an old lady in Berkeley.
Similarly, the differences in my War Requiem experiences are fairly extreme. The first time I sang this monumental work, I sang the soprano solo as part of the early version of Elora’s summer music event (I think it was called the Three Centuries Festival–something like that). Elora is (was) a tiny village in Ontario, but is now part of Centre Wellington. At the time, three of us prepared the soprano solo and sang on different nights, rather as we have our child soloists do in BCCO. My second experience was in Michigan, singing in the choir’s soprano section (we were much smaller than BCCO–maybe about a third of the size). This time, I’m one voice among a hundred a fifty or so here in Berkeley (by the time you discount sit-outs).
As I said at the outset, singing the work again isn’t like singing the work again. It’s so different every time, and that difference isn’t entirely because of what are obviously different circumstances. It has to do with different directors, different approaches to the music, changing ideas about how massed voices should sound (yes, there are ‘fashions’ in music, too). Most importantly, it has to do with how differently I choose to come to a work.
In fall, we will sing Mozart’s Requiem. When Christian Fritze took a show of hands to figure out how many scores to order, I saw about a third to a half of us already had scores, which I interpreted to mean that we had sung it before. In this case, all of us will have a different director–Ming. Presumably, the previous director was Arlene, although, perhaps some of you sang it under Eugene Jones. Regardless, to make the most of the experience and to give the work our best, I believe we need to come to it as if we’d never sung it before. That way, even though we may know some or all of the notes, we’ll begin the piece on a par with everyone else who hasn’t sung it before. We’ll allow ourselves to be open to new ways of singing it, new approaches to our understanding of the work, and new appreciation of what the work has to offer. We might even get rid of some of our previous bad habits (who, us?!) and sing better.
I’ve sung many works more than once, as I suspect many of you have–Mozart’s Requiem, Brahms’ Requiem, Verdi’s Requiem, the list goes on (hopefully beyond requiems!), but I like to think I’ve never sung any of these more than once. I want each experience to be unique–as unique as our wonderful BCCO chorus.