The Choir in rehearsal

English translation below:


German article 2014

German article 2014

Article by Prof. Richard Mailänder, Archdiocesan Director of Church Music, Cologne in Church Music in the Archdiocese of Cologne (2014, vol. 2)

Visit to Trinity College Choir rehearsals

In 2013, through the Archdiocese of Cologne, we had the opportunity to invite The Choir of Trinity College Cambridge, conducted by Stephen Layton, to give a concert and masterclass in Cologne. The masterclass was held in collaboration with Cologne Conservatoire.

During the concert one was struck in particular by the Choir’s extremely accurate intonation along with their unbelievably beautiful interpretation. For the concert in St Pantaleon the Choir even sang the entire programme from memory and the first half of the concert also completely without conductor. Even when they entered the church for the first time, where one of the Organ Scholars was playing the organ, not only the Director but also a number of choir members noticed that the organ was tuned higher than 440 Hz (at the time it was about 444/445 Hz). This extremely accurate observation astonished me and I asked Stephen Layton after the concert how such training could be possible. And so he invited me to come to the rehearsals in Cambridge when he takes new members into the choir and undertakes the main preparatory work.

So from 24 to 26 September 2014 I was at rehearsals in Cambridge, and in fact 24 September was the day in which the new singers sang in the Choir for the first time. 14 new members were admitted, almost half of the Choir, which is a huge amount.

The rehearsal began in the chapel, the Choir was positioned on the two sides, Cantoris and Decani, at the organ one of the Organ Scholars, and the first work was Gardiner's Evening Hymn. Even on their first entry I had the impression that the Choir already sounded fantastic, although they had never sung together in this combination. I thought to myself that this Choir begins its work at a level at which most German choirs have long since finished their work.
I was curious to see how the work would continue. First things first: On the subject of mastering intonation I could not learn much, as the Choir simply sings incredibly cleanly. The few instances of poor intonation or timbre were quickly corrected during the singing. This usually happened very easily as one of the assistants would play the corresponding note on the instrument (either piano or organ). In this context it should also be noted that the tuning of all the instruments is fantastic and they are all at the same pitch. The subject of intonation was not touched on any further.

So what was the main work of this first part? It was evidently establishing contact within the Choir. So Stephen Layton was very careful that the singers were always looking at each other or at him, that no one spent too long in their score. For all the new singers this first piece was more or less new. And it was immediately clear that all members can sight read the work not only correctly, but already with interpretative intonation. Nevertheless, Stephen Layton very closely observed the extent to which the new members maintained eye contact with him or communicated with one another. It is precisely this internal communication, silent contact through the eyes alone, which seems to me a key for the alert singing and listening which can lead to such results. And something else: again and again he seeks discussion from the new members: what is important where, what to look for, what does not sound good, etc. He encourages and therefore demands responsible singers.

The second work to be sung was Stanford’s Beati quorum. Here Layton worked on a different topic: the implementation of lines and phrasing, on which he worked very intensively, but only by example. At such moments it might be that a single voice part, i.e. all sopranos or all altos, tenors or bases would sing to clarify the shape of a line, but only very briefly. Overall, it was notable that the Director only speaks quietly and calmly in all rehearsals, so that the rehearsal is extremely concentrated, even though the singers stand throughout and though there are seven hours of rehearsal in one day. Following Stanford's Beati quorum his Service in C Major (Magnificat and Nunc dimittis) was rehearsed, which was already performed that evening at Evensong. Here he worked above all on the sound, on the pronunciation of the vowels and the colour of the vowels.

What astonished me was the next part of the rehearsal, in which he rehearsed the Anglican Chant, the English style of singing Psalms. After the singers had hummed through the pattern of melody and harmony several times, he worked very intensively and extensively on the text and its delivery. This was not just about the colour of the individual vowels, but also the relationship of the syllables with each other as well as the pronunciation of many consonants which he sharpened strongly to make the text more comprehensible. Thanks to the arrangement of the Psalms, in which it is set out which dynamic is expected in which verse, a sung version of the text could be effected relatively quickly.

On the evening of the first day the new Choir sang Evensong for the first time, as mentioned above. This service was not for the public but only for former graduates of Trinity. The Choir then had to sing at a celebration afterwards. Very different pieces were heard here, including God Save the Queen. All of this was worked on in the first hours of the rehearsal and already sounded at a very high level.

The second day was characterised by significantly lesser known works, such as a composition by 20-year-old Organ Scholar Owain Park (a name to note) or the contemporary American composer Starkey or Einojuhani Rautavaara. I was particularly amazed how quickly modern works can be put into practice by this Choir, both in their rhythmic structure as well as in their harmonic and melodic structure. The Choir seems to know of almost no problems.

However, the main work of the second day was Bach's Mass in B minor, which the Choir was obviously singing for the first time. Just three members had sung it before. For me, as a choral director from the Continent, it was at least a little bit comforting that such a Choir sometimes has some difficulties with Bach, which are however tackled very quickly. So within 1 ½ hours, divided into about 20 to 25 minutes each, it was no problem to sing and already to work musically on the Kyrie, large parts of the Gloria, the Creed and the Dona nobis pacem. Considering that this choir has only two months to work (until the end of November) and in addition has to sing an Evensong with different repertoire every week, then it is amazing that a Mass in B Minor can be fitted in, which will be broadcast live in London at the end of November. Undoubtedly this is all possible only by exploiting the resources of professional management, good rehearsal organisation and perfect timing. In addition however in the background are a very well-functioning management, excellent Organ Scholars who not only play the organ very well, but can also conduct and accompany, and of course fantastic singers.

Now the question arises: how to find these singers? Stephen Layton had already told me at one of earliest meetings, when I asked him about it, that for him the voice was not so important. The singers must be intelligent. Then such a choir would function. On closer questioning during my stay in September 2014 I learned that the pool of potential singers is very small, because they need a dual qualification: an extremely good vocal one on the one hand, and a high academic one on the other. So Stephen Layton said that last year only 14
applicants were qualified for 12 free places. In addition to the Choir rehearsals, members of the Choir receive individual singing lessons, sometimes several times a week, and thereby are looked after vocally very intensively.

The members of the choir are all between 18 and 20/21 years old. So it is all the more surprising that such sophisticated elite music-making is possible with such young people, of whom the majority are either not yet professional musicians or do not wish to be, rather are studying completely different subjects. And it is also astonishing that this Choir can rehearse so intensively only in the week before the start of term. After that studies take priority and there is no longer much rehearsal time.

What can our choirs learn from this? Certainly our church choirs will never be able to work at this level. But, for example, the requirement for eye contact could be very interesting. Also the belief that there is no question that the works undertaken will really succeed, if for example everyone always sings at the same time, could be helpful and take our choirs forward. How often do we find that choir rehearsals are for the most part single voice rehearsals, which is taxing both on quality and on concentration. Consideration should also be given as to whether our choirs could adopt a different seating arrangement in order to connect singing and eye contact better together. Ultimately of course, discipline is called for, so that one can work quickly without great commentary from the choir. In this context it should be mentioned briefly: If a member of the Choir has sung wrongly and noticed this, he or she raises their hand quickly so that the Director knows the mistake is clear. So at first no correction is made and the next time the note is right. We in our choirs can probably rarely get to this point, but this attentive listening and singing seems very helpful. And something else: Above all on the second day Layton rehearsed Parsons’ Ave Maria intensively. He asked the singers who had already been in the Choir for a while to sing this work several times from memory and asked the new members to comment on what they heard, how they heard it and what consequences that had. And only then did the new ones join in. Precisely this comparative listening seems to me just as much a key to high quality, and perhaps in choir rehearsals one should play more recordings or divide the choir and have them sing and observe what sounds better and what does not sound good. Because the key to this work is doubtless in the listening and accepting of music, much less in the desire to do it.

Published on 21 April 2015

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