Fauré into Lichfield

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Wednesday evening saw me return to my friends the Lichfield Singers for a bespoke workshop on the theme of choral musicianship, with a particular focus on the Fauré Requiem, which they will be performing at their concert at the end of June. It was a good point in the rehearsal process to visit, as the singers were familiar enough with the music to have some spare attention beyond the sheer nuts and bolts of it, but were at that point where developing a clearer idea of the hows and whys of it all would help embed the music more securely.

We based the workshop around the three movements that they had identified as most needing attention, and drew out several themes that generalised across all three and indeed throughout the whole work.

One of these was the way Fauré's melodies work in long arcs with accent or focal points emerging from the melodic and textual shape rather than driven by any kind of metrical accents. We explored a variety of rehearsal tactics to bring out this melodic continuity, including bubbling and singing to 'ng' to establish continuity of breath and line, singing with all vowels replaced by the first one in the phrase, and giving a specific 'lift' or 'spin' to those syllables where you might be tempted to subdivide a long phrase.

What I found interesting about this process is how dependent an essentially musical quality such as melody is on quite specifically vocal techniques such as continuity of tone and consistency of placement. When you're working on musicianship, you tend to think of the focus as being on the mind rather than the body, on conceptual and perceptual qualities rather than technique. But developing the procedures to execute the musical content was an integral part of grasping it imaginatively: inner hearing may drive musical performance, but it is also fed by outer hearing.

We had a similar experience as we explored the stately block chords that open the work. We broke these down into duets so that each part could identify and connect with the parts they were doubling at any particular moment, as the octaves and unisons within the chords serve to glue the harmonies together. Simply duetting opened up the awareness of the music's internal partnerships, but it took unifying the vowel sounds for people to feel as well as understand the connections. (Sarra's lego metaphor for harmonies comes to mind again here.)

I have written before about the way you get a more motivated, meaningful approach to dynamic shaping if you conceive it in terms of mode of expression rather than simply volume relationships. But Fauré's approach to dynamic markings makes this a more urgent question than most music.

The very opening of the work sets out the issues immediately: from a pianissimo opening, you have a crescendo to forte over the span of three crotchets, then a couple of bars later a diminuendo to piano over similarly short passage, before heading down to ppp for the end of the passage. And the whole work continues in the same vein: all the markings are most definitely either loud or quiet, and the only time you re instructed to be anything in between is where you are in transition between these two states. The work just does not deal in middling.

Now the challenge to performers is to make sense of this musically without sounding bipolar, and vocally without getting vocal strain. We first discussed why a composer might mark music this way, and came to the conclusion that it could be a way to ensure that everything is sung with a positive expressive commitment. You're never just singing along with the music, you're always communicating something definite.

We then played with the idea of the dynamic markings as dramatic indicators. The piano realms operate as personal, private, intimate expression, while the forte range is much more public, declamatory. That is, you're not thinking of how loud or quiet you're singing, but to whom you are communicating. And with Fauré's spectacular shifts between these registers, it's possible to play this out quite literally in rehearsal. We sang through our final passage for the evening (the end of the 'Offertoire') with everyone singing the piano passages to the person next to them, then turning to the windows to sing the forte passages to the building across the street.

It's been some years since I've spent time with this work, and I find myself with something of a dilemma about it. Does it make me feel nostaligic because it brings back so vividly previous happy encounters with it, such as when I first sang it in the summer of 1989? Or is the music inherently nostalgic in expression? I sometimes think I'm getting a form of meta-nostalgia, as I recall how the music made me feel back when I was a student. I think the only people qualified to answer this would be people who have never heard it before, so if you find yourself hearing it for the first time, will you let me know the effect it has on you?

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