Wednesday, May 21, 2008

An historic problem

In the general conservatism of their repertory, it might most be suspected that choral societies have accepted without a struggle their relegation to a second-class power in the world of music. In the last century choirs vied to perform new music by such overseas celebrities as Dvorak and Gounod; today, however, one notices no comparable scramble for Stravinsky. Indeed, when choral societies do try occasionally to slake their consciences and extend their repertory, they too often turn not to the great modern masters but to some figure of no conceivable significance in the wider world of music. It is not certain who is deceiving whom by this process. But it is certain that a huge gap frequently stretches between a choral society's choice of a classical repertory (normally grounded in a selection, albeit narrow, from the greatest practitioners of the art) and its choice of a modern repertory, which often takes deliberate refuge in mere local and ephemeral works.
. . .
Indeed, if we set aside such 'closed' social groups as schools and colleges, it would seem that only one choral activity is still deeply part of our society and would be widely missed if it disappeared. I refer to the performances of Handel's Messiah, and of carols, at Christmas time. The one festival of the Christian year which has broadened itself into an important secular festival has carried over the originally Christian choral celebration into the new context. (That Handel did not actually intend Messiah as a Christmas work is not the point.) There is an eloquent moral in the fact that leading choral societies habitually base their financial plans on the certainty that performances of Messiah and Christmas carols will yield enough profits to offset substantially the loss expected on everything else.
Arthur Jacobs, "Postscript", in Choral Music, ed. Arthur Jacobs.

Anyone who believes that the problems of today's choirs have an easy fix should take note of the fact that the above article was written in 1963.

1 comment:

Mac novice said...

This is fascinating. I have been saying much the same thing recently. I sing professionally with a choir who has just concluded a successful performance of Carmina Burana and is about to go into a run of Beethoven 9. Last season, we performed Carmina under two different conductors and orchestras plus the Beethoven 9. In the past couple of years, we have done two different Mozart Requiems with different orchestras.
Next season, we have scheduled....yet another Carmina, another Mozart Requiem, and the Beethoven 9. In between these we are doing Handel (Israel in Egypt) and Haydn. Our lone foray into contemporary (leaving aside Carl Orff) is an unknown name.
And, yes, next season will include our 2nd annual Messiah sing-along.