I’ve spoken about the power of words before, and the subject is on my mind again today. The current issue of The New Yorker includes a retrospective of fifty years of John Updike’s contributions to that magazine. In reading the words of this recently deceased American icon, I was struck again and again with the eloquence and beauty of his language, and was reminded that I have always loved words. In fact, had I not dedicated my life to choral music I suspect I might have naturally gravitated toward a career of teaching English and American literature.
All that being said, I spend a lot of time reading (much of it admittedly in audio form as I spend two hours daily in my car), and the bulk of what I’m reading these days consists of university level courses from The Teaching Company, Inc. and various nonfiction works, most recently Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. I very much believe that the “workout” my mind receives from all that reading/listening helps prepare me to better understand and be attentive to the words that are such an integral ingredient of choral music.
In recent rehearsals of Mozart’s Requiem I have spent a fair amount of time talking about the meaning of the words we are singing, not just general translations of the Latin phrases, but in many cases even actual word for word translations. It is my firm belief that the more we really understand the text we are singing, the more we are able to impart to the audience, and also to ourselves.
What are your thoughts about the importance of words in choral music? Do you have any stories about how a certain text in a choral piece has spoken in a profound way to you? I’m interested in hearing from you.