Visualise a circle of people, around and focused on the choral doctor and accompanist, on a sunny Saturday afternoon. The corridors are quiet in this part of the hospital at the weekend. The windows are open to a courtyard within the building. We can hear kids running about outside, squealing as the play hide-and-seek. The room warms, so we open the doors too. There is no-one to disturb.
That’s it, set a scene. Help the reader to evoke the same feelings you had when actually having the experience you are recounting. That was indeed today, but it is also a fundamental learning point from today.
What makes Russian choral music Russian? There is something in the intonations, vowels, consonants and accent pattern, a ‘dark’ quality, a broadness, something deep that evokes a rawness of tone to us. The music also often uses split voices/ SATB divisi, like SSAATTBBB, giving the chorus complexity and depth. We worked on vocal tone, bringing back resonance to our voices, moving them to continental Europe. We broadened our vowels, taking us to the eastern part of the continent and explored the sounds of the critical soft consonants that made a voice finally sound Russian. The pinnacle could be to get to the point that the listener asks us where we are from, not in English, but in Russian….
But how did today relate to my opening theme? Let’s explain what Brian did with Tchaikovsky, ‘None but the lonely heart’….in ‘three ways’. This song is well known in English, but was written in Russian and translated. We learnt the melody to English lyrics, a touching, sad song, a beauty. What difference would it make to do it in German? We sang the words, I was chuffed with my pronunciation. Did I know what I was really singing? Something touching and sad, surely? Sehnsucht. Many description words, especially those regarding feelings or thoughts, cannot be directly translated with a single word with the exact meaning in another language; there are always nuances of meaning and depth. Sehsucht isn’t simple nostalgia, it is deeper and more searching, like a fond searching back, yearning or longing. Psychologists use the German term technically, as professionals are wont, to imply a feeling of the unfinished or imperfect, paired with a yearning for an ideal alternative. Perhaps a picture helps capture this better.
Sehnsucht by Oscar Zwintscher, c 1900
The English translation of this song means something quite different, loneliness is a theme. The translation was with licence to allow it to be sung. If we want to sing in the original language, we don’t want to read a singing translation to get the meaning. At this point, many of us began to pencil out the English in our scores, just before Brian suggested it. What we want is a word for word meaning. What does “Poitye, Pyessni, slavye, Khanu! Poi!” mean in Borodin Polovtsian Dances? Sing, songs, renown, to the Khan! Sing! These were słave girls summoned to sing to the defeated, captured but honoured Khan. They sang because they had to; he was defeated but still to be feared and honoured. This is not an angry or happy passage. It is not triumphant, necessarily, either. Perhaps ‘slavyi’ is like the biblical ‘terrible’. Now we get it. Singing it again, we sang not collections of sounds, or even words, but with passion and depth.
Brian speaks several languages, putting us all to shame. Of any of us, he understood best the poverty of thinking only in English, missing the xtra nuances afforded by specific words in other languages, like Sehnsucht. It is a mistake to work only in the original language of a song, without looking at the meaning of each word to bring the song out. The work won’t be lyrical, but the singer is helped to sing each word, affording it some of its original meaning. Вся грудь горит, Fsia grud gorit isn’t any part of “My heart grows still, a flame consumes me.” The line is lyrical or poetic, but it is not a translation of the original that helps us sing it, but rather is an alternative song. Вся грудь горит, Fsia grud gorit is “whole stomach burning“. That’s a bit more, well gutsy, to say the least. The Russian song is deeper, more visceral, a very different expression, and it is the one the composer matched to the music, after all. Maybe you weren’t there today and don’t quite get it. The song’s title is “None but the lonely heart” by Tchaikovsky. The original title is “Нет, только тот, кто знал”, “Niet, tól’-ka tot kto znal”. Of course this sounds quite different to “None but the lonely heart”, it also doesn’t mean that either. The full line is literally “No, only the one who knew the thirst for a meeting will understand how I have suffered….”. Listen to Brian’s prime example of Hvorostovsky:
Depth of meaning comes out it other ways. A treat of this and the last workshop was a short piano duet with Gareth. Mahler’s 5th Symphony can bring to tears the listener. What starts as a simple series of notes, holds back from developing into one clear key, pauses and releases into one less expected. The unresolved technical trick acted like an emotional release, with a beauty that is…slavyi?
It was lovely to round off with Tchaikovsky Cherubic Hymn and that signature piece of our last one or two meetings, Rachmaninov Bogoroditse Devo. Our Slavic tones and consonants are getting more consistent and authentic. Our confidence is growing and we have made valuable headway towards the repertoire for Cork in November. Next workshop is on the 8th June and Brian will develop our skills further, consolidating what we have learnt and introduce new pieces and move more towards Cork. Today we were joined by a goodly number of people from outside this choir. It enriched the experience. One participant got to fulfil a long held ambition and give Brian a flower as she expressed her thanks (yes, it happened, as she had bottled the opportunity of doing a stage presentation years ago, but this time she delivered a greatly appreciated floral thank you). Another participant recounted how welcome she felt and that she had never quite had an experience like it, appreciating the depth of approach and skills-based coaching Brian had used, Khan nash himself…
Come to the next workshop to develop further in Russian song. It Will be stand-alone, it won’t simply repeat today, but will take it on, yet if you weren’t here today, you will be able to join fresh and take everything from it. Like today, 8th June is an open Workshop, so please come and invite your choral colleagues. Tickets available: