Voix de Vivre - some impressions from the Honorary President
On the 13th July I took part, as is my great pleasure to do when required, in Voix de Vivre’s concert of great German choral music. Reflecting on the evening’s experience, I found myself asking what exactly is the value of such concert events. Not that I am in any doubt of their absolute value, but in this age when music is more often experienced as a pre-packaged consumer item, and with audiences for even the more familiar orchestral repertoire dwindling in number, how can we devotees of choral repertoire best communicate our enthusiasm for it to audiences and singers alike?
Leaving aside for now the widespread decline in appreciation of all forms of what used to be called ‘classical music’ – the European tradition of a structured, discursive music that can take audiences and musicians through an actual emotional and intellectual ‘argument’, - what can be said in support of its universal value, and in particular of its choral manifestations? Quite a challenge, when figures such as Jeremy Vine the TV presenter have recently publicly dismissed the whole subject as something which would interest only a few, mainly middle-aged, people. Looking around outside professional London circuits you could easily form the impression that his analysis is at least broadly factual, if unjust. By and large, both choirs and their audiences are not only dwindling but ageing.
There are two problems here; one is the general disinclination to engage with our common ‘classical’ heritage, the other the particular public perception of choral music. It is true that historically the choir has been associated with religious music on the one hand and with the once great local choral society tradition on the other, dating from a time of more defined and coherent communities. Choral music is now felt to be out of step with an age of rival leisure attractions now available to all (individually and privately) such as the telly and the cinema.
In the face of those problems I would point to a number of possible positives that could be urged. The first must entail a conviction on the part of dedicated practitioners of ‘classical music’ and their faithful audiences that this is a living and evolving heritage of absolute value to all humanity both in its content and in the way it is practised. Some repertoire may require homework on the part of its practitioners, and even of its audience, but that only serves to enhance its rewards.
As to the choral repertoire in itself, we must make it clear that its greatest monuments are as fine as any in the orchestral repertoire or in any other art form. At several points in history, choral composition has touched peaks as high as those found in any other musical medium, as Saturday’s concert amply demonstrated. I speak as a professional musician of some 58 years (if one takes into account my daily drilling as a choral treble from the age of seven) who has experienced just about every medium from the inside and the outside, from the choral to the operatic, and as a hobby violin/viola player from the orchestral to the chamber repertoire. I say without any reservation that the works of Bach, Brahms and Schoenberg that were presented last Saturday to a select audience are, of their kind, as important and as towering as those composers’ achievements in the better known media.
It is high time for choral music to cease to be the Cinderella of the ‘classical’ repertoire, and for the skills of today’s amateur choirs, which seem to become increasingly refined even as their numbers dwindle, to be directed to the wider presentation of this remarkable and priceless ongoing heritage, and to the stimulation of new additions to it.
There is another value to this whole enterprise, equally or perhaps even more important in an individualistic and egocentric age. That is, the shared effort that music-making involves - and I include the audience in this. The performers’ experience is of one kind, the listeners’ of another, but both audience and performers are engaged in a joint effort to bring music to life. Music is not something written on a page; it only exists when human beings realise it (in this case their own bodies are the instruments) in collaboration with the composer, and he with whoever conceived the text. Nor is it a solitary affair; even when we make music alone we are in conversation with the composer.
In this way all music is heightened human communication which pre-supposes a listener, an audience. In this activity both performer and audience furnish their minds with objective beauty, intellectual nourishment or emotional release (most often all three together), and their bodies with physical engagement in the creation of those qualities. In making music we also make a precious space for self-forgetfulness in which we can meet communally on equal and objective terms, and, if I may sound a flippant note, give our egos a break. For all my joking, I cannot overestimate the value of this last benefit to both performers and audiences.
It is an honour to have been asked to be the Honorary President of Voix de Vivre, and I salute its efforts and honour its achievements in realising all I have alluded to above. My friendships with its conductor, a colleague of some 40 years, and with its most recent chairman, a singing ‘pupil’ (though I have little to teach him!) of more than 30, are amongst my dearest, and I hope I may long yet enjoy a beer with them while picking over past performances, planning programmes and generally keeping abreast of the choir’s latest successes. Ad multos annos!