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Reprinted with permission from "ICDA Notations," (Fall -2011), official newsletter of the Indiana chapter of the ACDA, Charles Bradley, Editor

A response to the September 2010 Choral Journal College and University Choir R & S Report

by Dennis Malfatti

In the September 2010 Choral Journal, an article by William McConnell reported that over the course of the five preceding National ACDA Conventions, “80.69% of all selections by college and university choirs of mixed voicing were drawn from the period after 1900” (p. 68.)  McConnell states that this avoidance of “historic” (that is, non-20th/21st century) music is at odds with ACDA’s stated standards for College and University Choirs which state ensemble leaders should “select repertoire that allows ensembles to experience both historic choral repertoire and new compositions” ( p. 67.) 

For those who attend ACDA conventions, McConnell’s findings should come as no surprise.  I know I am not the only conductor who is disappointed by the scarcity of music written before 1900 at conventions.  But what I find most troubling in the article is that the ACDA College and University R & S Committee refers to all the approximately five hundred years of chzephyroral repertoire written prior to 1900 as merely “historic.”  I would suggest that a philosophy which classifies the lion’s share of Western choral music under one dull umbrella term like “historic” may be at least one cause of it not being performed.

By lumping approximately five hundred years of choral music together as simply historic, the R & S Committee unwittingly relegates all music written prior to 1900 to the status of a museum artifact.  When music is given museum status, it risks becoming something that is to be admired and respected as a great historical treasure, but ignored for its vitality and power to move people’s deepest emotions.  As Thomas Moore writes in his book, Care of the Soul, when art is banished to the museum, it is “elevated and set apart from life, having become too precious and therefore irrelevant”  (p. 285.)

I think our craft is in serious trouble if our desire to program repertoire written before 1900 is led by a sense of duty to preserve historical treasures.  If we as conductors are not driven to program this music simply because we are passionate about it as great music, music that is as powerful and capable of moving both listeners and performers today as it did when it was first written, we all but ensure performances of this music that are perfunctory, and devoid of genuine expressive depth and energy.  I believe this is worse than not programming the music at all.       

The fact that J. S. Bach was a Baroque composer or that Joseph Haydn was a Classical composer is, in my view, incidental.  There were numerous composers of Bach’s and Haydn’s generation who were highly respected during their lifetime and whose music accurately reflects the style and musical practices of the time, but who are largely forgotten today at least in our concert halls.  When was the last time you heard a performance of a work by Agricola, Holzbauer, or Reutter all of whom were respected eighteenth century composers?  While certainly “historic,” the works of these composers simply lack the depth of beauty and musical craftsmanship found in the music of Bach, Mozart, and in the late choral works of Haydn.

I do not program Josquin, Bach, Haydn, and Brahms because they are historic or even because they are great representations of Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, or Romantic music.  I perform them because so much of what they wrote is timeless.  These were master craftsmen who knew how to manipulate the fundamentals of music (melody, harmony, counterpoint, motivic unity and development, large scale form, relationship of text to musical structures, etc.) to unimaginable degrees such that listeners and performers today continue to be moved by their music.  I would argue that there is little inherent value in learning and performing a Baroque work simply for the sake of learning and performing a Baroque work.  There is however incalculable value in learning and performing a cantata or motet by J. S. Bach because, like Shakespeare, his art speaks to people as powerfully (if not more so) in modern times as it did in his own time.  While conductors must have a substantive knowledge of historical context and performance practice to make informed interpretive decisions, those “historic” considerations are only a means to a much more meaningful end:  the rewards of experiencing great music through performance.

This is not to say that only music written pre-1900 contains the attributes of greatness.  There is enormous craftsmanship in certain choral works by Rachmaninov, Hindemith, Stravinsky, Poulenc, Ligeti, and various other post-1900 composers.  Being a regular attendee of ACDA conventions, however, I am quite sure that the majority of the 80.96% of post 1900 compositions to which McConnell refers are not by these or similar composers.  There are of course many very good contemporary choral pieces we hear at ACDA conventions and I certainly include many of these pieces on my own programs.  But how many of the contemporary choral works written within recent decades reveals that astonishing perfection we find in so many of the great pieces of the past; the sense that the musical material that unfolds couldn’t be any different or any better?  I believe there is a distinction between pieces that are merely good and pieces that are, for lack of a better term, great, and composers like Bach, Brahms, and Stravinsky have set an extraordinarily high standard for what classifies as “great.”  There is an anecdote told by Bach’s very first biographer, Forkel, which illustrates this distinction:

Bach frequently traveled to the Dresden opera and, as Forkel reports, often “took his eldest son with him.  He used to say in jest some days before his departure:  ‘Friedmann, shan’t we go again to hear the lovely Dresden ditties?’  Innocent as this joke was in itself, I am convinced that Bach would not have uttered it to anybody except this son who, at that time, already knew what is great in art and what is only beautiful and agreeable.” (Johann Sebastian Bach:  The Learned Musician by Christoph Wolff, p. 363)

There are many lovely and exciting choral works, old and new, that are worth performing and worth listening to.  The operas at Dresden were apparently appealing enough to J. S. Bach and his son Wilhelm Friedman to travel from Leipzig to Dresden to hear.  But then there is that classification of works that are more than, in Forkel’s words “only beautiful and agreeable” and rise to the top as truly great.  While certainly not everything written before 1900 is great, I think it is safe to say that we will find far more great pieces in the five hundred years prior to 1900 than in the one hundred eleven years since then.  This is the reason we should seek out and perform music written before 1900, not for the sake of historical preservation.

It is appropriate for ACDA to be stewards of music from centuries past, but if in so doing, our organization only perpetuates the notion that music from centuries past is “museum music” to be reverently admired without much consideration of its relevance to modern performers and listeners, then we will have missed the intent of our standards.  Unless we are willing to embrace the real reason why we should program music of “historical significance,” and unless we as conductors are driven to program this music merely because we love this music and not because an ACDA directive recommends we do so, then I suspect McConnell’s article won’t be the last report showing an avoidance of this music at ACDA conventions.

Dennis Malfatti, D.M.A.
ICDA R & S Chair, College and University Choirs
Director of Choral Activities, University of Evansville
Conductor, Evansville Philharmonic Chorus

July 2011

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