A single voice takes on a phalanx of fiercely trained soldiers of song. For many still, that lone figure, though a man, sounds like a woman, while the massed chorus he meets on the field of honor produces a sound drenched in masculinity, especially as heard by the majority of the populace clustered around the Great Salt Lake, home to that very choir of God. Contemplating the falsettist, some of those hearers might think that his high voice is an abomination, of which there are many (abominations that is) in the soloist’s German-speaking Europe, which has just come through the cross-dressing exhilarations of Karneval and into the austerities of Lent.
Does the penitential Christian season even register among the faithful in Utah, since the Mormon renunciation of caffeine, alcohol, tobacco, (though not firearms) and extra-martial sex—without which life would be unthinkable in Babylonian Europe— extends across the entire calendar.
The contest between the one and the many—and also between manly and feminized song—was opened anew earlier this week when two new releases washed up on my doorstep: Men of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and German countertenor Andreas Scholl’s disc of Purcell songs, O Solitude . In the aftermath of this collision of musical opposites we hear the real source of the human voice’s power.
Even the packaging of the two records is a study in contrasts. From the cover of his CD pamphlet, Scholl looks directly at us through trendy, frameless glasses, ancient wooden paneling behind him. Clad in a dark jacket, white shirt and no tie—a look that says casual and expensive—he leans his carefully stubbled chin on clasped hands. The wedding ring featured so prominently in the cover shot of his 1999 CD, Heroes, which presented a slew of triumphant Handel arias originally intended for castrati, but on that disc repurposed for fully intact countertenor, is nowhere to be seen. This iconography seemed to want to project a clear statement about the performer’s sexual identity, especially when one compares it to the image of openly gay rival countertenor David Daniel’s own late 1998 release of Handel arias. (Like Scholl’s, this one is backed by conductor Roger Norrington leading the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment; this allows for an interesting comparisons the countertenors’ very different voices and stylistic approaches). Daniel’s cover shows him seated on a lushly upholstered chaise longue with styled foppish hair, closely manicured beard, and no wedding ring in sight.
Scholl now casually admits his own heterosexuality; he lives with a girlfriend, and has a daughter by an ex-wife he professedly gets on well with. Whether he ever sang to that daughter Billy Joel’s Lullaby as the Mormon men do on their CD as “ an expression of unwavering devotion and love that unite parents and children eve in the face of challenges,” seems doubtful.
Scholl is now an unabashed proponent of musical androgyny: “being masculine or feminine limits our completeness … social structures oblige us to exclude aspects of our personality which aren’t seen to fit. Men don’t cry or talk about their feelings, women sing and speak high.” For Scholl the countertenor voice uniquely evokes a universal humanity. Given such a praise for such gendering-bending ideologies, it is little wonder that there are no countertenors in the famed choir from the salty shores of the Great Basin.
On the cover of the Mormon male chorus disc, we see the shoulders and chest of a man in a tuxedo accoutered with black studs and crisp bowtie. That the head is lopped off from the photo speaks to the collective ethos of choral singing: the tuxedo serves as a metonym for the male chorus from Salt Lake. Inside the booklet we see dubious variants of this uniform: dark suits with red ties, white tuxedoes, and red dinner jackets with red bowties. There’s a reason Jeeves never visited Utah.
All (but one) of the Mormon faces are white, and all are clean shaven: nary a moustache, beard, nor lone stalk of stubble tarnishes the collective countenance of devout men at song. Though the tenors are occasionally sent up into their head voices by conductor Mack Wilberg’s clever and schlocky arrangements, the singing never flirts with feminine falsetto.
In many of the tracks the Mormon men are accompanied the Tabernacle orchestra and the famous organ, whose four-towered façade serves as the logo for the group. The opening number, one of the many Protestant hymns on the disc, is a setting of the Methodist anthem “Brethren, We Have Met to Worship”; the temperance espoused by both denominations is belied by the rousing voices, which could as easily be joined in a drinking song, football song, or both. The orchestral introduction itself begins with a timpani blast opening the corral for the cantering string lines and open-range horn calls that are spurred on by the snap of a snare drum. It’s like parody of a Western soundtrack, as if a gun-slinging Brigham Young had led his posse of trekking Mormon pioneers on a detour through the movie set of Blazing Saddles.
The next hymn has the orchestra shimmering away with cloyingly sweet strings dusted with the saccharine strains of harp and flute-playing Hallmark angels. For all their manliness, these singers are often cushioned by the softest orchestral synthetic satin. This repertoire of Christian Praise, including the obligatory black gospel tune, is done with power, precision and relentless predictability. Doubtless it will raise many spirits, with its bland assurances, conventional musical morality and easy-listening exaltations.
That the chorus finally let’s down its close-cropped hair with Gilbert and Sullivan and the blanched exoticism of “Dance a Cachuca, Fandango, Bolero” basically says it all. When a hundred-plus buttoned-up men sing of “The reckless delight of that wildest dances” one can either laugh or cry – or better still, go dancing for real. The last line of this finale from The Gondoliers runs: “We leave you with feelings of pleasure!” I did not reciprocate this feeling.
None of this is to say that the disc is cleansed of desire. Indeed, the central problem of a men’s chorus such as this is how to muffle the erotic resonance of close harmonies piled on one another in the nether regions of the “natural” range of the male voice. The Gilbert and Sullivan romp is followed by an Alleluia attributed (falsely as the liner notes admit) to the 17th-century Roman madrigalist Giulio Caccini. There’s a reason that the sensuality of lush, low-sung, low-slung harmonies grasping and releasing one another in praise of Jesus must immediately be denied in the next number, Pilgrims’ Chorus from Tannhäuser, which is itself the arch-sensualist Wagner’s own hardly-convincing answer to the seductions of Venus. The purity of Mormon song is an illusion, even if a useful one.
The irony is that there is no male voice more sonically pure than Scholl’s. When his speaking voice broke at the age of thirteen, he continued to sing falsetto, thus never attempted to become what nature general ordains for men—being a tenor or bass. The Kiedricher Chorbuben, the choir Scholl had been a part of since the age of seven, accepted this unique development and let Scholl naturally became a countertenor. His voice thus retains something of its boyishness.
Yet the Purcell disc is all about sex. The first track, glossing Shakespeare’s opening of Twelfth Night, declares the truth denied by the Salt Lake singers:
If music be the food of love,
sing on till I am fill’d with joy;
for then my list’ning soul you move
with pleasures that can never cloy.
Your eyes, your mien, your tongue
declare that you are music ev’rywhere
The tentative accompaniment begins with a lute and a harp that is earthy and full of longing: one cannot believe that the Mormon harpings come from the same instrument. Purcell is a master of projecting the urgency of the words through music: the first line of the song is halting, the second moves forward, decisively pursuing potential pleasures. Endowed with an incredible range of nuance and timbre that has deepened in complexity over the years even while retaining its precision, Scholl’s voice emerges from the instrumental backdrop with a distant pianissimo, then quickly blooms into forte declarations of the potency of music’s sensual joys.
This opening literally sets the tone for the remainder of this beautifully-conceived and executed program. Scholl is joined by his countertenor colleague Christophe Dumaux for two duets, beginning with another ode to the power of the music, “Sound the Trumpet” from a Birthday Ode for Queen Mary from 1694, the year before the composer died at the age of thirty-one. The text, by Nahum Tate [let’s not forget his imperishable King Lear, retrofitted with a happy ending, Editors] also librettist for Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, extols the joys of music; the high male voices in tandem show that they are as agile and even more compelling than the instruments they mimic. The Birthday Ode’s catalogue of musical pleasures continues with “Strike the viol,” a solo song powerfully accompanied once again by the players of Accademia bizantina under violinist Stefano Montanari. When Scholl sings “touch the lute” the lutenist strums a full, bracing chord—one of many imaginative and electrifying moments of dialogue and interplay between the singer and his band on the recording
Like so many of the numbers on the CD, these two jubilant depictions of music-making are ground basses, a variation technique in which the bass-line remains mostly constant while the melody and sometimes the harmony are changed in imaginative, even visionary ways. Purcell was one of the greatest practitioners of this means of making large pieces out of such minimal material. The composer’s creative gifts are immense, such that the seemingly narrow confines of repeating bass unleashes wave after wave of his fantasy, which comes alive again only when given the vital lift of convincing performance. This disc is, among its various triumphs, an ode to the rich pleasures of the ground bass and the glorious platform from performance they can, at their best, provide.
The most famous, and arguably the greatest, of these ground basses is Dido’s Lament, sung by the deserted Carthaginian heroine in the above-mentioned semi-opera. In the stage work Aeneas has sailed off for Rome leaving his devastated lover behind, and on this track it is as if something of Scholl’s maleness similarly departs him. In accordance with his claims for the benefits of embracing the feminine side of his musicality, he produces an intensely moving reading of this piece in which gender becomes irrelevant.
Among its many treasures the disc includes a tribute to the cult-figure countertenor Klaus Nomi, who left Germany for the gay music scene of New York, and died in 1983, one of the first musicians to succumb to AIDS. One of Nomi’s set-pieces was his version (sometimes done with semi-electronic backing) one of the great moments in English musical drama—the Cold Song from Purcell’s King Arthur. Scholl’s homage is riveting stuff, especially with the piercing, icy chords cracking loose free from the cellos and violins of the Accademia bizantina, . (Along with this live performance of the Cold Song, many of the other tracks from the same concert of Purcell songs done by Scholl and the Accademia bizantina are available on Youtube, Dido’s lament among them).
Scholl’s sometimes bawdy, allows beautiful Purcell resounds above and beyond the legions of basses and tenors from Salt Lake, and proves that one honest and expressive voice is worth more than a thousand.
DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. He is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org