Singing and signing2:11, 12th June 2019
Tenor and choir trustee Toby Spence explains The Bach Choir’s latest project for people with hearing loss
Since 2017, The Bach Choir has been developing an initiative through which it hopes to engage with new audiences, add membership value for the enthusiasts who make up the choir and experiment with new ways for its music to find meaning in today’s crowded culture space. In short, the management of the choir have handed artistic control of the presentation of one project each season to the choir itself.
Before getting into the specifics of our next project – singing and signing Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis – allow me to give you some background to this new departure. Some years ago, I was listening to the Reith Lectures of Atul Gawande about modern trends in post-trauma and end-of-life care. His message was that society has moved beyond the era when doctors and carers could dictate to their patients what treatment was required for their specific needs. Gawande’s message was that doctors should ask patients about how they would like to receive their care. His words got me thinking.
There is an assumed and unspoken gulf between what music professionals and their audience know that in the internet age becomes less significant with each passing year. Taking Gawande’s ideas, is it time to ask ticket buyers and amateur enthusiasts for their ideas as to how concerts can be presented?
On joining The Bach Choir’s board of trustees in 2017, I discovered its membership are a diverse, talented cross section of people drawn from London and beyond. I set about tapping into their thoughts for how the choir could add value to its concert programmes. The first undertaking was Prokofiev’s score for Sergei Eisenstein’s film, Alexander Nevsky. 16 choir members volunteered to build the project. They analysed the score, looking at it from different angles, and settled on presenting the work through the eyes of Prokofiev, incorporating the political vacillations between Germany and the USSR at the end of the 30s. David Bamber played Prokofiev and the soloist Hilary Summers delivered Nevsky’s rousing speech. Everyone agreed the resulting concert was a success and that future projects should be given the same treatment. Last year we expanded Britten’s War Requiem with contemporary accounts and poetry of conflict.
This year The Bach Choir’s creative group have given the same treatment to Missa Solemnis. When Beethoven’s grandest scale work was suggested, all I could see were the challenges. On meeting with the creative group in a pub after a rehearsal, their knowledge and enthusiasm was immediately brought to bear. Rufus, previously a barrister and now a playwright, focused on Beethoven’s loss of hearing and the difficulty it caused him in writing and performing his music.
Beethoven set about writing the work for the enthronement as archbishop and cardinal of his friend and patron, Rudolf of Austria. It wasn’t completed in time for the coronation and the state censor refused permission for the whole work to be performed outside consecrated walls in concert for religious reasons. However, permission was granted for the Kyrie, Credo and Agnus Dei to be incorporated into an 1824 concert conducted by Beethoven himself. Conflicting contemporary accounts of the performance fail to corroborate the work’s success and it seems Beethoven’s deafness may have been at the heart of the issue. The work was deemed to be so difficult to sing that soloists left out pages of material without the composer noticing; some of the orchestral parts were incomplete and played as presented; the choir struggled to meet the demands of the choral writing. Despite these beginnings the work lives on and is much loved.
The skill of the signing interpreter lies in their ability to identify the characteristic in any moment of the music and incorporate that quality into their sign language as if they were a dancer
Pause and think: what is music for those with hearing loss? Many people reading this will have been to concerts and operas interpreted by a signer. What would a life without hearing music be like? How does signing convey music? What do people with hearing loss experience through music? These are questions we set out to answer through our Missa Solemnis performance later this month. There are 11 million registered individuals with hearing loss in the UK – one in six of the population – many of whom are music lovers and musicians.
Experiencing concerts without hearing goes to the essence of what music can be – that is, much more than simply organised sound. Concerts involve being swept along through fluctuating emotions in collective consciousness that binds us and makes us aware of what we share through common experience. The skill of the signing interpreter lies in their ability to identify the characteristic in any moment of the music and incorporate that quality into their sign language as if they were a dancer.
How will this performance differ from other signed concerts you might have seen before? During the performance, Paul Whittaker and Richard Stilgoe are going to speak about the value of music for people with hearing loss and its communication through sign language interpreters. Paul Whittaker is himself profoundly deaf and has been since birth. He studied music at Oxford, playing piano and organ. His preparation for the concerts he signs is taken entirely from the printed score. Having learnt the score by rote, he is then able to relate the vibrations he feels through the floor and air to the music, mouthing the text in perfect synchrony while signing it and conveying the musical character all at the same time.
Apart from performing Beethoven’s work for people with hearing loss, the purpose of the concert is to help audience members without hearing loss understand better why we perform music with signed interpretation and to help them appreciate the medium of sign language in music. At strategic points between movements we will pause the mass and discuss how certain high points will be signed. At one point, before the Credo, we will look in detail at the specific signing required for the words, ‘I believe in one God, the father almighty, maker of Heaven and Earth and of all things seen and unseen’ and follow the segment with all 240 members of The Bach Choir signing as they sing the words to Beethoven’s music.
The insight and dynamism with which the creative group have come at this project and previous ones has been truly inspiring. No doubt, a professional musical institution could have devised a similar idea but what has set this apart is the willingness and energy with which the choir have approached the programme. Even with its challenges, they have tirelessly sought support and promotion from charities connected with hearing difficulties and have sensitively devised a format that neither disrupts Beethoven’s music nor leaves the audience guessing why we are performing the work in such a way.
I’m very excited about future projects with this wonderful group of music enthusiasts and look forward to learning further lessons about music’s ability to transcend our differences, holding us for a short time in spiritual communion.
The Bach Choir conducted by David Hill with soloists Sarah Fox soprano, Christianne Stotijn mezzo-soprano, Toby Spence tenor and Roderick Williams baritone perform Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis at the Royal Festival Hall on 28th June at 7.30pm.