Welcome to the official Singerreise webpage! Join in the discussion as we talk about the life of an opera singer, and as we learn about Schubert's masterpiece Winterreise.

Entertain, Educate, Encourage

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Winterreise, No. 19, Täuschung (059)

Welcome to January in 2018! There's a couple of things that happened since the previous Episode, so let me get you all up to speed.

First, if you haven't seen it that previous Episode yet, make sure to go back and see it. It was on the Wexford Carol, and has been one of the more popular episodes!

The most obvious change is a few equipment upgrades! These were Christmas presents to Singerreise. There's finally some new lighting. This has been a huge issue. There's not a lot of natural light to go around, particularly in these Seattle winter months. Our music studio gets very dark.

Singerreise also got a brand new camera! I should be more in focus from here on, thanks to some generous gifting by Singerreise fans. Do bear with me, though, as I try to figure out the new settings. It has already caused innumerable delays...

All this new equipment, of course, more than doubles my setup and teardown time for filming. It adds a tone of time to the editing process as well, but the upgrade in video quality should be pretty noticeable.

The other major announcement is that Singerreise just reached its second funding goal on Patreon! Now that we've passed $150, I can engage a professional website developer to revamp the Singerreise.com website!

This means that I can get away from the free "blogger" website that I've been using thus far, with its numerous bugs and very limited templates. And soon I may be able to launch that Singerreise store like I've been intending to do. If Singerreise can bring in a little more income, I can continue carving time out of my weeks to keep it going!

The next funding goal on Patreon is $250 per month. We're already pretty close to it, so if you've been meaning to be more generous to artists in the new year, now's a great chance! I'm pretty active on Patreon, so take a look at what's been happening there. The website is Patreon.com/singerreise. While you're there, please consider becoming a patron.

Okay, enough with the announcements. It's time to get back into the swing of things, and that means getting back to Winterreise. It is winter, after all!

We're now into the last quarter of Winterreise, today covering number 19 in Schubert's song cycle. This one is entitled "Täuschung," meaning "Illusion." The title is a bit of a spoiler, though - sorry about that.

At the start, it looks like our friend the Irrlicht is back. Irrlicht is a will-o'-the-wisp, and it was the main topic of discussion in song number 9, titled - crazily enough - "Irrlicht."

That song was a ghost story, with the Wanderer following a ghostly light every which way, into the deepest crevices and eventually into the grave. It's a pretty fantastical journey, and you can see it for yourself in Episode 18. Just tap "Irrlicht Singerreise" into YouTube and you should be able to find it.
Here in Täuschung, however, that little light is far more inviting and playful. It's dancing before the Wanderer, and he follows it rather cheerfully.

The music, for the most part, follows the playfulness of the light. It's in a jaunty 6/8 time, and it sounds like a dance. In the well-lit sections of the piece, the vocal line has some ornamentation in it. Schubert uses both the acciaccatura and the appoggiatura, for those of you who have done your Vaccai homework.

Those little bonus notes do make it a bit on the tricky side. It limits exactly how fast this piece can go. It also can't be sung heavily - it has to have a weightless feeling to it. After all, we're talking about a light, a thing without substance.

Following the light seems far more pleasant to the Wanderer than staying in his current position. He calls his own existence elend, meaning pathetic or wretched. Naturally, at this point in the text, the music switches to minor, and the ornamentation goes away.

Sidenote: There's a thing in the piano that I can't quite figure out. The entire right hand - seriously everything but the last chord, is all in unison octaves. I have no idea what this means, and so I welcome your comments here. I do know that it is pretty nasty to an accompanist to keep it stretched out like that, and it limited the amount of rehearsal time we could spend on the piece.

Choosing between staying put and following the light is easy. The Wanderer knows that the light is only a ruse, but, hey, it's a colorful ruse - der bunten List.

However, it leads him through some pretty dark places, through the ice, night, and fear, or Eis und Nacht und Graus. I love that because German capitalizes all of the nouns (and because these are all single syllable words), this phrase takes on a character of its own.

It's as if these three were just pounding the same message into the Wanderer over, and over, and over again - Eis und Nacht und Graus, Eis und Nacht und Graus, repeat after me: Eis und Nacht und Graus. All day every day, the same ol' thing. And there's not even an Oxford comma to break up the monotony!

Past these, the light shows him a bright, warm house. I like to think that all this time, perhaps it was a flickering fireplace that he was finding. Maybe its reflection had been playing out in many colors against the sheets of ice.

And by that fireplace? A loving soul - eine liebe Seele.

That's when the Wanderer knows for certain he's been had. A loving soul? That can't be real, not for our Wanderer.

The jig is up. He thought he might just win this time, but, no! The only time he ever wins is when it is an illusion, a Täuschung.

Enjoy the presentation!

Monday, January 15, 2018

Monday, January 8, 2018

If you're itching to hear me talk about stuff and can't wait for the next Singerreise Episode, you're in luck! Nancy Bos, a leader in the voice teacher community and a entrepreneur and hustler (in the best sense) in her own right, has featured me in her Every Sing Podcast:

We talk about the different paths to becoming an opera singer, about being a teacher, and about Singerreise. Check it out!

And if you wish to support her work, take a look at her patreon page:

Thursday, December 28, 2017

End Year Updates

There's no new Episode for this in-between week, but I do have a couple of announcements:
First: Singerreise's Patreon patronage reached a new mileage on Christmas Eve! We're now up to $178 per month, blowing past the $150 milestone! This means that I can finally seek out professional help and get the website revamped, a crucial step towards building that online store! Major shout outs to the patrons who increased their patron levels to make it happen!
The next milestone is $250 per month, where this happens: "All current patrons, of all levels, are considered "Founders," and enshrined as such on a dedicated page of the website. Personal, handwritten cards are sent to each."
It may not sound like much, but it's a huge milestone to get that kind of support. At that level, it starts to feel real. You can, of course, help reach that goal (and the many thereafter) by becoming a patron yourself here on Patreon. Just click the link - it's right over there! (And thanks again to all those who are already supporting Singerreise.)
Second: Christmas brought some new gear for Singerreise! It's yet to be fully tested, and I'll talk about it in a bit, but I'm pretty excited to try it out.
Third: Tomorrow, I'll be having a conversation with Nancy Bos for her Every Sing Podcast. I'll let you all know when it airs, but you can start listening in on her previous episodes at http://nancybos.net/podcast/

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

The Wexford Carol (058)

With Christmas just around the corner, I decided it would be a good time to bring out one of my favorite Christmas carols. So for this Episode, I'll be talking about The Wexford Carol.

The Wexford Carol is an old, old carol, originally from Ireland. There are claims that it is among the oldest in the European tradition, but, naturally, a claim like that has many challengers.

That we know of it at all is due to a trend back in the mid- to late-1800s and early 1900s. As technology and communication started advancing quicker than ever before, people started to feel like they had lost their identity. Thankfully, we don't have this issue today.

To rediscover where they came from, musicologists started going around the countryside and collecting "folk" music, such as Christmas carols.

What resulted were compilations of songs in book form. Often, the song would have an inscription on it, such as "As sung by this random person or clergyman" or "As heard in such and such county." The song itself would be cleaned up a bit, written out, put into an anthology, and published for widespread use.

The most important of these works was the Oxford Book of Carols, originally published in 1928. This unique book captured exactly the right balance of scholarly work and singable music. Much of that is due to the talented editors: Percy Dearmer, Martin Shaw, and none other than Ralph Vaughan Williams himself.

The Wexford Carol was included in this book. It was collected and transcribed by William Grattan Flood, an organist in Enniscorthy, in the Wexford County in Ireland. He brought it to the editors of the Oxford Book of Carols, and thereafter it became a big hit.

By the time it was collected, it had already acquired a mostly standard English text, having been translated from Irish long ago, possibly as far back as the 12th century.

In the U.S., the Wexford Carol is not as well known. Our caroling culture is not as strong here as it was in the British Isles during the Victorian era.

Lucky for us, we have a wide variety of pop singers and celebrities who make Christmas albums! And through them, the Wexford Carol is starting to make its way into the mainstream. Singers such as Alison Kraus and Celtic Women have recorded renditions of the song in recent years.

Choral arrangements are also starting to show up, such as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir's Mack Wilberg, just a year ago.

The arrangement that I am using is by Philip Maue, of whom I know essentially nothing. It comes from a collection Sarah happened to own one year as I was looking for something to sing.

Whether it is by pop singers or choirs or Singerreise, exposure for the Wexford Carol in my mind is a good thing. It really is one of my favorites, and I have performed it for various functions for about a decade, for parties, church, etc.

The text is pretty standard fare as carol texts go - it recounts parts of the Christmas story. The first verse starts with an invocation to consider what Christmas means to us today.

The second verse recalls the traveling of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, and that there's nowhere for them to stay. The third verse (at least in this arrangement), recounts the arrival of the shepherds at the manger.

What's interesting about the text is not necessarily the narrative, since it's all pretty much stuff we've heard before. It's that the text is always in a unique, story-telling mode.

Several times the speaker points backwards to what was "foretold". And at other times he reaches into the present, connecting the old story to our everyday, modern day life,

What really grabs me is the melody. It goes back and forth between two different scales, the first, a major scale, and the second, some version of its parallel minor. This creates a sort of mixolydian or dorian sound. (And if you have no idea what I just said, send me a message and I'll make another video about it!)

As it turns out, having those two keys makes it easy to play on the lute, lending credence to the claim that it is as old as people say.

What results is a lovely, sometimes mysterious carol that draws the ear to the magnitude of the story being told.

I hope you enjoy the Wexford Carol as much as I have these last many years. Thanks for reading, and Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 1, 2017

Oratorios and Weihnachts-Oratorium (057)

Welcome back from Thanksgiving! It's hard to believe it, but Christmas is just around the corner again! And what would Christmas be without a little bit of Bach in it?

So for today, I'll talk about Bach's Weihnachts-Oratorium. There's at least two groups in our area performing pieces of this work this weekend. There's the Redmond Chorale, conducted by my friend Laurie Betts Hughes. They're doing the opening chorus number from the first part.

There's also the Kirkland Choral Society, which is performing ALL of the Weihnachts-Oratorium over the course of a few years. Last year, they did Part I, and I got to be the bass soloist for it. I made a Singerreise Episode about it: Episode 16, where I covered the aria "Großer Herr, o starker König".

I'll be joining the Kirkland Choral Society again this year to do Parts II and III. There's no big arias this time around, so I'll just be doing a few of the recitatives.

Since there's no aria, I didn't sing in this Episode. So if you want to hear some Christmastime Bach, check out Episode 16 or come to these concerts! Both are this weekend, on Saturday night, December 2nd, and on Sunday afternoon, December 3rd.

There's literally dozens of choral concerts this weekend, so make sure to get out there and support your local singers. Local choir concerts are one of the best ways I know to get into the holiday spirit.

Here, I want to talk about oratorios and about the Weihnachts-Oratorium. I'm not a Bach expert, though, so this is just a bird's eye view of things.

Let's start with oratorios. An oratorio is a large piece of music, usually involving a choir, soloists, and an orchestra. It's like an opera, because an oratorio follows a storyline. Unlike operas, oratorios are performed in a concert setting, without scenery or props.

Also, unlike most operas, oratorios are usually considered "sacred" music instead of "secular." This means they are often retelling Biblical stories. They were originally performed in churches, even in a church service. Today, they can be performed anywhere.

The narrative thread is what separates an oratorio from other major concert works. An example of a non-oratorio concert piece might be a "mass," like Mozart's Requiem or Bach's B-minor Mass. A mass is a type of church service, usually following a standard formula and text. A composer's mass would be a rewrite of the service in musical form. But a mass doesn't really a story element.

Requiring an oratorio to have a narrative thread can be a sticking point. One of the most famous pieces of all time is Handel's Messiah. It is probably the most-performed piece in existence. And Messiah is often seen as the perfect example of an oratorio.

The trouble is, while Messiah does have a certain flow of ideas from one song to the next, it doesn't really have a narrative to it. Because of that, a lot of people say that Messiah isn't an oratorio. It sure does look and sound like one, though.

Oratorios look a lot like operas because, well, operas are a ton of fun. And in Italy, right in the height of opera's popularity, the Catholic Church decided to ban operas during the season of Lent (they were too much fun, apparently). So composers decided to write operas that could be performed in a church, but without the audacious, "sinful" costumes.

Besides looking a little different without costumes, the music in oratorios also tends to sound different than in operas. For example, there tends to be a lot more choral music in oratorios, and fewer solos.

The chorus can become a character in the story - such as an angry crowd. Just as often, though, they are outside the action and commenting as spectators to what is going on in the story. You very rarely see that in opera, since the audience can see the action for themselves.

Opera and oratorios do share recitatives in common. These are semi-spoken, semi-sung parts between "songs" that help move the story along. Most American music theater works this way too, using spoken dialogue between numbers. For oratorios, however, recitatives are more of a descriptive narrative then a dialogue between characters.

And then we have Bach's oratorios. Bach has his own special subset of oratorio. Depending on how you count them, he wrote about five major ones.

Two of them are known as "Passions," a retelling of the last few days of Jesus' life, ending with his death. Bach did one based on the account from the book of Matthew, known as the St. Matthew Passion, and one based on the account from the book of John, called (predictably) the St. John Passion.

The other three works are for Christmas, Easter, and the Ascension (not his most popular one). These, Bach explicitly titled as "oratorios," so we know that, at least in his mind, that's what they were.

As oratorios, though, they are on the curious side. Bach had another compositional structure that he would use all the time called a cantata. These are works 25 minutes long, with some choruses, a couple solos or maybe a duet, and some hymns mixed in. Having hymns meant that the congregation had a chance to sing along - something that was very important to Protestants at that time.

Bach wrote dozens and dozens of cantatas. Some were for special church services, others for ordinary church services. Some weren't meant for church at all. Some were composed to extol the greatness a local monarch, and others were just because he wanted to, like the much-beloved Coffee Cantata.

To create his oratorios, Bach just put a bunch of cantatas together. The Weihnachts-Oratorium, or the Christmas Oratorio, contains six cantatas. Much of the music in it was recycled, too, composed for other cantatas but repurposed with new words swapped in.

When taken together, the six cantatas do tell a story, the story of Christmas. That's the narrative thread that is needed to consider this an oratorio. In this case, though, the cantatas were not composed to be heard in a single sitting.

Each of the six parts is designated to be performed on a specific day in the Christmas season. That's why it's called "Weihnachts-Oratorium." Literally the German word for Christmas, Weihnachten, translates (roughly) to "Holy Nights," plural. Christmas is not just one day, but an entire season.

And it may not be the season you're thinking of. That period leading up to Christmas, between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day, is actually called Advent, meaning the Coming.

The real Christmas season starts with Christmas Day. It is twelve days long (thus the 12 Days of Christmas Carol). It ends with Epiphany, a day where the visitation of the Wise Men is commemorated.

Bach's Weihnachts-Oratorium was scheduled to be performed on six of the twelve days, each time with a new cantata telling its part of the Christmas story:
Part I: for The First Day of Christmas, recounting Jesus' birth
Part II: for The Second Day of Christmas, recounting the announcement of the birth to shepherds
Part III: for The Third Day of Christmas, recounting the adoration of said shepherds at Jesus' manger-cradle
Part IV: for New Years Day, recounting the naming of Jesus
Part V: for The First Sunday in the New Year, recounting the travel of the Magi (wise men) from the east
Part VI: for The Feast of Epiphany, recounting the adoration of said Magi
Despite its fragmented nature, Bach thought of his oratorio as one continuous work that revealed itself one cantata at a time. Nowadays, the piece is most often done in a single concert, with all the cantatas performed back to back. When done that way, it's a pretty long song, about three hours long if you don't cut anything out.

To resolve this, Kirkland Choral Society has chosen to perform the work over a handful of years. Each year they'll do another part or two, as part of their annual Christmas concert.

Last year was Part I, all about the Birth of Jesus. This year they are combining Part II and III (with a couple of judicious cuts) to cover everything relating to the shepherds. And next year, well, I hope they hire me again so I can tell you more about it then.

Joining me as a soloist this weekend is John Marzano, a tenor based in the Seattle area. There's often two roles for a tenor soloist in Bach's oratorios and Passions. Like the bass, alto, and soprano, tenor soloists often sing solos - called "arias" in oratorio and opera - that step back and reflect upon what is happening in the story.

Another tenor role, however, is the principle narrator. In the Passions, this role is called the "Evangelist," because it is as if St. Matthew or St. John himself were reading passages from his own book.

Sometimes this even means that two tenor soloists are used. For our concert, though, John and I are only doing the recitatives, the narrative parts. The KCS choir and the Philharmonia Northwest are doing most of the heavy lifting for this one.

Come and check out the concert! There's only two performances, and tickets do tend to sell out, so make sure to reserve your spot! To get tickets for the concert, head to kirklandchoralsociety.org or brownpapertickets.com, $20 for students and seniors and $25 for adults. It's just around the corner, December 2nd and 3rd.