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Choirs Conducting Leadership

Never be witty: Schönberg on conducting

Schreker has a lot to do. During his absence, I am supposed to lead two rehearsals of the mixed choir, and more often the male choirs. I am still very much in doubt whether I can do this! A word from you, dear Herr Schönberg, would be extremely precious to me.

In a letter of 21 December 1912, twenty-seven year old Alban Berg was desperate for the advice of his friend and mentor Arnold Schönberg. Berg’s trepidation about going in front of the choir is palpable, and familiar to many a young conductor (the fact that he is doing so to rehearse the premiere of Gurre-Lieder notwithstanding).

The elder composer’s reply contains much for the choir director to ponder. I was made aware of it during a recent masterclass, and in this post I’m going to try and unpack some of Schönberg’s wisdom.

The four errors

Schönberg, in his reply dated seven days later, lays down the law in unequivocal terms. His prescriptions make for interesting reading for the present-day choral conductor. Here’s the relevant passage in its entirety, from the letter of 28 December:

It will not be easy for you who are doing this for the first time. That is why I would like to tell you the most important things quickly, which is also in line with my experience. Namely, if you interrupt (and you have to interrupt as often as you 1.) hear a mistake and 2.) know how to improve it), you need to be as brief and clear as possible. Talk as little as possible. Never be witty. But above all: there are only the following types of errors.

1. wrong notes (possibly wrong intonation)
2. wrong rhythm (declamation text pronunciation!)
3. wrong dynamics (p, f)
4. wrong phrasing

There are therefore no other corrections and explanations than:
1. ‘G’ (instead of ‘G sharp’; too high, too low)
2. show the correct rhythm! (sharper, softer)
3. Demand p and f, stronger or weaker
4. Correct the breathing, the intonation (p, f), the paragraphs and beginnings.

The latter (4) belongs to the class of finer elaboration. If you know something about singing, you can say some technical things. You can also pay attention to good pronunciation of the text – but everything else, especially: moods, ideas, beauty, characters and everything poetic is from evil! [von Uebel!] This is for us, but not for the choir! Believe me and do it as quickly as you can. I also had to learn. And the trick is to really demand p[iano] and f[orte] that everything else comes along as a result. It’s not from me, but from all the band masters; but it’s true anyway!

Plenty to unpack!

Firstly, the interruption policy: interrupt as often (and only as often) as you both hear a mistake and know how to fix it. This of course is going to depend on the length and complexity of the work, and I don’t think he is suggesting to Berg that he stop the whole run every time he hears some dodgy intonation in the altos. I daresay he would permit ‘the rule of 3’ – ie, having three-ish things to say each time you interrupt – but the key thing is the next line: ‘be as brief and clear as possible’. No extraneous waffling: fix it, move on.

Demand p and f. The point here is that just saying it sometimes isn’t enough. Sometimes the dynamic has to be ‘demanded’, insisted on, whether by gesture or verbal instruction. Singers can sometimes be reluctant to modify dynamics as much as a conductor would wish, and Schönberg knows it.

Never be witty. This one hits hard for me as I am invariably trying to be witty, often with little success. There could be a cultural element to this, and also an amateur/professional distinction: some choruses appreciate a joke or (brief) anecdote to keep them engaged and relaxed, or to defuse tension; others don’t want to feel like their time is being wasted with inessential talking.

The desire to, as Schönberg puts it, ‘be witty’, stems from the desire to be liked – one with which I am well familiar. People-pleasers like me need to remember that few musicians have much time in rehearsal to think about whether they like you or not – they are too busy trying to do what you have asked of them.

Indeed, the evidence of some senior figures in the music industry suggest that likeability is quite irrelevant to musical success. We are sometimes too concerned with whether everyone is having a good time to remember that the reason we are all there is to make good music.

Schönberg conducting

The evil of ‘everything else’

What about those ‘four types of error’? They boil down to: notes, rhythm, dynamics, phrasing. Look after these (and especially dynamics), Schönberg says, and the rest looks after itself. He allows for a little ‘finer elaboration’ when it comes to phrasing – under which headline he includes technical instruction and pronunciation.

However, we are cautioned in the strongest terms against flowery language – and indeed against saying anything that doesn’t have a direct relation to those four main types of errors. Not only is this unhelpful, says Schönberg – it’s evil!

This anecdote about John Tavener, well-known in British choral circles, summarises the problem (though my version, transmuted through third-hand Chinese whispers, is almost certainly wrong in every particular):

Tavener is watching a well-known cathedral choir rehearsing one of his pieces. Asked for his opinion, he says, “It needs more of a sense of sublime, ineffable mystery.” The conductor turns back to the choir. “You hear that, boys? Louder!”

Conductors often want a poetical effect, a mood to be conjured, motifs to be characterised – but here we’re being reminded that whereas ‘sublime, ineffable mystery’ could be interpreted any number of ways, ‘louder’ only means one thing. The trick, then, is to translate our lofty, poetic ideas into instructions that can be easily understood by the choir.

To take a personal example – recently I enjoined a choir to treat a certain chord, upon their arrival at it, with a sense of ‘discovery’. I imagine I was quite proud of this poetic coup of analysis and interpretation and sat back to hear the effect, which was completely imperceptible.

My process should instead have been this: in order to create a sense of discovery when we reach this chord, delay it slightly and sing it a little softer. Even that first bit isn’t strictly necessary. This would have been more likely to achieve the desired effect. I imagine the same applies double if you and the ensemble do not share a first language (this example is drawn from such an occasion!).

‘This [poetic language] is for us, and not for the choir’. It reminds me of a saying attributed to Richard Strauss: ‘Do not sweat; let the orchestra sweat. Do not weep; let the public weep.’

I’m not sure how widespread that opinion is today. Still, in a climate where there’s less and less rehearsal time available, boiling down our clever, poetic interpretations into concise, legible instructions remains a vital part of score preparation.

Now, to practise. I just need to persuade someone to mount Gurre-Lieder