On the Choral / Instrumental Divide…

November 3rd, 2016

One of the joys of social networking (amongst the myriad woes) is that you can eavesdrop on other people’s conversations – now I don’t mean internet stalking, but certain messages between people are in the public domain and are even highlighted by certain social networking sites. A couple of months ago I was privy to one of these conversations which really struck me, it was between a well-known composer and a choral director who were discussing that some orchestral players with which the composer had been working had never heard of the composer Tomás Luis de Victoria and the great shame this brought on the individual players and the orchestra to which they belonged. Now there isn’t anything particularly bad about someone not knowing about a sixteenth-century Spanish composer (though he/she didn’t listen very well at University) but it highlights something more pertinent – the growing divide that is present in this country between people working in the choral and instrumental domains. And there is a divide; a wide gaping chasm that appears to be getting wider and wider.

I speak here as someone whose work has straddled both sides of this divide – I worked exclusively in instrumental genres throughout my studies, and I’ve worked increasingly in the choral domain since finishing. I’ve seen firsthand the difference in opinion, regard and prestige to which these genres are held and how this transfers on to the larger scale contemporary music world. It is fascinating to see how there is an undeniable bias in the ‘profession’, the media and in the concert going public toward instrumental music, with choral music being a far less well regarded genre, almost not worth taking the time to discuss.

It is fine for an orchestral player to have never heard of Victoria, the player in question may have gone straight to music college and spent many years honing his ability on, say, the double bass and never have encountered Victoria’s music (Victoria, I am fairly sure, never wrote anything for double bass) – but would it be acceptable for a member of The Sixteen to have never heard of Beethoven? He didn’t write that much choral music, and certainly not that much that would be performed in cathedrals, college chapels or other places where choral singers learn their trade. Victoria is one of greatest composers, certainly in the same league as the Austro-German behemoths of the nineteenth century – everyone should at least have heard of him, shouldn’t they?

But it goes deeper than just awareness of certain composers and repertoire, contemporary composers are grouped into those who write choral music, those who write instrumental music, and a smaller group of those who write both and are recognised as such. The leading lights in contemporary choral music, Gabriel Jackson, Judith Bingham, Paul Mealor, are rarely found in the symphony hall; even though all write equally well for instrumental forces. Similarly the leading instrumental composers of the day, Adès, Knussen, Benjamin are rarely found in cathedrals, only on rare occasions when an adventurous choral director wants to make point. Many instrumental composers wear like a badge of honour the fact they don’t write choral music – almost saying “I’m too busy with proper music”, but I bet you won’t find many choral composers saying they have no interest in writing a piece for the London Symphony Orchestra. It’s just an odd situation.

I think it gets worse when you move into the academic arena, here instrumental music is king – it is music of great importance, significance, mental rigour and most importantly, research. Choral music is much more second class, whimsical, short-lived, ephemeral, lacking the gravitas of its more important cousin. When research output (i.e. performances, publications, broadcasts, recordings) is paramount, it is very strange that one instrumental performance seems to equal, roughly, twenty choral performances. I don’t quite understand the logic – certainly instrumental music responds better to pre-compositional schemes, and compositional ‘research’ in a way vocal music never will, but in terms of dissemination of the end product how do they differ?

I realise this sounds like a polemic, so I should probably stop. But I do find the pigeon-holing odd and somewhat counter-productive to contemporary music-making – surely everyone is in the same boat? It never used to be like this; from Haydn to Britten composers wrote important works for both sides of the divide without any distinction. Maybe it changed in the 1960s and 70s, maybe it changed recently? In either way everyone should have heard of Victoria and should enjoy and respect the music of Gabriel Jackson and George Benjamin in equal measure.


Comments are closed.