What is music?

What is music?  Last night’s rehearsal gave us a timely reminder.

I was reminded of a choir in which I sang many years ago.  We were preparing Bach’s St John Passion.  At the penultimate rehearsal some of us approached the conductor to ask if we could include some dynamics, as we felt we were singing it all at the same volume.  The terse reply was that we could have the luxury of dynamics once we sang each note at exactly the right pitch.  It was something of a dry performance.

Sometimes it is easy to think of music as a series of black blobs on a page, or to go just one stage further and think of the sound that each of these blobs represents.  And when we are singing a piece for the first time, that is what we see and hear – the individual notes converted from their position on the stave to a sound coming forth from our mouths.

Carlos disabused us of that notion well and truly last night.  Even though we had only sung through Domine Jesu  and Hostias once before, it was quite clear right from the start that singing the notes to the right rhythm and pitch would not be enough.  We had to sing phrases rather than a series of single notes.  Loud and soft, fast and slow, legato and staccato, all had to be included right from the beginning.

And that is no mean feat!  At times we struggled, but it was interesting to note how quickly we got the message.  By the break, we were singing these two pieces with reasonably correct notes and quite a lot of light and shade – music indeed.

What is music?  It is certainly a lot more than the notes on the page.  Perhaps a full answer had better wait for another time.