SURVIVING BEETHOVEN'S NINTH
I've been a choir singer since I was 8, but until a few months ago, the real purpose of my singing life had been hidden from me, Paul McGrath writes
By PAUL MCGRATH
Thursday, August 9, 2018 Print Edition, Page A14
I think I sprained an adenoid. Don't tell me it's not possible, I can feel it. How did this happen?
Well, I remember yelling for 17 straight minutes on stage. Pretty sure that was it.
I have been a choir singer since I was 8. I served an 11-year stretch at St. Michael's Choir School in Toronto - the statutory maximum - and I have sung everything from ninth-century chant to stunning things composed in the past five years. But until a few months ago, the real purpose of my singing life had been hidden from me. It is now clear that those decades of slogging rehearsals, angry conductors and missed road-hockey games had only prepared me for my true destiny. To wit, the fourth movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, the Calgary Stampede of choral work.
Toronto's up-and-coming amateur orchestra, the Corktown Chamber Orchestra, was finishing its cycle of Beethoven symphonies. They needed a choir.
One of mine, led by the brave and not-angry Michael O'Connor, volunteered. Against every musical impulse in me, I volunteered with them.
Disclosure: Ludwig and I go back a long way, and it's not been chummy. My father, the source of all the musical ability in two generations of my family, sang well. He had been part of the Big Sing, a 1957 recording of Ontario choirs that was surely one of the great choral dust-ups of all time - the LP's front cover shows a massive array of men in tuxes. He liked those big sings, particularly Beethoven's Missa Solemnis. But at the age of 9, I just knew that the Missa was a load of hooey, small bits of reverence interrupted by beer-hall chants.
Then I heard his only stage piece, Fidelio, which I thought was a comic opera until I was sternly corrected. By that time, Palestrina, Lasso and Victoria were already in my blood. The logical and graceful movements of their parts, written for the voices of real people, presented an order I adored. Up against them, Beethoven sounded like a crazy sports dad abusing the ump at a softball game.
Next, regarding the actual Ode to Joy movement we had agreed to sing in Corktown, I could not forgive Herr van Beethoven for letting Adolf Hitler use it as his personal Happy Birthday or for letting Stanley Kubrick use it for his little fight scene in A Clockwork Orange (didn't Ludwig see a copy of the script?). And why didn't he let Bugs Bunny conduct it? Look at what the rabbit did for Mozart.
So, mixed feelings at the beginning. At the first look at the score, they turned to dread when I saw the full scope of what this man expected me to do.
First of all, to sing louder and harder than I have ever before. My choir, as a rule, doesn't do loud. We sing refined renaissance and baroque masterpieces, sometimes by the same composers who first moved me almost 60 years ago, and we manage this with only an occasional raised voice. Even when we go full Handel, it is a controlled force. Until this, nothing in the repertoire has called for a drill sergeant. Second, the bass part calls for long-term work in the castratosphere, bar after bar of sustained high notes that normal room oxygen cannot fuel.
Week by week, grappling with this sprawl, I clarified my issues with the master. All my musical saints are men and women who found the humility to sense that they were channelling some force from outside themselves, that there existed a pure jet stream of sound and soul that they could bring down to earth by letting it flow through them, letting the order lay itself down.
As Salieri said about Mozart, it wasn't composition, it was dictation from God. Bach did it. Monteverdi did. Byrd and Tallis as well, and today Ola Gjeilo, Abbie Betinis, Paul Mealor and Eriks Esenvalds, all composing for voices as if they had opened up every sense and let the force sing itself out through them. But not Beethoven, who as far as I can hear liked to arm-wrestle everything before tossing it at the page.
For the first couple of weeks, wearing helmet and pads, I dreaded every opening of the score, knowing that sooner or later, I would come up against Bar 612. That's "Death Row" to survivors. It's a series of high F's, and the basses are out there buck naked, no other parts singing and the orchestra at a hush.
The first time I saw the score I counted the ledger lines a few times to make sure I was right. He wants us to sing that? Five times? Alone? Was he nuts?
No, just deaf.
Ah, that explains it.
Each rehearsal was a test of limits, but somewhere around Week 3, I felt for the first time that this was doable. Small interludes of play and tenderness revealed themselves in the score. The lovely quartet two-thirds of the way through captivated me. The orchestra shifted into fourth gear. The choir began to swagger into its cues. We began to march in place for fun during the Turkish military section and when the last Gotterfunken led to the finale, in the silence we could imagine cheers and bravos.
On performance night, things were chugging along gloriously. At Bar 612, I was confident. I hit those five notes at a full roar and poured everything into them, the most strident singing of my life.
That's probably where the adenoid popped.
And I sensed trouble ahead. Twenty-nine bars later, a series of high E-flats, a whole tone lower, but somehow, as the countdown began, I was certain that I would not make it, that this time, the sound would be that of a man dangling at the end of a rope. The full season behind me, three separate choirs, a dozen performances - two of them outdoors in Christie Pits in bitter cold - and countless rehearsals, made me feel my age. My throat felt like I had gargled alum.
The entrance was two beats away. Think fast, bub. Okay, cue Plan B. I opened up my mouth wide and out came ... nothing. That was Plan B. It was the sweetest, most forceful, most beautifully articulated and perfectly pitched eight notes of nothing I have ever sung, my jaw flapping away mouthing the words, each pumped out like a fire hose. It was a masterpiece of Zen. The only way it could have looked more dramatic was if I had finished it with a stroke.
Beethoven might have been deaf, but Corktown conductor Paul McCulloch is not. I'm pretty sure he knew what I did, and if not, he does now. Okay, Paul, I owe you. Eight notes, to be precise. I'll pay you back. If you're up for an all-lullaby show, I'm your man. What's left of me, anyway.
Paul McGrath lives in Toronto.
ILLUSTRATION BY DREW SHANNON