Sunday, March 15, 2009

Byrd is the word

I try to get to choir rehearsal about half an hour early each week, in order to catch up on filing or in case the director has anything he'd like me to help him with. This past Wednesday he had a whopping pile of music to be distributed into the choir members' boxes -- not surprisingly, since Lent is moving along at a fast clip and we'll be needing a ton of music for Holy Week and Easter. I looked at the first piece and saw that it was a particular favorite of mine, perhaps my actual all-time favorite choral work, and I jumped for joy. Really. You can ask him.

It's William Byrd's "Ave Verum Corpus." You can listen to it here.

Aside from the fact that it's just an unutterably beautiful motet, I think it is a memory I associate with the Byrd piece that causes it to fill me, not so much with hope, but with certainty, that this Holy Week and Easter will be solemn and sacred and vivid and glorious. This is what I remember:

While I was at Carleton I sang in the vocal ensemble in the Carleton Pro Musica. There were usually between eight and ten of us, and we rehearsed twice a week in a little practice room in the Music & Drama building. (Aside: The M&D was one of the few places where you could still enter part-way into the underground tunnels that used to connect the buildings to afford students and faculty some shelter from the harsh Minnesota winters.)

We would sing silly warm-up exercises and then work hard on the pieces we were given to learn, with guidance from the group's director as he dropped in, working his way through the different ensembles. Looking back now, I can see that we were spoiled in that a) we had plenty of rehearsal time, and b) we had in common the drive to perfect our performance. In our church choir (which I have sung in for ten years) we are blessed with neither, which I am no longer bitter about -- that's life -- but sometimes it makes me feel disappointed.

So during Spring term of my Freshman year we were given the Byrd "Ave Verum" to work on, and I think it was a favorite with pretty much everybody. I don't remember much about the rehearsals, except that as time went on I put more and more effort into following the tenors' line, which, if I closed my eyes, would make me feel like I was floating on air. One afternoon we all agreed to troop down to the basement to the tunnels so we could rehearse the lovely motet among the tunnels' astonishingly good acoustics.

When we got there, we mixed and mingled and molded ourselves into an inward-facing circle. Someone gave the pitch and we began to sing. I don't know who hit the lights, but almost immediately I felt hands holding each of mine. We sang the whole piece through, in the dark, holding hands, with that lush sound resonating about us. I can't remember another time when I've felt so real, so present, so completely involved in what I was doing.

It's a reminder to me, today, that when I sing, be it the William Byrd or the Patricia Hurlbutt (yes, you read that right, and the composer's name is indicative of what we'd like to do with her anthem) -- I need to be alive, focused, prepared to work as hard as I can to ensure that whatever piece I'm performing is as perfect as possible, and to inspire others to do the same. This is not a small challenge, but it is definitely worthwhile.


  1. What a beautiful post. Singing in the tunnels sounds amazing.

  2. Thank you for the link - I can only imagine what it was like to sing this in the tunnel in the dark...