Posts Tagged ‘Brahms Requiem’

The Brahms Requiem

Sun 18th May 14

Stephanie, Jenny, Vanessa and I went to hear the St Cecilia Singers in Christ Church Cathedral last night, doing the Brahms Requiem. It brought back strong memories to all of us of Joe conducting it in Trinity. It must have been the first thing I sang in Choral, in my first term, 1967. It was after that, or during that term, I wrote my three songs, Chimpanzee, Learner Driver and Alexander Frink & Son. Especially in Alexander Frink I was trying to write a song that it would be hard to tell what key it is in: it starts with an F# chord that turns out to imply B, but the main part is in D (or possibly G) and I still can’t be sure what the middle eight is in; F# major/minor I suppose. Chimpanzee wanders between A and G too. My humble emulation of Brahms’s shifting key centres.

I started out in Choral as a bass, because that was easier. Lazy people sing bass, tenors are more wired. After a term or so I volunteered to join the tenors who are always short of numbers. Real bass voices and tenor voices are rare, most of us are baritones; I have described myself in all the choirs I’ve joined as a BWTSTP—a baritone willing to sing tenor parts. Fortunately directors never complain when we fake the high notes. Falsetto is a godsend.

I was given a lifesaving vocal exercise in a barbershop workshop, back in the nineties in the Killarney Roaring Twenties festival. The Dapper Dans from Disney’s Main Street USA, one of the few professional barbershop quartets in the world, came over to perform and coach. Their top voice was a genuine high tenor, which is rare if not quite banned outright in barbershop. But they told us about the problem they had with fatigue, brought on by ten-hour days of singing twenty minutes on, twenty minutes off. One of the quartet started losing his voice and they were facing break-up and loss of employment; then someone gave them a cure. They were all told to sing a huge swoop (the barbershop term is ‘swipe’) from their lowest note up to their highest falsetto and down again. That’s it. The important part is to smooth over the break, go seamlessly into falsetto and back again without yodelling. Worked for them, and it works for me.

It was in Choral that I began to learn to sing at sight. Having been a normal piano student, and a normal guitar player-by-ear, my sight reading was wretched. That soon changed when I bought a viol (just before going to college) and started playing with Jenny and Barra (soon after). They had been sight-reading from birth and there was nothing for it but to catch up, which I did.

I got a second go at the Brahms five years or so later, when I was doing the H. Dip. This time I volunteered as a drummer because they had no timpanist. The timpani part is terrific in the German Requiem, and important without being demanding. I actually got mentioned in Fanny Feehan’s review of the concert in the Evening Press; I still have it, somewhere … I don’t expect I’ll ever have such a review again. It said: “In this movement a timpanist with a steady stroke is worth his weight in golf, and Andrew Robinson has such a stroke”.


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