You can cage the singer but not the song.
– Harry Belafonte
CHAPTER AIM: To understand how classical music divides the human voice.
Introducing a Choral Symphony
Bethoven 9th 4th Movement
Before we get onto discussing how classical music is sung, just a quick welcome to one of the most celebrated piece of music ever created: the final movement of Beethoven’s ninth symphony.
The human voice as an instrument may well date to our earliest prehistory, but Beethoven’s creation of a choral symphony in the 1820’s was revolutionary. The symphony had been around some 100 years, in which time it had been purely an instrumental affair. If you wanted singing, you had the opera. Or for the more pious, church.
Convention, however, was scarcely going to impede a man of Beethoven’s temperament. By the time he unleashed upon the world this, his final symphony, he had taken the symphonic form further than ever before (previous record holder: Ludwig van Beethoven).
Now he added a human chorus to an enlarged orchestra to help articulate an urgent and passionate philosophy Beethoven intended for all mankind.
In this opening chapter, we’re going to dip our toes into the first three minutes of this very substantial work, and teach our ears to distinguish between the four separate soloists and choirs.
The Human Voice
You might assume the human voice is a kind of wind instrument, but in fact that’s not quite right.
The sound of our voice is created by the vibration of vocal chords in our throat, not simply the vibration of a column of air, such as you get with a wind instrument like the flute.
Those vibrating vocal cords mean our own voice is in fact closer to a stringed instrument like the violin than a woodwind. And that makes sense when you recall how well the strings section represent the ‘voice’ of an orchestra (as covered here in ).
A Divided Voice
Traditionally in classical music, the human voice is broken down into four components.
Pairings play a crucial role in the division of the human vocal range, scarcely a surprise for a species that divides into two sexes. Hence choirs are first broken up into men and women.
Our male and female voices are then in turn are usually divided into two further sections. So from the lowest up we have:
The full chorus consists of a choir for each of these four ranges. In this symphony they are joined by four additional soloists.
However, Beethoven doesn’t use a bass soloist, but instead a Baritone. A Baritone operates in the zone between Bass and Tenor (for the women, between Alto & Soprano, we have the Mezzo-Soprano).
To sum up: this symphony is played by a full orchestra (a very full orchestra!) with four choir sections for each register (Basses, Tenors, Altos, Sopranos), plus the four soloists: Baritone, Tenor, Alto, and Soprano.
An army indeed!
We’re now going to listen to this movement from the top, to get properly introduced to these separate vocal registers.
The voice that first enters is the solo Baritone. The timecodes in the clip titles below refer to their place in the whole track.
Baritone intro 0.11 – 1.01
The Baritone asks us – or his friends in the choir – to sing something more happy. That word warbling all the way at 0.28-0.42 is freudenvollere, meaning ‘joyful’ in German.
After a couple of thigh-slapping exchanges with the Bass section of the chorus, the solo Baritone ends this introduction, and now begins what we can call the first verse:
First Verse 1.01 – 1.25
Next, the entire chorus responds to the Baritone:
First Chorus 1.26 – 1.38
Listen to the above ‘First Chorus’ clip again. Can you hear which of the four main groups of singers is missing from the overall sound?
We have in fact now established a pattern: a soloist section, followed by a response from the choir. Just like the verse and chorus of pop songs.
And so the process gets repeated. A second verse, beginning again with the soloists:
2nd Verse 1.44 – 1.50
…this time the section uses both male soloists, the baritone and the tenor, as well as the lower female soloist, the Alto (thus repeating the registers of the chorus in the last verse).
The solo Soprano joins in next, as all four soloists fill out the texture of the main tune:
Soprano joins 1.50 – 2.08
Once again the verse is answered with a full choral response, which now includes all four sections of the choir:
2nd Chorus 2.08 – 2.20
It’s worth pricking up your ears for the third verse, because this separates each of the four the solo voices more clearly:
3rd Verse 2.26 – 2.49
The Baritone and Tenor take the lead, followed by the Alto (at 0.05) and finally the Soprano (at 0.12).
Four separate currents in the same musical stream, before we hit the river, cascading, with the full chorus:
3rd Chorus 2.50 – 3.03
And to complete the section: a final choral refrain. Like a chapter ending, it brings this opening section to a close:
End of section 3.03 – 3.24
Notice also how those changes of key (0.07 and 0.16 above) alert you that the music is moving somewhere different.
Let’s go through this opening section one more time:
Bethoven 9th 4th Movement
- 00.00 – 00.11 Short orchestral introduction
- 00.11 – 01.01 Baritone solo, (vocal introduction)
- 01.01 – 01.44 VERSE 1. Baritone solo, then Chorus (without Sopranos)
- 01.44 – 02.26 VERSE 2. All soloists, then Chorus
- 02.26 – 03.03 VERSE 3. All soloists, then choir
- 03.03 – 03.26 Chorus and key changes takes us to the end of section.
Our ears should now be attuned to the four sections of the choir, as well as the opening to the choral of Beethoven’s ninth.
Those four registers are worth knowing, as they apply to a whole host of instruments as well. With the strings, for example, the violins represent the soprano voice, the violas the altos, with the cellos as tenor instruments and the double-basses as bass. Or with the brass, the trumpet acts as the soprano voice, horns as alto, trombones as tenor, and tuba as bass.
These aren’t exact pitch-range matches, but they help clarify the different ways we divide instruments as well as the human voice.
Next chapter we’ll turn our attention to the rhythmic qualities of Beethoven’s music.
- There’s so much wonderful vocal music. Here is the wonderful Agnus Dei from Faure’s requiem. It comes with a simplified score which you can follow.
- And here is Schubert’s Ave Maria. Schubert originally composed the piece for a Soprano and piano, but this version has Pavarotti (a tenor) with an orchestra. And why not?
- Here is the well-known and well-loved Gloria by Vivaldi.
- And from the same piece, the wonderful Domine Fili Unigenite, performed by spirited Armenian singers.
- Beethoven’s composed work’s for the human voice is not as natural and instinctive, and certainly not as prolific as either Bach’s or Mozart’s. But this quartet from Fidelio is a beautiful piece. The quartet showcases three of the human registers: two Sopranos, Tenor and Bass. And what a great quartet of singers too.
- And here is the rollicking Gloria from his immense Missa Solemnis, composed near the end of his life at the same time as the ninth symphony. Conducted by the Leonard Bernstein.