I’m looking for that song called Beethoven’s Ninth

Hola a todos. To most people, the musically-illiterate — especially in the shithole US where some people consider it “cool” to be stupid — any music they hear they call “a song,” including major Beethoven symphonies. Even though there’s no one singing in Beethoven’s Symphonies No. 1-8. There are people singing in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in d, Op. 125 (Choral) but Beethoven’s Ninth is not “a song.” It’s a symphony with part of its title being (Choral) in parentheses. And the people singing in the last movement of the Ninth are the Chorus and the vocal quartet (4 voices).1 What they are singing is not called “a song.”

On the rare occasion, some people will point out this mistake to others such as when someone wrote in a YT comment about a Rachmaninov piano concerto: “I love this song.” One person responded with: “That’s funny, I didn’t hear anyone singing in that.” Exactamente. Gracias for that. At least someone knows that a piano concerto is not “a song.”

I decided to write this article because I get so tired of reading comments from people referring to any piece of music as “a song.” I see this mainly in dumbed-down YT comments. It seems that people who have no music training — and even a few who do and who should know better, one wonders where they trained? — erroneously call any piece or work of classical music they hear “a song.” Very amateurish.

Alright class, here’s a bit of Conservatory of Music training for you:

Question: Do you hear anyone singing in a piano concerto?
Answer: No.
Then it’s not “a song.”

Question: Do you hear anyone singing in that clarinet piece?
Answer: No.
Then it’s not “a song.”

Question: Do you hear anyone singing in that flute concerto?
Answer: Again no, just the solo flautist/flutist playing and being accompanied by the Orchestra.
Therefore it’s not “a song.”

Question: Do you hear anyone singing in that violin concerto?
Answer: No.
No one is singing in any of the above music.
Then it’s not “a song.”

A song has to be sung. A song is usually sung by just one person, a solo voice.

A song can be sung by two people in what’s called a duet (a soprano and alto, for example). But even when you hear a Symphony Orchestra and Chorus perform the massive Berlioz The Grande Messe des morts (or Requiem), Op. 5, for example, where there are vocal soloists, that is not “a song.” In that case, it’s called a Requiem, as the title of the piece indicates. It’s a major work for Chorus and Orchestra. Even when one person is singing an aria in an oratorio — an oratorio is a sacred work for Orchestra and Chorus without costuming or scenery — that’s not called “a song” either. It’s called an aria. An aria is a lengthier, usually piano or orchestral-accompanied piece for a solo voice. Arias are found in oratorios and operas.

In music — especially the classical music genre — things have a specific name for what they are and they have that name, in part, to make things easier to identify. So when someone sloppily says, “I heard this song on the radio and I wanted to know who it was; I didn’t catch the name,” that would tell me nothing. I would be thinking maybe it was “a song” by perhaps Helen Reddy, Gloria Gaynor or some pop star, and not what the person was really looking for which was a Rachmaninov piano concerto they had heard that they are mistakenly calling “a song.” There is no one singing in any of the Rachmaninov concerti or in his concertante work for piano and orchestra, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.

Another example of things having a special name for the piece in the classical music genre: Referring to one of my long-time favourite choral works, Händel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt for Double Chorus, someone asked in YT comments: “Is this song Lutheran?” This song? An oratorio is not “a song.” Have you ever known “a song” to last for 1.5 hours? I can’t think that I have. Most songs are relatively short, 5-7 minutes or less. Israel in Egypt — often called “the oratorio of choruses” because of the abundance of back-to-back choruses in the work — is one of Händel’s well-known works for Chorus, Orchestra and Soloists. It is not “a song.” Even though there are vocal solo passages in it, those passages are not called “a song.” And no, it’s not a Lutheran work. Another person referred to Israel in Egypt as “this opera.” Opera? That’s wrong too. Why would someone think it was an opera? There’s nothing operatic about it. (Sigh) Oh the ignorance out there! Opera is a large-scale production with costuming and scenery and heavy vibrato in the singing — or more accurately described as screaming — from the soloists and the Opera Chorus. Whereas an oratorio has no costuming or scenery and hopefully no vibrato in the Chorus (or soloists), but rather all choristers singing with a perfectly blended beautiful straight tone (no noticeable vibrato).

Referring to Rachmaninov’s Колокола, Kolokola/The Bells, Op. 35, someone wrote in a comment: “Rachmaninov is my favorite composer, but this is a strange song.”

The Bells is not “a song.” It’s a choral symphony. It’s a symphonic choral work for Chorus, Orchestra and two soloists. And what is “strange” about it? What’s your problem?

I see these things all this time, which is why I’m writing about it. It annoys me and nobody has the time to correct every fucking idiot out there that refers to “a song” whenever they hear any piece of classical music.

The problem here should be obvious at this point: It’s musical illiteracy, musical ignorance and a lack of music education here in the shithole US and our public school system. Music and arts programmes continue to be cut in the public schools here in The Cesspool. Which reminds me that I never see anyone — particularly any young people — carrying musical instruments with them these days. All I see anyone carrying and “practising” is their phone that’s nearly embedded in their face. There are millions of people with terrible posture all hunched over staring at their screen and never seeing where they live, other people or their surroundings. Pathetic really.

To seriously study a musical instrument one would have to overcome one’s immense phone addiction, turn that phone off and put it down in order to have full attention to one’s music. Music training requires one’s full concentration. I can attest to that. From what I see out there, that would be impossible for most people. Most people cannot take their eyes off that screen even if their shoes were on fire or if someone were standing in front of them with a gun. Instead, they would have to immediately go on millionaire-billionaire owned “social media” — if they weren’t already on there — and upload images of their shoes on fire or the person about to mug them with a gun to see how much attention they can get for that and see how many “Likes” they get. Meanwhile, the person with the guy has grabbed their phone and ran off. The phone zombie becomes more concerned about their phone than their life. That’s about the extent of it. Another example of the Century of Insanity. I’ve seen what appears to be lobotomised phone zombies walk right into metal street poles and street signs in front of my apartment building in San Francisco unable to look up from that phone embedded in their hand permanently. After they crash into it, then they glance up for a split second to see what that metal sound was that their head just banged into (it didn’t seem to hurt them; there’s nothing up there anyway with these lobotomised phone zombies), but they step slightly to the left and continue on mesmerised by that screen as if they’re reading the most important message in the world. Well, to be successful as a musician, one must have talent to begin with and lots of it, as well as intelligence, years of hard work are required (for professional musicians it’s a life-long pursuit), discipline and a long attention span. And of course some dinero/money helps to pay for classes and private instruction.

Music education continues to be a primary budget cut for US schools while the pro-war, imperialistic US Oligarchy spends hundreds of billions USD on the bottomless pit known as the Military Industrial Complex Killing Machine. That’s the indicator of a sick society. In fact, the pro-war, corporate one-party system with two names voted to give the narcissistic orange despot/international joke — who is void of any sense of human decency and who makes an ass of himself wherever he goes — a larger military budget than this basura had asked for. As I’ve written repeatedly, despite their theatrics to the contrary intended to deceive their constantly gullible cultist supporters, I think the fake-opposition party (the “Democratic” Party Cult) is really quite fond of the orange despot, who’s never served a day in the US military. (He and Nancy Pelosi — whom the voters of San Francisco keep returning to the House of Representatives no matter what she does for the Republicans — are certainly all smiles standing together in this image). The orange despot conveniently got a deferral from military service by getting a diagnosis for bone spurs. Did he have to pay extra to get that diagnosis or did it come legitimately? His other four deferments from US military service were for college enrollment. That’s odd. As stupid, willfully-ignorant and absolutely devoid of any semblance of human decency and “common sense,” clearly his college years were spent partying. And can one assume that his grades were given to him rather than earned by bullying the right people? Along with plenty of “pussy grabbing” along the way? Some people do go to college or university for the wrong reasons. Yet today he’s all “rah, rah, US military.” That’s so typical of those basura who love to rattle on about (fake) patriotism and nationalism. Could someone please buy him a GI Joe set or something so that might help him therapeutically work through his military fantasies.

But with the musically ignorant:

1) Everything in music is “a song.”
Or
2) If a performance involves a Chorus, it’s always called “opera,” by the sheeple, with few exceptions. I don’t know why someone sees an Orchestra/Symphony Chorus on stage and automatically thinks “opera.”

I guess to many people, anything vocal is opera. Perhaps that’s the thinking.

One exception being that I’ve never heard Händel’s Messiahthat ubiquitous warhorse dragged out every holiday season — called an opera and I haven’t heard it called “a song” either. And I suspect most people don’t know it’s an oratorio nor do they know what an oratorio is. Messiah is sometimes incorrectly referred to as “The Messiah.” The name of the oratorio is “Messiah” with no “The” in the title, as you can see here on this Editions Novello score (the authentic/performance edition score cover. I don’t see as many people making that mistake anymore, fortunately.

A brief aside: Händel’s Messiah along with Beethoven’s Ninth and Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana are about the only symphonic choral works now on the “classical pops” list. Think: sheeple, “50 great classical moments” such as the perfunctory Tchaikovsky 1812 Overture, Beethoven’s Für Elise or Für Therese (the title of that piece is not definitive; take your pick on the correct title), The Nutcracker Suite, Op. 71a by Tchaikovsky, Pachabel’s Canon in D, Debussy’s Claire de lune, and the Rachmaninov PC #2 is being overplayed locally on one classical radio station. He wrote PC 1 & 4 as well, why not play those? There are many more pieces I could add to the “50 great classical moments” list and some are probably played more often than these pieces, but they’re not coming to mind at the moment. These were just off the top of my head. Also, when an Orchestra decides to do a choral work on the rare occasion these days, one can count on it being one of those three (Messiah, the Ninth and Carmina Burana) usually. Symphonic choral works and especially oratorios are being performed much, much less than they were when I was in Orchestra Choruses. I think it was for this past season looking at the schedule of performances with the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) in the Kennedy Center that the Choral Arts Society of Washington had only one engagement (they had 4-5 engagements each season with the NSO when I sang with them), the same for The Washington Chorus and the University of Maryland Concert Choir was performing Messiah. When the “now-retired” superb University of Maryland Chorus existed, they had numerous engagements throughout the season. During the Antal Doráti years with the NSO, Dr Paul Traver’s University of Maryland Chorus was practically the Official Chorus of the NSO. Doráti preferred them and chose them as often as possible, which pissed off the Choral Arts Society. The NSO used to do a lot more symphonic choral works than that, but that’s for another article.

But back to the topic, can’t the public get the name of anything correct? No, apparently not. That’s why some people show up here at pink barrio by having searched “Boston Symphony Orchestra Chorus,” because I’ve written about the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. No one has arrived here by searching “Tanglewood Festival Chorus.” There is no “Boston Symphony Orchestra Chorus.” That’s not the correct name. The BSO’s Official Chorus is called the Tanglewood Festival Chorus (TFC) having been founded by John Oliver for the Tanglewood Music Festival, the summer home of the BSO. The TFC have been around since the early 1970s with their name on the BSO programmes and with WGBH-Boston radio and television announcers crediting the Tanglewood Festival Chorus before and after their performances, yet musically-illiterate idiots with no attention to detail still don’t know what to call them. Astounding. To my knowledge, that wasn’t the case when I was in Orchestra Choruses. People seemed to know the names of choral ensembles back then. I heard performance-goers say, “that Maryland Chorus (referring to the University of Maryland Chorus which also went by the name “The Maryland Chorus”) can sing the shit out of choral music” (I heard someone say). Even one of my non-musical relatives who often listened to country music talked about the Choral Arts Society of Washington when I was in that. She didn’t say, “that Chorus, whatever the name of it is, that my relative is in….” But these days? Ugh. I swear, the dumbed-down public. But I need to keep in mind that choristers are often most unfortunately considered second class musicians, they’re not considered “real musicians” by much of the public and or by some orchestral management, so perhaps that explains that.

So class: I’ve attempted to cover this topic thoroughly and hope I’ve done so. If you’re unclear on what to call something that you hear in classical music, to be on the safe side use these words: “that piece” or “that work” or just use the name of the composition, the name of the piece listed in the title area such as Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 2 in c minor. Or you would call that: This piano concerto. See how easy that is? And hopefully one learned something today. This Conservatory instruction has now ended. And you’ll never refer to a piece of music as “a song” again, unless it is “a song,” correct? Oh yes I’m sure. Ugh. (roll eyes) Chau.—el barrio rosa

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1 What usually sounds like a screaming quartet in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in d nearly always sounds like a train wreck (as one guy online astutely described it) because the four soloists — especially the screaming, heavy-vibrato soprano soloist — are not trying to sing beautifully and harmonise with each other. Instead, the soloists/screamers seem to be trying to out-scream, out-do each other as the prima donna some of them think they are. So the sound they’re producing sounds like over-singing, harsh screaming, as if they’re pushing their voices, which one should not do. It usually sounds awful. I don’t think I’ve ever heard the quartet in Beethoven’s Ninth where I said “what beautiful singing.” Instead, with those annoying soloists screaming (especially the soprano and tenor trying to out-do each other) it sounds more like opera even though Beethoven’s Ninth is not opera. Why does it seem to be a requirement to invite operatically-trained soloists to serve as the quartet whose voices cut through/scream through the entire Orchestra and Symphony Chorus? Then when it comes time to take bows, the quartet give the impression they think they have been the stars of the show, instead of the Orchestra and Symphony Chorus who were really the stars and performed most of the work. The screaming soloists have a small role in that piece. But every time I hear Beethoven’s Ninth which is over-performed these days, I have to bypass the sections featuring the quartet. I just can’t take it. I mean, anyone can scream to the point where it sounds like noise rather than music. And when vocalists these days say, “I’m classically-trained,” what they really mean to say is, “I’m a screamer and I scream with heavy-vibrato to cover up my pitch problems and my lack of vocal technique. You’ll hear me clear across town. I was trained with a megaphone-mouth.” That’s what it amounts to most of the time. Well Beethoven’s Ninth starts to sound like (screaming) opera when those soloists get going. But that’s acceptable because audiences have been brainwashed with this thinking that screaming, heavy-vibrato opera is equal to being well-heeled (Dahling), bougi (Dahling), upper class (Dahling) and of course white which is the dominant audience for opera (Dahling). I can’t stand hearing supposedly well-trained musicians mistaking screaming for beautiful singing with their god-awful wobbling vibrato, again, often used to cover up bad technique and vocal problems. And of course the Symphony Chorus should be singing with a lovely straight-tone (no noticeable vibrato whatsoever) otherwise I can’t listen to them either. And I don’t want to hear any cackling, shrill, harsh screaming sounds from the soprano section in their top register like I heard from the unrefined/unpolished wobbling and fluttering soprano section of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus in one of their performances at the end of the Tanglewood Music Festival 2-3 years ago. It sounded awful. Clearly some of the choristers have been in that Chorus too long and their voices are no longer what they used to be. Not what I expect to hear from the Official Chorus of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Lowered standards? I would say so. But there’s good news about that. As of this writing, James Burton, the TFC’s new Chorus Director hired from the UK is working to raise the standards of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. About time! But that’s for another article.

7 comments on “I’m looking for that song called Beethoven’s Ninth

  1. Wes in Arlington

    Hola pb – how many times did you perform Beethoven’s 9th? Just curious. Like I’ve said before, as a graduate of the University of Maryland I always appreciate you mentioning the University of Maryland Chorus. They were really great. They are missed. One of a kind.

    1. el barrio rosa Post author

      Hola Wes, I performed Beethoven’s Ninth twice. Once with the Choral Arts Society of Washington where I think we had 3 nights of performances back-to-back. I think that was with the NSO. I don’t remember who the conductor was. Then once with the San Francisco Symphony Chorus with Kurt Masur conducting. I liked his interpretation, especially where he held the word “Gott” for a day and a half (on the chord where the soprano section is up on the high A and there’s a fermata over that chord for both Chorus and Orchestra) before the orchestral interlude, if you know where I’m talking about in the score. That was also probably 2-3 nights in a row. I would love to have performed it with the University of Maryland Chorus but the year I sang with them they didn’t have any engagements for the Ninth — wouldn’t you know it! — even though over the years they performed it over 38 times. I think it’s safe to say it was their “signature” piece. You may have already seen this but this is what The Washington Post music critic had to say about one of their performances at Wolf Trap. This was written about them on their 36th performance of the Ninth in the late 1980s:

      National Symphony Orchestra & University of Maryland Chorus
      “…an excellent performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was presented to an overflow audience Saturday night at Wolf Trap. This excellence, however, was a last-minute development, and primary credit goes not to the National Symphony, which was the orchestra for the occasion, but to the University of Maryland Chorus, which came to the orchestra’s rescue. The Chorus — one of the best — celebrated its 20th anniversary and its 36th Beethoven Ninth by singing the final movement as well as I have ever heard it sung, live or on records.”
      Source: The Washington Post, Joseph McLellan

      I always made a special effort to go to their performances of the Ninth, and they were always superb, including one unique performance they gave at Wolf Trap for a choreographed Beethoven’s Ninth performance with the Maurice Bejart Dance Company. That was spectacular. The Maryland Chorus hid themselves on the Chorus risers with black fabric until their choral entrance. Then we saw a blaze of gold colour like the sun behind the dancers. They wore gold/yellow choir robes for that performance. Similar to this below, although The Maryland Chorus was not split as in this performance:

      I never heard anyone say this and not to disparage any other Orchestra Chorus, but the thinking seems to have been considering the number of times The Maryland Chorus was selected for Beethoven’s Ninth: “For Beethoven’s Ninth, it has to be the University of Maryland Chorus.”

      1. Wes in Arlington

        Thanks for that. I have read that on your site about that Wolf Trap performance. I heard them perform Beethoven’s 9th whenever I could in the Kennedy Center and they always brought the house down, especially when they bowed. The loud roar of approval for the UMD Chorus was sometimes almost deafening. Gave me chills, I felt so proud of them and their achievements and some of us would talk about it the next day on campus even though we weren’t in the School of Music. Appreciate you keeping their legacy alive. Thanks much amigo.

        1. Ellen in Maryland

          Right you are, Wes! I and a friend sing in a church choir and we didn’t miss a concert by the Maryland Chorus. Our church choir director thought the world of them and he’d always announce to the choir when they had a performance in Kennedy Center, out at Wolf Trap or in Baltimore. Sometimes they sang with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. All I can say is that they always gave me goose pimples. They were just the greatest. I wish our church choir were half as good! Well we do try and our director learned some pointers from them such as one thing we do have is really good diction. We’re just very sorry that the University of Maryland decided to disband them. I’d imagine that decision was tied up in some politics.

          Just also wanted to say that I learned somethings I didn’t know about music from reading this article, so thank you pink barrio, and I too appreciate the efforts you make in keeping the memory of the Maryland Chorus alive.

          All the best,

          Ellen

          1. District Resident

            Hello from the District, your former home town, pb. I haven’t commented in a while….but I’ve been reading. You and I think very much alike….so few of us.

            I’ll never call anything a song again unless it is a song. How’s that pink barrio? Your efforts are not in vain. :-)

            This seems to be turning into a discussion about the Maryland Chorus but I guess pink barrio doesn’t mind.

            Anyhooooo, Choral Arts and Maryland were my favorite back then. Both had the best reputations around here. A friend suggested I audition with either of them, hahahahaha, but I knew I’d never get in. Fat chance of that since I’ve never studied voice and have no music training. Choral Arts and the Washington Chorus are the two main ones today.

  2. D8

    I don’t know much about music but I don’t call music that I hear “a song” unless i know that’s what it is. I learned that somewhere along the way. I usually say “that piece of music” if I don’t know the name of something. If I know the name I use the name. Agree with Connor’s comment. I always learn something from your music-related articles. They really are like taking a music class. :-)

  3. Connor

    Bro, you are really knowledgeable musically but then that’s what I would expect from a conservatory graduate. I’m ashamed to say I’m guilty of calling music a song but won’t do so from now on, although I don’t call Beethoven’s 9th a song for some reason. I usually do call those symphonies. Thanks for the music education…..very interesting reading.

Fin. The End.