- 2 August, 2013
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Published in 1943, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince is a story that occupies an alternative dimension, in which an adult comes to see things through the prism of a child. Laurent Petitgirard‘s suite of the same name is one of this month’s new releases from Naxos (Naxos 8.573113).
“The suite was written for the ballets that formed part of Sonia Petrovna’s staging of Le Petit Prince at the Avignon Opera House,” the composer explains. “It sets a mixed choir in opposition to a percussion section, with a harp and clarinet duo linking the two factions.”
Petitgirard’s imaginative scoring is enhanced by the styles of choral writing he employs. In the Prologue, for example, the singing is wordless, a timbre that is often exploited in both classical and traditional music.
Once relieved of the baggage of words, the human voice enters a different dimension and gains new evocative powers. This can be as simple as the humming of a mother’s lullaby, or the melismatic hypnotism of Mozart‘s coloratura aria for the Queen of the Night in his opera The Magic Flute (Naxos 8.660030-31).
Jaws often drop when people first experience Mongolian throat singing, an eerie novelty that seems to defy human physiology; Alpine yodelers are echoed by their pygmy cousins in Central Africa; while China has its old tradition of cry singing, preserved in Tan Dun‘s The Map.
On a balmy summer’s evening, reclining on a punt, cossetted by nature’s warmth, the mind in free-fall – who needs words to express that feeling? Delius must have recognised that when he wrote his two unaccompanied, wordless partsongs, To be Sung of a Summer Night on the Water.
The exploration of uncharted territories, physically and figuratively, lends itself naturally to a sound free from the gravity of words. In Holst‘s The Planets (Naxos 8.555776), Neptune the Mystic takes us deep into the cosmos on the gentle swirls of a wordless, off-stage women’s chorus, whose disappearance into the void of the final bars can be truly magical in performance.
Vaughan Williams‘ Symphony No. 7 portrays a more earth-bound, but equally boundary-breaking experience. Subtitled Sinfonia Antartica, the work uses material Vaughan Williams had written for the film Scott of the Antarctic. A wordless soprano solo and women’s chorus suitably catch the soulless atmosphere of the icy wilderness.
Also by Vaughan Williams, Flos Campi (Naxos 8.557276), for solo viola, orchestra and wordless mixed chorus, has biblical headings for each of its six movements that are taken from The Song of Songs. Although this is as near as one gets to a verbal expression in the piece, the intensity of the messages remains undiminished, from the poet’s initial languishing for love to the finale’s life-affirming ecstasy.
It’s the particular quality of solo female vocalisations that has captured the imagination of many composers. Rachmaninov‘s Vocalise (Naxos 8.572893) is one of his most popular works; it comes in many arrangements, but possibly none so effective as for solo soprano and orchestra. Villa-Lobos‘s Bachianas Brasileiras No. 6, for solo soprano and cello ensemble, (Naxos 8.557460-62) weaves a similar enchantment.
A more substantial exercise in the medium is to be found in Glière‘s Concerto for Coloratura and Orchestra, performed by a solo soprano, although precise sounds are unspecified by Glière; with little provision for taking breaths, the voice is challenged by demands normally made of instruments.
One of the most noted examples of the use of a wordless chorus is in Ravel‘s score for the ballet Daphnis and Chloe (Naxos 8.570075). At almost an hour, it’s Ravel’s longest work, and possibly his most effective. The composer saw it as a ‘vast musical fresco … faithful to the Greece of my dreams’. The vocal contribution to his lush harmonies and passionate music plays an indispensable part in the fantasy.
As mentioned in last week’s posting, fellow impressionist Claude Debussy had already used a wordless female chorus to clinch the vision of mythological sirens who lured sailors to their doom through their enchanting singing: Sirènes is the last movement of his suite Nocturnes (Naxos 8.570993).
The list of works focusing on the naked voice, stripped of verbiage, goes on: Giles Swayne‘s Cry for 28 singers; Vocalise étude by Olivier Messiaen; Sorabji‘s Vocalise for piano and soprano; and Vocalise for soprano, cello and piano by André Previn, to name just a few.
So, if like me, you can never remember the words of a song beyond the first four bars, just bash on with a confident la-la-la, and know that you are in good company and continuing an established tradition.