Friday Fun: Let all the People Praise Thee, O God (William Mathias)

Today’s post is a bit late, mostly because I’ve been on leave and got engrossed in another project until very late last night… and then woke up late and headachey moving in slow motion this morning. Since part of this project has involved trolling through ten years of online journal posts, and I did turn up one or two amusing posts about music during my travels, and since I’m still feeling a bit under the weather today, I’m departing from my usual interpretation of the Friday theme, and posting something I wrote about six years ago about a piece of music we sang in choir which, shall we say, did not entirely meet with my approval.  I hope you find it amusing.

…So, we are singing an anthem that we like to call The Mathias. Its actual name is “Let all the people praise you, O God”, and it was written for the wedding of Charles and Diana, back in 1981.

Frankly, I think this piece of alleged music explains a lot about what went wrong in that marriage.   Don’t let the harmonious part at the beginning fool you. It’s all downhill from there.

The piece is… atonal. Though calling it atonal really fails to express the delights of a split alto-line that spends its entire time singing a tone or a semi-tone apart, generally with both of these tones in a different chord to everyone else. Ha! Everyone else indeed. While the other parts are less diabolical than this, the piece reminds me of that remark of Tom Lehrer’s about people singing school songs ‘each in his own key, of course’. According to Mathias, any chord that doesn’t contain at least 4 adjacent notes just isn’t a chord at all. The basic effect is that we’ve all learned that if our note actually harmonises with someone, it’s probably wrong.

We have learned to just sing whatever note you think it might be as confidently as you can, going up or down a semitone if you are actually in harmony with anyone. The audience will never know if we are wrong anyway.

In case I have been unclear, this piece of music is horrendous. Vile. Insane. An assault on the ears. An utter swine to sing.

It’s so bad that my Inner Perverse Alto loves it to bits and wants to inflict it on everybody out of sheer spite.

My original theory was that Matthias had just broken up with his girlfriend when he wrote this, and that she was an alto (the evidence suggests she was a second alto, in fact, since the first alto line is merely piglike whereas the second alto is a whole herd of swine). Then I heard the soprano line, and concluded that he was just feeling generally misogynistic. Hearing the tenor and bass parts, however, left me with the conclusion that he was just generally misanthropic that week. Maybe his girlfriend and his boyfriend found out about each other, and then ran off together?

That, or someone complained to him the week before about ‘one note alto lines’ and he snapped.

Or maybe he went deaf, like Beethoven, only with more crankiness (which I gather would be difficult, but there you have it)? I can just imagine him writing this, thinking “If I can’t hear anything, I’ll make everyone else *wish* they couldn’t!”

Or maybe he had been forced to play / listen to the bagpipes at an early age and it permanently warped his character?

There is definite evidence of pathology here, I’m sure of it. And now, we get to share in the madness…

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4 thoughts on “Friday Fun: Let all the People Praise Thee, O God (William Mathias)

  1. Elettaria says:

    Oh, you big baby. I grew up in a choir that had been founded to sing Britten, and whose patron was Berio. This doesn’t even sound particularly atonal, with perfect cadences all over the place, although it’s hopping about in the modulations so much I’m finding it hard to tell. But yes, cluster-chords and boring alto lines are a pain, and you are fully justified in feeling resentful. Although I’d rather sing something like this than the bloody Snowflakes Chorus in The Nutcracker. The music is OK to listen to: it’s not making me burn with instant love for it, although admittedly complex music (whether it’s 20th c or Bach) often takes me a while to get into.

    I’m now trying to work out whether I’ve ever sung any Mathias. I remember concerts at St John’s Smith Square, where, as my father put it, “These shabbily dressed people would get onto the stage at the end and start smiling and bowing, and you would realise that they were the composers.”

    Right now I am sulking, because I really fancy doing some singing, probably some Easter-related singing inspired by your posts (see? Your fault!), and it’s just not doable with the rate at which I’m coughing and spluttering. (Probably not your fault, to be fair.) Maybe I shall retire to the piano and have a go at the Berg Sonata, in defiance of your war on atonality. (Though my fingers will probably comment, “You have to be bloody kidding me – you can barely trot out a bit of basic Couperin these days.”) I’ll also have you know that for my A-level recital, I performed Messiaen, Bartok and Schoenberg. Everyone at my school thought I was dead modern, but my percussion teacher sniffed in disgust and said, “Are you playing a note written later than 1911?”

    (I did, of course, rebel against all this weird atonality I was forced to sing at choir, but the thing is that eventually I got over it, and this must have happened around the time I entered my teens. Afterwards I was a teenage rebel by playing Shostakovich and such. Also composing music that it took the best singers in the school to sing, because I was used to merrily sightreading things like “Burn Down Their Houses” and thought this was normal, plus the harmony and counterpoint we were taught to write was baroque and this wasn’t particularly helpful in this instance.)

    Meanwhile, could I lure you into listening to Britten’s Hymn to Saint Cecilia? It’s relatively gentle on the ear as 20th c music goes, and I can assure you that the alto part is delightful to sing. There’s a particularly beautiful soprano solo too, which I always envied as I just got an uninspiring one-liner about weeping like a violin. The words are weird too, which should appeal to you.

    I have heard that Britten’s Dies Irae had chord-clusters like the ones you talk about with this Matthias, by the way, but frankly I’d be so thrilled to sing the War Requiem that I wouldn’t care.

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    • Rps Abque says:

      I find British choral music terribly boring and most time feel like i need to stick a big rod up my arse in order to sing it…mmmh hmmph…..”properleh.” And the straight tone, boy choir intended female parts are often painfully difficult to sing for us adults. Sadly, Britain is the only place in the world that features boys singing the female parts on a regular basis. It’s true most female adult singers groan as the new Rutter piece is enthusiastically placed in their folder, knowing that they will probably hear “less vibrato” come out of their director’s mouth at least 1,000 times before the performance. Good choir directors however will will allow some natural vibrato to exist and will not demand such technique from an adult performer who can actually cause damage to their voice by singing straight tone too much and improperly. Nevertheless, this piece has become a standard in the choral repetoire. Choirs all over the world sing it regulary and it is Mathias’ top selling title in the genre. It’s basically an organ solo with choir accompaniment. It has rhythm and form that actually keeps your attention until its relatively short end. It’s performance has been successful in the including of the organ where otherwise it would continue to be ignored. The accompaniment does not translate to the piano at all. The organ accompaniment also features the great instrument is such a way that forces the accompanist to actually play the different voices and dynamics of the instrument. (no pressing a setting and blithely playing a mock version of the the piano part). When sung well to a lively tempo, it’s quite a lovely piece for all who hear it.

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  2. Catherine says:

    ;-P

    I’m not especially enamoured of Britten normally, either, I’m afraid. It’s interesting listening to this one several years later, because you can’t even *hear* the both alto lines most of the time (and believe me, I remember them very well). I have dark suspicions that nobody is actually singing one of them…

    Yes, my school choir liked atonal music too. And I was in Astra for three years, which basically specialised in 20th and 21st century music, all of which was atonal. I eventually left, because I had become convinced that I was no good at music and couldn’t sight-read at all. So I have a bit of a grudge against the whole genre.

    Having said that, I’ve just bought a whole book of art songs by Australian composers, most of which are 20th century, just because I love the idea of getting to sing music by a composer who is both Australian and female and (bonus!) setting really weird John Donne sonnets to music…

    (even if it is atonal)

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  3. Elettaria says:

    Are there any non-weird John Donne sonnets?

    I was about to wave the Hymn to Saint Cecilia at you temptingly. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MGyB7_2RnS4 It helpfully prints the words, and then I looked at some of them and cracked up. “And by ocean’s margin this innocent virgin / Constructed an organ to enlarge her prayer, / And notes tremedous from her great engine / Thundered out on the Roman air.” Well, I’ve never heard it called that before, and the lyrics keep going with that school of thought. Beautiful singing, though, seriously. It’s a lot more anchored than that bit of Matthias. Try the third movement at 4:51. It gets really lyrical at about 6:00, where they’re singing about “playing among the ruined languages”, but personally I think the lead up to that bit is downright sexy.

    The Berio was pretty horrendous, as I recall. Barely any vocal line at all, lots of random percussion (I say this as a percussionist who generally approves of percussion), and we kept having to make weird noises instead of singing. It was in Hebrew, I have no idea why, he’s Italian. I remember that we had an Israeli in the choir, and the conductor asked her to translate a bit. “He washed his hands,” she said haltingly, “and, er, he washed his feet…”

    I suppose that if you do survive learning sight-reading on 20th c music, then you’re not going to be afraid of anything else thrown at you, but it’s definitely a case of being thrown in at the deep end. And I still can’t work out the slow movement in a Bach partita I was tinkering with the other day.

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