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September 12, 2014

Tomorrow, 13 September, is the occasion of the famous Last Night of the BBC Promenade Concerts, renowned for the fervour of its patriotic singing by some 6,000 voices in the audience and, no doubt, millions more joining in from home. Last year’s occasion was also noted for the relatively small voice of the conductor who took to the rostrum for the event, yet made an equally big impact: Naxos artist Marin Alsop was the first female director in the festival’s 188-year history to take the spotlight and lead the Prommers in their enthusiastic singing.

Marin Alsop at Last Night of the Proms
Photo: Andy Paradise

The power of massed voices has also long been the focus of the penultimate night of the festival’s 8-week run. Returning this year to its traditional slot is Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, Choral, a work that gave symphonic writing a kick in the pants and a change in tack that was perpetuated by many composers. Any London performance carries the special memento that the work was originally commissioned in 1817 by the Philharmonic Society of London. It’s a universal work, however, prescient of Mahler’s statement that a symphony should “embrace the whole universe”, with its theme of the Brotherhood of Mankind in the choral finale.

Mahler himself used choral forces in several of his symphonies, notably in the Symphony No. 8 (8.550533-34) which was premiered in 1910 and subsequently attracted the Symphony of a Thousand tag because of the massive forces required. Rebutting the pessimism found in many of his works, Mahler’s symphony expresses confidence in the eternal human spirit, clearly heard in this opening extract.

Throughout the 20th century, composers followed the trend of combining choral and instrumental forces. In the same year that Mahler’s Eighth Symphony received its performance, Vaughan Williams was presenting his calling card to the British public with A Sea Symphony (8.557059) that set verses by the American poet Walt Whitman in each of the four movements. This excerpt is from The Waves, the boisterous scherzo-like third movement.

Havergal Brian was a contemporary of Vaughan Williams. His Symphony No. 1, The Gothic, (8.557418-19) is his most famous work, outdoing even Mahler in its massive proportions. It lasts nearly two hours and embraces a lengthy setting of the Te Deum that requires four soloists and two large double choruses in addition to brass bands and a much enlarged orchestra totalling nearly 200 players. You can hear Brian letting his full vocal and instrumental forces off the leash in this extract.

And so the practice of integrating choral elements into symphonic works has continued to the present day, acknowledging the extra emotional dimension these forces are capable of achieving, fuelling the power of the words they carry. Shostakovich used voices in several of his symphonies. Next month sees the final volume in the Naxos complete recordings of the symphonies; it features Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, plus soloists and chorus, in the Symphony No. 13, Babi Yar. That’s a treat in store for those who have been avidly following this remarkable series of recordings. For now, however, here’s an extract from his Third Symphony (8.572396) in which chorus and orchestra bring the work to a rousing conclusion.

One of the most powerful tales of massed voices, however, lies very much outside the cocoon of the concert hall. Being asked to pinpoint the location of Estonia is a challenge that would probably stump most people. With a population of only 1.3 million, it’s one of the smallest countries in the Eastern European bloc, but Estonia punches well above its weight when it comes to a reputation for choral force, not least in the context of its choppy recent history.

After 700 years of foreign rule, the last 200 of them as part of the Russian Empire, Estonia declared independence in 1918. Ensuing hostilities secured a short-lived period of emancipation from 1920 until 1940, after which the country was occupied and annexed by the Soviet Union in World War II before being overtaken by German forces in 1941 and subsequently reoccupied by the Soviets in 1944.

It was only in 1991 that the country regained its independence, and in the most extraordinary manner—through a Singing Revolution. Starting at open-air concerts in 1987, this was a four-year assault against the country’s oppressors by using nothing more than hundreds of thousands of voices in massed musical and political harmony to win back Estonia’s freedom, without bloodshed. You can watch a trailer for the documentary about this amazing chapter in Estonia’s history by tapping into the screen below. Beethoven would surely have loved it.


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