Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes: Music to Calm Hearts and Souls

In yesterday’s Music History Monday post, we had the opportunity to talk about the questionable but on occasion necessary (if borderline masochistic) pleasures of hot peppers and punk rock. The post went on to mark the short, tragic, and depraved life of one Simon John Richie (best known by his stage name of “Sid Vicious”, May 10, 1957 – February 2, 1979).

That discussion of Maestro Vicious, relatively brief though it was, likely left us all with a worse taste in our mouths than that provided by a fabled Carolina Reaper pepper. As the best cure for the pepper’s capsaicin burn is vanilla ice cream, I am today offering up a musical antidote for punk rock in general and Sid Vicious and the Sex Pistols in particular, and that is some glorious choral music.

GASP! Am I comparing choral music to vanilla ice cream?

And what if I were?!?

Let’s everybody stay calm. “Vanilla”: let’s establish what that word does and doesn’t mean in this context.

Pods and flower from the orchid genus of Vanilla
Pods and flower from the orchid genus of Vanilla

As an adjective, “vanilla” has come to be used to describe something plain: easily consumed and digested, something devoid of interest and empty of meaning. Excuse me, but only the most dedicated chocoholics could believe such a thing. (Are we to scoff, as well, at white wine and vodka because they don’t have more “stuff” in them, stuff that would render them more “colorful”?). I object here and now to this linguistic demonization of “vanilla” as being something that is intrinsically “lesser”! The noble spice vanilla, derived from the pods of orchids of the genus Vanilla, cultivated by our Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican brothers and sisters, is a gastronomic wonder of the natural world. We stand with you, vanilla, against the haters!

Vanilla is, in fact, subtle, aromatic, gloriously flavorful, and intensely pleasurable. As choral music.

Choral Music

Composing for chorus generally demands a relatively conservative musical language, as massed voices – with very few exceptions – cannot execute the sort of rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic complexities inherent to so much contemporary instrumental music. Besides, professional composers of choral music like Morton Lauridsen and Ēriks Ešenvalds know where their bread is buttered. The subculture of amateur choruses – children’s choirs, church choirs, community choirs, high school and college choirs – is humongous, and it is a subculture always on the lookout for new, singable repertoire.

By its nature, choral music reflects the shared experience of the human collective; there is no “i” in “choral”. Massed voices invoke the community and express communal, archetypal emotions and experiences and not the individual ego and sorts of private, personal experiences educed by solo singing. A mixed chorus evokes all of humanity, and the tonal, relatively conservative nature of most such music renders it delightful and accessible.…

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