Sunday, January 23, 2011

Pilgrim’s Chorus: MoTab Men vs. San Fran Gays

I recently joined the Salt Lake Men’s Choir, and one of the songs we have started rehearsing is Pilgrim’s Chorus from the opera Tannhäuser, by Richard Wagner.  I had heard the piece a number of times and was thus familiar with the tune.  I had not, however, ever focused on the lyrics of the song.

After my first rehearsal, I went home and downloaded several of the songs we are going to be learning for our spring concert.  One of these was the Pilgrim’s Chorus.  I chose two performances, one in English by the Men of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir from their recently released CD, and the other a 1981 performance in the original German by the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus (SFGMC).  That week, I listened to each performance several times.

At the second rehearsal, we broke into sections, and one of the pieces we worked on was the Pilgrim’s Chorus.  It was then that I really focused on the lyrics for the first time, and I was frankly moved, particularly as I sung the words to the second and third verses:

Once more with joy O my home I may meet
Once more ye fair, flowr'y meadows I greet
My Pilgrim's staff henceforth may rest
Since Heaven's sweet peace is within my breast.

The sinner's `plaint on high was heard
On high was heard and answered by the Lord
The tears I laid before His shrine
Are turned to hope and joy divine.

O Lord eternal praise be Thine!
The blessed source of Thy mercy overflowing
On souls repetant seek Ye, all-knowing
Of hell and death, I have no fear
O my Lord is ever near

Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

As I sang these words, I felt the peace of the pilgrims as they returned home, their missions accomplished.  I felt their humility, their frank acknowledgement of their weaknesses and the joy they found in their redemption. The words, combined with the music, were to me quietly powerful.  I had also felt some sense of this emotion while listening to the SFGMC recording, but of course I couldn’t understand the lyrics because they were in German.

I was a little puzzled, however, because I had not felt any of this when listening the previous week to the recording (in English) by the Men of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir (MTC).  In fact, I wondered whether the choir was possibly using different lyrics because I hadn’t felt or heard the plaintive pleading or the redeeming joy that the lyrics and the SFGMC recording had conveyed to me.  So as I headed home from rehearsal that evening, I listened more carefully to the MTC recording and discovered, to my surprise, that these were indeed the same lyrics.

In the ensuing days, as I traveled out of state for the long weekend and had the opportunity to listen a number of times to both recordings I had downloaded, I thought about what I had experienced the previous week at rehearsal.  I wondered why I had mistakenly thought the MTC had sung the song to different lyrics and pondered how the two recordings differed and what these differences, in a way, represented or symbolized.

In order to better under the piece, I decided to do a little research on both the song and the opera from which it comes. 

I learned that Tannhäuser, the main character, was a German knight who was lured into Venusberg, the mountain home of the goddess Venus, whose greatest joy was to entice into the mountain the knights of the Wartburg region and there hold them captive to her beauty.  Any knight who entered the Venusberg and succumbed to the pleasures of Venus’ court was considered consigned to perdition. 

Tannhäuser, however, was able to escape from Venusberg and eventually went on a pilgrimage to Rome to seek forgiveness from the pope, in which mission he failed.  He thereafter returned home to Germany with a group of pilgrims, dejected and resigned to his fate: damnation.  The Pilgrim’s Chorus is sung by these pilgrims at this point in the opera as they pass through Tannhäuser’s town.*

With this additional knowledge and understanding, I again listened to the two recordings, and I am presenting them here in order for you to listen and make your own judgment. First, the SFGMC performance, followed by the MoTab Men. 

I attempted to articulate what to me were the differences between these two recordings and also why the MTC performance had left me so unaffected.  Some thoughts gradually took shape.  In short, I found the MTC performance very professional, controlled, measured, uniform, perfectly blended, a pleasure to listen to, beautiful even – but totally devoid of any emotion; pleasing, but – in a sense - plastic.

On the other hand, I found the SFGMC performance beautiful as well, but also full of feeling: reverential and prayerful during the first verse and first half of the second verse, turning to joyful in the second half of the second verse, thence to exultant in the third verse.  The sound of the SFGMC was also very different from that of the MTC: while polished, it was clearly “human”; imperfect; much differently blended than that of the MTC performance.  Individual voices, though harmonizing beautifully, were clearly audible, each singer contributing to the texture of the whole.  I feel the difference in feeling is also reflected in the differences between the orchestral accompaniment in the MTC recording - mirroring the choir’s controlled professionalism - and the wildly emotive piano accompaniment of the SFGMC performance.

As I came to these conclusions about the two performances, I also realized why the MTC recording had left me so unaffected – to the point where I had actually wondered whether the choir was perhaps singing lyrics that were different from those I had sung.  I simply had not felt the peace of the pilgrims as they returned home, their humility, their frank acknowledgement of their weaknesses and the joy they found in their redemption – which to me is the heart and soul of this piece and, indeed, of the whole opera: redemption through love.

Beyond this, however, it occurred to me how some might view the two performances to be reflective of differences between the general membership of the Church and elements of the society in which we live. The Church is obviously composed of individuals who, taken as a whole across the world, represent an extremely diverse group of people.  However, perhaps in part because of this very diversity, the Church puts a premium – both in terms of its organization as well as its theology – on uniformity, on systems, on control, on blending together.  Differences are not celebrated.  Only certain kinds of emotions are encouraged or tolerated.  Freedom of thought and expression are not viewed as ends in themselves.  The end result of this is can be and often is, in general terms, similar to the MTC’s performance of Pilgrim’s Chorus:  controlled, uniform, measured, blended; beautiful, yet bland; correct, yet corrosively conformed.

These are, of course, only one man’s thoughts, i.e., mine.  But I am entitled to my opinion, as are you.  In my book, San Fran Gays win.  What do you think?

* For those who are interested, here is a link to a video on YouTube that features the scene from Act III of Tannhauser containing the Pilgrim’s Chorus.  The scene is described as follows: “The third act displays once more the valley of the Wartburg, the same scene as that to which the Venusberg changed in the first act. Elizabeth [who loved Tannhäuser], arrayed in white, is kneeling, in deep prayer, before the crucifix. At one side, and watching her tenderly, stands Wolfram [another knight and friend of Tannhäuser]. After a sad recitative from Wolfram, the chorus of returning Pilgrims is heard in the distance. They sing the melody heard in the overture and in the first act; and the same effect of gradual approach is produced by a superb crescendo as they reach and cross the scene. With almost piteous anxiety and grief Elizabeth scans them closely as they go by, to see if Tannhäuser be among them, and when the last one has passed and she realizes that he has not returned, she sinks again upon her knees before the crucifix and sings the prayer, "Almighty Virgin, hear my sorrow," music in which there is most beautifully combined the expression of poignant grief with trust in the will of the Almighty.” [Source:] 


  1. As I read your post, I wondered if the differences you perceive are due to the differences in "Life" that is producing the voices. Do voices reflect only learned pitch, volume etc or do they also reflect what the voices have lived inside the body from which they are released? From here, I wondered if you were hearing a nice production given by the MTC with people who mainly may theoretically know of the experience Wagner brings to life in his opera but that the SFGMC know by experience.

    So I listened to the two. As I listened to the MTC, I paused and then listened to the same piece by the SF choir. I am not a music critic, so excuse my lay analysis! I will try to describe what I heard and how I felt to the best of my ability.

    The MTC piece seems like any religious piece by the TBC "appeasing, lullaby-ish in that is induces me to fall asleep, horizontal: outwardly extending without volume and depth: verticality".

    The SFGMC piece seems like a classical not religious piece in that it isn't lullaby-ish but is dynamic: like a wave that crashes in then rolls under, builds and then descends again. The voices seem to move together like an accordion, almost like a hear pumping. There are different dynamic going on: some louder, some softer, with peaks and depths that can be heard and felt.

    Very astute perceptions and basis for a philosophical discussion that coincides, nicely, with your "exodus" post and your personal questioning in general. Fascinant!

  2. Great review.

    When I'm looking for recordings of classical I usually end up buying the ones that some would consider "sloppy" performances or less than perfect recordings. There is something much more human about them for me when they contain flaws. I compose music primary on computer and synthesizers. When polishing the recordings I will go to great pains to introduce errors, wrong notes, instruments playing flat or sharp, perhaps even a sound effect of someone missing the drum or dropping a stick in the percussion section. (It happened to me a lot in real life. :P) I used to pick apart old recordings of orchestral pop from the 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s and listen for such errors. These were specially interesting to me because they were studio recordings and supposedly highly polished. I look for sounds such as the clicking of the valves, or someones cough or the conductor spontaneously snapping his fingers or bumping the music stand. These things draw me in more than anything. It's so human.

  3. I concur. Plus I like the original German. The MTC performance is polished and refined to machine precision, and has as much warmth. The SFGMC version seems much more real, for the reasons you stated. One is Velveeta, the other Stilton.

    FWIW, this is the same reason I always hoped and prayed that a General Conference session would end early, even if only by a few seconds. It had all become so meticulously pre-packaged, right down to every second of the timing, that in my opinion all true humanity and inspiration had long since fled. I became so desperate for any sign of actual spontaneous human involvement that even a few seconds' error in the planning was enough to make me cheer. When religious expression has become _that_ pre-processed, what happens to the authentic Spirit "that listeth" where and when it will?

  4. I like the SFGMC version better, too. Ha, I think the SFGMC sounds more raw and "masculine" than the Mo-Tab men. I heard bits of recordings from their new CD on the radio the other day, and everything I heard sounded impeccably polished, as always, "Nice" in the LDS-pop-culture way (AKA pleasant but unimpacting or lifeless). I thought, "So far, every clip sounds like men in their young twenties or something, or men who are trying to sound 'soft', which isn't what I look for from men's choir performances." Sorry to my acquaintances in the choir, but I don't think I'm a fan of the new CD.

  5. Well, I'm glad to know I'm in good company! I appreciate you guys leaving feedback. I found all of your comments interesting. Velveeta vs. Stilton. More raw and masculine. More human. More reflective of what the persons projecting the voices have lived. I particularly liked this observation by Libellule. It certainly crossed my mind while writing the post. I have to admit I hadn't thought of the SFGMC being more masculine, but I have to agree. I have to admit I hadn't thought in terms of Velveeta; but I think it's an excellent analogy. Thanks again for your input!

  6. I'm also in the SFGMC camp, and for similar reasons.

    The MOTAB men sound like most of the Mormon men I meet on Sundays. They're nice, they even smile sometimes. Most are freshly showered, shaven, and dressed in their Sunday best. They may not be entirely comfortable, but they know their role is to support their leaders. There's a sort of expected and enforced and chosen unity that isn't entirely authentic. Only one of the High Priests in my ward has a beard and rings in his pierced ears. Only of the Elders in my ward regularly shows up without a tie and unshaven. These guys would never be allowed into the Tab Choir even if they had angelic voices. They're non-conformists. The choir seeks and rewards talent that conforms. That probably contributes to their emotionally blunted sound.

    In contrast, the SFGMC group sounds like they've been through a war together. I see some of them with facial hair, piercings, tats and other outward signs of their life choices. They sing with greater tenderness, greater passion, a greater unity that honors individual differences, a greater depth of feeling and understanding that comes from having lived lives that included the darkness of dejection and the light of unconditional acceptance and love.

    (As an aside, the Motab 1958 recording of Messiah has much more of this passion than do more recent, technically superior, but emotionally bland renditions. But that's another discussion.)

    We see and hear the world not as it is, but as we are. So maybe the Sunday Priesthood Meeting me and the Sunday Night Moho Blogger me are each identifying with their respective roles and expectations. And maybe, just maybe, I'm a little bit more whole for having listened to both of these choirs tonight and engaging in this discussion.

  7. Ned, your comments are beautiful. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and feelings. I was struck by several things you wrote, but in particular your comment that "their [i.e., men in the Church] role is to support their leaders." What a true, but extremely sad, statement. Where does that leave us? Where does that leave the individual? Were we sent to earth to joyfully fulfill the measure of our creation, or merely be cogs in a machine that grinds endlessly on?

    ~ "I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly." (John 10:10)

  8. Beautiful comment Invictus. I believe that we are alive to enjoy Life, and for each individual this is subjective experiences of joy and sadness. If the individual gets lost in the collective, what's the point of our uniqueness? our individuality? our Life? Can we not "support" a greater good, but not at the cost of human-ity, individual-ity and uniqueness? Why would a Life giving force ever bother with Life, if the price to pay was the loss of our uniqueness? Why would a Life-giving force give us Life?

  9. I was just thinking about the differences you pointed out between the SFGMC and the Men of the Mo Tab. It just struck me that the MoTab version sounded like a classical violinist trying to play a fiddle tune; it's always very precise and exact but completely devoid of the emotion and feeling that gives the fiddle tune life. And believe me, there's nothing worse than hearing a classical violinist attempt an Irish fiddle tune. It lacks the lilt and hop a true fiddler can give it. (Full disclosure, I'm a fiddle player.)

    Having sung in several choirs before, I think some of that has to do with the director. Some directors know how to evoke emotion from a choir and others are just rather technical. Sometimes even from the same choir, one director has the ability to bring things out that another director on the same song cannot.

    Just my 2 cents.

  10. The velveeta quality Rob refers to is the direct result of television broadcast. The apparently seamless and clipped veneer of sound that performance groups fall into to meet the demands of the medium result in a somewhat insipid quality that begins to propagate itself through every piece. A truly world class choirmaster would recognize this and remedy it from time to time. If I recall, it began to set in with Jerrold Otley and has persisted. This is one of the reasons many prefer the old Richard Condie recordings.

    Another reason the difference is so apparent at that point is that in Condie's day one could play Bach and Vierne as preludes at sacrament meeting without causing a stir (the influence of Alexander Schreiner). By the late 70's Church Music Committee directives changed that, and music in many wards receded into the blankness of Robert Manookin hymn tunes. The Tabernacle Choir began singing less of the classical masters at the same time and focused much more on Mormon music; a laudable idea to encourage groupthink, but a cultural bellyflop.