Choir Of The Earth Exclusive: Celebrating Mozart's Birthday In Choral Union



On the occasion of Mozart's birthday last month, I authored the enclosed exclusive for my platform, The Chronicles of a Modern-Day Mozartian. It delivers an inspiring statement about the power of music particular to the moment in which we're living. From this point forward, all content published on ModernDayMozartian.com will also be published here on my primary site. In merging my portfolio, I'm bringing together different genres, eras and audiences to demonstrate the universality of not only the music, but my approach to its preservation.


It's my hope that recognizing these similarities will also help us celebrate the differences in such a way that they promote a nourishing and ongoing exchange. And symbolizing this transition is my feature on Choir of the Earth, an ensemble I was drawn to for its “Mozart for Everyone” philosophy, environmental consciousness and championing of amateur music-making on a global scale. As Musical Director Ben England described the ensemble to me, "The community of Choir of the Earth is multi-cultural, multi-faith and contains choristers from all age groups, all united in a love of singing and friendship."


To read my "Choir Of The Earth Exclusive: Celebrating Mozart's Birthday In Choral Union," continue on:


Every January, I host my Virtual Mozart Birthday Celebration and choose an additional subject or activity to further engage Mozartians as we look to the promise of a new year. I’ve adopted a phrase from The Opera Annual’s Mozart bicentenary edition (1956) to describe my January 27th call to action: Zurück zu Mozart! (Back to Mozart!).


Last year, we celebrated the Maestro’s birthday by attending the Mozarteum’s virtual world premiere of K. 626b. This year, I’m inviting you on another adventure, albeit a very different one! Are you ready? I’m asking you to join me in singing one of Mozart’s most beloved choral works, the Große Messe in c-Moll (Great Mass in C Minor, K. 427) with Choir of the Earth, a global online choir with thousands of amateur singers from over 35 countries!



Rehearsals officially begin the week of January 24th, but there's a flexible, ongoing process that works to accommodate every schedule and budget throughout the seven-week course (and beyond via on-demand availability). Watch the course informational session to get an idea of what to expect. We'll get into the details shortly with two very special guests!


The Mass in C Minor is a perfect choice for January. It's solemn enough to lament his December death anniversary, yet joyful enough to be celebratory on his birthday as it transports us to a time when he was personally and professionally fulfilled. Mozart began composition in the summer of 1782 when anticipating his marriage to Constanze Weber and the successful premiere of his opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio) in Vienna.


Constanze's recovery from illness and her love of Baroque counterpoint were inspiring forces behind Mozart's authorship of the Mass in C Minor. The couple traveled to Salzburg in late July 1783 to visit his family and the incomplete work was most likely performed (perhaps with adapted material from his earlier masses) in October at the Church of St. Peter's Abbey with Constanze appearing as soprano soloist.


Since August 6, 1927, the Mass in C Minor has been presented at the church annually during the Salzburg Festival. The following video captures highlights from its 2013 performance with Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra and Youth Choir of Venezuela that marked the premiere's 230th anniversary.



I discovered Choir of the Earth through their Mass in C Minor announcement. I was drawn to the organization's “Mozart for Everyone” philosophy, environmental consciousness and championing of amateur music-making on a global scale. I wanted to learn more. I contacted Nikki Chilton, their Communications Director, who offered a wonderful orientation to their choral family before introducing me to Musical Director Ben England and Founder Mark Strachan.


Ben received the British Empire Medal in 2021 by The Queen in recognition of his services to choral singing during the pandemic. He's also been shortlisted for the 2022 National Music and Drama Education Awards (Francesca Hanley Inspiration Award). Mark was awarded the British Empire Medal in the 2022 Queen’s New Year’s Honours List for services to musicians. Watch his announcement from early January!



Ben and Mark are providing a tremendous service not only to their country's rich choral tradition, but to the genre and to composers like Mozart. They’re accomplished and welcoming, driven by the desire to instill hope in the hearts of many while testing and furthering the boundaries of choral performance. I'm elated that they accepted my Q&A invitation. Gentlemen, welcome to The Chronicles!


Sherry: The reimagined concert hall emerged in 2020 when ensembles were no longer able to rehearse or perform in-person. Zoom orchestras and choirs entertained multitudes during periods of lockdown. What music, moment and/or motivation catalyzed Choir of the Earth’s origins?


BEN: Prior to the founding of Choir of the Earth I had started broadcasting choir rehearsals on YouTube - a free-to-attend ensemble that I called Quarantine Choir, which is still running today under the name of Homechoir. I had reached 1000 members by the end of March 2020, and decided to reach out to Choraline to see if they would publicise the group. In order to grab the attention of the Choraline mailing list, I decided to teach Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus as video with sectional rehearsals for each part. You can see the video here.


This was a hugely successful video with over 8000 views to date, and following this Quarantine Choir gained another 800 members AND (vitally!) Andrew at Choraline told me about this chap called Mark Strachan who was looking for an MD to conduct Messiah online. I thought this was a mad suggestion - given how much work I’d had to put in to teaching Mozart’s Ave Verum! - but I agreed to speak with him. I told him he was mad, and he laughed, but we each agreed that it was a brilliant idea and I didn’t have to think long at all before I said yes.


We discussed how to take rehearsals and I pushed for YouTube for delivery and for sectional rehearsals on each night of the week to maintain momentum (and simply to get through all the music, there was so much to cover in a short time). The rest is history. So although Messiah at Home was the big story of 2020, it was Mozart’s Ave Verum that brought us together!


MARK: Ben is right. It was Mozart – yet it was Handel which was that HALLELUJAH moment. I expected us to have 20 or so people from Dorset here in the UK and we ended up with 3,600 from over 35 countries! It was extra-ordinary. Now over 6,000 singers, we have had so many magical musical moments. Yet we are always tugged back to Mozart. The Requiem was put together as a series and we left Mozart off – on purpose. He was so special that he deserved a place of his own. The Requiem was so special and we now move on to his MASS in C MINOR. What fun that will be starting shortly.



Sherry: With thousands of choristers comprising various degrees of experience, Choir of the Earth undoubtedly procures strength from its diversity. What’s the general makeup of professionals, members of community and church choirs and novices? Are you seeing interest from Millennials and Gen Z? How do these group dynamics work in a virtual environment?


BEN: We are seeing a broad range of people from all walks of life. We have academics, medical professionals, teachers, lawyers, civil servants, even a couple of knights of the realm! We have a good number of younger choristers, and had a large number of families taking part in Messiah at Home. As time has gone by, we have gained new members from many different areas, including TV and film production, journalism, IT and sound recording and more. A large percentage of our membership is retired (as they have the time to focus intensively on our smaller courses) but the big ticket numbers draw in a big and very varied crowd.


MARK: This is true. Our model allows members to watch later and as many times as they like. So there is no need to be there “on time” and this means we have people still in work who can watch when they wish.


Sherry: Giving it your bewigged best (with Mozartian flourish!), what's your elevator pitch to potential choristers reading this interview? Why should they join Choir of the Earth? Based on your observations, what makes this experience so gratifying for participants? What's most rewarding for you?


BEN: Choir of the Earth is, simply put, a new way to experience choral music for the 21st century. We rehearse, perform, record and enjoy our music through the internet and have a vibrant, friendly and supportive membership of people from all over the planet. We make music fun and engaging in a way that is environmentally sustainable, highly accessible and at a very reasonable price.


MARK: We are apart, yet together. You only have to visit one session to see the strong friendships which have formed during this difficult time. We learn a lot of varied music and because we don’t have to be somewhere “on time” we can do many pieces at once. So the choir can learn Mozart on Monday, Mahler on Tuesday and Messiaen on Wednesday with legendary talent such as Ben England, Tenebrae and John Suchet. Once learned, we ask everyone to record their own voice. They send this to us and we combine all the voices in the studio to create the choir before playing it back to the choir. It’s magical and we are SO GOOD!



Sherry: As the interval from enrollment to performance is a matter of weeks, every undertaking by Choir of the Earth must be an intense and exciting process. Can you give me an idea of what goes on behind the proscenium? I'm especially interested to learn more about how you manage to mix so many individual voice recordings into a beautiful, cohesive sound!


BEN: We produce custom guide tracks using some of the best singers in the world - among them we have worked with Tenebrae, the choir of St Martin’s in the Fields, London Festival Opera and the Fieri Consort for example. These tracks are laid down in advance with the input of the musical director so that the performance follows the tempo and general musical shape that s/he desires. The guide tracks then form the basis of the teaching sessions which take place over several weeks, and the MD will go each part line by line in recorded rehearsals.


The videos of those rehearsals are then cut to form ‘conducting videos’ which the choir use to record their parts. Because the choir are singing along to the same performance, their voices will fit together in the studio later. Our engineers take the choir’s individual performances and combine them in large-scale digital performance files, which are then carefully shaped to ensure that any blemishes are removed (coughs, dog barks, paper rustling etc) and that the performance flows together. This is a very work and time-intensive performance and involves in some cases a dozen engineers or more working as a team.


The final result is then highly polished by the MD and the lead engineer over several days of listening an editing to produce a final mix. This final mix is then the basis of the final concert which is conducted live by the MD and will be the first time the choir hear themselves singing together. It is a hugely exciting process, and the end result is a concert without the traditional nerves and feelings of “I hope I don’t make a mistake” or “I hope I can see the conductor” - in this way, the choir can be certain that what they are going to hear is going to be great and they can just get on with enjoying the music-making and each other’s company in the live chat.


MARK: Well put Ben. I would only add that as EVERYONE has their own microphone (their mobile phone) the diction is very clear and a delight to listen to.



Sherry: Choir of the Earth performed Mozart’s Requiem last year and it was by all accounts a success. Bravo! What led to your decision to pursue the Mass in C Minor? Both the Requiem and Mass in C Minor exist in fragmentary form, respectively. Are you using a completion by Robert Levin, Ulrich Leisinger or another edition?


BEN: Mozart's Requiem was an amazing course, with 1500 people learning and singing Mozart’s sublime last work during the height of the COVID pandemic. Truly unforgettable. The Mass in C Minor is however, speaking personally, the pinnacle of Mozart’s choral writing. I performed it as a chorister in 1999 with a baroque orchestra and never forgot the experience.


We wanted to produce something this winter to stand alongside some of our other great choral masterworks - Messiah, Elijah, Beethoven 9, Mahler 2 - and to send a message of hope to the world in the midst of the latest wave of the virus. The Great Mass was the obvious choice! We are performing the Schmidt edition, which is a free digital score available through IMSLP. This is a vital part of the way we work, as we want the choristers to all be singing from the same score - if we were to use a more modern score we would undoubtedly have issues with choristers not being able to access or afford it, this way we can be certain that everyone has the same edition.


MARK: So yes, we are doing the longer version with the Agnus Dei which was not written by Mozart. Along with things “not written by Mozart”, we have commissioned several composers to complete the LACRIMOSA and these will be taught to the choir. The composers are given those first 9 bars and then asked to complete the short piece. It will be amazing.


Sherry: Unlike the Requiem, Mozart’s Mass in C Minor was a non-commissioned work like the motet, Ave verum corpus, K. 618. Both are biographically connected to Mozart’s wife Constanze. Is discussing context a vital part of your course instruction? Do you find that context gives an added dimension to a chorister’s understanding that benefits their investment and performance?


BEN: Absolutely. Prior to becoming a professional conductor, I was a music teacher and Director of Music at a secondary school (ages 11-18) here in Bristol. My passion is for music education so when I lead a choral work I will always provide historical and musical context so that the singers feel a human connection with the music.


I feel that the music establishment putting the great composers on pedestals and painting them as geniuses whose gifts were God-given does them a huge disservice. These composers were human, like the rest of us, and to be able to illustrate their humanity by shining a light on the motivations that led to their writing a piece of music I think makes their work more accessible and appealing.

I shall be leading a 6 week course on our Around Sound channel following the Great Mass, where I shall be lecturing on Mozart and his choral works to further explore his fascinating life and motivations. We have had courses on Handel, Haydn and Beethoven so far and they have been among our more popular courses.


MARK: Agree Ben. Please see John Suchet here on Beethoven and Ben’s course on Mozart will be even better!



Sherry: Mozart’s a perennial favorite among conductors, artists and audiences (aka everyone!), so I assume he’s one of your most requested composers if not THE most requested. What does the choir’s future look like with his repertoire? Do you anticipate Mozart's Salzburg sacred music and selections from dramatic works?


BEN: Again, speaking personally, I would love to teach and perform much more of his music. His Coronation Mass, the wonderful Solemn Vespers, the Kyrie in D minor are all stunning and would be ideal for COTE. One day, I would love for us produce the world’s first ‘digital choir’ performances of his greatest operas (the Magic Flute I think would lend itself beautifully to this format for example).


MARK: See above re LACRIMOSA. We have commissioned several composers to complete the LACRIMOSA and these will be taught to the choir. The composers are given those first 9 bars and then asked to complete the short piece. It will be amazing.



Sherry: Many ensembles discontinued virtual performances as they began to slowly and cautiously return to in-person concerts in 2021. And novel web-based performing groups born of the pandemic have ebbed, but Choir of the Earth has continued to evolve where it is: online. You decided to rebrand from The Self-Isolation Choir to Choir of the Earth, reflecting a mindful transition in status. At what point did you realize you had a sustainable model? What are the next steps to achieving the choir’s full potential as you envision it?


BEN: As I said above, this is a new way to learn and enjoy choral music. The whole team believe passionately in our method of teaching and sharing great works, and we have a membership that has bonded over having taken part in some of the most unique concerts I can think of. We performed Elijah three times in one day for example. We performed Mozart’s Requiem with me conducting each voice part individually - so it looked like there were four conductors on screen. Following that, we had Nigel Short of Tenebrae conducting all 40 parts of Tallis’s Spem in Alium on screen at once. The effect was just tremendous - and could never be replicated in a same-room choir format.

There are so many reasons as to why COTE is continuing to grow and be successful. The format allows singers to attend the rehearsals live if they can, but also means that they can pause, rewind or simply watch again any bits that they want to work on later. They can also watch the rehearsal later if they are busy - a real difference with face-to-face choirs. The YouTube format means that singers are not distracted by Zoom windows - they can focus on the conductor with an HD picture and great quality sound (this is essential). The end result is always superb and because we are focusing on the sound rather than flashy videos, the audience can relax and listen to the choir without having to engage their eyes looking for a particular person (‘look there I am!”) which you often get with so-called ‘virtual choirs’.


I believe the future of Choir of the Earth is along the path we are on, with our commitment to innovation, education and high-quality music-making. We are unique in that we learn and share music on a global stage in a sustainable and environmentally responsible manner - this is at the heart of our name change to Choir of the Earth. No choristers or musicians meet in person, saving tons of carbon emissions in travelling to and from rehearsals and performances. We use digital scores, saving tons of paper and carbon in postage and distribution.

The community of Choir of the Earth is multi-cultural, multi-faith and contains choristers from all age groups, all united in a love of singing and friendship. Ultimately, we feel that while this method is not going to replace traditional same-room singing, it will become mainstream and part of the fabric of the tapestry that is music worldwide, much like Netflix has become an essential part of the way we enjoy movies and TV.


MARK: Ave Verum Corpus sounds exactly the same as it did when first written. Back then, you had to hear it in concert and then wait for the next one. One day recordings were available on 78, then 33 and 45 rpm records. Then cassette. Then CD and now Spotify. So nothing has changed yet EVERYTHING has changed. The way we listen to music has changed beyond all recognition (as I answer this I am listening to music). Choir of the Earth continues this change and whilst in-person concerts will always be the pinnacle, we offer a new and exciting way to learn and record music.



Thank you, Ben and Mark, for providing a window into Choir of the Earth! I hope that our dialogue is met with excitement and creates awareness and participation. To be a part of what could be the largest choir to date to perform the Mass in C Minor is quite a prospect that offers more than enough incentive!


With the recent cancellation of Mozartwoche (Mozart Week) in Salzburg as well as other concerts and events around the world, we’re venturing into yet another period of uncertainty. Choir of the Earth is a gift that not only ensures the continuance of music-making during a dark chapter, but most importantly, through a receptiveness and professionalism that demonstrates compassion for people and planet.


Choristers are given everything they need to study and perform from home. With no audition or formal knowledge of music required, flexible sessions and a no-pressure option to record their voice part, the experience is customized for optimal convenience and comfort. It's especially ideal for those who've had the desire to sing choral music, but haven't had the opportunity or were deterred by the idea of time and financial commitments, musical prerequisites, cliques and public performances. Choir of the Earth removes disparities and deterrents in amateur music-making through a program of inclusivity, accessibility and opportunity. How exciting!


Reinforced by expert instruction and professional accompaniment, choristers are introduced to a new school of choral singing whose open arrangement doesn’t leave the ensemble vulnerable, but rather strengthened by harnessing undiscovered potential. Case in point, they've received praise and support from industry giants. Marina Mahler, the granddaughter of Gustav and Alma Mahler, is Choir of the Earth’s President. Watch Donald Palumbo, Chorus Master of The Metropolitan Opera, discuss their recordings and his excitement to be involved with the organization.



Music-making is an important entry point to Mozart and to music and its history generally. Yet, it isn't widely encouraged or funded beyond the classroom. In the U.S., it's unfortunate that while most Americans participate in some form of music-making during their early years (ie. piano lessons, school band, orchestra, choir), their participation in applied music typically ends upon graduation. This may be by choice in some cases, but certainly not all.


Choir of the Earth opens a door to choral art performance for the widest possible population. And this is worth celebrating, especially with Mozart's Mass in C Minor! Music is a lifeline. Music-making is a lifeline. Mozart is a lifeline. We live in a current social climate where civility and decency are often lost, where selfish and reckless acts eclipse the common good. In a world where togetherness can seem hopelessly distant, the simple act of raising our voices together exemplifies an inspiring union, a choral union. It's necessary not only as a form of preservation, but for our well-being. If there was ever a silver lining to the pandemic, this is it!


Mozart understood the importance of winning the public and the patron. He understood the balance he had to strike in composition and distribution as it pertained to connoisseurs and general audiences, professional musicians and amateurs. Ironically, what has posthumously plagued his music has been an imbalance that perpetuates the same obstacle he tried to overcome as one of the first independent artists working outside the aristocratic patronage system: exclusivity. Mozart didn't want his music to exist solely for the pleasure of a few, but many.


The late Czech actor and conductor Pavel Vondruška reminded everyone on his tour at the Estates Theatre in Prague: “It wasn’t musicians. It was a simple baker’s apprentice who was whistling an air from his opera. And that was one of the very happiest moments for Mozart, when he heard his music in the streets of a foreign town.”



In closing, I'd like to once again recognize Constanze Mozart, a central figure in the writing of the Mass in C Minor. Despite the insurmountable circumstances she faced as a young widow in 1791, Constanze managed to provide financial security for her two sons and through 50 years of estate management and advocacy, built a foundation upon which her husband's music will endure.


I included a dedication to Constanze in the acknowledgements of my M.A. thesis. She's been an inspiration to my journey as an independent scholar-practitioner, encouraging me to venture beyond the scope of the conventional. Because, as this piece demonstrates, the future of this music depends on our ability to adapt and innovate. Although precarious, it's sometimes necessary to abandon what's familiar in order to access the next level. And in this regard, the Mozarts were masterful.


What a joy it will be to sing the Mass in C Minor with Choir of the Earth to honor her story and celebrate Wolferl's birthday. Zurück zu Mozart!


Sherry


 

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