Caroling towards Christmas

It’s the busy time of the year. A lot of freelance singers make a substantial portion of their annual income during the month of December, singing the Messiah and other holiday concerts. It’s a fun season, but it can get overwhelming and stressful to have your busiest professional time coincide with the limited weeks to run around buying gifts, visiting loved ones, baking cookies, and juggling holiday parties. That confluence of events isn’t unique to singers or even musicians. Retail workers have it a lot worse, because they’re extra-busy and they have to deal with grumpy, beleaguered shoppers. At least we get to sing for happy audiences who tell us we’ve made their holiday season more special.

And the music is great too. Singers love to complain about the 15 Messiahs they have to sing this year, but really they love it. And though there are plenty of terrible Christmas carol arrangements filling the stores all month, some of those carols are dear to our hearts, and are woven into old and cherished memories.

Christmas carols are some of the earliest songs I can remember singing. The past two weeks I was in Miami singing Seraphic Fire’s Candlelight Christmas concerts. One of the pieces we sang — and recorded for our new Christmas album — was a new arrangement of “Angels We Have Heard on High” by the group’s director, Patrick Dupré Quigley.


I was reminded that this was my Number 1 Favorite Carol when I was a very little girl. I don’t think I knew most of the lyrics or even the carol’s name, but I loved singing that long, melismatic line on the word “gloria.” To a girl of 4 or 5 that “gloria” seemed to cascade up and down forever, and it was just so beautiful. I think I called the carol “Gloria.”

My very favorite carol now, as a grownup, is Gustav Holst’s “In the Bleak Midwinter.”

Christina Rossetti’s evocative poem and Holst’s spare and loving musical setting create a magical moment in time. It’s almost like a mini-movie, capturing the wonder of the nativity scene. Seraphic Fire also recorded a new arrangement of “In the Bleak Midwinter” by the young Minnesota composer Abbie Betinis.

Her setting is for choir, harp, mezzo-soprano solo, and soprano/mezzo-soprano duet. It’s really lovely — in one section you can hear the snow falling in a gentle repetitive pattern in the alto line — and I was lucky to sing the duet with the incomparable Amanda Crider. I can’t wait for the disc to come out so I can share the piece with you all.

Until then, enjoy the season and all the carols, old and new. What’s your favorite?


Holy smokes! Soprano clef strikes again.

Lately I’ve had the luxury of lots of practice time to polish the music for my next month’s worth of gigs:

Bach and Purcell scores

and work way ahead on some of my repertoire for next season:

Handel, Keiser, Jacquet de la Guerre scores

These are the tasty musical treats I alluded to in my last posting. This is all such good stuff! Every time I sidle up to my piano I have trouble deciding what to dig into first.

I’m particularly excited about the aria from Keiser’s opera Croesus. I decided I needed a German baroque opera aria to round out my rep list for period group auditions. Um, there’s German baroque opera? you ask? It’s certainly not in the canon of mainstream opera companies, but it did exist (check out the praise the Boston Globe and  NYT heaped on Handel’s Almira this year at BEMF), and luckily my trusty network of Facebook friends who are baroque opera nerds helped out with several suggestions.

I chose Elmira’s aria “Liebe, sag’, was fängst du an?” primarily because I could get my hands on it without leaving the house; there’s a decent full score of the opera on IMSLP (let’s take a moment to give thanks for IMSLP). It also happens to be fabulous, with a beautiful lyrical A section and a fiery B section full of coloratura. It’s not long, and leaves lots of opportunity for flashy ornamentation on the return to A. Pretty much the perfect audition aria. You can listen to Sandrine Piau’s rendition here:

But, I haven’t gotten far in learning it because the vocal line in this score is written in soprano clef. Drat!

Copyists and printers of the past must have really hated legder lines, because they used a number of now-obsolete clefs to keep most of the notes on the staff. In facsimiles of original scores or even in 19-century editions like this one, soprano vocal lines are frequently written on soprano clef, with Middle C being on the bottom line instead of on the first ledger line below the staff.

soprano clef

Everything’s just one line higher than it would be in your everyday treble clef, but it’s amazing how reading everything a third off from normal can make your head want to explode. I’m sure singing from soprano clef is one of those brain-exercising activities that can help you stave (oh heavens, no pun intended) off Alzheimer’s.

And I eventually get good at it. Actually I can sing the A section of “Liebe, sag'” just fine. But then the B section begins, and here come those 32nd-note runs:

fast notes

Yikes is right. I can’t decide which would ultimately be more work, learning the whole aria in soprano clef, or teaching myself Finale and creating an edition I can read. It’s seriously a toss-up. I’ll let you know how it works out.