As a teacher of conducting in Germany and Denmark, I often experience moments when my students look at me with empty eyes when I refer to choral highlights by Mendelssohn, Brahms and Schütz. “We have never sung that in high school or secondary school choirs. We generally had too few tenors or male voices, so we sang pop arrangements.” This alarming fact also meant that conducting students – and not only them but also incoming choristers – are and will be strangers to the language and philosophical world of poetry from the last centuries, which could have political implications. In some countries, it already has, I fear.
This cultural and historical gap and lack of tenors in the classes, even at music universities, will impact how we teach the art of choral singing. This realization led me to an experiment, which, ten years later, resulted in SAM-Klang.
A bit of reading and asking among colleagues made me realize that struggling to find low voices was not just a “a local problem”.
The final report of the pilot research project “Singing Europe,” published by the European Choral Association in 2017 showed that 4,5% of the European population actively participate in collective singing activities. This percentage represents 37 million collective singers on the European continent, in 1 million choirs or ensembles (625,000 choirs and ensembles in the twenty-eight EU-countries). The statistics however said rather precisely that two-thirds of the choristers were female (Singing Europe, 34).
In the last couple of years, choral organizations have reported decreasing membership in addition to a narrowing recruitment base of male choristers, especially tenors, due to physical and musical stylistic developments in Europe. Age structure in choirs has also gradually changed, meaning that although choristers live longer, choirs tend to disolve because “the old repertoire” becomes unsingable. On the other hand, newly formed youth choirs are also repertoire-wise challenged if (when) they wish to go further than singing pop music. Furthermore, the pandemic has put at perils many choirs who are now unsure if, when and how they can proceed – or even survive. In other words, many of cherished SATB repertoire will increasingly become unreachable in their original version unless there are enough members, time and resources.
My above-mentioned experiment was to make arrangements of the classic choral repertoire with just one male voice for choirs to start – and end – with. The resulting SAM-Klang series thus offers versions of many of the SATB-classics originally in 4-7 parts (Schütz, Mozart, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Reger to mention a few, but also Poulenc, Duruflé and even Whitacre) with the following features:
- Almost all audible characteristics of the original are preserved, an ordinary audience will hardly notice that an arrangement is sung.
- Male voice and alto livelier, very singable, and vocally as well as harmonically educational.
- An easy piano reduction for rehearsal.
The SAM-Klang series aims to help preserve the availability of the treasures of choral music and their delicate, period typical and thus important poetry of the last 4-5 centuries. Hopefully, this will also catch the interest of youth choirs and other formations, for which this repertoire has not been relevant till now. The series will also consider that every country has a treasure of nationally beloved songs, which might be of interest not least for amateur choirs. As the music in the arrangement is easier to grasp but still “the same,” SAM-Klang, I believe, will prove suitable as teaching material in conducting and choral classes, but also in any classroom where there is a wish to give students the gift of quality choral music.
About Morten Schuldt-Jensen
Morten Schuldt-Jensen is a professor of choral and orchestral conducting at the Freiburg University of Music and former choral director of the Gewandhaus in Leipzig (1999–2007). In addition to his teaching activities, he has worked in Scandinavia and Germany with well-known European ensembles such as SWR Vocal Ensemble, RIAS Chamber Choir, the Gewandhaus Orchestra and the Akademie für Alte Musik. He performs regularly with his Danish choir Sokkelund Sangkor, with the Immortal Bach Ensemble and the Leipzig Chamber Orchestra, of which he is chief conductor and artistic director.