I've often wondered why I find choral works that are built around string accompaniment more pleasing to the ear than say, works built around full orchestras, or organs, or horns. Not being any kind of expert in matters related to music composition (or music or much else for that matter), I just assumed that my ear (and maybe many other ears) found the simultaneous vibrations of strings and voice sonically solicitous. That maybe, the sounds of voice and bowed string share much in common. As we sing, we push air over the vocal cords, creating vibrating waves of sound. As a string is bowed, the vibration runs up the string and is transmitted thru the bridge which shapes the timbre of the sound as it is projected thru the body of the violin, just as the vocal cords help shape the timbre of the sound as the air passes over them and into the "body" of the head cavity. Maybe.
Perhaps the most thrilling example of this felicitous voice/string marriage that I have ever heard is AVE by Cecelia MacDowell. Strings and voices are one from the opening measures where the strings call and answer with lush pulling sounds and the voices then follow, almost a tonal echo of the strings. Back and forth, the dance goes on for the rest of a 12-minute composition that seems suspended in time. In the first sections the bowing and voicing are all long and lyrical, legato and loving, then, sandwiched between two incredibly otherworldly soprano recitatives, comes the stormy middle section, here strings bow sharp and fast and voices respond in kind, a furious energy that is only dissipated and calmed by the soprano solo that follows.
I first listened to AVE two years ago on a hot July morning. I had just finished a long run and a swim down at the beach. I lay back on the gravel listening to my choral playlist (yes, you can actually exercise to choral music!). I had downloaded AVE from youtube some weeks earlier and never listened to it. As I slowly dried in the sun, the strings played the opening bars and the voices followed in kind. My eyes popped open taking in the dazzling blue sky. The opening figure pulled at something deep inside me. Voices and strings became one glorious sound: lyrics faded into the background, voices began to sound more like violins, the violins more like voices. I was transported to a world awash in rich, lush phrases. Waves rolled gently in and out, two ospreys hovered overhead in the shimmering blue sky.
There was a pause, as though a collective breath was being taken, and then, the opening figure was repeated, but this time the strings had a far deeper emotional fullness, the notes fairly bursting with feeling, and then choir answered with equal intensity: Deo, Deo, Deo Patri. Here is the very heart of the piece, at rehearsal 28, all the elegiac energy that has been building comes pouring out. And in that moment I felt something inside me rising into the clear morning sky as though some dark energy was floating up and away from me.
Now, having read up on this work, I know that MacDowell wrote this in 2001 and it was first performed in November, just months after the attacks off September 11th. Written as a peace anthem, it is perhaps a prayer for the dead and a prayer for the living, for the survivors. It is a prayer for hope in a dark hour. And, at rehearsal 28, our prayer swells, soars and crescendos in a heartfelt and heart-full plea for a peaceful way forward for all humankind. Ave Maris Stella. Hail Star of the Sea.