When I’m not reading or writing, I’m singing. Seems like it, some months, anyway. This month or so has been especially busy, with Haydn’s Missa brevis St. Joannis de Deo, the Duruflé Requiem (sublime!), and currently the choral finale of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, based on the 1785 poem “Ode to Joy” by the Romantic poet Friedrich Schiller.

In fact, I just got back from our first rehearsal with the orchestra — always an exciting moment, finally feeling the vibrations of the strings, horns, and tympani as you sing, resonating underfoot. Especially with this piece — when we’re singing that double fugue toward the end (“Seid umschlungen…”), we’re all singing about universal brotherhood — mostly at the tops of our lungs — but it feels like we’re on the verge of chaos! There’s just so much going on. Exciting, but scary. Because it’s all in German, we need to make sure we really launch those consonants. We’re skipping around from one extreme of our range to another, plunging from fortissimo to pianissimo, prestissimo to adagio. And the music feels like something inexorable, inevitable. It’s accelerating to the end, faster, faster, faster …. It’s like being in a huge road race sprinting and being jostled by a thousand others but at the same time, somehow, exhilarated and uplifted by the massive surge forward. Or flying through a forest filled with tall dark trees, dipping and swerving between them. Or, maybe, reading something immensely powerful and moving, printed in a black-letter font (as the “Ode to Joy” might have been).

Yes, black-letter. You know, that Gothic font:

All those upright staffs and octagonal hollows and elegant angles — an efficient use of space and very evocative but not easy to read!

A few (a very few) of the books I work with in my research are actually in black-letter German. Here’s one, the source of the image above (it will open in a new window):

Rudolph Wagner

Apparently (according to wikipedia) we associate the black-letter font with German because the German printers kept using it much longer than printers elsewhere in the Western world. I’m grateful that none of my main sources (English) use it, but I enjoy the very occasional foray into black-letter.

It slows me down. It makes me focus. It invests Every. Word. With. Meaning. It forces me to live fully and with concentration in that thick and mighty forest of words and ideas. Something like this happens when singing, too. I come to myself at the end and realize I’ve been living in another world for the space of the song. We only hope that our listeners have been, too.

To see a placard about the performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony in 1824, courtesy of a man who’s written a book about it, click here.

To read Schiller’s “Ode to Joy,” click here.

To hear the chorus, an unstoppable force of joy, in the classic performance conducted by Toscanini (chorus by Robert Shaw), click here. The double fugue starts at about 4:39, and you can feel the energy building (dangerously!) at about 7 and 9 minutes. Hang on to your seat and feel the sound rush by!

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