According to the ancient Greeks, harmony is discord rendered concordant, a concept that applied not just to music but everything from the order of the cosmos to human relationships. I have always loved this idea for two reasons: it was predicated not on the absence or erasure of difference, but the reconciliation of it; and it was perfectly embodied in the activity that had occupied a significant part of my career as a college music professor and conductor—choral singing. Upon my retirement, alumni of my choral group from across the decades returned to campus to join current members for the final concert of my career, a performance of the sublime Duruflé Requiem. As the events of that concert unfolded, including something extraordinary and unexpected, I was moved to reflect upon the nature of harmony, and the power of collective singing.
Like many humanities moments, mine was the culmination of many moments that had accumulated over the years, and that suddenly came together under special circumstances that gave focus and meaning. When students I had always known only as 18–22 year olds returned for my retirement concert as adults in their 30s and 40s to sing, I realized that across all these years, in the course of the inglorious and often frustrating work of learning parts, shaping phrases, sharpening rhythms, and tuning chords, we had been engaged in the most deeply human of activities—forging concord out of discord, all the while participating in something that was both greater than ourselves, but also affirming of that most individual aspect of our humanity, our voice. Choral singing, like all harmonious human activity, thrived not on sameness, but on difference, willingly and lovingly brought together and reconciled.
In 1971, when I was a 19-year-old undergraduate at Amherst College, I sang in a performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion. I had grown up in a household with classical music, but this was something else, something from a different place of spirit and beauty. It converted me into a music major.
Forty-five years later, I retired from a career as a college music professor, during which I taught music history and conducted some fifty concerts of choral music. When I retired from Dickinson in the spring of 2016, my colleagues generously organized an event involving a performance of the exquisite Duruflé Requiem. It featured my collegium singers and an invitation extended to all past singers in the group to return as alums and take part in the performance. An astonishing number of them took the time to learn their parts on their own, extract themselves from their now complicated lives of work and family, and return to once again sing together.
After it was all over, and with the performance still playing in my memory, I reflected on what had happened and what had brought us together. Yes, the people, the place, the music, and the chance to sing again, but above all it was something deeper that goes to the core of our humanity. The urge to be a part of something greater than ourselves, something that takes us—even if only for a few hours in a rehearsal or a performance—takes us and our audiences beyond ourselves into a shared experience of beauty. I think we all seek this in the parts of our life we hold most dear: family, marriage, friendship, and, for some of us, choral singing. Of all the meaningful communal pursuits one could seek, choral singing strikes me as among the most accessible and democratic.
When we rehearsed and performed Josquin, or Victoria, or Britten, or Lauridsen, it was on the level playing field of equal-voiced part writing. Every voice had an equal role to play, each was of equal importance. But that is not all. There is a misconception about much communal or collective activity that to be part of something greater you must tamp down your own individuality in order to blend in. Maybe that’s true in some arenas, but what I learned over the years working with my young singers is that choral singing embodies one of the great paradoxes and mysteries of life, and the one that goes to the heart of the liberal arts education. That not only is our individuality not at odds with meaningful collective activity, it is essential to it. I think we’re possibly happiest when our authentic self can join with others and become part of that alchemy by which discord is turned into concord, and the whole is made greater than the sum of the parts.
This is just exactly what we did every rehearsal, every semester, for every concert. We each worked to learn our parts, shape the phrases, tune the harmonies, adjust the dynamics, all the while trying to do these things together and forging a sectional sound composed of the distinctive timbres and colors of our individual voices. There is no describing the disarming beauty of the young adult willing to share with those around them the pure, unguarded, utterly unique sound of their singing voice. It is not going too far, I think, to call this desire and will to come together week after week—to wave off fatigue, illness, and the occasional pain of our lives, to bare our souls and forge something beautiful together—to call this an act of love. Like the love that binds us to spouses, friends, and family, choral singing asks us not to deny or leave behind our selves, but simultaneously to retain them and give them away. To give them over to a collective sound that is audible as both the blended whole and the tapestry of unique voices.
The joy to be found in being both one and the many at once is, I think, what drew us back to sing together again. But that is not the whole story either. For something else happened that day that none of us could have foreseen. A first-year student, a foreign student far away from home, had just drowned while swimming in a nearby river surrounded by friends. It was a heartbreaking event for our small community, and the memorial service had been scheduled for the same afternoon as our concert. Unable to attend the service, we decided to insert a short piece into the program just before the Duruflé, and dedicate it to the young man. It was a sublime piece by the American choral composer Eric Whitacre called Sleep. I did not conduct the Duruflé, but I did conduct the Whitacre, and it would be the last time I conducted any of them. We had little rehearsal time, but it seems not to have mattered. They gave a breathtaking performance, one that opened the ears and hearts of all present, and that magically bestowed an intimacy and poignancy on the great liturgical work that followed.
That spring afternoon, events took on a life of their own, and it was for each person present to sort out for themselves what inseparable blend of joy, grief, beauty, longing, and affection each experienced. I only know that the transformative power of this collective artistic act, of fifty souls each willing their hearts into their voices, and their voices into the hearts of others, made it happen. It was a moment of both ephemeral and unforgettable beauty, and it reminded me of a lesson I had learned from Bach forty-five years before: that true harmony is not a thing that exists somewhere else, that we go seek and find, but something we must constantly forge out of discord. Or as the ancients put it, harmony is discord made concordant. It is the triumph of concord over discord.