During the Háry János concert, La Monnaie Children’s and Youth Choir will perform Bartók’s Seven Choruses for Children. A conversation with Benoît Giaux, chorus master of the Youth Choir and artistic director of our MM Academy.
BENOÎT GIAUX, CAN YOU TELL US HOW LA MONNAIE’S CHILDREN’S CHOIR WORKS? ABOUT THE JOURNEY ITS MEMBERS GO ON? ABOUT YOUR APPROACH?
Working with a children’s choir is totally different from working with an adult choir. For some of our members, it’s their very first encounter with the world of ‘classical’ music. They have to audition before they can take part in projects, but really the most important thing is the journey. Choral singing offers them an incredible opportunity to discover music and acquire musical skills. The group dynamic stimulates and motivates its members. By singing in a group, they are introduced to all aspects of music. They also discover – and this is very important – their own voice, their instrument, along with a number of related parameters, such as their posture, breathing and vocal placement. We have designed a step-by-step structure to develop all these aspects and provide as complete a training as possible – one that encompasses every facet so as to make this singing experience as rich as possible – and all of course with the objective of achieving the sort of standard one would expect of an opera house like La Monnaie and the works that are staged here.
THE CONCERT PROGRAMME COUPLES CHORAL MUSIC BY BÉLA BARTÓK WITH A SYMPHONIC SUITE BY ZOLTÁN KODÁLY. WHAT IS THE LINK BETWEEN THESE TWO COMPOSERS AS REGARDS CHORAL MUSIC?
Both Bartók and Kodály were composers and ethnomusicologists. At the beginning of the twentieth century they started meticulously collecting the folk melodies of their country and beyond, with a view to making a complete inventory of the Hungarian tradition and giving this Hungarian repertoire a place in the history of music. The folk songs collected in this way were then reworked into ‘learned’ music by composers, in both vocal (solo voices and choir) and instrumental music. We owe it to them that Hungarian choral music is so rich and that there is so much of it. Bartók and Kodály can also take some of the credit for a significant development in the music education of the children of their country, as evidenced, for example, by their numerous compositions for children’s chorus.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE SUBJECTS OR THEMES OF BARTÓK’S CHORAL WORKS?
Bartók composed 27 choruses for two and three-parts, a cappella. For seven of them he wrote an accompaniment for a chamber music ensemble that can be played by children. Bartók drew on simple, rustic folk melodies on a range of subjects. Cipósütes, for example, presents a whole host of animals (from flea to bear though the chicken and the cat) that work together harvesting grain and baking bread. Other songs, like Ne menj el and Bolyongas, are about melancholy and heartache. To sing them you shouldn’t go looking for some higher meaning, but just remain true to the idea of reproducing folk melodies from the countryside.
The main difficulty for the children is mastering the Hungarian language, which is not an Indo-European language.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE BARTÓK’S MUSICAL LANGUAGE IN THESE CHORAL WORKS?
The basic language is simple, because it picks up the folk melodies from those collections and remains true to the reproduced themes. The orchestral accompaniment is also clear and simple in the way it expresses the different feelings aroused by the lyrics. The choral execution, on the other hand, is much more daring and Bartók’s genius comes into its own in the way he makes use of the modal polyphony and counterpoint. While always respecting the original modality, he gives us sonorities and harmonies in an ever varied and expanded polyphony which sound revolutionary and daring but for children are quite singable thanks to the simple and natural melodic line.
WHAT CHALLENGES OR DIFFICULTIES DO THESE PIECES PRESENT FOR THE CHILDREN’S CHORUS OR FOR YOU AS THE CONDUCTOR?
The main difficulty for the children is mastering the Hungarian language, which is not an Indo-European language. The children have to gradually familiarize themselves with the specific sounds of the language so as to sing it as naturally as possible. The same applies to the music which, though written in a popular style, uses a fairly modern and unconventional language. Another important challenge for the conductor is to make the children love this music by having them discover it in successive steps (notes, rhythm, text, pronunciation, translation, musical meaning, vocality, expression, etc.) until they are able to deliver it in a way that is faithful to the work.
Recorded by Antonio Cuenca Ruiz