Flying the Flag for the Choral Repetiteur
In a world where collaborative pianists are still fighting for recognition in press releases, printed programs and critical media reviews, please spare a thought specifically for the pianists who play for choirs.
They are surely one of the unspoken heroes of the music profession – taken for granted, unappreciated, unacknowledged and often unashamedly exploited. Part of the problem arises from the fact that they are often called the choir’s accompanist. This is precisely what they are not! It is inappropriate to call such musicians “accompanist” when you consider what their role is in the preparation of a choir for performance. No conductor would be happy to accept a pianist who works in partnership with the choir as he or she might with an instrumentalist or a vocalist.
In a choral situation, the role of the pianist is to respond to the conductor’s interpretation of the music, and to convey this to the choir while at the same time playing an orchestral score arranged for piano. This can be very challenging indeed, demanding prodigious skills, both musical and technical. The choir pianist is one of two professional musicians training and educating the choir for future performances. This is essentially the same for all choral ensembles, large or small, but is always integral to the ideal preparation for choral performance. All things considered, I consider the pianist’s role in this context as much closer to that of a “repetiteur”.
Applicants for a position of Repetiteur (French: répéter - to repeat, learn, rehearse) in an opera company will be required to demonstrate a range of skills remarkably similar to those expected of an experienced choir pianist. Opera repetiteurs must know and love the repertoire, and have the pedagogical skills of a coach or trainer. They must have an excellent keyboard technique and be able to perform with singers on stage as a collaborative pianist, as well as play for rehearsal and coaching sessions. In these sessions, their role is to assist and direct the singers from the keyboard while supporting the conductor and addressing issues that the conductor may not have the time to cover.
Opera repetiteurs should have exceptional sight-reading and score-reading skills and the ability to play an orchestral score (or reduction) on the piano, creating orchestral sonorities and enhancing the ability of the piano to achieve the melodic phrasing of an orchestra. Opera repetiteurs must be constantly sensitive to what is going on around them and should be able to handle competing demands and stressful situations. Paul Webster, repetiteur for Glyndebourne and the Opéra National de Paris, sums it up by saying that he is, “a musician, and the piano is the tool of my trade.”
In at the Deep End
As in the opera context, choir pianists also require exceptional keyboard technique, sight-reading skills and the ability to interpret an orchestral score. In an ideal situation, choir pianists will be advised of the works to be performed well in advance of the first rehearsal. Alas, this is not always the case – they may well be given the score when they arrive at the first rehearsal.
With luck, the score will be legible and arranged by someone who knows how many fingers most pianists have. Hopefully it will also have been well-transcribed from the orchestral score and in a condition which enables page-turning at speed when necessary (it is very unlikely that an experienced page-turner will be provided). Indeed, the pianist's page-turning skills need to be of Olympian standard!
Often, unaccompanied sections do not have a piano reduction and it is necessary to play all the choral parts at once, at least in the early stages. Sometimes the piano reduction of a large romantic or contemporary work uses 3-4 staves, while “short scores” try to fit all the orchestral parts into two staves. In many cases these scores are virtually unplayable and dependent almost entirely on the pianist’s virtuosity, invention and imagination.
I was once presented with a keyboard reduction of the Bach Magnificat in D at the beginning of the first rehearsal. The piano score was a reduction for ten fingers of complex, contrapuntal music, moving at allegro moderato for thirty bars before the choir entered. The conductor wanted to give the choir a feel for the whole work and, without any further communication, began conducting. Choral pianists note: Never forget to learn the “orchestral interludes" - one day you will be asked to play one without warning!
The aspiring opera repetiteur would be familiar with the major works in the repertoire. Similarly, the choral pianist should know Handel’s Messiah, Haydn’s Creation. the Bach St Matthew Passion, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Orff’s Carmina Burana, the Requiems of Mozart, Verdi, Brahms, Berlioz and Faure, Mendelssohn’s Elijah and Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius etc, etc.
If the work is to be sung in a language other than English, a good word-for-word translation would be invaluable (as would be the case when playing a Schubert lied). In addition, the pianist must be prepared for less well-known works and newly-composed works - some perhaps in manuscript form. It is also advisable for them to investigate challenging works by less-familiar composers like Fanshawe, Adams, Penderecki, Walton, Britten, Hollier, Goossens and Janáček.
In the very early stages of preparation, the pianist will be virtually running the whole rehearsal from the keyboard. They must be brave, very well-prepared, patient and empathetic, and totally immersed in the task at hand. Nerves of steel and a sense of humour would also be useful. Being on constant display, the pianist is at no time permitted to show signs of boredom or disinterest.
One of the most taxing choruses for a choral pianist is the Sanctus from the Verdi Requiem. This is for double choir and orchestral reduction – a total of nine staves of music! The tempo is two minim beats per second with an average of one system of five bars per page. We need to be able to manage rapid page turns every ten bars, while still playing the orchestral reduction and following the conductor’s beat. Daunting stuff!
As outlined above, an opera repetiteur must be able to act as a coach or trainer. This is also an essential and very positive part of the choir pianist’s role in rehearsal. In the early stages of preparation, their contribution is particularly crucial because the choristers are more likely to be following what they hear than what they see. During rehearsals, the pianist may notice problems within the choir which are not important enough to have the conductor stop the whole rehearsal. The pianist can assist by bringing out individual lines, confirming the harmonic structure, picking out contrapuntal entries and immediately reflecting the conductor's indications of tempo and dynamics.
When the conductor wishes to repeat a passage, the pianist must try to anticipate what bar number or rehearsal number is involved and be ready to play the notes for the choir. These are best played slowly and firmly from the bass line up so that the tonality is confirmed. Nothing we do at the keyboard should in any way interrupt or divert the flow and focus of a rehearsal. The conductor will have a plan of action – and probably a deadline to achieve – and the pianist’s responsibility is to assist in this process.
Matters of chorister discipline and concentration may also need to be addressed (there is never time for enough rehearsal so every minute must count). The pianist must always play strongly and confidently so that the whole choir can hear, even if there are a thousand singers (and it can happen). There is no room for delicate nuances. The whole choir needs to hear the piano being played with an impeccable and totally reliable sense of rhythm, pulse and tempo.
At times it may be appropriate to play softly or not at all, if we feel the choir is becoming too dependent on the piano for pitch, dynamics or tempo. In the performance, each chorister has to be totally beholden to the conductor. It is never too early for this to be made clear to them, ideally well before they find themselves on the Sydney Opera House stage under lights!
Coaching in Partnership
As with the opera repetiteur, it is essential that the choir pianist works with the conductor at all times. The choir is being trained by two professional musicians working together to build a solid foundation for the final performance. Together they establish a professional standard of preparation and expect nothing less from the choir.
In many cases there will be sectional rehearsals, taken by both the choir pianist and the conductor - perhaps with each working from the keyboard. This will apply particularly in complex works that demand meticulous attention to detail in both preparation and performance. The choir is also perhaps sight-reading at this stage and therefore almost totally dependent on the piano. At the same time, the conductor may well be experimenting with tempos, trying to catch the eye of the choristers, listening for mistakes and ensemble issues - or in fact totally lost! The choir pianist has to accomplish a delicate balancing act to hold it all together.
I can recall one occasion when a conductor stopped the whole rehearsal to express his concern that one of the altos was knitting!
Introducing the Orchestra
When the groundwork is completed, the choir pianist starts to introduce the choristers to the complete score – vocal and instrumental. The full rhythmic and harmonic environment surrounding the singers may prove unexpected and disturbing for them. The pianist’s responsibility is to gradually introduce the orchestral accompaniment, while being vigilant in case rescue missions become necessary. As the choir becomes more confident, the pianist can hopefully introduce the full orchestral part and stop just “note-bashing”.
In an a cappella section, the orchestra disappears altogether (as in the final Libera Me section of the Verdi Requiem when the soprano soloist and the choir sing totally unaccompanied). The pianist must assist the choristers as necessary in early rehearsals but must also make sure they are aware that there will be no accompaniment in the performance.
I once worked with a conductor in preparation for the annual performance of Handel's Messiah. He announced to the choir at the first rehearsal that he liked a “brisk Messiah”. The performance was a bit of a challenge, but at least everyone got home early to wrap their Christmas presents!
Once the choir pianist is channelling the full orchestra (as an opera repetiteur would also do) the complete musical work begins to emerge and the piano’s role changes yet again. The piano actually becomes the orchestra and the pianist should be familiar with the composer’s orchestration (this may also be indicated to a limited extent in the piano reduction). The dynamics and the mix of orchestral timbres are difficult to achieve on a piano, but marvellous things can be achieved. The full string section does not sound the same as the brass section and solo passages do not rival a full orchestra tutti.
At this stage, rehearsals can be an exhilarating experience for both the pianist and choir, as the work begins to take shape. The choir pianist’s keyboard technique, sense of historical style, imagination and control of colour and dramatic impact will be taxed to the limit. Every means must be called upon to create the proportions of an orchestral texture. This can be a great experience for all concerned!
A visiting conductor was conducting the final rehearsal for a concert. As the choir was singing, he placed a handkerchief on his head and was annoyed to find that many choristers did not notice or respond to this bizarre behaviour. He had made his point.
Often the choir's musical director will be replaced by a guest conductor for the performance and a few of the piano rehearsals. Some of them are experienced choral conductors, some think they are experienced choral conductors and some are not experienced choral conductors at all! In these final rehearsals, the choral pianist needs to assess the situation and act accordingly to support the choir.
However, choristers must be made aware that their first responsibility is to the conductor, not to the orchestra which will be right in front of them. The choir must follow the conductor’s beat (no matter how far away he may be standing), not the sound they will hear from the orchestra. In these final rehearsals the choir pianist may feel it appropriate to be less supportive of the choir, in order to remind choristers to be more self-reliant, to watch and to listen. A well-trained choir is one that can confidently succeed in any concert situation, with any orchestra and with any conductor.
I once worked with a conductor who appeared to have no visible beat or established technique at all. The advice I was offered was to "watch for a few bars, estimate the tempo, then play at that speed, and he and the choir will follow you”. This was wise counsel and I survived the rehearsal unscathed!
In at the Finish
One of the great joys of being a choir pianist (as for an opera repetiteur) is occasionally to take part in an actual performance, rather than sitting unnoticed in the audience (albeit with a complimentary ticket and perhaps a brief mention on the printed program). In Baroque repertoire, for example, there will be a continuo part for harpsichord or chamber organ. In works such as the Bach Passions the continuo is crucial to the dramatic flow of the score. In such works, there may also be vocal solos in which a pianist can make use of their collaborative performance skills, in chamber music combinations with voice or obbligato instruments.
In the best performances, these sections are not conducted. In works like Orff’s Carmina Burana there are two pianos in the orchestra and in Stravinsky’s Les Noces there are four pianos, with a percussion ensemble. Similarly, there is an extensive piano role in Wesley-Smith’s Boojum!, piano parts in David Fanshaw’s African Sanctus and the Andrew Lloyd Webber Requiem and a piano duet accompaniment for the Brahms Liebeslieder Waltzer. There are many other examples. Hopefully, after all the hours spent assisting with the training of the choir, the faithful choral pianist will be considered qualified enough to be offered such performance opportunities.
Once I received a score from a visiting international conductor for a major performance. I was told that the score had been annotated by him with details of dynamics, tempos, articulation, etc. As the local choral trainer on this occasion, I had simply to supervise all the choristers as they wrote these instructions into their scores and learnt them before Maestro arrived. Perhaps this was an precursor to the “virtual choirs” we have had to endure during the pandemic.
To embark on a career as a choral pianist is a very worthy professional decision, but only if the pianist is permitted to use their technical, musical and collaborative skills to full advantage in the training of choirs and in performances with choirs. The choral pianist is not “just the pianist” any more than the orchestra is “just the orchestra”. A well-trained choir pianist can be an invaluable, interactive partner with both the choir and the conductor in the realisation of choral masterpieces which choirs, orchestras and audiences have treasured for centuries.
These attributes are closely aligned with those of the opera repetiteur. I am therefore suggesting a more correct description for any pianist working with a choir would be “Choral Repetiteur”. This term implies the requirement of musicality and skills in applied performance, choral coaching and collaborative ensemble, not simply the ability to play the piano. Only if this is recognised will such positions attract musicians of the highest calibre, ensuring the survival and nurture of some of the greatest music ever composed.
David G. Miller has worked with choirs since he was at high school. Over a period of more than thirty years he was the pianist for the Sydney University Musical Society, the Bruckner-Mahler Choir in London and the Sydney Philharmonia Choir. When he retired from his position with Philharmonia, the board nominated him for a Queen’s Birthday Honour (awarded in 1995) and appointed him a Life Member of the Society. In 1996, he was invited to address the World Choral Music Symposium in Sydney on the role of the choral pianist.