I have a feeling that I don’t write often about conducting, but since I recently delivered some conducting performances that I was vaguely satisfied with, I’ll expound a bit:
For one thing, it’s always great to conduct from memory. It’s hard and it takes long hours to imbibe the score to the point where you can ethically ditch the music, but I like it for a number of reasons: 1) it allows you to be more connected and attentive to the performers, 2) it forces you to learn the music to your maximum capacity and 3) it’s fun.
[I have a secret fourth reason for memorizing masterpieces: since my goal as a composer is to write masterpieces, it’s the best way to learn my craft.]
Memorizing choral-orchestral works is particularly challenging, and this is only the third time I’ve done it with a major, multi-movement work. The first time was with Vaughan Williams’ Dona nobis pacem, a piece I did not choose to conduct, nor would I ever, because I don’t particularly care for it*. But I learned it unto memorization because a) I wanted to give the piece the benefit of the doubt and b) I was doing it with young musicians and I wanted to be able to give them my full attention. The next time I did it was with the Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”.
Learning the Dona nobis pacem was particularly challenging because I don’t much care for Whitman, and make no mistake: if you conduct a vocal work from memory, you’d better start by learning every last word of the text.
With the Mozart Requiem, lots of the text was straightforward, because it’s part of the regular mass: Kyrie eleison, Sanctus sanctus, sanctus Benedictus qui venit in nomine domini, Agnus dei, etc. But the weird thing about the requiem is the “Dies irae.“
The “Dies irae” is a genuinely weird text. It’s what’s known as a “sequence,” which is a genre that essentially grew out of vamping. (“Vamping” as in stretching a musical phrase to cover stage action, not as in Hard-hearted Hannah.) Sometime around the 12th century, some person or person wrote this spooky-ooky 18-stanza poem all about hellfire and damnation, and the church elders were like, “hmm the mass for the dead needs some spicing up… let’s go with it!”
The “Dies irae” has proven to be catnip for composers, of course, since it’s full of earthquakes, trumpets, infernal flames, tremendous kings, and tearful pleas.
You’d think it would be fun to memorize a text like this, but it’s kind of not, because the order of these various images follows no logical progression. It’s not like you can memorize it a stanza at a time by thinking “ok, first the fires, then the floods, then the king, then the queen of heaven” etc.
But hey, it definitely improved my understanding of the Latin case endings, so that’s a win!
*With each passing year, I become more and more convinced that Herbert Howells was the only truly great 20th century English composer. It’s a shame that nobody knows his music, but if you’ve always sort of liked RVW and Britten but felt that they were lacking something important, you might want to look into his stuff.