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It is a truth universally acknowledged that any musical group, be they amateur, professional or somewhere in between, will find inappropriate humor in their music.
Whether it be responding to a conductor’s instructions to begin at rehearsal letter R with a piratical “Arr!” or snickering over the French word for happiness (bonheur), humor is a natural outgrowth of the camaraderie that comes from making music with others.
Laughter enlivens the occasionally tedious process of polishing pieces to performance standard and aids recall and memorization.
Of course, laughter can also be disruptive. It can even prevent the production of sound entirely, especially for singers.
So when members of the San Diego Master Chorale, a group I have the pleasure of singing with, sight-read Ralph Vaughan Williams’s “Wedding Chorus” in preparation for a concert with the San Diego Youth Symphony’s chamber orchestra, Ben Jonson’s text proved to be something of a hurdle.
The text, which comes from a set of romantic poems, began in a manner befitting the subject, the mythological grace Charis.
See the Chariot at hand here of Love,
Wherein my Lady rideth!
Each that draws is a swan or a dove,
And well the car Love guideth.
The piece continued as a paean to feminine grace, and we sang with focused reverence — until we arrived at an unfamiliar word:
Have you seen but a bright lily grow
Before rude hands have touched it?
Have you marked but the fall of the snow
Before the soil hath smutched it?
Scattered giggles followed the word “smutched.” But that was only the beginning.
Have you felt the wool of the beaver,
Or swan’s down ever?
Or have smelt the bud of the brier,
Or the nard in the fire?
A guffaw rang out, followed by others.
Or have tasted the bag of the bee?
By this point, even the accompanist was laughing.
O so white, O so soft, O so sweet is she!
Despite being an initial read-through, the chorale did an impressive job of observing the quiet dynamic marking at the end. Of course, this was partially because many of us were laughing too hard to sing.
When the merriment had died down, the conductor, Gary McKercher, looked over the top of his glasses at the singers and said, “This is a beautiful text by Ben Jonson.” This, of course, sent us off once more.
Thankfully, repetition quieted many of the giggles. After one rehearsal, several singers admitted to having to employ alternative strategies to keep from laughing.
Bass section leader Tim McLellan, who shared the fact that a “nard” is a plant-based aromatic incense, said that one option for avoiding inappropriate laughter is to substitute different words.
One of the sopranos expressed relief that the “bag of the bee” line sits high in soprano range, so precise diction isn’t possible. One of the tenors shook his head and said he wasn’t even going to try to sing the words “wool of the beaver” because he knew that laughter was inevitable. All agreed that strategic positioning of the music folder was a potential backup strategy.
It is worth noting that the troublesome text was originally set by Vaughan Williams as part of an opera that features Shakespeare’s famous debaucher John Falstaff, so it’s likely that the composer was well aware of how Jonson’s earnest poetry sounded to modern ears. One of the wonderful things about his setting is that Vaughan Williams knew that earthy text and sublime music are in no way mutually exclusive.
During the performance, the “wool of the beaver” line passed with nary a snicker, thanks in part to preparation, but also thanks to music’s ability to transcend our best efforts to smutch it.
The San Diego Master Chorale performs next on March 10.