by Katie Bent, alto

“…was that right?”

The first time we “sang” Schoenberg’s De Profundis, that question was met with a whole lot of nervous laughter. We’d made it through all of seven bars, and even the most confident readers among us weren’t sure if we’d sung any of the right notes, much less if we’d sung them at the right time. For a group accustomed to picking up new music quickly, the experience was downright mortifying — yet simultaneously electrifying.

Arnold Schoenberg’s De Profundis, published in 1950, is a six-part a cappella setting of Psalm 130. The piece uses 12-tone serialism, a compositional technique in which all twelve notes of the chromatic scale are given roughly equal importance. In this particular work, the twelve tones are ordered and divided into two discrete groups of six called hexachords.

SFCA has been preparing De Profundis for our March concert, From Shtetl to Metropolis: Jewish Musical Diaspora. For some members of the choir, like ’17-’18 newcomer Hsuanwei Fan, the piece is altogether a new endeavor. For others like SFCA veteran Fred Matthews, who sang the piece with the Choral Artists more than 10 years ago, it marks a chance to re-explore this rich work. Below, both tenors present thoughts on Schoenberg’s final completed composition.

How would you explain this piece to someone who hasn’t encountered Schoenberg’s serialist work before?

Hsuanwei: This is one of very few atonal pieces I’ve sung, and it’s my first Schoenberg, so I can’t pretend to be an expert, but my impression is that he’s following a long tradition of writing praise music, but completely deconstructing previous ideas about how things should sound and what can sound “majestic.” The music can be jarring or dissonant, but it can also really wow the audience. It’s powerful.

Fred: To me, this work is all about the text. Of all the psalms, Psalm 130  – “Out of the depths I cry to you” – comes the closest to expressing the despair that so many people feel. It’s not victorious, it’s heart-wrenching, and Schoenberg pairs this cry of anguish with unfamiliar musical elements like Sprechstimme [spoken singing] and these 12-tone elements that aren’t part of the common practice. The effect is very moving. It’s one of the most instantly effective, graspable text settings in music history.   

What is the rehearsal process like for a piece like this?

Hsuanwei: 90% of the time, you’re not sure you’re singing the right notes…

Fred: …but you have to open your mouth and take a stab anyway! The “shot in the dark” method, really. [both laugh]

Hsuanwei: But in all seriousness, it’s more methodical than I would have expected, much like solving a massive, difficult jigsaw puzzle.We started by learning the two hexachords, practicing them until each arrangement of those six notes felt natural. We also broke up the piece into sections, both in the sense that we focused on a few pages at a time and in that each individual section took responsibility for mastering and shaping their lines.

Fred: When I’m practicing on my own, I use whatever help I can – a keyboard, my knowledge of intervals, careful markings on the score so I can figure out where to get each note. Honestly it’s everything I would do for any piece, just more of it. Things really get difficult when all the parts come together. Within one hexachord, there’s a sense of familiar territory, that you’re safe. But when the hexachords sound simultaneously, it’s like one is bearing down on you, like the roof is crashing down on you, and that’s part of what makes the setting so effective and beautiful — but it’s challenging.

Fred, what is the biggest difference between the way you approach or experience the piece this time around vs. the first time you prepared it with SFCA?

Fred: It’s like an old friend this time – I’ve been wanting to revisit it for a long time. I relate to the text; it means something to me spiritually. A lot of the music SFCA chooses scratches a spiritual itch for me, actually. Religious music can be merely pretty and utilitarian, but De Profundis connects totally. It’s the right musical style for this text, like a glove, a perfect wedding of text and music.

In terms of how it’s different on a second learning, I’m actually more daunted this time around. I thought the second take would be a piece of cake, but there are layers of complexity to the piece you’re constantly discovering as you work on it. It’s the kind of piece you could prepare forever and still find something new every time you look at it.

Hsuanwei, what’s the biggest difference between your understanding of the piece now and when you first started practicing it?

Hsuanwei: At first I was super intimidated. To be perfectly honest, I thought “why would anyone write this? It’s so unpleasant.” But after working on it with a group of amazing artists, I’m starting to see how this piece is really a spiritual work. Even though my personal interpretation of a higher power has always been more pleasant, more kind and gentle, it makes sense that this text contains moments that are beautiful in a more jarring or awe-inspiring way. The person who wrote this psalm, their experience of God could contain all those things. For it to be interpreted by different listeners to be many things, that’s amazing. It speaks to the depth of meaning in the text.

What would you tell the audience to listen for at the concert?

Hsuanwei: Listen for the unsung lines. They’re as much a part of the music as the sung parts. Listen for the intensity, and the moments of respite, the space between the notes – it’s all part of the effect.

Fred: Imagine that the choir is a Greek chorus. We’re declaiming a text. Instead of focusing on the absence of familiar elements, let yourself take in the dramatic impact, the warmth and beauty of the chords that are going by. They’re beautiful in a way you’ve never heard chords be beautiful – not in a familiar way. If you can, tap into some of that deep emotional longing that you may have for things to be right in the world, and listen from that place.

The Choral Artists will perform “De Profundis” in all three performances of our upcoming concert, From Shtetl to Metropolis: Jewish Musical Diaspora. You can find more information about these concerts here.