Friday, December 21, 2007

Adeste fideles, laeti triumphantes

Music is always out of tune. Surprised? Well, if it's played by modern instruments, it is.

Some guy named Bach proved that, if you detune every instrument a little bit, you could play in any key. Previously, you had to tune instruments to specific keys: a clavichord tuned to G would sound like cats screwing if you played in E flat.

The point is that the only place one hears precisely in-tune music is a cappella vocals, because the singers, often without being aware, fudge or cheat every chord into precise tune. There is a tension to equal-tempered tuning that is absent in a cappella music, and it's refreshing to hear, it's almost like being able to take a deep breath for the first time.

I heard a recording of "Adeste Fidelis" by the Vienna Boys Choir in my 4th grade music class, and it changed my life. This wasn't opera, the posturing heavy-metal of the classical vocal world. This was straight-up singing, as pure as a human voice can be. No excessive art or artifice, no obvious tools or mechanics, no sounding forced. It was sounds like I had never heard, voices devoted to the melody and not the style.

It is said that the unchanged male voice is the most beautiful there is. While this is probably a wholly sexist viewpoint which has led in past centuries to horrible practices (castrati), this recording, of pre-pubescent males, was truly glorious.

Here is the Vienna Boys Choir in 1977 singing "Adeste Fidelis"

Here's the same vintage of the VBC singing "Maria Wiegenlied" (Maria's Lullaby); this is rock'n'roll: