This subject seems apt right now. The voices in this music have no words, which is a perfect expression for a time when we don’t know what’s to come. Of course we never do, but it’s especially noticeable when we’re locked down during a pandemic.
Most but not all of the examples I’ve come across are joyful so for the most part this is likely to make you smile rather than frown.
I don’t know if it’s fair to call it a trope because I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone write about the topic. Composers may write grand & complex pieces employing their skill, whereas these pieces are among the simplest you will ever encounter. That might help explain the popularity of these pieces.
You wouldn’t expect Verdi’s 1851 opera Rigoletto and the 1939 MGM film The Wizard of Oz to have much in common. Yes they both have orchestral music as well as musical numbers sung by men and women, including choral numbers. But the similarity I wanted to highlight is their use of the wordless chorus.
We might not expect to find such a thing in Rigoletto.
But when we come to the emotional highlight of the work in the last act, where Gilda sacrifices her life to save her lover, and the storm’s winds seem to be speaking to us with the wordless voices of the chorus? The music has become something else, no longer merely oom-pah accompaniments for great singers. At the very least it is melodrama.
Notice how we have the high woodwinds to suggest lightning, the quivering lower strings to suggest thunder, and the chorus suggesting something else without words. It’s melodramatic in the best sense.
I love it. But is it so very different from the Wizard of Oz opening (1939)? You’ll hear a wordless chorus near the beginning and again roughly a minute in.
I’m inclined to think of this as something we might call symbolist rather than impressionist, invoking hidden connections, indeed suggesting something spiritual and/or metaphysical.
Let’s look at the greatest hits of wordless chorus.
Near the end of the 19th century Claude Debussy included a chorus in the third of his Nocturnes for orchestra Sirénes. This version allows you to see the singers.
The most popular example in this list –other than Wizard of Oz—would have to be Puccini’s “Humming Chorus”, one of several moments the composer gives us to offset the desperately tragic arc of the story of Madama Butterfly (1904).
Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé is a ballet premiered in 1912. The performance you hear if you follow this link is especially effective because the chorus is treated like an instrument, often so subtle that you can’t tell that anyone is singing.
Holst gave “Neptune the Mystic” an especially magical chorus to finish his Planets suite (1916)
Film composer Danny Elfman might be the most prolific user of the wordless chorus, a regular feature in several of his scores. Notice how he begins Scrooged. (1988)
It has become such a regular part of Elfman’s toolkit as to almost be cliché: except he does it so well. Maybe it’s corny but how can you resist when Elfman wears his heart on his sleeve this way in Edward Scissorhands (1990)?
He’s far subtler in Good Will Hunting (1998). Are they real voices or synth? I can’t tell.
I won’t ask “who are they” because we don’t know. What do they mean?
Who knows, perhaps something non-specific to connote intelligence or something mysterious, something unfathomable. They’re not giving us any words, yet these can be among the most meaningful moments. How exactly, and what do such moments signify? I suppose the short answer would be to say “it depends” on the context. Perhaps the most important thing to recognize is that there is no verbal signification even as we have the presence: of voices, persons, perhaps angels.
They remind me of how much I miss live music, live performers.
Even without words.
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