Advertise on ChoralNet 
ChoralNet logo
The mission of the ACDA is to inspire excellence in choral music through education, performance, composition, and advocacy.

Conducting Pärt Magnificat

My choir and I are working on Arvo Pärt's Magnificat.  I have experimented with conducting it two ways: either indicating all the internal pulses with my stick or simply counting silently on the long notes.  I am not particularly happy with either solution.  Neither one seems very musical. Does anyone have some other suggestions, please?
Replies (8): Threaded | Chronological
on April 12, 2011 2:51pm
Indicate only the music and forget how he wrote it.  I hope that doesnt' sound too silly the way I wrote it.  No tuba player is counting, so no one cares where the beats are, sojust show the phrases?
on April 12, 2011 4:18pm
I would definitely NOT conduct the internal pulses.  Rather, show the motion of the phrase in your conducting.  Keep your gesture moving and free (while you silently count!) to encourage the singers' movement of air and phrase.  Use of the melding gesture should work nicely here.
As I recall, Pärt sets the music with each word receiving a "measure" and each word determining it's own pitch and rhythm.  The rythms are derived from word stress - the stressed syllable of each word receives the longest rhythmic value (with the exception of the ends of sentences, which sometimes recieve even longer values.)  So, the important thing is to move the phrase forward and bring out the word and phrase stress and release.  Counting each beat would be counterproductive if this is your intent - just keep motion in your gesture.
Best of luck with this incredible piece of music!
on April 13, 2011 2:52am
Hi - it is a wonderful piece, isn't it? It is tricky, I think, because the rhythmic patterns don't seem consistent. The most successful way I've found is by gently indicating the quarter-note beats with one hand (which helps to reduce mis-counting by the singers) and the word stresses with the others. I emailed a colleague of mine, who is a friend of Pärt's and an internationally acknowledged interpreter of his music, and his advice was "ignore all the markings and do what feels musically right! Try and imagine you have composed it and follow that feeling, a little bit as if it were plainsong. Carry over where you feel it needs to, and pause where you feel the inclination to do so." My choir is 16/18 singers, and it may be that with a larger group you need to take a more direct approach, but I have found that with my small group less is often more!
Another more controversial way with the piece is by re-barring it completely, to allow more 'standard' conducting patterns. But I suspect that that suggestion has several cans of worms in its vicinity......
on April 13, 2011 10:56am
I too have enjoyed performing this composition, and my choir had the opportunity to perform it in the ancient St. Lawrence Church in Lohja, Finland where Pärt made at least one of his recordings.  I agree with those who choose not to conduct the quarter note pulse all the time.  To do so would make it difficult to shape a phrase and keep a long, beautiful line moving.  Overall, the conducting style for this piece is very much like conducting chant. It appears to me that Pärt has shown the relative importance of syllables by giving the accented or stressed ones (and phrase endings) greater length.  I doubt his intention was to be literal or metrically precise about this, at least up to the middle of page 5.
At “dispersit superbos” there are two “bars” with five quarter notes each.  My choice was to show the first three quarter notes (quite small gestures), one gesture for the next two beats (sop I & II half note), and a small quarter for the last beat.  I used similar gestures in all the non homorhythmic bars.  Regarding the use of patterns, I think this make sense, but again, not necessarily in the traditional sense.  These things are challenging to describe using words, but I will try to convey my thoughts.  Down beats are down, last beats (regardless of whether it’s beat 1, 2, or 7, etc.) move toward the center from the right and prepare for the next down beat or new group of beats.  For example, page 6, bottom system, bars 2-4:  I chose to conduct two 2-patterns in each bar.  The first 2-pattern was for the first two quarters (quite small), and the first beat of the second 2-pattern (beginning on the third quarter of each bar) rebounded to the right further and more slowly (a larger beat), and the second beat of the two-pattern was for the last quarter of the bar (moving in to the center, and rebounding up, preparing for the next downbeat).  Of course, of these three bars, 2 & 4 have a longer first beat of the second 2-pattern in the bars since there are three quarters in that beat rather than two in bar 3. 
The effect should be one of timelessness.  The conducting should be simple and show only the precision necessary in those few places in order to convey the mystical quality of this music.  Gestures should be as linear as possible for musical reasons in addition to encouraging the consistent and energetic movement of air by the singers.  I would choose not to use a baton for this piece.
on April 14, 2011 9:58am
Thanks for all the advice!  It's very helpful.
on April 15, 2011 6:47am
I actually tried an entirely different approach based your advice yesterday in rehearsal.  The results were astoundingly more cohesive and musical!  Thanks.
on July 20, 2015 7:10pm
Hi Nancy, What kind of choir performed the Magnificat? How did your performance go? I am considering the work for our community choir's December concert (25 - 30 singers, some pretty good readers and a very motivated group). A very helpful forum post!
John Newell
on July 21, 2015 2:58am
I agree with the suggested solutions. I have found that thinking a minim pulse with 3/4 being the exception allows for the best flow, independent of what you actually conduct. A crotchet pulse tends to kill the music. I believe the goal is a controlled swimmingness or floatiness, where the listener has no idea what the pulse of the music is. 
  • You must log in or register to be able to reply to this message.