WITH THE VOICE OF SINGING:
The Choirs of Hayes Fuhr
(Selections from an Essay by Tom Fuhr )1
What I write is based on two sources of information – my personal experience singing under my father’s direction, and his book, Fundamentals of Choral Expression, published by the University of Nebraska Press in 1944.
My father recruited students with musical talents as assiduously as coaches recruit football players for their teams. So we did have remarkable solo voices in the choirs, but even when we added other ordinary voices like mine, the results were extraordinary…The sound was so pure, so exquisitely produced, in such perfect harmony, that it must have seemed that every voice was unquestionably a gift of God. My readers are probably saying at this point that it was never like that! "Tom has not sung in one of those choirs for sixty years, and his memory is colored by what he thought was happening, rather than by the actual performance." Yet I am sure that there are many former singers who would confirm what my father always believed: "that the sound of forty well-trained and well-conducted voices was more beautiful than that which any one individual could possibly produce by himself."
No one voice, even from the finest soloist, was permitted to stand out. What the audience heard was a single voice produced by forty throats. How could this unified voice produce harmony in such a way that the sound was divided into four parts? It was something of a miracle, but to accomplish such a feat, there must be flawless diction, togetherness of attack on every phrase, a blending of the sound of all voices, and great tonal beauty to effect a sound which seems to emulate a single voice, coming from the stage. It can happen; it did happen; it was a trademark of the choirs my father conducted…
My father abhorred what he called "mezzo-forte singing." (If "forte singing" implied a loud and extra-firm tonal quality, then I suppose "mezzo-forte singing" must have indicated that a somewhat less forceful sound was desired.)… However, in Hayes Fuhr’s choirs, "forte singing" was not a tonal quality that was ignored. When a full tone was called for, those forty voices could shake the chairs on which the listeners were sitting. Nonetheless, this thunderous sound, brilliantly executed and wonderfully controlled, was not sustained beyond the tolerance of the audience or the good musical taste of the conductor. Inevitably, the choir eased away from the full tone, not to a mezzo-forte dynamic, but to the light floating tone that characterized Fuhr singers. And best of all, the soft or piano dynamic could be further reduced to a barely audible pianissimo that required of the audience the most intent listening if they were to catch every note, every word, and every inflection….
It can rightly be said that these choirs made a greater impact on their listeners when they were singing a beautifully sustained piano tone than when they shook the rafters with their fortissimo productions. They certainly were capable of producing the "big sound" when it was needed. They had the voices for that. But what was much more difficult, what took many more months of rehearsal, what so completely moved their audiences was the softness of their controlled pianissimo – a sound one might not believe forty voices, still singing all the notes, could possibly achieve….
Another reason that Hayes Fuhr's choir concerts were so popular with audiences had to do, not with just the production of the musical sound, but with the clear and distinct annunciation of the text. Listeners could understand what they were hearing. Unfortunately, some choirs that produce beautiful tone quality suffer so much from faulty diction that their audiences might just as well be listening to songs sung in a foreign language…. During the years I was a member of my father’s choirs, we were not, except on rare occasions, singing in another language. Our texts were almost exclusively in English. Did the audiences know this? As long as my father was conducting, they certainly did….
My father spent a great deal of time putting together the types of concerts that would appeal, not only to trained musicians, but also to casually interested members of the audiences. The first sections of his programs tended to present many well-known classics, the second ones to provide a wider selection of more nearly contemporary music, and the final sections to share with the audiences some delightful folk songs. If there were people in attendance who had little interest in so-called "traditional" choir offerings, they certainly brightened-up during the last part of the concerts….
How well were our tour concerts received during the years I was a part of the ensembles? A Nebraska newspaper had this to say about the 1939 touring choir: "Pure diction, superb tonal quality, colorful phrasing, faultless intonation, exquisite technique, plus an artistic and spiritual interpretation – these are emblematic of Hayes M. Fuhr, the director, and of his choir." (The Lexington Clipper.)
And finally, how did my father feel about my having been a member of his choirs for so many years? In my copy of his book he wrote on April 21, 1944: "To our Tom, whose companionship in and out of choral adventures and whose love of good music in all its forms have been an unfailing inspiration.”
¹Tom Fuhr, the son of Hayes Fuhr, sang in his father’s choir for eight years – four while still in high school and four while a student at Hastings College.