Let me get the bragging out of the way first. The music we sang is not performed often in this country, and one reason is it's way over the head of most choirs. We sank quite often on the way to learning it. As with any baroque music there are lots of notes...lots and LOTS of notes...and the notes are arranged in ways that require mental and physical agility to perform. French baroque adds to that the requirement of lightness, airiness, a dancing quality. Not only do you sing all the twiddly bits, but it must sound not just easy (as it must with Bach) but charming. So we sang this difficult music, and we sang it very well, and the baroque orchestra we had (using period instruments like theorbo and hautbois) played brilliantly, and the audience were gobsmacked. Many of them had never heard these pieces and they came out of it happy and excited and chattering.
So. What was it like to sing it? It was what great music can be, when it all comes together. Performing great music requires--and gives--everything in the human experience: intellect, emotions, physical skills, social skills, all fully exercised simultaneously to a common goal. It's why making music is such a good metaphor for health, for healthy social interaction, for attempting and achieving other goals than a musical performance--and the difficulty of doing it right, in even one part of your life, for even the few months it takes to learn, rehearse, and perform at that level, explains why there's so little harmony and unity elsewhere.
Consider what had to happen. At the end of January, we finally saw the scores. Choral scores (for those of you not in choirs) are complex, multi-factored codes from which singers are supposed to produce music. ..not just a sequence of notes, because every mark on the score instructs singers on other things--the tempo, the loudness, where to crescendo and decrescendo, where to slow or speed up from the original tempo or return to it, where to change keys, whether to sing "legato" (smoothly connecting notes) or "staccato" (cleanly separating notes) or any point in between, where to sing specified "ornaments" (such as trills), where to repeat sequences, whether to sing "brightly" or "darkly,"--what mood the composer intended. In some works, brief "inserts" by a subset of soloists may pop in for a few bars; the choral singer must instantly recognize when this changes (colored high-lighters are a big help, if the singer owns the score. I buy scores for myself so I can add any markings I wish.) In addition, the conductor will have his/her own marks to add (pencils are de rigeur in rehearsal) which refine the printed marks, and often (as in this case) a pronunciation guide. (None of us had sung in baroque French before, and three or four different scholars argued over pronunciation for weeks while we struggled to learn to sing trills--something usually reserved for soloists but demanded of the choir in these works.)
Each part (soprano, alto, tenor, bass are the typical ones, but may be divided further) has its own line; a page of choral score will have a multitude of lines with the highest voice at the top and the lower ones below...and below that, some indication of the accompaniment. The page is densely covered with lines and notes and markings...novice singers other than sopranos and basses have to figure out which interior line is theirs, and be able to jump to the correct line in the second half of the page and the top of the next page.
Any choral singing, however simple, requires being able to sing on pitch (which means being able to *hear* pitches accurately), sing notes of the right duration at the right time. As training advances, singers learn to match not just pitches but vowel sounds, undoing their native regional dialects whatever those are. They learn to "shape" a note (so, for instance, you never just sing a note the same volume all the way through...you learn to start soft then swell, start louder than fade, "round" a note by starting softer, swelling, then fading, start loud and instantly go soft, etc.) In addition, singers learn to sing "with expression"...adding emotional tones to the voice no matter which notes are being sung, which requires feeling just enough of that emotion for it to leak into the voice and not enough to turn off the brain that should be keeping the performance on track. (This is harder than it sounds. Choirs readily get "carried away" by strong emotional parts of a work, and this does not produce the desired effect. And a singer who gets carried away may choke up with emotion and be unable to sing at all.)
A singer must be able perform the music in all its complexity while not being drawn off by other singers singing their parts--or others in his/her section making mistakes. This, again, is hard to learn. Some people cannot stand beside another section and sing their own part; others cannot trust themselves if the person beside them makes a mistake. Choirs tend to be formed of little cells of followers around one singer they think of as stronger--a leader. When the leader errs, a whole section may fall into confusion. But the best conductors insist that every singer be a leader...that no one can afford to be that tenth-beat behind their chosen leader on entrances, for instance. That blurs the clarity of the sound.
Then there's the mundane side of things...singers must have the commitment, the discipline, to show up at rehearsals, work during rehearsals, do what it takes between rehearsals to arrive at the next one ready to go. Just showing up counts a lot--the time wasted by those who have skipped, who have to stop and ask questions because they weren't there, who come in late and have to ask what page we're on, who are chatting and not listening so they miss which bit comes next, who forgot their score or their pencil and need to borrow...that time is lost, missing from rehearsals. Choirs benefit from the dependable, the prompt, the prepared, the alert, those willing to concentrate on the work at hand. Individual singers must be committed to sing when they don't feel great, when their feet hurt, when their noses tickle, when their throats might be a little raw, when they've just been fired, when their significant other just got a job 400 miles away. Highly trained soloists can stroll in and sing very well just by sight-reading, but choirs are not made up of highly-trained soloists except at invitational music festivals. More than that, choirs need to sing together awhile to balance the voices, determine what range of sounds a choir can make. So if voices are missing, are not reliably there, the true choral sound never quite emerges.
When it comes together, though, it's an incredible rush...you feel alive, energized by the music you're singing, from toe-tip to the ends of your hair, from the inside of the brain out. Worth the rehearsal times, the commute to and from rehearsals, the time alone with a piano or keyboard or listening to a CD of the music while reading the score and practicing the pronunciation. Worth the cramps in the feet, the ache in the back, and so on.
Because out there--beyond the rest of the choir, beyond the orchestra and the conductor--the beautiful sound is built, note by note, phrase by phrase, filling the space, powerful and ephemeral. It is built...it is gone...leaving nothing behind but a memory of glory. Even if recorded (and most of ours aren't) it's not the same as being there, singing it, feeling the music in every cell.