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Bilingual Choral Music: A Conversation with Maria Guinand.

International renowned choral conductor Maria Guinand shares practical tips for North American choirs in teaching and performing Latin and South American choral music.

Pearl Shangkuan [00:00:18] Hello, everyone. My name is Pearl Shangkuan. I'm the director of choral activities at Calvin University and also the music editor of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship Choral Series, published by GIA. I am very delighted to host this series with our special guests and hope that the knowledge shared in this series will help you gain useful, practical knowledge and confidence in teaching and performing bilingual choral music. Our distinguished guest today is none other than María Guinand, who comes to us from Caracas, Venezuela. In the global choral community María needs no introduction given her illustrious career all over Latin America and around the world. Her extensive professional work and humanity command the deepest respect and admiration of conductors globally. I often say that I want to be María Guinand when I grow up. So welcome, María. 

María Guinand [00:01:24] Thank you very much, my dear friend and colleague Pearl. I always have a great joy to work with you to share music, ideas, friendship, good food, and, of course, knowledge and teaching. I am very grateful for this invitation to talk about Spanish literature, relating especially to the sacred and liturgy, or moments of the liturgical year, but also explaining the issues that conductors and musicians should have in mind in order to be successful in this rehearsal or presentation. But also, I know that there is a lot of repertoire that we do in Latin America that is sometimes unknown. So I provide this occasion to present it to your conductors, singers, and people who are going to watch this series, to present the names and repertoires. And today it is very easy to contact and connect with these composers and to get new repertoire for a liturgy, for Christmas, and for all the beautiful moments of the liturgy for the year. 

Pearl Shangkuan [00:03:02] I want to jump in by saying that with your extensive guest teaching and conducting experience in North America, if you could also share with us some practical tips in teaching and performing that would be particularly helpful for North American choirs to do or not to do to more closely approximate the style and spirit of Latin and South American choral music. So I am more than happy to ask you to take it away, and I'm just as eager to learn from you along with all our viewers. 

María Guinand [00:03:36] Thank you, Pearl. Well, I have prepared for today a PowerPoint because I think it's easier to show all these issues. And in this PowerPoint, I have also included some repertoire of music. And at the end, we can say a few words.

So I wrote some practical and basic suggestions for the interpretation of Latin American choral music. And I have three main issues understanding the language, understanding the rhythms, and understanding that instrumental accompaniment. I think these are basic issues for music to sound right stylistically because we talk many times about performance practice of Renaissance music, baroque music, classical music, but we don't take sometimes the care of the same stylistic practice for music coming from different cultures and different parts of the world. So these are my tips.

Language: We need to think about the Spanish language. We have only five vowels that are very bright. We have different consonants, and we have a special way of accentuating words. And we need to phrase the language. So let me show you these different items that relate to language. Our vowels—we don't have a mixed vowel, so it's very clear to sing. When I say central, close, ee, ee, ee [Spanish: i, i, i], we may tend sometimes to sing “ee” (i) [as] ah [Spanish: e]. And this is something we have to correct. I have to do that also with my choir. The back—ah, ah [Spanish: a, a], very open, ah. Front: oo, oh [Spanish: u, o]. Clear. Oo, Oh. That's for singing. Sometimes when we are speaking, perhaps we say “ah, ay, ee, oh, oo. And this is not so nice because it's just too flat, too bright. So I would say more ee, eh, ahr, oh, oo [Spanish: i, e, a, o, u) as our basic vowels. Our vowels divide into strong vowels—A, E, O—and weak vowels—I, U.

We have the diphthong, which is one strong and one weak vowel together, for instance: cambiar, aullar, tienda, etc. Diphthongs cannot be separated unless we have a tilde. That is like a little accent in the weak vowel. So you see Rí-o, o-í-do, ro-cí-o, bú-ho. So here we get two syllables. And this in a poem or in a text, you should have that. If a composer knows how to write music using the Spanish language, he will not break the diphthongs unless the diphthongs are broken in the right way. For instance, in a word like the first one, cambiar [cam-byar], which is to change; cambiar, we could not say “cam-bee-ar” because it's wrong. It doesn't have an accent. It is just two syllables: cam-byar. So there are diphthongs that can be broken and others that cannot be broken. And this is structurally in the language. Hiatus, we have two strong vowels together. are all equal, and the hiatus we break. The two strong vowels can go apart. So em-ple-ar, so three syllables. This is essential to understand the count of syllables in the Spanish language. The elision, which is also very important for singing, is a transformational figure consisting of a single unit formed by the last syllable of a word ending in a vowel and the first of the following starting with a vowel or an h. It is taken into account for the development of metrics in text verse, for example, pongo en which we think is three syllables pon-go en, but in reality is two because we have an elision between “go” and “en,” pon-go_en, yo_ha-go, not three syllables, but two, yo_ha-go; or soplo en, not three syllables, but two. o this is the elision, and this is something you have to practice with the choir because sometimes when we see the words, we don't understand that that's the way it goes. It's related to the use of vowels and the organization of vowels in the language.

Let's go to the consonants. We have twenty-two consonants, and I have and highlighted in red the consonants that I think are different in our formation, in our palate with our tongue [B, C, D, F, G, H, J, K, L, M, N, Ñ, P, Q, R, S, T, V, W, X, Y, Z]. So [B is] “beh.” The C has two different ways of pronunciation. If it's in front of a, o, or the weak vowel u, it will sound “ka”—CA-sa or CO-ro or CU-na. If it's in front of an i or an e, it will sound “ss.” For instance, CI-ne or CE-na. In Spain, the c is pronounced “th-”, but in Latin America, we will not make any difference between the c, the s and the z. It will all be soft, s, s, s, so I would say cena, or silla which is with s, or zapato, which is “shoe” which is with z. Other [consonants] are the g, the h, and the j. The g can also have two sounds. It can be “guh, guh.” Or it can be “hay.” It depends. I mean, there are many cases if the h is in front of an o or an a, it would be “go” or “gah,” or if it's in front of an -ue, it is not “gway”; it would be “gay,” or -ui would be “ghee” [hard g] unless we get a diaeresis [ü]. But the diaeresis is not too much used in Spanish song words. The j—I get asked many questions about the j. It is not [a back-of-the-throat rasp], we say it softer. It’s like just blowing the air through the palate. Then we have the ñ, which is very Spanish because España, you need the ñ—“nyeh.” And then the r. The r is rolled. We have two types of r’s. We have the single r that goes, for instance, at the end of a word: pensar [English: to think]. We wouldn't say -er. It's not -er. It’s [rolled r sound]. You have to put your tongue at the back of your teeth and roll it. And then we have the double r in the middle of a word. Dog—perro. Or the r t the beginning of a word is strong: Rosa. So that's the r. It's a beautiful consonant for singing. I love it. It's wonderful. 

Then we spoke already about the t, the s and the [day/tay]. The [day/tay] is not t-t-t. We don't have that percussive sound. It's a muted sound: techo, tecla. So the Spanish language is, let’s say, it's very clean to sing. We don't have so many issues like in English or in French, for instance. I think it's similar, of course, to the Italian language because it's a Romance language, very different from the French vowel system and similar in some aspects to German and of course to Latin because we come from there. I think something that we have to explain, but to decide not to explain too long, it's the type of syllables, accentuations, because that is what gives flow to the music. We have syllables that are tónicas, that have an accent, and syllables that are átonas, that do not have an accent. For instance, you see here in red, you see the tonic mesa, azul, cantar, corazón. But if you say me-sa a-zul, can-tar, cor-a-zón, the same accent to all syllables, then music sounds very heavy. It doesn't get the right flow that comes from the language. In the tendencies to assign stress, we have words that have the accent at the end—caracol, verdad, camión, instructor, corazón, pintor—that is a grammar class that I will not go into that now. But just for you to know that some of those syllables, we have an accent so it's easier to identify. Others will not because of the way the grammar works.

Other syllables fall into the penultimate syllable: piz, toro, come, carta, bil. This is the most difficult aspect of the word accentuation when singing. Because we have many, many, many cases of this type of syllable, and sometimes choirs will stress the penultimate syllable and also the last syllable, so the music stops. But if you say [vocalized rhythm], stressing the penultimate, not the last one, then the flow is different. So this is something to be very much aware of.

Then we have other cases of the accent in the ante-penultimate or even before, like teléfono, esdrújula, tarántula, cómpralas. But it is very rhythmic: alfaticamente, itilmente. So it expands the accent, and then it comes back. And for singing, this is beautiful, because that gives a natural flow in the music. For instance, I want to present to you this villancico by Francisco Guerrero. We have in the Spanish literature of sacred music, the villancico that came from Spain. They were already sacred songs, not liturgical songs. We don't have anthems or chorales. The villancicos were popular songs written in Spanish that were written in Spain by Francisco Guerrero, Juan del Encina, and these wonderful composers of the Spanish Renaissance. And those songs were, and most of the texts, relate to the Christmas season. So this is a beautiful villancico “Niño Dios de amor herido.” It talks about the child Jesus of wounded love, so soon you are in love that ye is born when you weep for love. I mean, it's so beautiful. It's so human because here is a child who is in love already and is weeping for love. So the text in Spanish, I have highlighted it in black, and you see it's a verse of eight syllables. Sometimes you would count seven. But in the syllable count of the metric of Renaissance poetry, Spanish Renaissance poetry, when you have an accent in the last syllable, that counts for two. So you see in red, I have the elisions. So Niño Dios—three syllables; de amor—five; herido. So it will go: Niño Dios de amor herido. You see? Herido, this is a word with its accent in the penultimate syllable. And then the next verse has the accent in the last syllables, and we have the accent there: Tan presto os enamoráis. And then we have Tan presto os—elision—enamoráis. Seven syllables. But because it has an accent, it adds one. So it's seven plus one. Que apenas habéis nacido, Cuando de amores lloráis. So that's the way the language works. And if the composer knows that, then he will write the music correctly. That's it. And as a conductor, then when you choose your repertoire, you have to see that. You have to really see if the accentuations of the words are where they should be. Since this is Renaissance music, this was written in parts, not in chords. So you will find different versions of these songs in CPDL, for instance. And I will present to you an edition that Alberto Grau, a composer from Venezuela, did about this song correcting—they didn't have bar lines, so many of the editions are just put 4/4 and put the bar line in 4/4. But then, in order to adapt to the flow of the music, Alberto has changed some of the bar lines, but has also added some dynamic markings to help the the conductor and the singer interpret in the right way. So let's hear this example. 

[“Niño Dios” recording]

María Guinand [00:21:54] Well, now there is another aspect of Latin American music that everybody talks about: rhythm, rhythm, rhythm. People get very worried about rhythm. I think rhythm is something that we can all understand and get to work well. There are many different patterns deriving from popular sources. I am not going to explore in this session all these different patterns. One issue that is very, very important in most music, especially from the Caribbean and Atlantic region, is the syncopation. And usually the syncopation is interesting because it breaks the repetition pattern of a 4/4, 3/4, 2/4. Usually, the syncopation comes into patterns of 4/4, 2/4, and most of the time syncopations are in the second part of the bar or in the last bit of the bar. And then the syncopation always needs to have a little distinction, a little accentuation, because the syncopation is the soul of the music. We cannot jump the syncopation. We have to make it visible. Studying rhythmic patterns and rhythmic combinations is also something very important in our work. When we get a texture with different combinations of rhythms that create a polyrhythmic pattern. We have to break it down into the different layers, the different voices, and we have to understand the pattern. And then, of course, we need that the patterns rhythmically hook together. But the hooking together does not necessarily mean that every voice is going to be accentuating on the same beat of the bar. Sometimes I may have one voice that would be the bass. . . . giving the pace. But I could have another who will be doing [a different rhythm]. So that has no accent and I can be doing [yet another rhythm]. I have the accentuation on the syncopation. So my advice is to break [up] the patterns and study the patterns in different ways. And then if the music is really very rhythmic, study the rhythm alone. Don't put together pitches, dynamics, word, and everything. No, no, no. Just get the get the rhythm going. Feeling the rhythm in the body is very important. For that, feeling the rhythm in the body is not that you are going to dismantle your body and just dance like crazy; feeling the rhythm in the body is pulse. So feel the pulse, and not only marching, not only that sense of downbeat, but just also feel the upbeat. . . . I love feeling . . . the pulse in a way that is not [heavy downbeats], but I love to feel the pulse in [lilting beats]. Soft. I just like a balancing because that will give space for the other layers of rhythm within the pulse to happen and to be recognized.

We could talk about this for a long time, but I will just show you some examples relating to this sacred music . . . Since Vatican II in 1962 and the use of vernacular languages, different proposals came of misas criollas, of Creole Masses. Of course, the misa criolla that is known all over the world is Ariel Ramirez from Argentina. But in Venezuela only this year we had a very special occasion because we had a doctor who lived at the beginning of the twentieth century who was a very humble man. He was a very spiritual man, and he helped very much the poor people especially in what they call the Spanish flu in Venezuela and other major epidemics. And for many years that doctor was named [and] was told to be somebody making miracles, helping people to heal. And finally this year, he was elevated to the category by the Vatican to the category of beato, which is before being called saint. And that was very beautiful to be able to show in the ceremony of his beatification. A lot of Masses that have been written over the years in Venezuela, are misas criollas.

So I have some examples. The recording is not perfect, is not extremely good, but I have some examples for you here. First, let's talk a little bit about dances, because the dances are the basis of the misas criollas. And these are the Chacarera, Zamba, Cueca, San Juanito, Huayno. And most of these forms are binary rhythms either written in 2/4 or 6/8 patterns, alternating with 3/4 patterns. Hemiola is always a common trait in many of these rhythms. Here are some patterns. We can have [various patterns vocalized]. And have these mixed patterns of instruments playing in the middle of the pattern. This is very much a pattern inherited from Spain, from the 6/8. We find the 6/8 from Mexico down to all the Americas, and the 3/4 in the middle. Different speeds, different instruments, different keys: in the Andes, minor keys; in the Caribbean, major keys. And even in Venezuela this 6/8 turns into a 5/8; it took away one eighth note. So the rhythm is even more interesting, and I will show you a little bit of that. So in the misa criolla by Ariel Ramirez, we find this pattern many times with different rhythmical tips inside that have to be accentuated to show if it's a Chacarera or if it's a Zamba. So we have to study a little bit about these dances.

Some of the better-known rhythms in the Caribbean are Son, Guaguancó, Salsa, Chachachá, Calypso, Cumbia, Porro, Merengue, Bolero, Danzón, Tamborera. And most of these are in 4/4, 2/4. But the main element in all these rhythms is the accentuated syncopation, especially in the weak beats of the bar. For instance, not sacred songs, but “El Guayaboso,” “Son de la loma”, that you will not hear now but you may know, have all these syncopations happening always in the eighth note of the bar. So [various rhythms vocalized]. . . . We have already in the clave with the syncopation and this will be . . . the eighth notes will be what the bombo or conga will play. But according to if it plays muted or unmuted, then it will sound as a more complex pattern than it really looks. It's because of the colors of the drums. This is a different way of writing the patterns for the Son or the Guaguancó or the Rumba. This is in 4/4 or in 12/8, so you can find these notations also different. And I write here another rhythmic pattern, the rhythmic pattern of the tango, for instance, is [vocalized rhythm]. And then you see the syncopation here on the last beat in between the third and the fourth beat, and we have the bass [vocalized rhythm]. This is very characteristic of the Tango. So these rhythms, all these rhythms, have been used in misas criollas, beautiful for liturgies. I really invite you to discover this repertoire. 

Understanding the instrumental accompaniment, not all this music can be accompanied with all instruments. Every style of music has its groups. For instance, the music from the Andes will use charango, quenas, bombo, panpipes. These are the instruments that create the color of that repertoire. Let's hear a little bit of this Ariel Ramírez recording. 

[“Misa Criolla” recording] [00:33:35] 

María Guinand [00:35:51] So the instruments . . . it's always important to find some musicians who know, who are sensible to these instruments, or at least one, because it's a style. 

So these are the instruments that accompany the Caribbean music. We have a lot of instruments here. We don't have to use them all, of course not. It depends. For instance, if we are singing music that relates to the Salsa, Guaguancó, dancing music, we will have piano and brass and we will have congas, claves, and güiro. Other types of music, for instance, if we are more into the Caribbean islands of non-Spanish speaking, we have steel drums and we have all the types of drums that are more made of steel. If we are more in the coast of Panama, Colombia, Venezuela, we will use more drums, different types of drums, and less piano and less brass, and sometimes congas and güiro. So it depends what the rhythm needs. Now from this Mass that we did for this beato in Venezuela, an “Alleluia,” it's a interlectural from Albert Hernández. He's a Venezuelan composer. He wrote a beautiful misa criolla. And because that Mass is written for choir, you can use the instruments like a cuatro (I will show you the cuatro now) and some percussion instruments. But because we had an orchestra, we asked the composers to orchestrate the music for a symphony orchestra together with the popular instruments. So you will see now the score of the “Alleluia,” and you will hear a live recording. But then I will give you also the link and then you can in YouTube see the singers and the instruments there, but I wanted you to see the score now. 

[Slide of score is shown along with audio recording.]

So we have the orchestra, and then we have also the instrumental ensemble together. You heard a 6/8, but it has a different flavor than the Chacarera. [Vocalized rhythms compared.] And this comes also from the western part of the country, and it's called a gaita . This is a rhythm typical of Venezuela for Christmastime. So I will show you now, talking about Christmas, I will show you our instruments. In Venezuela, we use very much this small guitar with four strings that is called the cuatro, the maracas, and the diatonic harp, and also the guitar. And sometimes panpipes and and charangos, but these are more of other countries. So I put here instruments that are used in villancicos and aguinaldos for Christmas. Aguinaldos is the name of a song inspired by the text of the Spanish Renaissance villancicos. We have aguinaldos that are sacred, written for celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. And these aguinaldos talk about Jesus, Mary, and the shepherds, and all the images of the Nativity. But we have other aguinaldos that talk about and celebration, about feasting, about dancing, about giving presents, about drinking, about eating. So we have in Venezuela, we have what we call aguinaldos a lo divino, which are sacred aguinaldos, and we have aguinaldos de parranda, which are festive aguinaldos.

Let’s hear an aguinaldo a lo divino also celebrating the child Jesus: “Niño Lindo.” You will see the aguinaldo is in 5/8. 

“Niño Lindo” recording [00:42:38] 

María Guinand [00:43:41] And to end these ideas of different rhythms, we have also today a beautiful proposal of “Misa Tango” by Martín Palmieri. It’s not written in Spanish—it’s actually in Latin—but he uses the Tango orchestra and the bandoneon, and I think it's also a beautiful repertoire to present to you. 

“Misa Tango” recording [00:45:07] 

María Guinand [00:46:38] Well, I think that these repertoires really show the variety of opportunities. I have written here Masses: “Misa Criolla” by Ariel Ramírez, “Misa Tango” by Martín Palmieri, “Misa Criolla” by Albert Hernández, and I wrote the email of these composers, “Misa Criolla” by Luis Galián, “Misa Criolla” by Pedro Silva, because they are their own publishers. Also Beatificación del Jose G. Hernández, and this link to YouTube, you can listen and watch a whole service, a festive service where a lot of music was composed for that service by seven composers in Spanish. Different rhythms, but especially, I would say, Caribbean and Venezuelan rhythms. And also, we have Christmas aguinaldos and villancicos, and I suggest the Spanish Renaissance villancicos by Francisco Guerrero and Juan del Encina, and also Alberto Grau’s collection of aguinaldos and villancicos, published by A Coeur Joie.

And here are some other resources of music from Latin America that you can find—not only sacred music, but different genres of music from Latin America. And here is our web page of the Fundación Schola Cantorum de Venezuela, where we are trying to keep up with publishing recordings, concerts, and all kinds of events that we are doing these days and that we really want to share with you.

And so here is a lot of information, my dear Pearl! 

Pearl Shangkuan [00:48:28] Wonderful. So wonderful. 

María Guinand [00:48:30] I hope that you will be able to incorporate some of this music services in the States, or in concerts too, because the music is very festive, beautiful, and and happy. 

Pearl Shangkuan [00:48:46] Right, you listen to it and you can't help but move. You talk about feeling the rhythm in your body. I know whenever I listen to music from that region, you just have to start moving! But what an incredibly rich, high-protein, wonderful, informative session. I think that it's a great refresher for those who are familiar with the style, but also a wonderful go-to resource for those who may not be as familiar. One quick question given your extensive teaching engagements in the U.S., if you can isolate it and name three of the elements that you have to fix the most when working with North American choirs. 

María Guinand [00:49:34] Well, one element I need to always fix is the flow of the language. And not accentuate always the last syllable. This is one very important issue. The second point that I always need to fix relates to the accentuation of rhythm. We don’t have to accentuate all of the beats, especially when the rhythm is complex, it needs to be more flexible. And of course I have to keep telling North American colleagues, choirs, and everybody that rhythm, Latin American rhythm, we were not born into it. We have had to learn it, so everybody can learn it. And it's just a matter of understanding. . . . And a third point, which I think is very important, is to understand culturally how this style works, how in our culture and traditions, popular traditions, are embedded into our lives is not a separate and . . . choral music is not academic music and popular music. No, no, no. It's. It's one thing. So that gives you also a different perspective. And also, when I'm teaching here in Venezuela and I have to teach music from other parts of the world, I have to tell them the the opposite. 

Pearl Shangkuan [00:51:39] And one day, should the restrictions ease, I really encourage people to travel. You know, visiting Caracas, Venezuela, those many years ago, meeting you in person and being hosted by you, it was a life-changing trip. I look back to it and I think how it opened my ears, my eyes, and my heart to not just the music, but really an appreciation of the universal body of Christ, both in time and in places. So we hope that someday restrictions will allow us to visit and just take the time to understand the cultural background. So we hope that can happen sooner than later. It is such a pleasure for us to host you in this series, María. 

María Guinand [00:52:34] Yes, thank you. Thank you very much. And I hope that this music will enlighten our hearts and our lives after these months of difficulties and this time of grief for so many. But now we have to celebrate, keep celebrating life.