Tied Eighth Notes in Choral Music

When singing in a choir, one eventually sees a piece where a sung note lasts an eighth note longer than the measure containing the beginning of the note. When I began to sing music from the English sacred tradition, I saw these notes frequently. I was told by multiple conductors that it was a British practice to simply treat the eighth note as the release itself, or more literally to cut off at the beginning of the eighth note, pretending it is not there at all. Thus I began to mark through all the tied eighth notes in any score from which I sang, as it was common enough a practice to cut early that it was a safe bet. I never really questioned this practice until last year, when I sang with Stephen Cleobury here at LSU during a week-long residency with our choir. There he was, a man representing the finest in British choral practice, asking us to carry those tied quavers over until the end of the note, exactly as printed, in Howells’s “Like as the hart desireth the water brooks.” This led me to actually investigating the practice and doubting the authenticity of the assertion that it is a common practice to cut off early when one sees a tied eighth note after a bar line.

I figured a clear-cut example of music from the turn of the twentieth century would be Fauré’s Requiem, Op. 48, which has two tied eighth notes in the first two minutes of the piece. I listened to and compared several recordings. Here is the bass part of those two examples:

luceatThe implication, then, is to hold the third note for a dotted quarter. When I listened to recordings, one of the only conductors to do other than what the score indicates was Robert Shaw in 1990:

Standing in the other camp are Ivor Bolton, Lili Boulanger, André Cluytens, Philippe Herreweghe, Paavo Järvi, Ed Spanjaard, and David Willcocks. I will start with the earliest one, Cluytens, from 1963:

David Willcocks in 1967:

Nadia Boulanger in 1968:

Philippe Herreweghe in 2001 (Note the use of period Latin):

Ed Spanjaard in 2011:

Ivor Bolton in 2012:

And finally Paavo Järvi in 2013:

This very small sample from a French piece at least shows that the practice of cutting a tied eighth note off early might be more of an American practice than anything else. It is worth mentioning that the Englishman John Rutter edited this piece to remove the tied eighth notes in that section in 1984. I don’t mean to insinuate that Rutter is going a bit too far in changing Fauré’s music from what he wrote, but I will say that my taste tells me it is inappropriate to cut that note off early.

I posted a challenge to the American Choral Directors Association back in June 2014 to find a single instance in twentieth-century English or European choral repertoire where it was obvious that the note should be omitted. That is, I was looking for an instance in which the held note makes a strong dissonance with the new chord in the measure where the eighth note is. Such an instance could not be produced. During that conversation on the ACDA Facebook page, I picked eleven choirs at random on YouTube, Naxos, and iTunes singing Vaughan Williams’s “Antiphon” (Richard Hickox, Leonard Slatkin, Michael Leighton Jones, John St. Marie, Robert Istad, Weston Noble, John Lee, Fritz Mountford, Stephen Cleobury, David Willcocks, and Joseph Flummerfelt). Nine of those carried to the rest and two cut on the note (John St. Marie (US) and John Lee (US)).

My instinct thus tells me that it is incorrect to cut a tied eighth note earlier than what is notated. I think composers added that time to make the final consonants and lingering vowels seem more natural, instead of so obviously orchestrated to end on the beat. It tends to help the piece establish a healthy connectedness.

2 thoughts on “Tied Eighth Notes in Choral Music”

  1. Professor Kenneth Kiesler from University of Michigsan told me in one of my first encounters with him that this practice of tieing a long note to an eight note is referred to as French notation and that there was a decision made in France that this notation should be interpreted as holding the note exactly to the barline, and that long notes without a tied short note should be released slightly earlier. Apparently there is a letter from the end of 19th century to or from the Paris concervatory where this is clarified. Faure’s requiem is one of the first pieces where this was practiced, and therefore the original version of the requiem differs from later ones in this very aspect: the first version did not have the tied eight notes. When Faure later added them, he was just clarifying that the notes were supposed to be held to the downbeat (consonants placed on the downbeat in the vocal parts) and not released early. Now since I was told this 3-4 years ago, I have been asking for reliable sources to quote and still haven’t seen any. If you dig deeper into this, I would love to hear what you find out! Good luck!

  2. Many years ago an opera chorus master told us that when we sing in English or German that the articulation of the consonants is a very important part of the rhythm of the music, and that it must be accurate. I do not see how delaying that articulation for the duration of the tied eighth note makes the vowel or consonant more natural.

    We sang a piece by Rutter last night at choir practice, and there were two instances of these tied eighth notes. It’s interesting that he edited them out of the Faure.

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