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The Rehearsal Techniques of Margaret Hillis:

Their Development and Application to Brahms

"German Requiem"
Hill, Cheryl Frazes . Choral Journal ; Lawton, Okla.  Vol. 43, Ed. 3,  (Oct 2002): 9-32.

Link para o documento do ProQuest

Hillis (1921-1998) and the Chicago Symphony Chorus (CSO), which she founded and directed for 37 years, were
renowned for many outstanding performances of choral-symphonic repertoire. Insights into how her teaching
methods and philosophy evolved are offered along with a description of her rehearsal techniques. Following a
commentary on the foundation of the Hillis legacy, an exploration of similarities between the score preparations of
Margaret Hillis and Robert Shaw is offered. The general details of Hillis' rehearsal style are put into a specific
context. Photos, musical examples, and notes are included.

Cheryl Frazes Hill

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margaret hillis. photo courtesy of rosenthal archives, chicago symphony orchestra(jim steere)
Editor's note: A video clip of Margaret Hillis can be viewed at [lang ]].
Margaret Hillis (1921-1998) and the Chicago Symphony Chorus (CSO), which she founded and directed for thirty-
seven years, were renowned for many outstanding performances of choral--symphonic repertoire. Hillis's chorus
collaborated with the world's leading conductors in performances that are still remembered throughout the world.


Hillis's rehearsal techniques were well known to those who sang with her. She was driven to have her chorus attain
the highest level of artistic achievement. This article includes insights into how her teaching methods and
philosophy evolved and describes her rehearsal techniques.
Begining with commentary on the foundation of the Hillis legacy, this article also explores the similarities between
the score preparations of Margaret Hillis and of Robert Shaw, under whom Hillis studied at Julliard. Some general
characteristics of a Hillis rehearsal plan will be explained by examining the first movement of the Brahms Requiem
, and some polyphonic sections of several other movements, are addressed. This analysis will put the general
details of Hillis's rehearsal style into a specific context. Finally, elements of color and balance, intonation,
dynamics, phrasing, text treatment, and other issues pertinent to the first movement, and her rehearsing of
counterpoint in other movements will be discussed.
The Early Years
Hillis's mark on the choral world is substantial. Her distinct way of preparing a chorus became her legacy. Her
rehearsal methods grew out of a desire to instill the same high level of musicianship in her chorus that was
expected of an orchestra. In an interview for the Chicago magazine, she said, "I decided that I would try to prove
that choruses can be as reliable as orchestras...." 1 It was perhaps her aspiration of becoming an orchestral
conductor that helped shape her vision for the choral world. When she began, the doors were not open to women
wishing to pursue an orchestral conducting career. Bernhard Heiden, her composition teacher at Indiana
University, suggested that if she was serious about a conducting career, she should become a choral conductor
and then "through the back door" become an orchestral conductor. 2
Taking Heiden's advice, Hillis went to Juilliard in 1947, studying with Robert Shaw, eventually becoming Shaw's
assistant conductor for his Collegiate Chorale.
I didn't have much respect for choruses at that point, most of them sounded as if they ought to go home and knit.
(Most of them should have.) But Bob Shaw had a very
Jane, Samuelson, "For the Love of Music," Chicago Magazine April 1980 pg. 194.
Ibid., pg. 230.


beautiful chorus, and I was advised by my composition teacher to go study with him. So I went to Julliard, and I
sang in the chorus under him. I observed him, we had some lessons, but he was very busy at this time with his own
career; so the best that the students could do was to analyze his scores along with him, and observe him and try to
analyze what it was that he had in his ear, and how he went about getting the things that he did. 3
Hillis alluded to her observation of Shaw in an interview for the November


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hillis with her new york concert choir in the early 1950's. photo courtesy of rosenthal archives, chicago symphony
orchestra 1982 Choral Journal , She said she tried to listen the way Shaw listened. She attempted to figure out why


he did what he did in rehearsal, by careful observations of Shaw's techniques. 4 Interestingly, Shaw explained that
his treatment of choruses was modeled after the rehearsal style of an orchestra. He discussed this technique
during an interview for his Carnegie Hall Masterclass series. 5 He described a conversation he had with George
Szell, when he served as Szell's assistant conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra. Shaw related that he asked Szell
why he was chosen to serve as his assistant conductor. Szell's explanation was that Shaw expected the same
instrumental discipline from a chorus that was expected from an orchestra. It seems reasonable, therefore, that
Hillis's priority of disciplining her chorus as if it were an orchestra was influenced by her work with Robert Shaw.
Hillis's and Shaw's Score Study
High choral standards were attained by Hillis and Shaw through intense score study and detailed rehearsal
preparation. As a result of this two-pronged approach, all decisions about performance were made. For example,
choices of vocal color were determined by observing dynamic markings, text, and the instrumentation. Choices of
articulation in contrapuntal material were based on the analysis of fugal material. In short, every decision about
how a chorus rehearsed was rooted in the formal analysis of the work.
Both Shaw and Hillis were known to be well-prepared for rehearsals. Ann Howard Jones, Shaw's assistant
conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra chorus, said that "no one works more efficiently in a rehearsal than
Robert Shaw because no one is better prepared to rehearse." 6 Jones went on to describe the detail of Shaw's score
markings: every nuance from breaths, articulation, phrasing, dynamics, and tempos, to standing and sitting cues
were included. Similarly, Hillis was attentive to these details. Her score markings were described during an
interview with Dennis Shrock, in the February 1991 Choral Journal . She explained how she began her score study,
arrived at her markings, and her use of study charts and rehearsal plans. Both conductors were
Archives Committee/Oral History Project/Archives #611 - Interview of Margaret Hillis, by Jon Bentz, September
19, 1989, pg. 2.
Janel Jo, Dennen, "Margaret Hillis and the Chicago Symphony Chorus: Perspective and Interview," Choral Journal
, November, 1982, pg. 18.
Carnegie Hall Presents Robert Shaw: Preparing a Masterpiece, Part I, a Choral Workshop on Brahms A German
Requiem, 1992 Carnegie Hall Corp.
Ann Howard, Jones, "Shaw: Simply and Clearly the Best," Choral Journal , April, 1996, pg. 19.


devoted to studying the score so that the composer's artistic intent could be realized and then communicated to
the performers through efficient and informed rehearsals.
As Margaret Hillis's assistant and associate conductor from 1985 until the end of her tenure with the Chicago
Symphony Chorus, I can attest to her commitment to score study and detailed rehearsal planning. As her
assistant, one could count on receiving a rehearsal plan for the entire rehearsal series of a work. The plan would
sometimes arrive six months prior to the first rehearsal. Additionally, when charged with the duty of conducting a
rehearsal, Hillis clearly stated the goals, and the assistant was accountable for every aspect of the rehearsal plan.


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hillis, john paynter, and cheryl frazes. photo courtesy of pioneer press(jerrold howard)
She was generous with her conducting staff when sharing her knowledge of the score. By arriving two to three
hours early, she always made time to meet, answer questions, and allow any discussions that contribute to an
effective rehearsal. In these meetings, we rarely discussed score analysis. She would analyze the score with us
only when it expedited the rehearsal process. As an example, during a specific entrance in the Agnus Dei fugal
passage of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis (m.329), the chorus needed an analytical concept of the material
occurring prior to their entrance in order to make a successful entrance.
There is a nasty entrance in the last movement [of the Missa Solemnis ], it comes after a little fugata that is very
irregular in its construction and because of its irregularity it is very easy to get lost. I had sung that piece under
Robert Shaw in Carnegie Hall, and I knew how tough it was to find that entrance and I knew why. I just told them to
count one-two-three, one-two-three (there were eleven measures of it) until they got to eleven. The problem was
that your strong entrances are always on the downbeat of the first of the group, and they had to come in on the
second half of the fourth bar, really too late to prepare themselves because it goes like the wind. So, I prepared
them in such a way that they could roll out of bed at 4:00 in the morning and they would come in right. 7
When necessary, she helped her assistants with conducting gestures. During the preparation of Stravinsky's Les
Noces that Hillis was to conduct in concert, she wanted the conducting gestures of her assistant preparatory
conductors to match her gestures. When Hillis met with me and the other assistant, Richard Garrin, prior to the
first Les Noces rehearsal, Hillis handed us scores and told us to conduct it exactly as she had marked it. No
decisions were necessary about how to conduct a 5 8 bar (2+3 or 3+2). Having the marked score allowed
consistency in the rehearsals for Hillis and her assistants. It provided greater clarity for the chorus, who worked
with multiple conductors. Hillis's willingness to provide this guidance served the needs of everyone working toward
the goal of an efficient rehearsal plan.
Incidentally, Hillis had a wonderful working relationship with Igor Stravinsky, who gave her great insight into
preparing and conducting his choral works. Hillis told a delightful story about a recording of Les Noces , with
Stravinsky conducting, and Aaron Copland, Lukas Foss, Samuel Barber, and Roger Sessions serving as the


We all went down to E. 32 nd Street to the Columbia Studios to make a recording of it [Les Noces]. It kept getting
slower and slower--Stravinsky kept getting tireder and tireder. Finally, at a break, Lukas Foss came up to me and
said, 'You'd better conduct this, or we will not have a recording?' And I said, 'Well, all right.' I had nothing with me
except my miniature score, which I used to coach the chorus and give them notes after each take. So we were on
our last take of the first tableau, and I stood behind Stravinsky, and I conducted it from memory and it was
together and it was clean and the tempos held. You know, to this day I have not had the courage to listen to that
record. 8
Archives Committee/ Oral History Project/Archives #611 - Interview of Margaret Hillis, by Jon Bentz, September
19, 1989
Benz interview, Chicago Symphony Archives, pg.43.


The Hillis Rehearsal Plan

Through her training with Robert Shaw, her work with the great composers in New York such as Stravinsky,
Copland, and Barber, and her personal development, Hillis established her style of rehearsal techniques. The
influences on her evolving career as a conductor are unmistakable. However, over the years she developed her own
distinguishable style. In an interview with Norman Pellegrini, the program director for many years for WFMT and
one of Chicago's finest classical music broadcasters, Hillis discussed her life and career. Reflecting on Shaw's
influence on her work, she said,
Of course I worked with Bob as a student. I started out with his way of rehearsing and gradually modified it until I
got something that worked for me. And my own ways as it happened, I still have modified. At the end of having the
Chorus it's absolutely different from the way I started it. And still different from even five years before. 9
Hillis's rehearsals were always strategic. She went from the general details of the score to the smallest details,
returning, toward the end of a rehearsal period, to the larger picture. The structure of these well-constructed
rehearsals had the effect of a well-designed lesson plan. In the course of the rehearsal process, a singer
thoroughly learned the work. Hillis always thought of herself as a teacher, first. She verbalized the teacher/student
relationship from time-to-time, affectionately calling her singers "kids."
Initial rehearsals of a work would always begin the same way. Hillis talked her chorus through an entire score,
sometimes taking two hours of rehearsal time. Before a note was ever sung, everyone's score had her detailed
markings. She would ask the chorus to mark glottals, extensions of crescendi or diminunendi , which she called
"hairpins," and all articulation markings. She pointed out subito pianos , "railroad tracks," where scores (staves)
were not clearly distinguishable, placement of "eyeglasses" where she expected her singers to watch carefully, and
any other details that saved rehearsal time.
Singing became the next step in the process. She often had the chorus read through a work in its entirety. (If the
piece had been performed often by the Chicago Symphony Chorus, she may have allowed text to be used in the
first reading.) Most frequently, however, the piece was read through on neutral syllables at a slower-than-marked
tempo, and usually at an mp dynamic.
There are two, I think, hard and fast rules. One is that any fast piece needs some slow rehearsal to get sonority.
Otherwise the little notes are going to be dropped. And the other one, is that without a certain amount of soft
rehearsal without text--preferably on an "oo" vowel, which has the fewest overtones--you're never going to get good
intonation, because they won't hear it. The louder they sing, the less they hear and the less you hear. And if you
sing softly, you feel like their ears are antennae going around the room. And then you find out where the duets, the
trios, and so on, are. 10
During this initial rehearsal phase, Hillis pointed out phrase direction, linear stress and unstressed notes. She


instilled a sense of the color and balance of a work. From the beginning, musicality was not something imposed on
the work after the pitches and the rhythms were understood. This rehearsal time was also devoted to identifying
difficult pitches or rhythms. Additionally, the chorus became familiar with the piece before adding the challenge of
vowels and consonants. Once the piece was more familiar, which could be after several rehearsals, the next
compositional layer was added.
The introduction of text was done carefully and in painstaking detail. During their conversation, Pellegrini elicited
from Hillis that she was always a stickler about diction.
I've looked upon diction [this way]: that the consonants are to the chorus what the tonguing is or bowing is to the
orchestra members. If you don't have good diction, the sound is not going to cut through.
Norman Pellegrini interview, transcribed, Oct. 6, 1997, Chicago Symphony Archives, pg. 30.
Pellegrini interview, pg. 20.


If the consonants are there, the sound comes through and the vowels do. If they mumble, nothing happens. I've sat
in on a couple of rehearsals where the chorus was prepared by other people, and the orchestra conductor kept
saying to the chorus, "Louder, louder!" And I thought, 'Oh, oh, oh, it's loud enough. It's just the diction is so lousy it
[the text] doesn't come through. 11
Hillis asked the chorus to speak the text rhythmically after a portion was sung on a neutral syllable. Often each
syllable was assigned rhythmic placement, down to the final consonants. Diphthongs, German text with double
internal consonants, and voiced consonants were carefully assigned their rhythmic placement. Italian and French
vowels and consonants were adjusted for authenticity. Russian and other less frequently performed languages
were given many extra hours of attention. A diction coach was present to correct


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going over playbacks with sir george solti in 1972. photo courtesy of rosenthal archives, chicago symphony
orchestra(robert m. lightfoot, iii) foreign language pronunciation and to clarify elisions, use of glottals, and to refine


the vowels and consonants for authenticity. English text was always treated with the same care as a foreign
language: clarifying the pronounciation of certain vowels and consonants that could be enunciated in a number of
ways. Depending upon the difficulty of the piece, the choruses' familiarity with the piece, and the language being
sung, this process might take place at the first sectional of a work or in a full rehearsal.
Full, or " tutti rehearsal" as Hillis would
Pellegrini interview, pg. 16.


refer to it, was almost always followed by sectionals. The sectional was designed to deal with no more than one or
two complex issues: difficult intervals or dissonant pitches, improving unisons and intonation, rehearsing the
language, dealing with contrapuntal material, or tackling the most challenging rhythmic details. Correcting and
refining musical and textual elements within a section ultimately saved time in the full rehearsals that followed,
where these issues were then reinforced. This strategic process provided consistent results from the singers
because the learning process conformed to the rehearsal structure.
Tutti rehearsals were devoted to creating an artisitic musical continuity for the entire piece, which was done
methodically. Throughout the process, Hillis continued to establish her expectations for balance, dynamics, and
any issues of style and detail that a specific work required. Hillis's understanding of how the final product should
sound contributed to her ability to shape the piece. At any point in the rehearsal process, no matter what the
specific rehearsal goal, she always had the final product in her ear. Hillis's genius was in how she gradually
revealed her concept of the piece during the rehearsal series. She rehearsed by placing the building blocks of the
work in planned succession. As a result, the choral performance of the notes, rhythms, dynamics, articulations, and
the style, together with a structural understanding, made it a musically satisfying rendering of the work.
They don't know it because I don't tell them, but I prepare it [a work] in such a way that they feel the structure of the
piece so well that they just can't go wrong. 12
Since issues of good vocalism, avoidance of oversinging (a common malady in professional choruses), good
intonation, accurate color, a strong sense of phrase destination, and the ever-important issue of style, were
paramount for Hillis, she attended to these details in all rehearsals, using a variety of techniques. At the heart of
her rehearsals was the constant reminder to the chorus, "Listen." Describing how she achieved the "Hillis sound," a
term she disapproved of, she explained,
It's a sound I have in my ear and somehow get it transposed to their ears. Then I'm constantly cautioning them to
listen. And we'll be working away on something, I'll stop and say, 'That's not a listened
Benz interview, pg. 15.


to sound.' Immediately the sound changes, becomes more beautiful. 13

When a chorus listens to itself, it immediately informs them of balance, blend, unison within sections, and
intonation. Their act of listening made a tremendous difference in the sound. She reminded me on many occasions
that the chorus would need its cue to listen on a regular basis. It is not a natural process, and requires regular
reminders from the podium.
At the heart of Hillis's success was her complete knowledge of the score, and her incredible ability to break
complex issues down into achievable components. Ann Howard Jones commented that Shaw made things that


were highly complex seem easy. Hillis also possessed this incredible talent, as well as superb teaching skills. She
claimed that her ability to teach came from her work with Navy pilots in World War II. She once told me that one
learns to teach with precision and efficiency when someone's life depends on it. She expressed this to Norman
Pellegrini: "The teaching of flying taught me how to teach, and let me know that I love teaching. Of course, that's a
conductor's function, whether it be choruses, orchestras, whatever." 14 The result of such thorough and detailed
rehearsal planning was a deep understanding of any work prepared by Margaret Hillis.
The Brahms Requiem Rehearsal Plan
The Brahms Requiem was a signature Margaret Hillis preparation. She loved the work, conducting it many times in
her career. She prepared it for some of the world's greatest maestros, and was awarded two Grammy Awards for
two separate recordings of the work.
From her thorough knowledge of the score emerged her concepts of color, linear phrasing, and articulation. The
text was a principal driving force in her concept of the piece. She referred to the text often in her quest for a
specific color or the direction of a line. In rehearsal, she did not lecture on her vast understanding of the work. It
simply emerged from her specific requests during the preparation. A video of her detailed analysis of the work
exists in the archives of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, 15 where one can listen to and see her lecture about her
in-depth, measure-by-measure understanding of the work. On this tape, she talks in detail about her concepts of
the singers' role as it connects with the orchestral role-- details rarely shared with the chorus.
One of the significant moments of the video involves her concept of the overall work. She states that technically
one should consider rehearsing the final movement first, because it is the culmination of all that comes before it.
The work, she explains, is symmetrical. There were originally six movements. Movement five was added to the
work after its Bremen premiere in 1868. Movements three and six are performed with a baritone soloist, large
recapitulations, and end in fugues. Movements one and seven are based upon like material and text. Thematic
development and harmonic structure connect the entire work as a whole. The text was assembled by Brahms, who
gathered passages from the Old and New Testaments and the Apocrypha. It is consolatory for the living, and at the
same time confronts the listener with his own sense of mortality.
Hillis's approach to the piece was highly personal. She often reminded her singers to be aware of the words they
were singing. Anyone ever involved in a Margaret Hillis preparation of the Brahms Requiem will most likely
recognize many of the
Pellegrini, pg. 15.
Pellegrini, pg. 5.
Margaret Hillis, Brahms Requiem Analysis, videotapes 1 and 2, Chicago Symphony Orchestral Archives;


details that follow. She emphasized these things each time she prepared the work. [The video can be accessed on
our Web site at [lang ]].] Movement One Color and Balance
Margaret Hillis's attention to detail began in the very first chords of the opening movement: Color was the priority
of the first choral entrances. The opening choral passage (mm. 15-17 and that which follows (mm. 19-27) helps
continue the mood set by the orchestral introduction [ Figure 1 ]. It is an exposed choral moment when the chorus
enters and therefore requires absolute attention. Hillis had the chorus rehearse the movement on a neutral
syllable, usually "loo." She desired a rich, dark color for the chorus's first entrance. For the word "Selig," Hillis
achieved the dark color by balancing the upper three voices to the bass voice. She often approached piano
balance in this way. She built the chord from the bottom up, stopping on each vocal entry. She insisted that the
entering voice balance the part that came before it in color and dynamic. She then guided the upper three voices to
function as an overtone to the bass voice. In this way, she achieved the beginning of her desired color, balance,


and the dynamic for the opening statement. She approached the opening choral entrance in the Mahler Second
Symphony in a similar way.
The opening of the Mahler Second, you know, with those low B b s, I'd start with the bass and baritone. I'd make the
baritone a little less than the bass. Then build each chord, just hold one chord, build it with everything balanced to
the bass. And they had to do that with their ear.... 16
She also observed:
Generally, less anything than bass. Bass shouldn't stick out, boomy, but its overtones have to come up through the
rest of the chorus. With an orchestra, the same thing. If your high instruments are louder than your lower, it sounds
like a German village band. And if you balance it to the lowest thing, you get a very rich, beautiful texture -- same
thing with a chorus. 17
When she had the chorus rehearse with text, the focus was on the vowels for the word "Selig." The "e" vowel in the
first syllable had a tendency to be produced with a bright color. Hillis countered this by requesting that the chorus
begin the first chord on an "oo" vowel, and then move gradually to the "e" vowel, without allowing the singers to
change the color. If she needed to, she requested the "oo" vowel for all three chords of mm. 15-17. She asked for
the "i" vowel of "-lig" and the "ih" vowel of "sind" to be similarly formed to reinforce the round vocal production of
these words. It should be mentioned, that "lig" and "sind" are two different vowels, but are often sung the
Pellegrini, pg. 16.
Pellegrini, pg. 15.



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figure 1. first movement, mm. 18-27 same way by choruses. Hillis always stressed that these vowels should
contrast, the first being closed and the second opened. Once the chorus was able to control the vowel color, she
added the consonants to the word. She encouraged a forward, gentle "l" in "Selig." In addition, she requested the "n"
part of the word "sind" be physically resupported for dynamic clarity. Her pat expression for a section such as this
was for the chorus to sing with "mouths almost shut." This technique would reinforce all that she sought to
achieve in the opening passage.
Returning to the subject of color, it should be mentioned that Hillis's choice of color for this opening movement
was based upon more than the dynamic marking. She explained her process of choosing colors in her masterclass


video, pointing out that the horns play a significant role in this piece. The horns tie the orchestra into the vocal
sonority. The horns, doubling the chorus, dictate the chorus's vocal color. Hillis suggested that when horns double
the chorus, a dark, warm color from the chorus should ensue.
Hillis was consistent in her concept of the French horns' sonic function with the chorus. In a masterclass for the
Conductors Guild Bruckner Symposium, 1989, Hillis stated the following regarding instruments and choruses:
The most magnificent blend results when the French horns accompany a chorus passage. And why? I don't know,
but the marriage generates a truly rich, mellow sound. Of course, French horns are--in my opinion--the poets of the
orchestra. They can become faux woodwinds, can replicate anything from a woodwind piano or pianissimo to a
brass fortissimo . However they do it, French horns sound mellow and warms the choral sound, and vice versa. It's
a wonderful wedding. 18
By establishing the desired color from the very first note, the mood is set and carries over to subsequent
entrances. Other issues such as dynamics and tessitura affected color, and as these issues emerged they would
be addressed. What remained consistent was that the color was reinforced as each subsequent nuance was
added to the evolution at the rehearsals.
Hillis used the text as a tool to achieve the desired dark rich color. As the movement progresses, Hillis insisted the
vowels be contained, not spread into a bright color. The final "n" consonant was a particular focus, included in the
words "werden," "denn," and "tragen." Hillis required that each final "n" have time to sound. She often assigned a
rhythmic value to the sound. In m. 127, for example, she asked that the "n" of "tragen" be sung on beat three. Of
course, she always listened for the "uh" release of a sustained "n," admonishing anyone who would intone this
faulty utterance. Instead, she insisted the "n" be resupported so that it could be heard in the hall.
There are two places in the first movement in which Hillis shifted the color:
Geiger, Peter, editor of transcript:
"Anton Bruckner's Mass in E Minor: A Performer's Guide by Margaret Hillis," Journal of the Conductor's Guild , Vol
21, no. 1 and 2, Winter/Spring-Summer/Fall 2000, pg. 28.


mm. 55-60 and again mm. 88-93 [ Figure 2 ]. The text in both of these places references "joy" or "Freuden." Hillis
sought a brighter color here, to represent the joy that followed the sorrow expressed in Psalm 126: 5-6. Intonation
Hillis addressed intonation issues early on, because once poor intonation is allowed to continue, it is difficult for
singers to undo the muscle memory that usually follows.
[Regarding the] intonation of this Chorus when I had it, the vowels matched, and all leading tones were
unreasonably high.... Most poor intonation is not an ear matter. It's a vocal matter. Instead of singing "Ah"
[brightly], they sing 'UH' [swallowed sound]. It goes down in the throat, it goes flat every time. But if the vowels are
where they belong, and are matched in the chorus, there's no problem with the intonation. Took me a long time to
learn that. 19
When Hillis attended to intonation problems, she often worked on the linear direction of each line and the color. In
this way, the chorus was given a series of tasks upon which to focus. She avoided focusing exclusively on
intonation, although it was always addressed and constantly improved by unifying or adjusting the vowel in
The extension of the opening passage presents the first of many challenges for good intonation in the Requiem .
The intonation issue in the opening of the first movement was noted in the writings of Siegfried Ochs, a turn-of-the-
century German choral conductor who knew Brahms. Ochs spoke with Brahms about the Requiem , referring to the
challenges of intonation in this opening section. 20 One of the problems for good intonation is the perfect fourth
interval followed by a descending step, prominent in both the soprano and alto voices, mm. 20-21. In addition, the


men are challenged by the continuous alteration of ascending and descending intervals in upper and lower

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figure 2. first movement, mm. 55-60 tessituri of the tenor and bass ranges.
Hillis handled the intonation problems by isolating the problem pitches and providing a number of possible
solutions. Depending on the singers, any number of solutions could be applied. Typically, she called attention to
the vowel, making sure that it was unison in each section: "We have to match vowels, because if they are not
matched within a section you don't get a unison." 21 If the vowel happened to be an "ah" vowel, she would ask that it
not fall back in the throat as "ah" vowels so often do. She would check the context of the pitch. For example, if the


tenor had a problem with the "a" in m. 22, she reviewed the approach to that pitch. She made sure that the
Pellegrini, pg. 16
Ochs, Siegfried, Choral Conductors Forum "Encounter with Bruckner and Brahms." American Choral Review ,
October, 1972, pg. 14.
Dennen, Janel Jo, "Margaret Hillis and The Chicago Symphony Chorus: Perspective and Interview," Choral
Journal , November 1982, pg. 18.


over notes leading to the "a" were not oversung. Hillis was aware of the way the espressivo marking in m. 19
affected the crescendo beginning in m. 21. Hillis understood that this marking implied the crescendo should not
exceed mp . By keeping the approach lighter, the "a" had a better chance to be sung in tune.
The opening orchestral material, introduced in the first cello part, mm. 3-4, and the vocal material, first introduced
in soprano, mm. 15-17, present intonation challenges for the singers throughout the first movement. Ascending
and descending stepwise motion, along with leaps that resolve in a step up or down create pitch problems. The
added challenges of tessitura and dynamics create further stumbling blocks for good intonation. Whenever these
circumstances arose, Hillis would address them immediately.
Another issue contributing to faulty intonation was vibrato. Hillis insisted that individual vibratos be under control
so the section could achieve a unified sound. She suggested that extraneous "vibble vobble," as she called it, could
take the unison out of the section. She occasionally said "no vibrato" in a section, but she was never after straight
tone. She believed that professional singers had good control of their instruments, and this request for vibrato
control was reasonable.
It was rare for the chorus to hear from Hillis, and she rarely stopped a chorus without having a solution. Hillis was
not one to pound the podium in frustration. She is quoted as saying, "Some conductors yell at a chorus when it
makes a mistake. That's wrong. There's always a reason for the mistake. If there is some hesitation about an
entrance, I ask, 'Is it a rhythmic problem or a pitch problem?' and they tell me and we fix it. And if we fix something
in this chorus, it stays fixed! I worked hard to get that."' 22 This collegial approach was a unique characteristic of a
Hillis rehearsal. She accepted questions and interjections by her singers, assistants, and accompanists during the
rehearsal, sometimes to the point of distraction. Her mission, however, was to get things right and she generously
shared ownership in that process. In this way, she was democratic, though there was never a doubt about who was
in charge.
The next hurdle in the first movement involved controlling the dynamics. From the first choral entrance, it was
clear that the dynamic marking alone did not dictate the piano dynamic. Dynamics were dictated by the context in
which they occurred and by what was to come in the movement. The first choral entrance is a good example. If the
opening choral statement
Samuelson, pg. 194.



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with james levine recieving her sixth grammy award in 1984. photo courtesy of rosenthal archives, chicago
symphony orchestra is sung softer than the marked piano dynamic, it prevents the return of the same material in


m. 100 being performed at its designated pianissimo . Hillis was careful that the initial choral entrance had a softer
possibility for its return.
Another dynamic challenge is found in the brief crescendo and diminuendo markings, first seen over "selig" in mm.
29 and 31. These dynamic demands are vocally challenging to execute, particularly the diminuendo portion. Added
to this is the challenge the first sopranos encounter with this dynamic marking over the high "a." Hillis emphasized
that the crescendo is a piano dynamic, and therefore should be treated as an expressive leaning in and then away
from the note. The second time it occurs (m. 31), she suggested a slightly louder sound be given and then removed
from the word. This dynamic shading gives an emphatic notion to the repeated text.
Hillis carefully shaped all dynamic shadings in the first movement. She was attentive to crescendi that ended in
fortes , mindful that the fortes never became too edgy or too loud. Most fortes of the first movement needed to
remain forte dolce . The crescendi over several measures were carefully paced, resulting in a gradual growth of
sound. This method of dynamic control mitigated against the immediately loud dynamic on beat two of a four-beat
crescendo . Hillis sometimes requested that beat numbers be placed over a crescendo of several bars. The first
beat of the crescendo in m. 51, for example, is sung piano . Each subsequent beat of the crescendo was assigned
a slightly louder


Diminuendi are even more difficult, and she made sure that there was equal care given to the pacing of these.
Color and dynamics were rehearsed together. The forte of the "Freuden" passages discussed earlier would be
louder than other forte passages of this movement because the color of the "Freuden" passages is bright. The
brighter color allows for the louder than forte dolce dynamic.
The next focus of the rehearsal process was Hillis's linear connection of each phrase in the movement. She would
joke, "Be like a good Presbyterian, and have a strong sense of predestination." By this she implied that every
phrase had a sense of direction and must be sung in that way. In the first choral entrance, Hillis insisted on a
legatissimo line, leading to the word "sind." Legato singing was always a priority, but it was surely reinforced by her
experience of preparing this work numerous times for Sir Georg Solti, who (when rehearsing this opening passage)
was adamant about a legatissimo "Selig sind." The extension of this passage, mm. 19-27 added the requirement of
extending the destination of the phrase beyond "sind" and ahead to the first syllable of "tragen." This detail was
addressed with the chorus, because it would not naturally occur. A chorus's tendency is to lose intensity after
"sind," mirroring the previous entrance. Hillis requested that the line sustain intensity. Extending the phrase to
"tragen" presents a particular challenge for the chorus because the contour of their lines is contrary to the
direction of the phrase. The word "tragen" sits on one of the lower pitches of their vocal lines, making it an
unnatural point of destination. However, once achieved, the linear direction to "tragen" became quite effective.
In places in which the phrase is truncated, linear connection was reinforced. In mm. 34-36, Hillis asked the chorus
to extend its sense of phrase over the rest in m. 34. She wanted the entrance on "Leid" to come in at equal intensity
with its counterpart in the previous bar. The phrase heads toward "tragen," and needs special intensity, given the
rest that interrupts it.
In places in which the temtation would be to "chop the line," reminders of singing legato would abound. An
example of this occurred in the second section of Movement 1, mm. 55-60. The eighth notes of "werden mit
Freuden" and the contour of the vocal lines do not naturally lend themselves to legato singing. Hillis instructed that
these passages remain connected. One way Hillis achieved legato was by rhythmically placing consonants.


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figure 3. first movement, mm. 47-50 The voiced "w" of "werden" and the "Fr" blend of "Freuden" needed to be
started slightly ahead of the beat so the vowels that followed could sustain to the next syllable, making the legato


audible. The "n" consonants of "werden," "Freuden," and "ernten" and the "m" of "mit" also needed to be given time
and support in order to sound. These techniques aided Hillis in her quest for linear connection and phrase
Hillis's rhythmicization of text-described earlier--in her treatment of final "n" consonant, and her timing of
consonants before the beat are not new. This technique was emphasized by Fred Waring, who invented the use of
tone syllables. Waring submitted that the "singing of a consonant or series of consonants could be better achieved
if the consonant sounds are articulated before the beat. In this way, the vowel sound should open on the beat." 23
Mountford, Fritz, "Fred Waring's Tone Syllables: His Legacy to American Choral Singing", Choral Journal , August
2000, pg. 13.


The translation of specific texts became a focus of later rehearsals. A reference was made earlier with regard to
the treatment of color surrounding the word "Freuden." In the first movement, the other text reference involved the
word "Tränen," [tears]. Beginning the middle section of this first movement, m. 47, the text "Die mit Tränen
saen," ["They who sow in tears shall reap in joy"] was referred to as the weeping motive. Hillis suggested that the
grouped quarter-note pairs, m. 47 in the tenor and bass, m. 49 in the alto, and recurring in mm. 51-53, implied
weeping. [ Figure 3 ]. In her masterclass video, she mentions that the orchestra weeps in a contrary motion to the
chorus. Although she does not spell out what choristers should do with this information, the result was a slight
stress on the first of each of these quarter-note pairs, subtly creating the illusion of weeping. This effect was not
overstated, but it was noticeable.
Hillis was always aware of text but she didn't take rehearsal time to address the meaning of text unless it directly
applied to the way the chorus would sing. She would mention a translation as she sought a specific color or
phrase direction. The opening segment, "Blessed are they who mourn" would be criticized if it was too bright. She
would say, "You're too jolly," when she was after the dark, warm color. She reminded singers of what they were
singing. Translations were provided for the singers, and she asked that the words be written into their scores. The
job of understanding the text was often left to the singers. Only in specific spots would rehearsal time be taken for
the meaning of the words.
Other First Movement Issues
Any other details specific to the movement being rehearsed would be handled where they appropriately fit into
Hillis's rehearsal plan. In the first movement, Hillis had particular interest in the E b that first occurs in m. 2 of the
second cello. It appears in the alto, m. 16, and


for the tenor, m. 19. In this rare instance, Hillis chose to work analytical details into the rehearsal. These E b s were
highlighted in Hillis's Requiem score. In one spot the Eb is marked with the word "color" above it.
Hillis emphasized that Brahms used this pitch as a color, insisting it not be stressed; the chorus should be aware
of its function as a significant musical moment. She pointed out the return of this E b in m. 66, second cello. It
occurs again in the recapitulation, m. 97, but in a transposed form (C b ) in the cello. The pitch returns again in the
alto line, m. 101, as (B [sharp ] ). The recapitulation material is first stated a major third below its original entrance in
m.100. This significant pitch is likewise a major third below its counterpart. The E b reappears in its initial key at m.
111, in the tenor voice, coinciding with the statement of the opening in its original key. Hillis emphasized "my score


study is no choir's business." However, she did find places where sharing her score study was worth rehearsal
time. 24 This


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celebrating birthday with cso music director daniel barenboim. photo courtesy of rosenthal archives, chicago
symphony orchestra(jim steere) was one of those cases.
It should be mentioned that the rehearsal details were many, but her words in rehearsal were few. Hillis was careful
not to spend too much time talking with the chorus at any length about anything. They were there to sing and
singing comprised the majority of rehearsal time. When she spoke, her instructions were brief and to the point. Her
awareness of the details influenced the way she prepared a work, but she rarely shared her information, fearing it
would waste time and bore her singers. She didn't try to
Shrock, pg. 12.


impress everyone with her knowledge. We were clear that it was the basis for her rehearsals without her calling
attention to her scholarship. She once shared that if she wasted a minute of time and multiplied it by the one
hundred and twenty singers in the room, she would have wasted the equivalent of two hours of rehearsal time.
The first movement reveals some interesting Hillis rehearsal strategies. She applied equally interesting rehearsal
techniques to polyphonic sections of the work. The techniques were developed as a result of Hillis's motivation to
aid her singers in recognizing their vocal function within a contrapuntal texture. She wanted them to understand
the way their parts related to other parts in the chorus, and sometimes to the orchestra. Hillis comprehended that
only when performers delivered these musical complexities with understanding, could the audience be better able
to discern them.
There were many techniques Hillis applied to the rehearsal of contrapuntal music. One technique involved Hillis's
assignment of contrasting articulations to subject and countersubject material, making these more
distinguishable within the complex countrapuntal texture. Another method was to isolate two or three voices
functioning together. In this way, singers could hear the relationships, that encouraged balance within the chorus.
Hillis would always rehearse fugal material by using the structural divisions as her starting points. Her detailed
approach may appear monotonous, but actually made fugal passages more accessible to the singers and
therefore more interesting to rehearse.
In the Requiem 's second movement, Hillis helped distinguish two significant themes by assigning them
contrasting articulations. The basses introduce the first theme upon which the counterpoint of the section is built.
Hillis asked that the music beginning with the text "Die Erlöseten des Herrn" (mm. 206-212) [ Figure 4 ] be sung in
a quasi- marcato style. To achieve this, she demanded strong consonants, strong glottals for words or syllables
beginning with vowels, and an overemphasis of the eighth notes that follow



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figure 4. second movement, mm. 206-212 dotted-quarter notes. Extensive rehearsal time was taken to ensure that
the eighth note was not "cheated." Precise placement of the eighth note supported the marcato articulation. Hillis


exercised the chorus through echo clapping, tapping, and chanting the rhythms, securing the stability and
accuracy of the eighth note. Hillis's other request for this section was a strong accent over each syllable of
"werden" and "Jauchzen." She wanted to stress both occurrences of the two consecutive quarter notes in this
Hillis contrasted the articulation of the other significant theme in this contrapuntal section, requesting a legato
approach. The "ewige Freude" material, first appearing in the tenor line (mm. 219-225)[ Figure 5 ], is sung with the
phrase directed toward the word "Freude," [joy]. The material (mm. 233-237) [ Figure 6 ], that Hillis called "fast joy"
in the sopranos and "slow joy" in the tenors, is to be sung with no accent on the downbeats of these measures,
creating a continuation of the legato -style articulation. By contrasting the articulation of the "Die



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figure 5. second movement, mm. 219-225 Erlöseten" and "ewige Freuden" themes, Hillis was able to help her
singers organize the musical events of this lengthy passage as they occurred and developed.


Another rehearsal technique Hillis employed for this section of the work was the isolation of voices in canon or
counter rhythm. The stretto of the "Die Erlöseten des Herrn" theme (mm. 269-274) [ Figure 7 ] was first rehearsed
by sopranos and altos alone. After hearing the relationship of these parts, Hillis added the basses. Finally, the
tenor part, with the most sustained rhythms, was added. In this way, the sections became aware of what was
going on around them. Throughout this passage, Hillis continued her demands for the elements that sustained a
marcato articulation.
Hillis used a similar approach when dealing with countrapuntal passages of orchestral works. In the Conductor's
Guild Bruckner Symposium 1989 masterclass/lecture cited earlier, Hillis referred to the way she rehearsed
counterpoint in the Bruckner Symphony No. 8. Specifically, she cited a section in Movement


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figure 6. second movement, mm. 233-237




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figure 7. second movement, mm. 265-275 IV, reinforcing her point about the approach to counterpoint. The
Bruckner E Minor Mass was referenced here, as well.


Please understand that this mass contains very contrapuntal writing: you really have to study and learn the score
carefully, because if you don't hear the moving voices clearly, nobody else will either. For example, whenever I
rehearse mm. 388-406 in the fourth movement of the Eighth Symphony, I first ask the clarinets to play with the
second violins. Then I'll add other material, perhaps the oboe. Who doubles it? The first violins. After each
instrumental line is played alone, I'll combine them two by two, and only then play the full orchestration. In this
way, every player in the orchestra truly hears the counterpoint. If they hear it, then everybody else will hear it. If
they don't, forget it. Admittedly, that's one of the few places where I would take a score apart to that extent. 25
Sometimes, Hillis varied the articulations within one theme. As an example, in the Brahms Requiem third
movement, the fugue subject was given two articulations.
Geiger, pg. 25.



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figure 8. third movement, mm. 173-175 The subject's opening text introduced by the tenors, "Der Gerchten Seelen
sind in Gottes Hand" (m.173-175) [ Figure 8 ] is to be sung marcato . The text "und keine Qual" is sung legato . The


text "rühret sie an" is to be sung more marcato . Throughout the fugue's development, these articulations are
maintained. Even in the intricate cross-rhythms between tenor and alto occurring in mm. 185-187 [ Figure 9 ], Hillis
maintained the legato approach, though it would be tempting to do it otherwise. She always isolated these two
parts so that the sopranos singing the lengthy melisma on the word "Qual" balanced. Incidentally, for each
entrance of the melisma "Qual," (the soprano, mm. 185-187), she insisted the strong beats of these measures be
unstressed. Instead, she wanted singers to emphasize the note following the tie, thereby reinforcing the sequence
occurring after each set of tied notes [ Figure 9 ].
Large fugal sections were learned more quickly when presented structurally. Hillis always rehearsed these
sections by beginning and ending a segment in the structurally significant place. She did not explain that she was
doing it this way. However, the effect was an understanding by everyone of how the fugue was compositionally
constructed. In the sixth movement, she rehearsed this fugue very much in keeping with the structure shown in
Table 1. 26
Margaret Hillis most often prepared the chorus for works that would be conducted by others. Frequently she
prepared the chorus for the music directors of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, but also for the many guest
maestros, who would worked with the CSO throughout the year. One would think that the distinctive marks she
placed upon her preparations would create difficulties for these conductors. On the contrary, maestros more often
than not retained the many
Ibid., Margaret Hillis video (Brahms Requiem Analysis)



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figure 9. third movement, mm. 185-187 detailed nuances she placed in the score. When she was asked about her
personal contributions to score preparations, she explained that her responsibility was to keep the preparation of


the chorus uniform. That meant she had to make some decisions about articulations and other score details. By
making these decisions, the chorus's performance was actually



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table 1 movement six: rehearsal of fugue structural easier to change, if a maestro had a different approach to the
work. "When disagreements about articulation come along, it is my job to see to it that the chorus does what the


conductor is asking of it." 27
The most difficult thing to do with any chorus or orchestra--is to get a legato line. I pride myself on at least trying
for it. [Speaking about Haydn's Creation, Hillis elaborates:] I prepared it legato ; I had gotten the sense of where the
phrases go. Solti wanted it short. Solti wanted it staccato , and we sang it staccato, and when he left the rehearsal
I said to the chorus, 'Look, you sing it staccato as he asks, but don't lose the sense of where that line goes--the
sense of phrasing has to stay." And it did. 28
Hillis would prepare a piece differently depending upon which conductor was doing the piece, but there always
was, at minimum, a little bit of Hillis's mark left in the score. She seemed to know how little or how much detail was
necessary. She once joked with Solti, "You have to be a psychologist to be a conductor, don't you?" Solti's
response: "Yes, psychiatrist, too (he pronounced it 'psicharist')! 29 Hillis proved her skill in psychology with her
chorus and with the maestros for whom she prepared her world-famous ensemble.
Many of my colleagues during the past twenty-seven years have remarked that when one learned a piece with
Margaret Hillis one never forgot it. Even the exercises and tricks that accompanied her rehearsals became deeply
embedded in the mind. The Hillis method of rehearsing and then performing a work passed on to each new
generation that entered the Chicago Symphony Chorus, created an amazing consistency in the rendering of choral
works. Memories of Margaret Hillis bring
Benz interview, pg. 16.
Benz interview, pg. 16.
Pellegrini, pg. 7.


smiles to those recalling her wonderful sense of humor, her pat expressions, her warm smile for a job well done,
and her pride in the members of her Chicago Symphony Chorus. Her praise for each member of the chorus
descending from the stage after every performance given at Chicago's Orchestra Hall and throughout the world
was testimony to her pride for the organization she helped create. She often said that she could not accomplish
anything without the hard work of her singers. However this gratitude is surpassed by the gratitude that is truly in
the hearts of those she taught. Margaret Hillis was a great teacher and scholar. These traits established her
incredible contribution to the field of conducting. She left us all a great legacy.
Cheryl Frazes Hill, associate conductor of the Chicago Symphony Chorus, has been a part of the Chorus for twenty-
seven years, beginning as a singer and appointed to the conducting staff by Margaret Hillis in 1987. She continues
her role today, sharing the associate conductor position with her longtime colleague, Dr. Don Horisberger. Both
conductors work under Chorus Director Duain Wolfe. * Dr. Frazes Hill is the chairman of music education and the
director of choral activities at Roosevelt University's Chicago College of Performing Arts.
Author's Note
I am deeply grateful to a number of people who helped make this article possible. I would first like to acknowledge
Frank Villella, in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Archives, who greatly assisted in gathering materials for this
project. In addition, Mr. Villella has been a singer with the Chicago Symphony Chorus for many years, working
under Margaret Hillis. He helped organize Hillis's musical collection that is now a part of the Rosenthal Archives at
Symphony Center. I would also like to thank Jane Samuelson, an outstanding editor and a good friend for many
years. Marjorie Johnston, a member of the Chicago Symphony Chorus and a fine chorus librarian was of great
assistance in providing musical figures for this project. Finally, I wish to thank Carroll Gonzo, editor of the Choral
Journal and a friend of many years, for his editorial expertise.
The Chicago Symphony continues to grow and thrive today, under the direction of Duain Wolfe. Margaret Hillis
was proud to pass the baton to Mr. Wolfe, who has successfully continued the tradition of demanding and


achieving the highest standards of symphonic choral performance. She would be pleased to know that the chorus,
under Duain Wolfe, continues to earn its reputation for excellence.


Top of Page

©Copyright 2002 American Choral Directors Association.


Termo específico: Choral Music, Founders, Choral Directors, Repertoire, Rehearsal Techniques,
Teaching Methods, Music Teachers, Philosophy, Comparative Analysis

Assunto genérico: Vocal Music, Music Education, Theory/Analysis/Composition

Pessoas: Hillis, Margaret Shaw, Robert

Empresa: Chicago Symphony Chorus

Título: The Rehearsal Techniques of Margaret Hillis: Their Development and Application to
Brahms "German Requiem"

Autor: Hill, Cheryl Frazes

Título da publicação: Choral Journal; Lawton, Okla.

Volume: 43

Edição: 3

Páginas: 9-32

Ano de publicação: 2002

Data de publicação: Oct 2002

Editora: American Choral Directors Association

Local de publicação: Lawton, Okla.

País de publicação: United States, Lawton, Okla.

Assunto da publicação: Vocal Music, Music

ISSN: 0009-5028


Tipo de fonte: Scholarly Journals

Revisado por especialistas: Sim

Idioma de publicação: English

Tipo de documento: Biography, Research and Analysis

ID do documento ProQuest: 1031338

URL do documento:

Última atualização em: 2017-08-23

Base de dados: Music Periodicals Database

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