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Saturday morning quotes 3.19: Singing with the lute

September 21, 2013

Since our area of musical specialization is lute songs circa 1500 – now, we tend to think and converse a great deal on the subject.  For us, creating the ideal balance of voice and instrument is just as natural as carrying on a conversation between intelligent, collaborative, empathetic individuals with a mutual goal in mind.  But to our bafflement, we continue to hear performances of our beloved repertory for voice and lute that seem more like alpha dog battles or testy arguments than like conversations, with a singer seemingly trying to outshout the scratching noises coming from some vaguely proximate pesky plucker.

Lutes are still rare enough that not every singer intuitively knows how to adjust his or her voice to achieve a proper balance without plenty of trial and error. There are sources of information one can and should read to prepare for the adjustment but the fact is, modern classical singing technique with a vocal production intended to fill a large hall is really not the place to start.

In interpreting any pre-20th century music, it is important to know that there was no difference between popular and classical singing:

Until about the 1920s, there was no essential difference between ‘classical’ and ‘popular’ singing, though a fuller voice and greater technical accomplishment were demanded of opera singers than of those who sang operetta and popular songs…Partly because popular singers follow the dynamics of speech rather than of melody their voices are mainly low-pitched.”

- Jander, Owen and Henry Pleasants, “Singing,” in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie. (London: Macmillan, 1980), 17: 346.

The idea that there was no distinction between popular and classical singing has typically been misinterpreted to indicate that all singing was surely classical in approach.  Really?  We tend to think it’s more likely that natural singing was the norm, especially as pertains to intimate domestic repertory like lute songs.

We offer three very general guidelines as an approach to singing lute songs.

1. Singing lute songs (as opposed to continuo songs) is nothing like singing “a solo” with an accompanying instrument.  Lute songs are mainly polyphonic and effective interpretation demands sensitivity to the interplay of voices that, if properly articulated by the lutenist, will emerge as refined dialogue with the cantus.

2. In singing with the lute, volume and dynamic balance must be treated with the same sensitivity as if one were singing ensemble polyphony, but conveying the text through effective storytelling is entirely the task of the singer.  This means one must concentrate on conveying the meaning of the text at least as much as the beauty of the sound.

3.  Effective interpretation – that is, going beyond just singing the words and playing the notes – demands complete collaboration as to the intent and meaning of the piece and the musical shaping of phrases with a unified sense of purpose.  Play nicely together.

Want to know more?  We offer workshops.

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