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A pleasing balance between voice and lute

November 2, 2010

“A singer should…strive to moderate his tone and blend it with the other singers’ so that no voice is heard above the others.  Such pushed singing produces more noise than harmony.  For harmony results only when many things are tempered so that no one exceeds the other.”

[Gioseffo Zarlino, Institutioni harmoniche, 1558]

Quite a bit has been written on the topic of interpretation of lute songs from a rhetorical point of view.  Robert Toft dedicated an entire book to the subject (Tune Thy Musicke to Thy Hart: The Art of Eloquent Singing in England, 1597-1622, University of Toronto Press: Toronto,1993) and Daniel T. Fischlin has written a number of articles on the subject (“The Highest Key of Passion”: Inexpressibility and Metaphors of Self in John Dowland’s First Booke of Songes or Ayres, Journal of the Lute Society of America, 1987-88, Volumes XX-XXI and “The Consent of Speaking Harmony”: The Literary Aesthetics of the English Air, Journal of the Lute Society of America, 1986, Volume XIX).  Elizabeth Kenny, Robin Headlam Wells and Anthony Rooley have written insightful articles for the journal, Early Music, from which one can gain these authors’ ideas on the interpretation of lute songs.

Much of the later 16th century and early 17th century repertory for voice and lute can certainly be assigned to the realm of solo song, but what about the earlier repertory?  We can gain a real sympathy for and understanding of performing practice from exploring the surviving music that was first published for the intentional combination of voice and lute.

The obvious fact is that nearly all of the earliest published music for voice and lute is adapted from songs that were conceived as part music for three or more voices. I say nearly all because of one example that was published in Bossinensis, 1511 (Se mai per maraveglia) that is nothing less than the earliest printed recitativo, with sparse chordal lute figuration that was purely instrumental in conception.  The two prints by Bossinensis, Attaignant’s 1529 collection, and the print of Verdelot’s madrigals (Intavolatura de li madrigali di Verdelotto, 1536) all reinforce this point.

That lute songs were initially adapted from vocal polyphony should tell us much about balance, and the best result is achieved from taking a somewhat counter-intuitive approach.  If we think of the solo voice and lute as a four- or five-voice ensemble that must be balanced to allow for the parts to be heard as polyphony, we can begin to make choices about texture and contrast, rather than just coping with the unfortunate circumstance of the lute being too quiet and the singer too loud and unable to hear to stay in time and on pitch.

Interpretive problems

Leaving the tetchy subject of projection on the lute for another time, it can be said that most balance problems have to do with the way a singer approaches support of his or her voice.  Conservatory-trained singers are taught to support the voice from the diaphragm in order to maximize volume, a necessity for singing with orchestras and in large halls.  Further elaborate techniques are used to maintain a consistent control over the anatomy and resonating spaces that produce volume and tone.  Balance problems result when the singer attempts to apply standard methods of support to the quiet volume and transparent tone necessary to blend with the volume and timbre of the lute.  Scaling back volume while maintaining support often results in a tight or pinched sort of sound, and it can be an uncomfortable experience for the audience to watch a singer who is working hard to restrict production, rather like desperately holding in an attack of wind.

An additional problem arises from the singer/accompanist dynamic to which most singers are accustomed.  Singers often find themselves accompanied by complete strangers, pianists or ensembles who are trained to do their respective jobs in an effective if generic manner.  In order to hold his or her own, the singer is encouraged to develop a sense of identity that exerts control over important details such as tempo, dynamics and phrasing, and to develop a style of communication  that works effectively under time constraints.  In plain terms, the diva syndrome arises from this need to maintain control over such a collaboration, and it works for many singers.

a pleasing balanceWorking with a sensitive instrument like the lute does not allow for the same approach.  Especially true in earlier repertory, the singer must balance the task of expressing text with the role of singing very transparent polyphony.  Such an approach allows the polyphonic lines to rise to the surface, mingle, imitate and support in the manner the composer intended.  In order to achieve such a balance, the singer must abandon the soloist role and the sort of production that subverts blend and interplay with the lute.

Moving from basic blend to interpretive quality, both the singer and the lutenist must sublimate their egos to serve the music.  The singer’s role is to effectively transmit the meaning of the text, a storyteller in the Homeric sense.  The lutenist is not merely an accompanist but rather plays the role of collaborator, reinforcing the meaning of the text through rhetorical devices such as imitation and amplification (non-electric, we hope).  Sometimes this means, for the singer, resisting excessive ornamentation, volume and bloom on that high note or, for the lutenist, not drawing attention to cadential flourishes or an overly dramatic spread chord during a vocal rest.

As an example, we offer Puisqu’ ainsi est que suis escondit by Philip van Wilder (from our 2009 recording Au pres de vous), a four-part chanson performed in an intabulation for solo voice and lute.

Ideally, the net result is a passionate performance that is communicative and accessible, and places the poetry and music – rather than the performers – center stage.  There are plenty of opportunities to indulge in virtuoso displays of voice and continuo accompaniment with music circa 1600 and later, Caccini, Peri, Monteverdi, and their English imitators.  Most music of the earlier 16th century is more convincingly performed with a clear understanding of the text, a conversational vocal production and a collaborative interplay with the lute founded on a sense of polyphony.

One Comment
  1. Lilia permalink

    Estimados amigos: su música es maravillosa!
    Hay posibilidades de conseguirla partitura de The Willow song?
    En Argentina se realiza el Festival Shakespeare, y participaremos con los alumnos de nuestro colegio, con el coro y solistas; me gustó mucho su versión de ésta obra y tengo la cantante adecuada, ( de 15 años y bella voz!) ; pensé armar una puesta en escena , con ella cantando ésta obra.
    Esperando su respuesta, me despido .
    Saludos desde Argentina.

    Lilia Mato
    Profesora de Música
    Especialidad Dirección Coral.

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