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Saturday morning quote #4: Berlioz on the Art of Yelling

June 11, 2011

Having had an extremely busy week with building projects, we offer our apologies to the three people who may have already seen our posting of this week’s quote in another forum.  We’re also introducing our new logo — Unquiet Thoughts, in honor of the yelling motif.

This week’s quote is from A travers chants: On The Present State of the Art of Singing in the Lyric Theaters of France and Italy, and on the Causes Which Have Brought It About, by Hector Berlioz:

I have already said, a man or woman capable of singing only sixteen measures of good music in a natural voice, well placed, pleasing, and singing them effortlessly without distorting the phrasing, without over-stressing the accents, without platitudes, without primness, without mistakes in the French, without dangerous slurs, without omissions, without insolent changes in the text, without transposition, without howling, without bleating, without false intonation, without maiming the rhythm, without ridiculous ornaments, without nauseating appoggiaturas—to sum up, in such a way that the phrasing written by the composer becomes comprehensible and remains quite simply what he has written , this singer is a oiseau rare, very rare, extremely rare.

If a man…produces a sound violently he is applauded violently for the sonority of this note…If a woman produces a high fa as agreeable as the yelp of a little dog when you step on his paw, that is enough for the whole hall to resound with acclamations…The woman who…pierces your ear drum with her infernal trill with ferocious insistence for a whole minute without catching a breath, you are certain to see the monstrous claque sitting in the parterre jump up and howl with pleasure.

There are no cavernous halls [in Germany]…if the art of singing has become what it is today, the art of yelling, the too-large dimension of the theaters is its cause…as a whole, the immense majority of German singers sing and do not howl, the school of the yell is not theirs; they make music.

  1. This comment was sent directly to our mailbox but we thought it should be reprinted here:

    Esther wrote: “but, what is yelling? Is Maria Callas yelling? there is a continuum…….”

    Ron’s response:

    It seems that Berlioz was reacting to many things that had to do with professional singers of his era and their unique way of drawing attention to themselves in spite of the music they were singing. Several techniques evolved to deal with projection of a voice – or an instrument – as performing spaces became larger, along with the size of the audience. Some of those techniques got in the way of the aesthetic of the music.

    In my opinion, Berlioz was lamenting the noise singers were inclined to make just so they could be heard in large venues. Production became much more forced and from the diaphragm, causing difficulty in control of volume. If you’ve ever watched a singer who is used to filling a large hall with sound hold back with his or her voice, it’s sort of like observing a person clenching to avoid cutting loose with a fart in public.

    Of course there is a place for large voices, and many singers who can really wail are real artists, Marilyn Horne for instance. We are both serious fans of Cecilia Bartoli, who is no slouch in the noise level department. The thing we like to point out by dipping into these quotes is that, especially in earlier music, a huge projecting voice is not necessary. In fact, the earlier ‘chamber’ music we do was never meant to be heard by large audiences and projecting the voice interferes with the intimate aesthetic.

    My two cents.


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