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Saturday morning quote #28: Singing with refinement

December 2, 2011

Ockeghem micromanagingSince the onset of the current revival, approaches to singing early music have run the gamut, so to speak.  We have experienced extremes from the odd dry and reedy sound of voices self-consciously concentrating on bringing out the weirdness of the music, to excessively large, resonant and wobbly voices belonging to singers who were trained in later music but are here to convince you it should really sound this way because they paid a great deal for their training, and by the way they enjoy shaking the rafters.

It turns out that these things were discussion topics at the time when the music was current, and one must merely do a little research and reading to gain a clear understanding of what should and – more frequently articulated – what should not be done.  Today we offer more advice on singing from the experts, this time from De modo bene cantandi, by Conrad von Zabern (1474), from a translation by Joseph Dyer found in Early Music vol. 6, no. 2, April 1978.

The first error in singing is the addition of ‘h’ before a vowel in a word that has no ‘h’.  It cannot be denied that this error is most common among the majority of clerics.  It is most evident in the singing of Kyrie eleison in which we hear ‘he, he, he’ just like the sound made by butchers driving sheep to pasture.  It occurs in many other chants in which the majority sing ‘ha, ha, ho, ho’ etc, even though the word being sung has no ‘h’ at all.  This is not elegant singing…

Another error is singing through the nose.  This too should be guarded against since it makes the voice unpleasant.  Since in any listing of the natural organs necessary for the production of the human voice the nose is never mentioned, it is not a slight error…

Still another fault is a vocal production characterized by excessive forcing…Truly I know people better instructed than others in chant who nevertheless render all their singing unworthy of praise by this very defect.  Though it appears to them that they are singing well, this is just because no one has suggested to them how offensive this fault really is, and how much to be avoided.

Another fault which is more obvious than the others is singing high notes with an unstintingly full and powerful voice.  This is even more careless than what we have cited above, as will soon become evident.  When this shouting is done by individuals with resonant and trumpet-like voices it disturbs and confuses the singing of the entire choir, just as if the voices of cattle were heard among the singers.

In order to recognize this error completely it must be realized that whoever wishes to sing well and clearly must employ his voice in three ways: resonantly and trumpet-like for low notes, moderately in the middle range and more delicately for the high notes.

Conrad had an amusingly direct way of describing some of the faults in singing that we unfortunately still hear to this day.   With so much unambiguous historical advice that survives from so long ago, there really is no excuse for missing the interpretive mark.  With our series of quotes, we’re here to help.

As an aside, we have been faithfully posting our Saturday quotes for 28 consecutive weeks now.  We quietly reached another milestone last week of 10,000 views of our blog, and we would like to thank all of our regular visitors.  Although we enjoy sharing the amusing bits we run across from time to time, we take our ongoing research into performance practice quite seriously, and we diligently integrate this information into our performances with the primary objective that you never see the mechanics of our interpretive style – only the natural expressiveness that results.

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