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Saturday morning quotes 3.51: Naturally

May 2, 2014

For this the penultimate post for this our third full year of Saturday Morning Quotes, we revisit one of our prevailing themes, singing to the lute with a natural voice. We pose the following question:

With availability of the results of so much valuable historical research, and in the face of more than ample evidence, why do Early Music singers persist in using a projected voice based upon Victorian ideals of training, technique and diction?

Our chosen repertory is polyphonic music of the 16th century and earlier – vocal music that was adapted and sensitively arranged for solo voice and lute by clever musicians both then and now.  Reading descriptions of the music and its reception when it was new points us towards interpretations that consciously strive for a tasteful balance of volume that allows for clarity of text and intimate interplay of parts.  In order to achieve such balance, a projected voice must be constantly and deliberately restrained, and one nearly always hears the tension and effort in the resulting sound.  But merely following the recommendations of the original composers and reading the words of 16th-century connoiseurs tells us exactly what to do to achieve a tasteful balance – sing with a natural voice.

With a few notable exceptions, we have thus far limited our involvement with music of the later 17th century, thinking it the realm of those with large ornate voices and personalities to match.  But the more we read the source materials, the more we realize that musicians of today have yet again misguidedly defined the character of historical music according to an anachronistic standard.  The volume of sound in solo song and other domestic music during the 17th century was most certainly not uniformly tweaked towards the threshold of pain simply because a few large-scale operas were being staged.  People still sang for one another in close quarters where shouting and shrieking was very likely discouraged.

How do we know?  There is a surviving description of singing tasteful ornaments in the Italian style attributed to Nicholas Lanier (1588 – 1666), found in An Introduction to the Skill of Musick, by John Playford, London, 1674.  The section on singing graces begins on page 37 with the title, “A Brief Discourse of the Italian manner of Singing; wherein is set down, the Use of those Graces in Singing, as the Trill and Gruppo, used in Italy, and now in England: Written some years since by an English Gentleman who had lived long in Italy, and being returned, Taught the same here.”

Lanier, if he was indeed our English Gentleman, described his motives for publishing his discourse:

“I do intend in this my Discourse to leave some foot-prints, that others may attain to this excellent manner of Singing: To which manner I have framed my last Ayres for one Voice to the Theorbo, not following that old way of Composition, whose Musick not suffering the Words to be understood by the Hearers, for the multitude of Divisions made upon short and long Syllables, though by the Vulgar such Singers are cryed up for famous.”

– p. 38

Lanier’s description of the ideal singing voice is a natural, unfeigned voice.  His reference to a  “feigned” voice, surely pertains to what we call a projected voice.

“Since there are so many effects to be used for the excellency of the Art, there is required (for the performing of them) necessarily a good voice, as also a good wind to give liberty, and serve upon all occasions where is most need.  It shall therefore be a profitable advertisement, that the Professor of this Art, being to sing to a Theorbo or other stringed instrument, and not being compelled to fit himself to others, that he so pitch his Tune, as to sing in his full and natural Voice, avoiding feigned Tunes of Notes.”

“In which, to feign them, or at the least to inforce Notes, if his Wind serve him well, so as he do not discover them much; (because for the most part they offend the Ear;) yet a man must have a command of Breath to give the greater Spirit to the Increasing and Diminishing of the Voice, to Exclamations and other Passions by us related; and therefore let him take heed, that spending much Breath upon such Notes, it do not afterward fail him in such places as it is most needful.”

“For from a feigned Voice can come no noble manner of singing; which only proceeds from a natural Voice, serving aptly for all the Notes which a man can manage according to his ability employing his wind in such a fashion as he command all the best passionate Graces used in this most worthy manner of Singing.”

– pages 54-55.

Our readers can and will draw their own conclusions.  But in future you can expect to hear more 17th-century music from Mignarda .

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