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Saturday morning quotes 6.10: Giving voice

July 23, 2016

canbeltoDespite our dwelling in the age of the painfully obvious, from time to time we feel compelled to offer a few remarks on the subject of voice, our thoughts on vocal qualities and our conscious interpretive choices.  As with the shining example of one of our very favorite singers, Marco Beasley, interpreting early music with a natural vocal production points the way toward more sensitive and much more communicative historically-appropriate performances.

But pursuing such a path has not made for a particularly easy journey in a field of musical performance that, oddly, remains influenced more by Victorian rules and aesthetics than by 16th-century ideals.  Recordings of early music continue to feature vocalists employing conventional conservatory training that, while practical for a very wide range of music from the 17th century onward, employs techniques having very little to with the aesthetics of earlier music.

“For he, Sire, that hearing the sweet accord of instruments or the sweetness of the natural voice feels no joy and no agitation and is not thrilled from head to foot, as being delightfully rapt and somehow carried out of himself – ’tis the sign of one whose soul is tortuous, vicious, and depraved, and of whom one should beware as not fortunately born.”

– Pierre de Ronsard (1524-1585), from the dedication of Livre des mélanges, 1560.

Since singing with the lute requires an acute sense of balance and sensitivity to polyphonic interplay, Ronsard’s “natural voice” is the most justifiable solution for such intimate music.  But we also perform sacred and secular ensemble music for a cappella voices, and are aware of the need for adapting projection to meet the demands of singing polyphony with larger forces in larger spaces.

“A particularly striking crudity is that of singing the high notes with a loud tone, indeed with full lung power…The lower notes are to be sung entirely from the chest, the middle ones with moderate strength, the high ones with a soft voice.”

– Conrad von Zabern, Modo bene cantandi, 1474

Currently focusing on the music of Josquin, we are fortunate to have come across the work of Rebecca Stewart and her timeless article, “In principio erat verbum. A Physiological and Linguistic Study of Male Vocal Types, Timbres and Techniques in the Music of Josquin des Prez”.

“Information provided by physiological, linguistic, musical and historical data shows the following: Firstly, the music of Josquin (and consequently the manner of its performance) was initially molded by his French linguistic background. Secondly, partially as a result of living in Italy for most of the years between 1459 and 1504 and of learning the language, this music and its performance underwent a major transformation. During this period the Italian language was beginning to compete with French as a language of the cultured and artistic classes. Thirdly, an understanding of the at last partially linguistic change in Josquin’s style of composition, makes it possible to discuss the various vocal types, timbres and techniques appropriate for the singing of this music, without having to rely completely on one’s own instinctive preferences.”

“Leaving aside the musical and historical evidence, the two primary arguments in support of these contentions are the following: (1) Physiologically, the human larynx has remained basically unchanged since man became a speaking and singing creature. Taking into consideration the influence upon it of racial types, this mechanism can be used as a reliable measuring device in the determination of basic vocal types and ranges. (2) The singing voice is largely determined and limited by the language spoken since early childhood. Thus, questions concerning vocal timbres and techniques may in part be answered when viewed as an aspect of linguistic bias. Although genetic characteristics do influence the size of the vocal folds and other physiological aspects, such as the construction of the mouth, it is the language which influences the habitual use of the lips, tongue, soft palate, nose and larynx. These organs, working together in very specific ways, create the timbres and techniques which we associate with equally specific vocal styles.”

– Howard M. Brown and Rebecca Stewart, “Workshop IV. Voice Types in Josquin’s Music”, Tijdschrift van de Vereniging voor Nederlandse Muziekgeschiedenis, Deel 35, No.1/2, Proceedings of the Josquin Symposium. Cologne, 11-15 July 1984 (1985), pp. 97-193.

While we are not capable of retooling our genetic material in order to reproduce historical geographic and linguistic mannerisms with complete accuracy, we can at least be guided by this information when pursuing historically sensitive performances.  But what is more important is the idea of incorporating such historical information as refinements of our personal style, and voicing our interpretive choices in ways that move the listener.  Successfully giving voice to any sort of music requires understanding.

“The expressions ‘voicing an idea’, ‘giving voice’, the ‘voice of the nation’,and the like are derived from this power of the voice. Voting, casting a vote, in our political system also means to give or actually temporarily ‘lend’ our voice to someone else. In German and Dutch this is even more evident; the German word Stimme means both voice and vote, exactly like the Dutch word stem. Stimme in German and stem in Dutch also connect to a completely different dimension of voice. In both languages the derived noun Stimmung/stemming and the verb stimmen/stemmen mean ‘(the) tuning (of) an instrument’ and at the same time a ‘mood’. This is particularly interesting, as it creates an intricate web of interconnected applications of the voice-complex.”

“Voice is a way to express emotions and ideas, but voice also is emotion and idea. The connection between tuning and mood is well known in musicological literature, and the fact that this is also related to voice – as the primary carrier of emotion – only underlines its relevance. Additionally, there are ‘voices’ in a musical piece; especially in polyphony it is common to consider each melodic line to represent or actually to be a voice. Again, in English this meaning is less evident, as the ‘voices’ are often called ‘parts’.”

Music, Dance and the Art of Seduction, Edited by Frank Kouwenhoven and James Kippen, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2014. Chapter 4. “Enchanting voices”, by Wim van der Meer

Interpretive success in music, as in speech, can only be measured by whether the listener is convinced by the performance.  “Voicing”, in an intentionally backwards hierarchy of importance, is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “Speech, talk, vocal utterance”, or “A manner of performing music for the voice; the composition or arrangement of vocal parts in a piece of music”, or finally as “The action, fact, or process of voting by voice; election, nomination, or decision by vote.”

“Every day I wake up determined to deliver for the people I have met all across this nation that have been ignored, neglected and abandoned…These are people who work hard but no longer have a voice”… I am your voice.”

– Donald Trump

The more thoughtful and critical thinkers among us would take issue with the very idea of ceding our voice to a person incapable of speaking in a gracious and dignified manner using complete intelligible sentences.  There is something sinister yet vaguely familiar about the idea of a person—whose only apparent qualification for office is having been born to wealth—acting in the interest of the disenfranchised.  We sincerely hope the disenfranchised are capable of learning from history.

  1. In German at least, the verb “stimmen,” used intransitively, also means “to be right”: “Stimmt das? Ja, das stimmt” (“Is that right? Yes, it is”). I suspect that this meaning enters somehow into the transitive sense of “stimmen.” “To tune a string” (“eine Saite stimmen”) is to set the string at the “right” pitch, and perhaps with regard to “Stimme” as the singing voice there is a hint of singing the right note, at the right pitch, at the right volume, with the right timbre, and in the right blend or balance with other voices, both vocal and instrumental.

  2. “Stimmt”, Stephen, there is a connection indeed, but it’s vice versa. In a roundabout way, the intransitive verb “stimmen” was derived from “Stimme” as well: “Sie sangen übereinstimmend.” (They sang coherently.) >> “übereinstimmend: harmonierend, zusammenpassend” (coherent: harmonizing, fitting together) >> “einstimmig: im Einklang stehen, gleicher Meinung sein” (with one voice: to be in perfect harmony or in tune, to share a view) >> “stimmig, stimmen” (coherent, to be right/correct/true) Actually, when saying “(das) stimmt” it means that someone or something is in tune according to the historical development.

  3. Thank you both for your linguistic elucidations, but we were quoting another writer’s words and can hardly offer a meaningful clarification or defense. May I suggest you read Wim van der Meer’s chapter for more context? Perhaps he would be pleased to know his ideas sparked discussion and he may welcome more via his blog.

  4. (Evidence for the above-mentioned can, e.g., be found in: Jacob & Wilhelm Grimm, Deutsches Wörterbuch, 1854-1961.) But getting back to your post, I would like to know which languages you speak, considering Donna’s natural and sensitive singing in this multilingual repertoire. This is amazing.

    • Thank you for the citation and also for your very kind words, J. Donna is indisposed at the moment so you’re stuck with my response.

      We both studied French and German and Donna also studied Russian and Romanian. We both have passing familiarity with Italian and Latin (from many years of singing Latin Mass) and also have researched historical pronunciation in nearly all the above. But the sensitivity to sung languages is mainly due to artistic insight and a real gift for expressiveness (which Donna would humbly downplay), and giving each piece we incorporate into our repertory the attention it deserves—we are quite serious about rehearsal.


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