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Saturday morning quotes 7.27: Natural voice

August 24, 2019


“Myth consists in overturning culture into nature or, at least, the social, the cultural, the ideological, the historical into the “natural.” What is nothing but a product of class division and its moral, cultural and aesthetic consequences is presented as being a “matter of course”; under the effect of mythical inversion, the quite contingent foundations of the utterance become Common Sense, Right Reason, the Norm, General Opinion, in short the doxa.”

– Roland Barthes, “Change the Object Itself: Mythology Today,” Image—Music—Text, translated by Stephen Heath, The Noonday Press, New York, 1977,  p. 165.

OK.  It is high time we had a serious talk about singing early music, at least early music that dates from before 1600.  The unfortunate myth that has led to unconvincing and, yes, off-putting modern performance modalities has very little to do with choices made by scholars, whose job it is to remove the layers of dust from old scores and make the music understandable to modern musicians.  Rather the myth has everything to do with the training of modern musicians and the interpretive choices they make when early music is put into play.

When a modern classically-trained voice is applied to a repertory that is essentially retro-pop, the result pretty much alienates and excludes an enormous segment of the potential listening audience.  Plain and simple.  Many listeners who would otherwise be interested in the music and the lyrics simply switch off, or in modern parlance, swipe left when they hear a projected voice from a singer who seems to be much more interested in showing off her technique than in communicating the text.

Conversely, applying a modern classically-trained voice to early music ultimately targets an audience who is comfortable with the concept of early music packaged as “classical-lite”, performed by “legitimate” singers who, because of their proper training and pedigree surely must be improving upon the original.  This audience is rapidly ageing and they are becoming increasingly less interested in the questionable cachet of Early Music.  And they are diverting their diminishing stash of dollars to other pursuits.

Some classically-trained performers who have adopted early music attempt to cling to dwindling audiences by indulging in samplings of cross-over folk music that, in its unadulterated form, surely offers insights into performing historical popular music.  But these insights are not realized by imposing modern classically-trained technique upon simple melodies and straightforward texts.  This not only robs the music of its directness and disarming appeal, but it is also not nice to hear.  In such cases attention is drawn away from the substance and message of the music and toward the performer, who invariably adds personality and what they think are period gestures as a further distraction.

How do we know our supposition to be true?

Of course singing solo songs composed post-1600 requires a different approach than singing chamber music with the lute, but prior to the age of Monteverdi, the bulk of what we have come to define as early music repertory was either intended for the chapel or the chamber.  In the case of the chapel, an audible projection was encouraged but singers were advised to moderate their voice.  In the chamber, a projected voice was never appropriateand that includes music that involved the lute in an accompanying role.

“The singer should know too that in church and in public chapels he should sing with full voice, moderated of course as I have just said, while in private chambers he should use a subdued and sweet voice and avoid clamor.”

– Gioseffo Zarlino ( 1517 – 1590), Le istitutioni harmoniche (1558)

In the face of clear evidence to the contrary, why do early music singers persist in using a projected voice based upon Victorian ideals of training, technique and diction?

As Mignarda we limit our involvement in music of the later 17th century and yield the concert stage to those with large voices and personalities to match.  But the more we delve into the source materials, the more we realize that musicians of today have defined the character of the music according to an anachronistic standard. The volume of the voice in solo song and other domestic music during the 17th century was not universally loud simply because we know that a few large-scale operas were being staged at the time. Transferring our repertory to the modern concert hall does not allow for an accurate representation of the music.  People had much more acute hearing than we do today, and they sang for one another in close quarters where shouting and shrieking was very likely discouraged with a sharp pointy object.

What is a projected voice anyway?  How do we know it was not in common use?  Read the sources:  A description of singing tasteful ornaments in the Italian style attributed to Nicholas Lanier from 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.”

“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 mulitude of Divisions made upon short and long Syllables, though by the Vulgar such Singers are cryed up for famous.”

– p. 38

“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.”

– ppg. 54-55.

The first notable statement is that the voice needs to be pitched where it is most attractive.  And by “feigned” voice, Lanier means projected voice.  This is from the 17th century by the person credited with introducing the Stile Recititavo to England.  Get it? No projected voice, and certainly no countertenor voice. How did modern audiences come to accept the premise that early music must be sung in an inappropriate modern voice?

“The truth is we invented the early music vocal sound based on what we wanted it to be like, and on the voices of a small number of singers with particular talents. The small-scale, refined, straight, disciplined early music singing that we were used to came out of nowhere..Even when singers began to look at pedagogical sources and so on, they (we) chose to ignore those bits that didn’t fit the model we had in our heads. An entire pedagogy was developed by people who claimed to know how 17th- or 18th-century singing was supposed to go, but whose knowledge was based mostly on their own experience of the late 20th-century early music movement, rather than an understanding of the sources.”

“You can teach the basics of singing (it doesn’t take long), but after that, historical singing is a matter of research. Research is learning—you can’t teach it. Universities don’t help either as they seem to think that teaching and research are umbilically linked to each other: they aren’t.”

– Richard Wistreich and John Potter, “Singing early music: a conversation,” Early Music, Vol. XLI, No. 1, February 2013

Ideas or approaches that aggressive personalities promote seem to become conventional wisdom over time, despite a lack of justification or, in the case of the interpretation of historical practices, despite their lack of supporting evidence.  When this newly minted conventional wisdom is accepted without challenge, as tends to occur in personality-based performance modalities, a rich multifaceted element of our cultural past is diminished.  To achieve an authentic interpretation according to the evidence and an effective interpretation that both serves the music and convinces the listener, a modern conservatory-trained voice is the very last thing one should impose upon early music.

For he…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…

– Pierre de Ronsard

Now, for an apt alternative, let us return to our preferred time and style to examine a characteristic depiction of vocal practice circa 1500.  Since there is a lute present, we can make assumptions as to what sort of sound one may have expected from this trio of singers.


Lorenzo Costa – Un concerto circa 1485-95

No extended jaw, no gaping maw.  What we observe is a calm intimacy and an inward focus with a more than obvious concentration on vocal blend.  These singers did not project their voices because they were singing chamber music that demanded coordination with a very quiet instrument that was participating in the polyphony.

Mignarda’s chosen repertory is polyphonic vocal music of the 16th century and earlier that was adapted for solo voice and lute, 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. A projected voice must be deliberately restrained in order to achieve such balance, and one nearly always hears the effort in the resulting sound. Merely following the recommendations of the original composers and reading the words of 16th century connoisseurs tells us exactly what to do—sing with a natural voice.

If you believe there is only one correct way to sing and you don’t know how to sing in a natural voice, you should know that singing without projection should be part of every singer’s technique.  If you don’t know how, just ask us.

  1. Christopher Barker permalink

    I truly appreciate this particular article. I grew up in a small church where the choir sang in the old way because the chapel was small enough to make shouting unnecessary. Outside of the church I have attended many big early music concerts with electronically amplified lutes and loud projected voices. On the average the modern audience believes that this is the way it was in Anno Domini 1500. (I am repelled by dating things BCE and CE.) One thing kept coming to mind as I read your article 7:27. Being an old Texan I still like to watch westerns. In the film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, everybody believed the character played by John Wayne actually shot Liberty Valence. At the Wayne character’s funeral the character played by Jimmy Stewart, then a senator, was being interviewed by a newspaper reporter. The Stewart character told the reporter that he, not the Wayne character, indeed shot Liberty Valence. And here’s the important part… The reporter replied that sometimes legend becomes truth, so I think I’ll just stick with legend. And that may have been what happened to early music in the minds of modern listeners.

    • Thanks for your comments and for your perfectly apt analogy, Christopher. I suspect there are a few other significant historical events that have happened in our lifetimes that have been deliberately distorted with an unfortunate myth intentionally displacing the truth.

  2. Sara Stewart permalink

    I’m a 67-year mezzo-soprano. 20+ years ago I was trained in opera but for a variety of reason, dropped singing altogether. I want to start again. Originally I sang folk music for my own pleasure.
    So, how do I start/return to singing in a natural voice? There’s no evidence of vocal damage. Thank & blessings.

    • Thanks for your comment, Sara. Of course, every singer has her own set of virtues and challenges, and we can only make general comments without working directly with a particular person. But that said, the place to begin is with speech, and therefore with texts. To distill the results of our long research into a few words, all historical singing was meant to be an amplification of speech—and by amplification we don’t mean making it louder. Perhaps “decoration” of speech is a better description.

      From the earliest surviving written accounts, singing was taught as a means of conveying liturgical texts, and singing for the sake of producing beautiful sounds at the expense of clear diction was an absurdity. You can read for yourself in Christopher Page, The Christian West and Its Singers: The First Thousand Years (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010).

      I (Ron) would suggest that you return to your folk music repertory and try to recall how you would have sung simple songs for your own enjoyment or for a small number of listeners. You might listen to and emulate some of your favorite folksingers. As a side note, not all folksingers sing in a natural voice: Joan Baez, for instance used a light projection that had its own beauty, but is still projection. Judy Collins may possibly be a better example of a natural voice. There is a wonderful video of Judy Collins on Pete Seeger’s old television program:

      I hope this helps. If you are interested in more feedback, perhaps Donna could be persuaded to do a skype lesson.


      • Sara Stewart permalink

        Thank you so much for your suggestions! I will definitely listen to the video you so generously included & I can probably use the internet to find the text reference. I continue to enjoy your CD’s; “Magnum Mysterium” and “Adoro Te”. I have to say, I still get pleasure from knowing I had a small hand in the financing of that album. With wishes for peace profound.

  3. David Hill permalink

    This is the most important piece I’ve ever read about the performance of lute song since Bob Spencer’s teachings, and this argument needs repeating again and again until we get a few more sympathetic performances coming through, rather than the now-mainstream academy projected voice ‘can belto’ renditions. We’ve had 70 years of those – time for more sympathetic and balance- based approaches. Naturally no-one wishes to deny anyone the joy of performing lute songs, no matter what their voice type (though as you know, I have argued for years that countertenors in this repertoire is an anachronistic invention of the 1950s, and not remotely a period practice, and I’m so glad you keep saying that too!) But the use of an appropriate level of volume of voice that matches the instrument is so absolutely essential – and hardly anyone today does it (apart from you!) . In performance, often the projected voices of the ‘professionals’, who have to sing everything from Verdi to Monteverdi nowadays, completely wipe out any chance of hearing the lute accompaniment, even in many CD performances, despite all today’s opportunities for fiddling with the balance; it is often completely drowned. Dowland could not have expected or wanted that. The example of Judy Collins here is a masterclass in how to perform ‘to’ the instrument – she plays louder whenever she sings louder, and quieter when she sings quieter, because she is so aware of, and tuned into the supporting nature of her accompaniment, and ensures that you hear every single note of her plucking. And she is just so darn good at putting a song across – just listen to that diction, even in grainy old 60s TV sound quality; we are not worthy. The problem with singers (and I was one, and by all accounts, a reasonably good one, so I feel qualified to turn on my own species) is always this: We are obsessed with the beauty and quality of our own voices to the point where insisting that our hearers swoon at that beauty becomes paramount – even overriding things we know are more important, like expression and colour. And the record companies know this – they know that beautiful tone is what the punters want – money in the bank. This influences the songs we choose for recitals or discs – show off that beauty, man. Before I get too old, and the voice is too cranky to do it, I must perform lute songs again. Thanks for such a great piece. The Early Music world, itself a construction based on performance in inappropriately large concert halls, and a record-buying public, needs to recognise that the one-size-fits-all approach is fundamentally wrong. The Folk clubs of the 60s had it right all along.

  4. Thank you very much for your insightful commentary and for your kind words, David. I didn’t have the opportunity to meet or hear Bob Spencer in person, but I have read as much of his writing on the interpretation of lute songs as I could lay hands on, and he obviously cared deeply about the music, the integrity of the historical tradition, and about making the deeply moving qualities of music from Dowland’s time accessible to modern audiences. We have come rather late to the game, comparatively, but I will confess that we care just as deeply.

    Yes, the early music racket has been molded by a frame of reference imposed upon it by the academy and by market forces. You put this point across most eloquently. But those of us who have a deep respect for the historical context and who have the ability to combine informed interpretive decisions with the real-world skills gained from surviving a dedicated musical life, see very clearly that, as you say, “the Folk clubs of the 60s had it right all along.” Direct and immediate music that is meant to communicate the words.


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Saturday morning quotes 7.28: Naturaliter | Unquiet Thoughts
  2. Saturday morning quotes 7.43: Dowland | Unquiet Thoughts
  3. Saturday morning quotes 8.15: New or old? | Unquiet Thoughts

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