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Saturday morning quotes 7.28: Naturaliter

September 6, 2019

Tintin singer

“History is a conceptual artifact that attempts to bestow continuity and coherence upon the intractable shapes and scattered debris of the past.  It selects and molds, it documents and extrapolates, it judges and evaluates.  It is never the equivalent of reality.”

Gilbert Chase, in his review of Charles Hamm, Yesterdays: Popular Song in America, from the Journal of the American Musicological Society, Volume XXXIV, number 1, Spring, 1981, Reviews, p. 156.

Bertolt Brecht is alleged to have said that Art was “not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.”  But when the description of that artfully hammered shape is deliberately modified by those who would rewrite History to their own ends, and when such modifications are foisted upon us by opportunists who would redefine History to suit their own purpose, then we then dwell in a world that lacks a true and trusted point of reference.  In other words, we dwell in the world of today.

History is what someonethe proverbial unnamed we—selects, records and codifies for posterity and for purpose.  History is myth that becomes accepted as common knowledge over time, regardless of whether it is accurate or even remotely true.  Diverse authors, including the venerable George Orwell, have stated that history is written by the winners.  This may be so, but it is also true that history is written by opportunists who understand the power of propaganda.

Since the latter half of the 20th century, those involved in shaping the Early Music revival and riding the wave of its relative popularity have had unchecked free rein to decide exactly which aspects of history should be deemed important and worthy of presenting to the public as historical entertainment that is “good for you.”  And they have also positioned themselves to teach their interpretations of selected samples of historical music to a malleable set of students eager to pursue a meaningful career path.   But the unsuspecting students have been taught by practitioners who are unwilling to unlearn their own trademark modern technique, a product of their 20th-century education.  And the concert programs that offer the public a glimpse of antique courtly entertainment merely open the door wide enough to reveal a selectively redefined and rose-tinted past.

This week we follow up on our earlier post focused on singing early music beginning with a brief description of the mechanics of singing, and drawing attention to the strangely anachronistic technique commonly used today by singers who are hopefully otherwise informed about their chosen repertory.  We touch upon some of the mechanical differences of singing with a projected voice, a phenomenon that was institutionalized mainly in the 19th century, and we discuss the timely restoration of singing early music in an appropriate natural voice.

Apart from the less common occurrence of noisy outdoor entertainments, when early music was new music it was essential functional music either sung daily in a chapel or in small rooms for a participatory audience.  Music was necessary, functional, and it was played by live musicians.  By “functional” we mean to say that it was either for liturgical purposes, private devotions, for social dance, for ceremony, or as a domestic participatory means of getting outside of oneself.  This is a difficult concept for modern audiences who are accustomed to on-demand musical entertainment, largely for free or for very little investment.  It is also difficult for modern audiences to understand that most music was participatory and not performance-based music.  Of course there were musicians who were better than average, and they were invariably pressed into service in some capacity as entertainers, but music was an everyday activity that was participatory.  And from every indication found in early sources, the music was sung with a natural voice.

Earliest sources stress that singing was meant to be a decoration of speech, and these early sources of course have to do with singing liturgical music, as documented thoroughly in Christopher Page, The Christian West and Its Singers: The First Thousand Years, Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 2010.  Page’s tome is instructive but reading 600-plus pages of documentary evidence, no matter how fascinating, is not for the faint of heart.  The thumbnail summary is that singers were necessary to communicate the liturgy to the ecclesia, or to the gathering of worshipers. Over time, the liturgy became increasingly complex and codified, and it eventually became necessary to create the schola cantorum, originally a Roman institution, in order to train and maintain singers for the Mass.  There are also surviving descriptions of various forms of accompanied lyric poetry or ballad singing (troubadour, trouvere repertory) and even singing for social dance (carole), which obviously would have been rendered in an appealing, communicative natural voice.

As singing morphed into a modern performance-based phenomenon, vocal pedagogy became standardized. Employing the modern method to produce the vocal sound necessary to fill an opera house without amplification, the singer uses all the available resonance of the upper chest, in addition to the sinus cavities and the space where brains ought to be. When used with willful intent, these bodily spaces can be utilized to amplify the voice. The breath is strictly controlled in order to focus the sound that is disgorged from the mouth, employing the the full capacity of the lungs. As the singer fills her lungs, the diaphragm is displaced, and by exerting control over the diaphragm as the wind is expelled, the singer activates the vocal chords in a modulated manner.

This abbreviated description may of course be applied to the mechanics of singing generally, but modern vocal pedagogy has codified singing technique to suit an ideal and a volume of sound that was established, more or less, in the nineteenth century—the age of the large auditorium and of the Grand Opera.  The Early Music revival that gained momentum in the 1970s was meant to reject the excesses of the Romantic Era and and embrace the elusive aesthetic of ancient times.  The movement was very successful in terms of rediscovering instrumental technique, but what happened to research and rediscovery of appropriate vocal styles?  While some singers pay “lip service” to select bits of advice found in historical treatises, most modern singers are convinced that there is only one legitimate way to sing, and that old music is improved by their modern technique.  We beg to differ.

To support the use of a natural voice, we need look no further than the singing treatise by Conrad von Zabern, De modo bene cantandi, published in Mainz, 1474.  This clear evidence describing the dos and don’ts of 15th-century singing leaves absolutely no question as to the inappropriateness of adding modern vocal techniques to early repertory.  Translations of Conrad’s work may be found in Joseph Dyer, “Singing with Proper Refinement from “De Modo Bene Cantandi” (1474)”, Early Music, Vol. 6, No. 2 (Apr., 1978), p. 207; Carol MacClintock, Readings in the History of Music in Performance, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and London, 1979, p. 12; and a recent work, Conrad von Zabern De modo bene cantandi (1473 [published 1474], translated by Sion M. Honea [pdf]

Conrad had very specific things to say on the subject of vibrato, with which we agree wholeheartedly.

A very common sign of poor training is the horrid wavering up or down of the pitch.  The one as well as the other is detestable, the more so because it attracts attention and is disturbing in the highest degree.  It spoils the correct singing of the others, just like an out-of-tune string disturbs the tuning of the clavichord.  Whoever has this shocking habit should desist entirely from singing until he has procured relief; and it should not be neglected as long as there is hope of correction.

A constant vibrato is largely a 19th-century phenomenon, the use of which seems to have evolved jointly with the prominence of the widely-tuned pianoforte, which is never really quite in tune to those of us accustomed to early music.  Sadly, there appears to be no hope of correction for singers who have this “shocking habit” today.

As for the projected voice, Conrad addressed the matter with characteristic directness.

Another common habit is the violent squeezing out or pushing of the voice, which injures the beauty and sweetness of the singing in the highest degree.  I know some persons who, though better trained than others in singing, nevertheless destroy their singing because of this error, for they are convinced that they sing well; however they have never been shown how blameworthy that manner is.

On rendering those high notes:

A particularly striking crudity is that of singing the high notes with a loud tone, indeed with full lung power.  And truly, if there is a person who, by nature, has a heavy, trumpetlike voice, it makes a great disturbance in the whole choral song and appears as though the voices of several oxen were mixed in with the choir.  And I have also heard in a Collegium that singers with full, heavy voices scream on the high notes from pleasure in strength, so that one thinks that they want to burst the windows or knock them out of their frames.

Conrad did not merely pass judgement but also offered constructive advice, and he used a very apt analogy to describe the proper approach to producing and moderating the voice:

In order to comprehend this error, one must know that whoever sings well must use his voice in three degrees.  The low notes are to be sung entirely from the chest, the middle ones with moderate strength, the high ones with a soft voice.  And the change from one to the other must not be sudden, but gradual, according to the movement of the melody.

The monochord has only one string of one strength, yet it produces very different characters—notes of full, moderate and soft sounds, according to each pitch of the scale.  Why should a man not imitate this string and be able to modulate his voice in many ways?  Each bad habit disfigures the song, first of all, then tires the singer, and third makes him hoarse and incapable of singing.

For the windpipe is a delicate organ and easily injured by violent use, often through singing high notes loudly.  On the contrary, by singing softly, avoiding abuses, one benefits by being able to sing considerably higher than by unnatural straining of the voice.

In our previous post on this subject, we quoted from the description attributed to Nicholas Lanier found in An Introduction to the Skill of Musick, by John Playford, London, 1674.   Lanier stated plainly that good singing was heavily reliant upon the control of one’s breath (wind), but the singer was advised to always pitch the song where one could employ the natural voice to its best advantage.  And the singer was advised to use a natural voice and not to use a projected (feigned) voice, for it does “offend the Ear” and furthermore “from a feigned Voice can come no noble manner of singing.”  It is noteworthy that Lanier’s words were published a full 200 years after Conrad von Zabern’s treatise, and we put this cumulative historical advice to work in an air composed by Lanier, which has the distinction of being Mignarda’s very first recording.

One could easily draw the conclusion that during that 200-year span between Conrad and Lanier, vocal practice observed and followed generally similar precepts.  But some may call attention to the more extravagant style of singing that developed later in the 16th century, and use this phenomenon as a means to justify adherence to 20th-century vocal pedagogy.  We quote from a description of the concerto della donne known for singing in the Italian style circa 1575, as described by Vincenzo Guistiniani from his essay, Discorso sopra la musica.

The ladies of Mantua and Ferrara were highly competent, and vied with each other not only in regard to the timbre and training of their voices but also in the design of exquisite passages delivered at opportune points, but not in excess [emphasis added].  Furthermore they moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light, according to the demands of the piece they were singing…They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages and other embellishments.

This shows that even ornamented singing was performed using moderate voices and with subtlety and taste.  Not using modern projected voices that invariably render the words unintelligible, particularly in the soprano register.  Sadly, modern renditions of the music attributed to the concerto della donne ignore this evidence and perform with all too typical modern voice types, which may be beautiful on their own merits, but the interpretation is decidedly something other than that described by Guistiniani.

Singing ladies

We pause to examine a speculative visual representation of the concerto della donne. Do they look as though they are engaged in an ear-splitting contest while projecting their voices to the rear balcony of the opera house?  No, they do not.  They appear to be singing for (and with, rather than near) one another and an intimate audience.  Surely loud projected voices would shatter the perceived sense of dignified calm, not to mention rendering the lute in the illustration inaudible and thus a meaningless prop.

It’s high time we pull the plug on the conservatory convention of applying modern voices to old music, and restore singing in an appropriate natural voice that suits the aesthetic of early music, in particular the vast repertory of airs for voice and lute.  It is really not a difficult proposition to teach students to sing with sensitivity using a natural voice, and the happy result is sure to attract a wider audience who would otherwise be put off by the off-putting projected voice one associates with the Grand Dame of the Grand Opera.

Bianca Castafiore


  1. Bonjour, Madame Castafiore.

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