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Saturday morning quotes 7.37: Notes

February 28, 2020


First, we state that we are emphatically pro-primate and do not wish to appear to depict our very important friends in an unfair light.  However, even advanced practitioners of solfeggio are not necessarily the best musicians.

Dwelling on the fringe of the ubiquitous choral community, we seem to encounter two features among singers that, while they appear to take great pride in these skills, we are compelled to state that, contrariwise, they are nothing more than defects when it comes to singing early music.  The first is so-called “perfect pitch,” which we can dismiss readily.  The reference tone of A=440 Hertz was not adopted by the International Organization for Standardization until 1955, and therefore it is not an acceptable pitch reference for early music.  Modern “perfect pitch” is categorically linked to a reference pitch of A=440 and when alternative reference pitches are employed these singers are simply at sea.  Since we follow historical practice and always take care to pitch music where it is most effectively conveyed, we usually refer to singers with so-called “perfect pitch” as suffering from “inflexible pitch reference.”

The second characteristic professional singers often trumpet is a highly developed skill in sight-reading.  While this may be considered a positive as applies to modern choral repertory, in actual practice we find that good sight-readers often rely upon their spontaneous reading skills in lieu of focused practice, and they can be indifferent musicians who are frequently under-prepared.

“I make a great distinction between a musician and a note-player.  The former is he who, considering music as the science of sounds, regards the notes only as conventional signs representing them, and which by the sight convey the result to the mind, as letters communicate words, and words ideas.  The latter is he who considers it the science of notes, who attaches great importance to their names, the real acceptation of which is unknown to him…”

“The note-player succeeds, by dint of practice, in making an acquisition, which is to music what the motions of a rope-dancer are to dancing: he considers an isolated sound, how it is named, and to what key of the pianoforte it corresponds; but, while guessing at it, frequently it happens that he sings out of tune, as it might happen to a rope-dancer that, with all his equilibrium, he might not be able to make a regular pirouette on the floor.”

– Fernando Sor, Sor’s Method for the Spanish Guitar, translated from the original by A. Merrick, London, c. 1850, “Knowledge of the finger-board,” p. 18.

Effective interpretation demands much more than just singing the notes, and a large proportion of the better sort of early music requires intimate familiarity with text and musical phrasing that can only be gained through intensive and interactive rehearsal.  In fact, historical evidence clearly indicates that polyphonic music was sung with deep understanding and sung from memory:

“…[T]ext underlay cannot be taken literally and that adequate singing of even the discantus demands first that the singer have a complete memory, knowledge and understanding of the vocal lines.  Sight reading—or anything approaching it—is out of the question.”

– David Fallows, Commentary to the facsimile of the Manuscript Rothschild 2793 (I.5-13) in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Valencia: Vicent García Editores, 2008.

The way to get to the heart of the music is to absorb the un-notated nuances through repeated performance.  Sight-reading and then blithely moving on to the next piece does a great disservice to both the music and the audience.  If we wish to follow historical practice, we will develop the skill of interpretation to the point where magic happens.

“What shall we say of musicians and singers to the lute, who with their songs and instruments lead even unwilling men now to anger, now to compassion, now to arms, now to worship, as the reports of Orpheus, Timotheus, and innumerable others show?  Therefore it is not unreasonable or unnatural to alter and compel minds with sounds—which minds, once altered, clearly will alter their bodies.”

Pietro Pomponazzi (1462 – 1525), De incantationibus, p. 35, quoted from Gary Tomlinson, Music in Renaissance Magic, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1993, p. 202.

The enchantment of early music is made manifest through commitment to communication of the sounds that the written notes are meant to represent, and it is essential to get light years beyond the notes—if you believe in magic.

  1. Sara Stewart permalink

    But soft! What sound through yonder window breaks? It is Earl, whose dulcet voice causes the very birds to fall from trees & sky when they hear it!

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