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Saturday morning quotes 7.33: Reason

rameau_th_03Today’s brief post offers a few quotes from Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683 – 1764), from the Preface of his Traité de l’harmonie, 1722.  Rameau capably contrasts the value of Reason versus Experience, which in this case refers to a logic derived from solid training and a thorough structural comprehension of music, versus making things up as you go along, employing gimmicks, and judging quality simply by reaction to effects.

In today’s terms, what Rameau defines as Reason may be described as a skill and understanding derived from careful attention to historical example and innovation based upon knowledge, while Experience may be equated with effect, or what we have come to call today, Disruption.

In an alternative slightly modified take on the quotations below that may be extrapolated to fit the larger picture, try substituting the word Wisdom for Reason, and Google for Experience, which is very revealing and quite applicable in nearly every case.  We have added bold to the pertinent cases.

“However much progress music may have made until our time, it appears that the more sensitive the ear has become to the marvelous effects of this art, the less inquisitive the mind has been about its true principles.  One might say that reason has lost its rights, while experience has acquired a certain authority.”

“The surviving writings of the Ancients show us clearly that reason alone enabled them to discover most of the properties of music.  Although experience still obliges us to accept the greater part of their rules, we neglect today all the advantages to be derived from the use of reason in favor of purely practical experience.”

“Even if experience can enlighten us concerning the different properties of music, it alone cannot lead us to discover the principle behind these properties with the precision appropriate to reason.”

“Conclusions drawn from experience are often false, or at least leave us with doubts that only reason can dispel.  How, for example, could we prove that our music is more perfect than that of the Ancients, since it no longer appears to produce the same effects they attributed to theirs?  Should we answer that the more things become familiar the less they cause surprise, and the the admiration which they can originally inspire degenerates imperceptibly as we accustom ourselves to them, until what we admired becomes at last merely diverting?”

– Jean-Philippe Rameau, Traité de l’harmonie, 1722, translated by Philip Gossett.



Saturday morning quotes 7.32: 2020


Happy New Year, such as it is.  Four days into a new decade, we find ourselves observing a continent on fire and a surfeit of irrational behavior on the part of the unwholesome element that has insinuated itself into a leadership role while citizens were busy being distracted by their phones. It would be a truly difficult task to top the level of absurdity that dominated the airwaves throughout 2019, but we appear to have a good start just ninety-six hours into an entirely new decade.

While the general population remains glued to their plastic screens, at least we have the calming influence of historical music that serves as a welcome antidote to the mess we’re in.  We are optimistic.  Having just released volume one of the Mignarda Songbook: English Ayres, we are now nearing completion of a performing edition of the entire corpus of lute songs of John Dowland: an entirely new transcription directly from the facsimiles that also includes transcription of the lute parts into keyboard notation.  A particularly special feature is that we have used as a source for the First Booke, Dowland’s 1597 print which includes several more idiomatic variants from the more commonly used hybrid versions now in print.  Dowland’s First Booke went through a series of reprints after he sold his rights to the book in 1597 and therefore lost all control over later emendations, thus the 1597 print truly represents what Dowland had in mind for the accompaniments.

Bringing musicians and listeners closer to the historical context of our chosen music has been our mission from the very beginning of our duo, and we hope our Dowland edition will help achieve that goal.  As we like to remind our readers:

“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. . . 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.

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

This leads us to question in the larger context of the world just what it is we are observing, and question whether it is even real.

“…A basic element of quantum mechanics was that man created reality by observing it.  Before that observation, what truly existed was all possible situations.  Only through observation did nature become concrete, take a stance.  There was, inevitably, inherent indetermination, of which man was more the witness than the protagonist.  Or, to put a fine point on it, both things at once: victim as well as guilty party.”

– Arturo Pérez-Reverte, The Painter of Battles, translated by Margaret Sayers Peden

And looking back toward historical examples, perhaps we can calm the current tensions if we only heed the lessons of the past.

“…It was necessary for the people of Israel to be in captivity in Egypt to make evident the quality of Moses; for the Persians to be oppressed by the Medes to prove the great heart of Cyrus; and the anarchy of the Athenians to launch the leadership of Theseus; so today, if the excellence of the Italian genius is to be made manifest, it needed the degradation of Italy to the pass in which she is at present, that she should become more captive than the Jews, more helot than the Persians, more anarchic than the Athenians, leaderless and lawless, defeated, despoiled, mangled, overrun, and the victim of every kind of disaster.”

– Niccolò Machiavelli, Il Principe, 1513, Envoi.

As we observe the decline and fall of all the tangible remnants of our cultural past, we like to point out that Early Music is really nothing more than another marketing phenomenon.  There is an audience of people in possession of the means and the inclination to appreciate our cultural past, and there are musicians capable of interpreting old music to general satisfaction.  We strive for a unified approach that places greater importance on the enlightening and essential calming effect of historical music on a world gone mad.

Saturday morning quotes 7.31: Wisdom

Thinker in Cleveland

Wisdom is a solid and integral structure, each part of which holds its place and bears its mark.

– Michel de Montaigne (1533 – 1592)

We take a moment to wish our readers a happy Christmas and a warm, wonderful and contemplative holiday season.  We also hope all and some will pause to reflect upon the spirit of the season and the important things that identify us as thinking persons sharing the planet.  And we hope that, unlike the representation of The Thinker displayed at the Cleveland Museum of Art, that we do not allow the quality of wisdom to be subject to the slings and arrows of thoughtless reaction, deliberately fostered by an inane meme culture.

It seems the quality of wisdom is under attack in this age of vacuous fad, rapidly transmitted across the globe by those who know the power of information and how to shape public perception.  It seems that while a formal education is more accessible than ever, political literacy is at a very low ebb.

The first point of wisdom is to discern that which is false, and the second, to know that which is true.

Lucius Caecilius Firmianus Lactantius (c. 250 – 325)

Wisdom is a thing attained over time: The result of thoughtful digestion of information that is weighed against fact and slowly converted to knowledge, then tested against the sphere in which we dwell until it eventually becomes wisdom.

Over the past few years we have seen several unpleasant fads circulate, fads that have been deliberately spread to cause division among races, men and women, and young and older.  We ask our readers to understand that, while there may be conceptual legitimacy to events that sparked the fad, the spread of division among the population was no accident.  Imagine how effective we could be if there was unity of purpose among all.

Our world would be a better place if we adhered to certain historical traditions that demonstrate respect for those who possess wisdom, but also learned to recognize and beware of those who simply demand respect because they have been around a long time and think it’s their turn.  They are easily spotted.

We encourage all to respect the wisdom of the elders and celebrate Christmas and the coming of longer days and an eventual Springtime with seasonal music.

Saturday morning quotes 7.30: Origins

The_Google_monsterNow that life has slowed down approximately 4.5 percent, we take just a few moments to wish our readers a warm and pleasant holiday season and to announce upcoming availability of a new music edition from Mignarda Editions. And we also take the opportunity to generally wag a disapproving finger at an ominous organization that has become far too big for its britches and, in true fallacious flavor of modern morality, has stolen utterly everything it claims to ownincluding its name.

We’ll come to the point eventually, but first we are pleased to announce the December 20th 2019 availability of Volume One of the Mignarda Songbook: English Ayres.   The edition is the first in a series of selections from Mignarda’s repertory in response to many requests from musicians who seek to emulate our informed practice of performing historical lute songs in a manner that communicates the texts to their best advantage.

As a repertory of solo songs, the series of English lute songs published between 1597 – 1632 was primarily intended for a tenor voice sung from a transposing clef with self-accompaniment on the lute.  According to every descriptive source from the period, one is always advised to pitch the vocal line where it best suits the voice and where the text is best articulated.  And indeed the universal historical practice of singing plainchant or psalms at a convenient pitch reinforces the concept of transposing the voice part to a convenient range.  The evidence supports the idea that the relative pitch standard was lower than our modern A=440, and lutes employed during that period were likely larger than our modern 60 cm. alto lute tuned to G.  This puts to rest the idea that the modern soprano voice was the standard interpretive choice, a voice type that typically favors the beauty of sound over the clear enunciation of words.  Singing at the higher octave as indicated in the printed scores was not likely to have been intended unless the song was performed in ensemble, using the optional printed accompanying parts for alto, tenor and bass.

Many ayres and lute solos in the new Mignarda Songbook are quite rare and not available elsewhere, and there are also found a few familiar pieces included as representative gems among our favorites.  Mignarda’s signature sound has struck a chord with a broad international audience attracting many new fans to early music, and we are pleased to share the results of our research and our unique repertory with professional and amateur musicians in the hope that our approach to performance of historical lute songs will thrive through informed, aware and engaging performance.

As an example of a unique song found in our new edition, we mention “Lyke as the lark within the marlains foote,” a song from the mid-16th century anthology known as Tottel’s Miscellany, originally titled, Songes and Sonettes Written By the Ryght Honorable Lord Henry Howard, late Earle of Surrey, Thomas Wyatt the Elder and others.  Among other sources, music for the poem is found in a keyboard manuscript that is bound together with the Dallis Lute Book, Trinity College Dublin MS 410/1.  The keyboard section of the manuscript is typically referred to as the Dublin Virginal Book, and the straightforward music is scored in two staves on p. 321 (No. 24).  Our version supplies the melody and bass from an alternative source that was printed in the Wood Psalter and the Melville Book of Roundels, and we provide a lute intabulation of the version from the Dublin Virginal Book.

Since the mid-16th century language can be a bit challenging, we provide a translation into more modern English.  Among the poetical oddities, the obscure term, “marlians foote” turns out to be a clever poetical device: A marlian, or merlion, was typically a heraldic representation of a bird with either no feet or neither feet nor beak, and the term may also refer to a hood or other attachment for a clerical robe.  Also, “foot” can be a reference to style or language; prosaic, low, not refined.  This is just an example of the annotations provided in the songbook.

There are several other appealing poems in Tottel’s Miscellany suitable for performance as lute songs, but it is instructive to simply dip into the anthology as poetry in order to gain a contextual understanding of the status and style of mid-century Tudor verse.  Among the poets identified in the collection is one Barnabe Googe, who turns out to have been quite a prolific author and well-connected. In a letter dated 1 October 1563, William Cecil, Lord Burghley referred to Barnabe Googe as his servant and near kinsman, and Googe was of sufficient status as an author that his engaging Eglogs, Epytaphes, and Sonettes was published in 1563, the year of John Dowland’s birth.

Leaping ahead a few centuries, we weave the American cartoonist William Morgan DeBeck (1890 – 1942) into the story.  DeBeck would have received a good education since his father, Louis DeBecque, was a newspaper man and his mother, Jessie Lee Morgan, was a school teacher.   This was at a time when a child attending elementary school was taught Latin and read the Classics, and DeBeck’s mother was certainly aware of the Classics and the revival of historical English literature that was in vogue during the latter 19th century.  Moving into the realm of speculation, there is a very good chance that the rather catchy name, Barnabe Googe, would not have escaped the notice of school teacher and gifted and privileged child who went on to study at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts.

It turns out that in 1871 scholar Edward Arber (1836 – 1912) published an edited reprint of Googe’s Eglogs, Epytaphes, and Sonettes, which must surely have appeared on the reading list of the educated DeBeck family at some point.  And when DeBeck was in his early 20s, the weirdly prophetic fantasy tale in verse, The Google Book, by Vincent Cartwright Vickers was published in London.  Cartoonist DeBeck first created his character, Barney Google in 1919, a name surely reminiscent of the historical poet Barnabe Googe mashed up with reference to Vicker’s strange tale of Googleland.

Barney Google went on to become quite popular, even rating his own popular song.  But his popularity was no match for the disquieting fantasyland created by Vickers. The Google monster, depicted above was described as follows:

The Google has a beautiful garden which is guarded night and day. All through the day he sleeps in a pool of water in the center of the garden; but when the night comes, he slowly crawls out of the pool and silently prowls around for food.

This sounds uncomfortably similar to the other monster that crawls abroad when no one is watching, and silently prowls around for content to monetize with never the slightest intent of paying the creators of said content.  Humorist Vickers, also a prominent economist, was deeply concerned over the economic structure that had evolved over time.  Before he died in 1939, he penned on his deathbed a pamphlet entitled Economic Tribulation, published posthumously in 1941.  We leave you with the final words of the man who invented the Google monster.

The present order of things must change. The economic structure of civilisation is obviously leaning heavily. To build upon it, to add weight to it as it now stands, crooked and unsafe, can only bring nearer the day of its collapse.

The structure must be surveyed from its foundations upwards, and the quality and suitability of its masonry tested. Then, having discovered where its weaknesses lie, we must endeavour with honesty to restore the walls and make them strong once more and upright as they were meant to be. Then and then only can we safely proceed with the building and work in peace. We can no longer trust to a complication of endeavours to conceal the existing flaws and to cover up gross injustices and mistakes by temporary expedients. In future our labours, if they are to succeed, must be directed towards the general betterment of mankind and the progress of humanity. Only by such efforts can our economic structure once more follow the proper plan of it’s building, in accordance with the original design of its Architect.





Saturday morning quotes 7.29: Dowland looms large


“How hard an enterprise it is, in this skillfull and curious age, to commit our priuate labours to the publike viewe…”

– John Dowland, “To the courteous Reader”, The First Booke of Songs or Ayres, 1597.

We are back for a brief post after having had an unexpectedly full schedule over the summer.  The locale of our particular corner of the US having been dealt a miserly measure of a much diminished autumn, we are now plunged headlong into an even busier and already brutally cold winter season.  But we take the time to share with our readers a few significant news items related to Dowland, old and new.

Mignarda’s 2013 release of Dowland’s A Pilgrimes Solace continues to garner a bit of attention, despite our complete and utter neglect in promoting the album.  The CD features a selection of Mignarda’s personal favorites from Dowland’s last book of songs with the participation of bowed strings by Alex Korolov and Alexander Rakov and an introductory essay by the late Edward Doughtie.  We are very pleased to announce that the CD was selected as a reference recording in the new book by K. Dawn Grapes, John Dowland: A Research and Information Guide, Routledge Music Bibliographies, New York, 2019.  The book is a much needed guide to currently available music editions and literature focused on the most influential historical lutenist composer, John Dowland, and includes a numbered catalog of works, a discography, an annotated bibliography of secondary sources, all thoroughly indexed.

Having just completed the first in a new series of music editions titled The Mignarda Songbook, we are now hard at work producing a new performing edition of Dowland’s complete corpus of lute songs.  More on this in the near future. We are also returning to the recording studio and are now in the process of recording more songs by Dowland and his English contemporaries.

As we refocus our attention on the music of Dowland, and on this blog, we offer the rather easy challenge of guessing the title of the first Dowland song we recorded during our Monday session?


Saturday morning quotes 7.28: Naturaliter

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


Saturday morning quotes 7.27: Natural voice


“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.