Academic journal article Canadian University Music Review

On the Role of Vocal Idioms in Singing

Academic journal article Canadian University Music Review

On the Role of Vocal Idioms in Singing

Article excerpt

In the modern scholarly literature about vocal music, there is little to be found regarding the parameters of vocal usage that constitute distinctive vocal idioms, that is, the specific vocal techniques used in the performance of particular styles of music. By contrast, the historical treatises of Giulio Caccini (1602),1 Pietro Francesco Tosi ( 1723, 1743),2 or Manuel Garcia II ( 1841, 1847),3 to name but three, linked certain vocal techniques to the musical styles of the day. These treatises included both vocal and musical advice, since vocal technique was considered inseparable from matters of musical style. Today, however, there seems to be a gulf between studies of musical style and studies of singing. Musicologists have concentrated on the printed musical score and have created an analytical concept known as the word-tone relationship, in which the value of a song depends upon the balance between textual and musical elements in the score, but this concept accords little attention to the essential role of the singer. In this sense, the word-tone relationship might better be called the word-note relationship. Vocal pedagogues, on the other hand, are concerned with methods of using the voice as a musical instrument. Their focus is on the vocal techniques generally associated with so-called "classical" singing styles, especially the bel canto techniques of Italian opera, with little attention to the broader spectrum of vocal styles or the popular forms of singing often referred to as "vernacular" styles. Voice scientists try to quantify the physiological and acoustical elements of the singing voice, most often in a laboratory situation, by using procedures that isolate aspects of the voice. But the scientific method is too specialized to address the complex question of diverse musical styles, and references to vocal idioms are fragmentary. I believe it is only through a rapprochement of vocal history, pedagogy, and science that an understanding of vocal idioms can be gained.

Idiomatic singing is not a peripheral element in the success of a song; it is an integral part of it. To illustrate this, I can think of no better example than the famous aria "Che faro senza Euridice?" from Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice. This piece has been harshly dealt with by some critics, from Eduard Hanslick in 1854(4) to Peter Kivy in 1980,5 as a song in which the somber mood and character of the text is contradicted by Gluck's rather jaunty melody in the major mode. One opera manual states: "It is a strange air - strange because, despite its pathetic words and the sense of agonized loss which it supposedly expresses, its straightforward, major-key tune has none of the purely musical features which normally convey pathos in singing."6

There are good reasons to agree with this view if one simply studies the score for its word-note relationships, or indeed, if one hears a performance in which the singer does not use the devices of idiomatic singing to capture the mood and character of the text despite the major-mode melody. However, there is contradictory evidence in the historical accounts of past singers who have captured the intended affect of the aria. For instance, the first Orfeo, castrate Gaetano Guadagni, was praised by Hogarth for "the impassioned and exquisite manner in which he sang the air."7 Later, Hector Berlioz lauded the singing of Pauline Garcia Viardot in the 1859 revival of Orfeo.8 It was Gluck himself who, in 1770, remarked on the importance of vocal idioms in the performance of "Che farò":

Little or nothing, apart from a slight alteration in the mode of expression, would be needed to turn my aria in Orfeo, "Che farò senza Euridice?" into a puppet-dance. One note more or less sustained, failure to increase the tempo or make the voice louder, one appoggiatura out of place, a frill, a passage or roulade, can ruin a whole scene in such an opera.9

While these early performances are, of course, lost to us, there are nevertheless some modern recorded performances that demonstrate the rôle of idiomatic singing in capturing the affect of this aria. …

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