Academic journal article Journal of Singing

Sprechstimme

Academic journal article Journal of Singing

Sprechstimme

Article excerpt

[Editor's Note: Readers of my "Elegiac Editorial" in the September/October 2015 issue of the journal will remember the premature passing of Joseph Smith, the author of this article, before it was complete and ready for publication. I was able to pull together a few loose strands, supply some missing information, and make a couple of editorial adjustments, and I am very pleased to posthumously publish the piece as a tribute to a life committed to music. Requiescat in pace, Joseph Smith.]

ARNOLD SCHOENBERG HAD A UNIQUE PREDILECTION for the Sprechstimme technique, having composed important works using Sprechstimme throughout his changing styles-late romantic, free atonal, and twelve-tone. His student, Alban Berg, employed the technique extensively in his opera Wozzeck, which made an immediate sensation and remains one of the most popular of all atonal works. It is unfortunate, therefore, that in regard to the actual execution of Sprechstimme, confusion should reign. The composers themselves did provide instructions for some of these works, and, while it is understandable that these should change from piece to piece, we shall see that the instructions themselves are often ambiguous, contradictory, and occasionally impossible to realize. This article examines the changing Sprechstimme notation and performance instructions in Schoenberg and Berg (in the scores, in letters, etc.). Although the material presented here cannot resolve the inherent contradictions, even identifying, comparing, and summarizing them may prove useful.

First, it is important to attempt to distinguish Sprechstimme from related earlier practices. Obviously, before the era of amplified sound, even non music theater would have required a more declamatory speech than is customary today. (In a 1903 recording, Sarah Bernhardt, perhaps the most celebrated actress of her era, virtually "sings" her lines.) The medium of melodrama, in which actors speak in conjunction with instrumental music, calls for still more vocal intensity-more sound, and more sustaining of sound. Melodrama appears in such familiar operas as Beethoven's Fidelio and von Weber's Der Freischütz, as well as in Mozart's unfinished opera Zaide. In these works, the composers make no attempt to determine the rhythm of the speaking, let alone the pitch. Toward the end of the 19th century, however, Italian verismo composers dictated the rhythm of spoken passages by writing stems with flags but without note heads, that is, without any specification of pitch whatsoever. In Cavalleria rusticana (1890), for instance, Mascagni uses headless stems with flags to mark the rhythm of the distant scream, "Hanno ammazzato compare Turiddu!"

Consistent with all customary definitions, we may say that Sprechstimme combines elements of both ordinary speaking and singing without being unequivocally one or the other. (Alternate terms Sprechmelodie or Sprechgesang may be more apt, but Sprechstimme has become standard.) But the completely novel element of Sprechstimme is not its execution, since this would resemble not only the forerunners discussed above, but also many styles of popular singing. (For instance, the French coined the term diseuse [speakeress] for a woman who half sings in popular music. George M. Cohan's 1911 recording of "Life's a Funny Proposition" is a good example in popular music of a performance poised between speaking and singing.) What is unprecedented about Sprechstimme, though, is the degree to which the composer attempts to dictate its delivery through notation. All definitions one encounters agree that, in regard to rhythm, the execution of Sprechstimme must adhere as strictly to notated values as does singing. It is in the matter of pitch that the instructions in various works remain problematic.

Sprechstimme is so closely associated with Schoenberg and Berg that we may easily forget that its notation was, in fact, invented by Engelbert Humperdinck (1854-1921) for his Königskinder. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.