Re-Creation as a Foundation for Vocal Performance
How may we challenge current orthodoxies to make musical communication as ‘expressive’ as in the past?
One of the greatest challenges facing singers who wish to be guided by historical principles centres on the relationship between performer and score. Modern conservatoire training prizes the literal reading of music notation, but in the centuries preceding the 20th and 21st, singers realized that because scores contained only the skeletal ideas of composers, performers could not present the music to audiences in the way it was notated. Indeed, in the 18th century, Domenico Corri characterized the relationship between performance and notation candidly:
‘either an air, or recitative, sung exactly as it is commonly noted, would be a very inexpressive, nay, a very uncouth performance’
and in the middle of the 19th century, John Addison considered the composer’s notation to represent just ‘the Skeleton of his ideas’. The rest, he suggested, ‘is left to the Singer, who must give the finish according to his taste and judgment’ . Going back in time somewhat further, the practice of altering scores had become so commonplace by the middle of the 16th century that Nicola Vicentino observed:
‘sometimes [singers] use a certain method of proceeding in compositions that cannot be written down’
Composers of the past clearly had no desire (or need) to capture on paper subtleties of rhythm, phrasing, dynamics, pauses, accents, emphases, tempo changes, or ornamentation.
Unfortunately, the flexible relationship between performer and score has all but disappeared in the modern ‘classical’ world, even amongst early-music artists who root their practices in historical sources, so much so that one can imagine Domenico Corri regarding most performances today as ‘inexpressive’ and ‘uncouth’. But if we are willing to set aside our conservatoire training to find ways of making musical communication as ‘expressive’ as it seems to have been in the past, how might we go about challenging current orthodoxies?
One approach involves the documents that transmit earlier musical cultures to us, especially the notion that vocalists should become the character in their texts in order to make the protagonist actually seem to appear before listeners. Between the 16th and 19th centuries, singers were taught to imitate real life, and by modeling their delivery on someone in the appropriate state of mind, they re-created the score in their own image instead of simply interpreting it through a narrow range of parameters. If we follow their lead and prize singular acts of re-creation over homogenized interpretation, we can begin to move away from the ‘inexpressive’ and ‘uncouth’ world of literal readings to a manner of performance that not only would change from piece to piece but also would differ from singer to singer. To paraphrase the 19th-century voice teacher Manuel García, a performer alters a composition both to enhance its effect and to make it suitable to the power and character of an individual singer’s vocal capability . In other words, since there can never be a single correct way of performing a recitative or aria, we can choose to release ourselves from the uniformity modern training imposes on us.
As a specialist in historical performance practices, I regularly use information from treatises to provide a framework within which vocalists can place their emotional responses to the words they sing, and I have found the system singers of the past employed to personalize texts quite useful:
- write out the sentences without stops, that is, without punctuation
- study the meaning of the words to gain insight into the leading passion of the piece
- examine each sentiment developed in the text and decide which emotions should be exhibited prominently
- mark the important words, in order to emphasize them
- add pauses, both grammatical and rhetorical, to reinforce and clarify the sense (pauses of varying lengths are the blank spaces speakers and singers insert in sentences to compartmentalize ideas so listeners can easily grasp the thoughts – grammatical stops coincide with notated punctuation and rhetorical pauses are inserted in places where articulations would never be indicated but the sense of sentences calls for them)
- declaim the text eloquently, that is, utter impressive thoughts in an impressive manner
- use this spoken expression as the basis for singing, and sing as if reciting a fine speech; that is, adjust the music to match the spoken delivery.
To illustrate this method of creating a unique performance, I will focus on the recording Secret Fires of Love (Talbot Productions, 2017), particularly Claudio Monteverdi’s ‘Sì dolce è’l tormento’, to demonstrate one of the ways historical principles may be used to generate a personalized performance free from the notated page. ‘Sì dolce’ features Daniel Thomson (tenor) and Terry McKenna (Baroque guitar) under my musical direction, and we followed the steps outlined above to partner with Monteverdi to transform skeletal notation into an expressive narrative.