Robert Toft

Re-Creation as a Foundation for Vocal Performance

How may we challenge current orthodoxies to make musical communication as ‘expressive’ as in the past?

Robert writes:

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:[1]

‘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’ [2]. 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:[3]

‘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 [4]. 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.

Claudio Monteverdi, ‘Sì dolce è’l tormento’, from Carlo Milanuzzi, Quarto scherzo delle ariose vaghezze (Venice, 1624)

Daniel Thomson (tenor), Terry McKenna (Baroque guitar), Robert Toft (director)

Daniel adopts the persona of a story teller, and like singers of the past, he uses techniques of rhetorical delivery to guide him in modifying the score (to such a degree that the music listeners hear differs substantially from what appears in print). Our first step was to find all the places one could insert grammatical or rhetorical pauses. Asterisks in the text [opens in a new window] represent pauses of various size as suggested by the notated punctuation (grammatical pauses), as well as the practice of separating subjects from verbs, verbs from objects, and conjunctions, relative pronouns, participles, and prepositional phrases from the text that precedes them (rhetorical pauses).

Next, we studied the emotional progression of the story across the verses and decided which sentiments should be exhibited prominently. Important words were marked so that Daniel could draw attention to the ideas/emotions associated with them, and then Daniel determined the manner in which he wished to compartmentalize the protagonist’s thoughts of sweet torment and false hope. After perfecting his spoken delivery (which differs from verse to verse), Daniel’s internalization of the poem was complete. This dramatic reading became the basis for singing the song, and with Terry McKenna’s help, we set about adapting Monteverdi’s skeletal melody to Daniel’s conception of the text. Terry improvised his accompaniment from the alphabetto chord symbols to mirror the personal story Daniel had, in a re-creative sense, co-authored.

Beyond these facets of historical performance in Secret Fires of Love, Daniel sings prosodically, emphasizing important words and giving the appropriate weight to accented and unaccented syllables; employs a highly articulated manner of phrasing; alters tempo frequently through rhythmic rubato and the quickening and slowing of the overall time; restores messa di voce, the swelling and diminishing of individual notes and across phrases, to its rightful place as the ‘soul of music’ [5]; contrasts the tonal qualities of chest and head voice as part of his expression; applies portamento; and introduces a variety of graces and divisions into the songs.

Amongst these principles, highly articulated phrasing, alterations of tempo, and variations in the tonal quality of the voice represent the most noticeable departures from modern practice. As noted above, singers of the past inserted grammatical and rhetorical pauses to compartmentalize thoughts and emotions into easily discernible units, and this frequent pausing gave listeners time to reflect on what they had just heard so they could readily grasp the changing sentence structure. In 1587, Francis Clement explained the rationale behind the addition of pauses: ‘the breath is relieved, the meaning conceived, … the eare delited, and all the senses satisfied’ [6].

Moreover, writers from Nicola Vicentino (1555) to Giambattista Mancini (Pensieri, e riflessioni pratiche sopra il canto figurato, 1774) observe that singers best convey the true sense and meaning of words in a natural way if they derive the pacing of their delivery from the emotions in each text segment. Or to use Vicentino’s words, tempo fluidity has ‘a great effect on the soul’ [7]. Similarly, the use of appropriate vocal timbres to carry the text’s emotions to the ears of listeners requires singers not only to differentiate their registers (so that the lowest and highest parts of the range contrast with the middle portion) but also to link timbre and emotion (smooth and sweet, thin and choked, harsh and rough) – ‘the greater the passion is, the less musical will be the voice that expresses it [8]. In earlier eras, a versatile tonal palette prevented the monotony of what one writer in 1905 dismissed as the ‘school of sensuously pretty voice-production’: as David Ffrangcon-Davies suggests, the then new monochromatic approach to timbre meant that if audiences had heard a singer in one role, they had heard that singer in every role [9].

We also designed Secret Fires of Love to have an intimate sound modelled on the small rooms in which the music would have been performed originally. In other words, we try to make listeners feel as though they are sitting in the same modest space as the artists.

[1] A Select Collection of the Most Admired Songs, Duetts, &c., c.1781, vol. 1, p. 2
[2] Singing, Practically Treated in a Series of Instructions, c.1850, p. 29
[3] ‘qualche volta si usa un certo ordine di procedere, nelle compositioni, che non si può scrivere’. L’antica musica ridotta alla moderna prattica, 1555, fol. 94v
[4] New Treatise on the Art of Singing, 1857, p. 56
[5] Domenico Corri, The Singer’s Preceptor, 1810: vol. 1, p. 14
[6] The Petie Schole, pp. 24-25
[7] ‘effetto assai nell’animo’. L’antica musica ridotta alla moderna prattica, fol. 94v
[8] Maria Anfossi, Trattato teorico-pratico sull’arte del canto, c.1840, p. 69
[9] The Music of the Future, pp. 14-16