Saturday 30 March 2013

Echoes of an earlier age

Adelina Patti
Many years ago I heard Marilyn Horne, on the radio, talking about performing Rossini and incorporating into the performance cadenza's and ornamentation from Rossini's time and then being castigated by reviewers for her over the top, cavalier ornamentation. In many ways this is quite a salutary story and makes us realise the past really is another country and that they actually do things differently there. No more so than in opera singing.

We have had years of instrumentalists re-discovering period techniques, applying them to modern practice and re-discovering sounds, qualities and textures of the past. But we still don't do this with singers. I am not aware of anyone attempting to put, say, every single detail of Manuel Garcia's singing tutor into action. The results would be illuminating, far more so than we realise.

At the age of 60 something, the distinguished soprano Adelina Patti came out of retirement and allowed herself to be recorded using the new-fangled gramophone technology. She was born in 1843 and had been carefully managed by her sister's husband, Maurice Strakosch. Now Strakosch had been a pupil of Giuditta Pasta (who created Bellini's Norma), so we have a direct, continuous link. And an important point about teaching up to the latter part of the 19th century was that everything was mainly oral. Famous teachers produced printed methods (of which more anon), but they were expected to be used in collaboration with a teacher. So it is not far-fetched to imagine Patti learning from Strakosch things he had from Pasta.

All this matters because of Patti's recordings. When she heard them her reaction was one of pure delight and approbation. Now, not every singer in those early days liked their recordings, but Patti did. It was to her, recognisably Patti. Except that when you listen to the recording (Adelina Patti's recording of Voi che sapete on YouTube.) it sounds strange and odd. Some of this is to do with the recording process which wasn't kind to high voices. It is no accident that the first recording superstar, Caruso, was a man. If you listen to his recordings of duets with sopranos, the contrast between the voices is striking with the soprano sounding very white because of all the upper harmonics and such which were lost in the recording process..

But there is also the issue of Patti's technique and style, the way she sings the music. To our ears it is extremely wayward and cavalier, it is easy to dismiss the recordings as the ramblings of a past-it singer. But there are moments when she demonstrates that she can use her technique in ways we recognise, that she still has it. What she is doing is illuminating and illustrating the text in ways which seem almost alien to us. And she uses a device which remains problematic for modern singers but which was central to 18th and 19th century singing, the portamento.

She is extremely free with the tempo, and applies rubato so that she wanders away from the underlying rhythm of the piano in the way of early pianists separating their hands. Once you get used to it, it is very expressive, but it is nothing like the way a modern singer would approach the piece. Similarly, she uses portamento as an expressive device, and includes a notable one to lead from the end of the middle section to the return of the opening one.

Alessandro Moreschi
Alessandro Moreschi, c. 1900
Similar problems can be experienced when listening to the recordings of Alexander Moreschi, the castrato who sang with the Papal Choir who was recorded in 1902 and 1904. (Hear Moreschi on YouTube) Moreschi was from a relatively closed tradition, a castrato taught by castratos. His performance on disc frankly sounds awful. Like Patti he is wayward, and it is fatally easy to attribute this to lack of technique or musicianship. But in his prime, Moreschi was highly admired. And one of the problems with his recordings is that he uses grace notes which are as much as a tenth below the note he is aiming for, the result to our ears sounds as if he is having vocal problems. 

These are simply echos of an earlier age and we can argue for a long time about quite how much significance such recordings have. But it is clear that singing was different in the past, quite how different is unclear. The problem is that simply reading singing methods does not quite work, we have to take a leap of imagination.

Many famous singers went into print with their 'method', but essentially the teaching of voice varied little between the end of the 17th century and the middle of the 19th century. So when we are reading Manuel Garcia's method we are looking at a style of teaching which has a long history and much of which would have made sense to Caccini in the 17th century. Manuel Garcia (1805 -1906) was a singer and important pedagogue, teaching a huge array of 19th century singers. Garcia was operatic royalty, his father was a singer and teacher and his sisters were Maria Malibran and Pauline Viardot. 

His teaching method comes from a long line of such books and is probably the one of the most comprehensive, the one which enables us to understand much about the technique. And there are three things about this past singing technique which make us realise that truly, the past is a foreign country.

First the larynx. Singing with the larynx lowered to create a richer, more vibrant sound was a development/discovery of the 19th century. Prior to that, singers would have had singing voices closer to their speaking voices. If you listen to Sting singing Dowland lute songs, then consider this. Though Sting sounds nothing like a modern classically trained singer, he probably sounds a hell of a lot closer to what Dowland sounded like than anything generally heard in the concert hall today.

Secondly, portamento, the carrying of the voice between notes and expressive device which was essential to the 18th and 19th century singer's armoury. Essential. Style and era would dictate quite how the device was used, but used it was. Even Patti does so and usually for particularly expressive effect. Roger Norrington has recently started experimenting with portamento in late 19th century orchestra music, but still there are no singers around who dare to try using the technique in vocal music. 

Thirdly, messa di voce. Few singers use this technique much nowadays, even in baroque music. But a singer like the castrato Senesino was famed for his messa di voce; it is a technique whereby on a single note the voice gradually gets louder and then softer. It sounds simple, but it isn't; it requires a lot of control. In the 18th century training a singer would have doing it a lot, going up and down the scales doing a messa di voce on each note. Next time you hear a long held note in a Handel aria, imagine the singer starting quiet and getting louder and then softer. That's what they are for.

There is a final point, one not of technique but of style. Singers would have expected to be in charge, to effectively use the aria as a source book. Something of this survives in what we hear as waywardness in Patti's performances; she uses the music as a starting point. Sometimes today, reviewers complain that singers in baroque opera use over elaborate ornamentation which effectively re-composes the piece. An 18th century singer would have been puzzled by this complaint, because that's what they were for. An aria was the starting point for the singer to demonstrate his or her skill at virtuoso creativity. Naturally, when the composer was directing (as when Handel directed Senesino, Bordone and Cuzzoni)  there was probably a bit more control, but even so I think that if we were able to get into a time machine and hear Senesino, Bordone and Cuzzoni we would be rather surprised.

It is common nowadays for tenors who specialise in singing the high virtuoso tenor parts in Rossini and Donizetti operas, to comment that audiences nowadays would not countenance the sound that the original tenors made, that we expect the tenor to take his chest voice as high as possible. But surely you don't know if you haven't tried.

Elsewhere on this blog:

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