HELLO STAGE BLOG

On the Limitations of Vocal Repertoire

Photo credit: Detail from the Singing Angels. Jan van Eyck (circa 1390–1441) Wikipedia

In the education and performance of classical singers, a large portion of the repertoire is basically ignored. Medieval, Renaissance, and early Baroque music play an insignificant role in the practice of vocalists, regardless whether they focus on opera, concert, or lied. At the other end of the timeline, limitations are just as obvious — most singers hardly ever perform music beyond the early 20th century. You have to be very lucky to hear a Florentine monody or a Schoenberg song from somebody not specialized in the fields of ›early music‹ or ›contemporary music‹. Apart from these, two other genres are nearly totally excluded from the programmes: non-soloist sacred music; and compositions for vocal ensemble that do not form part of an opera. This is a matter that clearly deserves dropping a few lines.


Now here comes my next complaint on the classical music business, which is concerned with professional singers and the pieces they perform. This has been an issue to me ever since I started to observe classical music, and I am still astonished by the ignorance of many vocalists towards a vast percentage of music that has been composed for them. Common vocal repertoire seems to be limited to a period of some 250 years, if at all. In most cases, voice students are occupied with music their professors advice or recommend them to study. In working life, the music to be performed is mostly chosen by employers — dramatic advisors, impresarios, festival managers — not by the performers themselves. Typically, a classical singer may well get along with music ranging from Bach to Strauss. Nobody will care if he or she skips the works of Josquin, Monteverdi, Lully, Webern, Shostakovich, or Britten. Despite the fact that all of these were remarkable vocal composers of their periods, they are largely ignored by present-day vocalists, except for specialized ensembles or productions. The fields of ›early music‹ and ›contemporary music‹ appear to be marginal sections of classical music business, each with their own devoted audiences, and left to the exclusive efforts of specially trained performers.

While music before 1700 and after 1900 can easily be left aside by any professional singer, this also applies to many instrumentalists. Which pianist will, in addition to his core repertoire, perform Froberger, Frescobaldi, or pieces from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book? (O.K., Mr. Gould was a glorious exception.) And which violinist will deal with Gabrieli and Marini, if even Corelli’s sonatas are unknown to so many? However, when talking about vocal music, engagement in pre-Baroque music is lacking even more profoundly, considering that polyphonic writing has essentially been vocal from its very origins. Many outstanding compositions waste away in libraries, never performed at all, or only survive in music theory and counterpoint classes. I am still looking for a comprehensive recording of Lasso’s bicinia — it seems as if singers just don’t care about these fascinating pieces.

One of the reasons why vocalists tend to neglect up to five centuries of written and edited music is, obviously, the state of professional education, which persists in its mainstream curricula. Studying voice at a typical European or American school won’t make you acquainted with Renaissance, early Baroque, or most of 20th century music. Debussy, or maybe Berg, will be end of the line. Teachers are unlikely to recommend music they have never performed themselves, nor will they advise students to sing Caccini or Ives just because their music deserves greater attention. Both ›early music‹ and ›contemporary music‹ are supposed to require special vocal techniques and skills which the average voice professor does not dare to offer, due to his or her own lack of experience with these ›borders of the repertoire‹.

Another pivotal problem is that voice education is obsessed with soloism. Master programmes principally concentrate on opera or lied, resulting in disregard of anything that cannot be performed by a soloist standing in the center of the stage. Thus, most sacred a cappella works are off-topic for prospective singers, and vocal chamber music (which, in fact, includes some of the finest pieces ever written) is almost totally neglected in education. One could think of some Gesualdo madrigals and Poulenc chansons, along with trios and quartets from Mozart operas, to be included in class recitals at conservatories—or, even more audaciously, of combining a Schütz concerto or Distler motet with Bach cantatas or oratorios. But when does this ever happen? Vocal repertoire is the most conservative, repetitive, and hermetic in classical music. Recorded music appears, in general, slightly more diverse than concert programmes; but even so, singers mostly stick to their favourite Schubert or Verdi instead of considering something extraordinary for their debut release.

I am aware that serious changes in curricula and teaching attitude will be necessary in order to significantly enlarge the vocal repertoire. This leads to my final plea. Dear teachers: please encourage your students to get involved with music that is not performed on a regular basis; and also allow them to choose pieces that do not match your own preferences and focuses. Dear voice students: please be more curious and courageous. It’s one of the crucial aspects of musicianship to care about unsung masterpieces, and to prevent classical music business from showcasing ever the same music. Consider your studies a period of experiment. Restrain your inclination to be a marvellous soloist, and devote some time to vocal chamber music (you know, that kind of stuff you don’t even need an accompanist for.) When making your career, be advocates of the unusual. There will be some obstacles and prejudices to face, but I’m sure it’ll be worth the trouble — you will broaden your personal horizon, and audiences and colleagues will acknowledge you. Vocal repertoire is too precious to suffer from such ridiculous restrictions. Singing should not be limited at any rate, and instead of limiting its objects to a mere fraction of what might be possible, its goals should comply with its virtues in terms of sound generation and social function; it is the most emotional, individual, and versatile of all possible expression in music.

Wendelin Bitzan is a musician, composer, and researcher in music. He teaches music theory and digital media at German universities, occasionally performs in public as a pianist, passionately talks and writes about music, and distributes his compositions and writings via the internet. Wendelin resides in Berlin with his family.

www.wendelinbitzan.de
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Author: Wendelin Bitzan
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