On the Limitations of Vocal Repertoire
Now here comes my next complaint on the
classical music business, which is concerned
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
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
Monteverdi, Lully, Webern, Shostakovich, or Britten.
Despite the fact that all of these were remarkable
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
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
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
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.
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