Theories of Expressivity in Baroque Song

In the centuries 1600-1800, models and theories of expressivity existed in Italy, France, Germany, and England. Here, I attempt to investigate, define, and explain how these models were used by performers of these generations as tools for their expression; which were second nature to them. To us, people of the current generation, we seek to understand how a performance was enacted authentically or historically, and so we must put a name on the style or methodology which was used. In the years we are talking about, people did not know that their expressivity had names; all they knew is that they were doing justice to the composer’s wishes while at the same time bringing their own artistic vision to the piece at hand. In Italy, a term was used by the great composer and theorist Caccini: Sprezzatura, in his famous treatise Le nuove musiche, as a word that meant the performer had that certain confidence that was required to pull the observer into the performance and touch them aesthetically and emotionally. The mere presence of the performer was enough that very little had to be done in order to achieve the persuasion. Of course, that is to say, sprezzatura did not come naturally to everyone; it had to be trained into the musicians from a very young age in the first years of their education. Rhetoric was the device by which sprezzatura was fueled in the countries of Germany, England, France, and Italy. The intense study of authors such as Quintilian gave the musicians tools necessary to express one thought in a wide variety of ways.

First, let us speak about sprezzatura in Italy. I will use Francesca Caccini as an example of a composer who wrote all of the “confidence” on the page. The performer’s job was to get out of the way of the intention of the composer. In the Caccini’s song “Maria, dolce Maria” performed by Elena Bertuzzi, we see a perfect example of sprezzatura. This piece is monody with lute–that in itself says that the voice is exposed, especially since the accompanying instrument is so thin in sound to begin with. The performer must be a seasoned musician and experienced in solo singing. The basic melodic line may at first glance seem similar for every verse, but you wouldn’t know it with the amount of ornamentation added, either by composer or by singer. Francesca’s father, Giulio, set out to explain specific ornaments he wanted his singers to use; Francesca and the performers of that time period would have known those ornaments very well. Bertuzzi moves with such agility and grace, both vocally and in the body. This is the noble negligence of song, which is sprezzatura explained in another way. She has the ability of letting her voice be free and making sure that her body is also free. When I say free, I mean relaxed enough not to hold any tension in one spot in particular, but to feel as if the motion of the song moves you. The fast-moving, melismatic lines require a lot of breath control and management. If quiet, soft breaths are taken between phrases so enough air can be used for these long florid melismatic lines, the performer will have made the song sound easy, which is a big part of sprezzatura–the ease of making something vocally challenging and difficult sound very smooth and easy. I should also mention that a huge facet of sprezzatura is the singer being able to use messa di voce upon command. This piece is especially good for that. There are many opportunities on long notes for the performer to grow and shrink in dynamics. A true test of the mastery of a performer is the ability to be able to crescendo and decrescendo on any note of his or her vocal range. Another example of a piece that I believe exudes the essence of sprezzatura is Alessandro Scarlatti’s “Caldo Sangue.” This piece as sung by Renata Tebaldi is so utterly gorgeous in the production of expressivity that one does not know where to begin. The fact that the tempo is Largo means that the singer must already be a master of their breath management, otherwise the piece will get slower and slower. Tebaldi begins in the pianissimo dynamic and gradually “blooms” into the vibrant mf dynamic. This technique in itself is already enough to move the listener even before the piece has even begun! Only an experienced Graduate or Professional singer should take on this piece if they are serious about doing justice to this piece. This tessitura is high for such a soft dynamic at the beginning. Also, the sighing in the voice on the words “moro” which are repeated over and over could bring someone who is listening to tears. This is what sprezzatura does–it is rhetoric that basically persuades the listener to be on the same plane of existence as the person emoting.

In France, the theory of douceur, although similar to sprezzatura  in Italy requires that the singer be able to comfortably stop counting and at times pay attention to the rhythm of the language in a gentle, sweet manner; meaning it is a little more subdued than the Italian expressive style of singing. A piece that exemplifies this technique is Lully’s “Revenez amours, revenez!” from his opera Thésée. The singer (Venus) laments the abandonment of the graces from love. She pleads for the graces to return so that love may be more pleasurable. The g minor tonality says a great deal about the sadness the singer must exude in this piece. The douceur aspect is present in the smooth, continuous line of the French language. I think this is still employed today for singers of this generation. The nobility of the language itself requires the singer to have an air of confidence that exudes the gentility of the nobility. Even though the music is written vertically and in arcs, the singer must sing horizontally the entire time! The purity of the vowel is always the most desired effect. However the singer chooses to color the vowels is the more artistic decision that the experienced singer can be trust. A strong sense of leadership is required for the tempo of this piece in the role of the singer. The pianist must really feel like they are following the voice. The music must be provoked by the voice (or emotion), not the other way around. There must never be a moment in this piece where the listener thinks the singer is holding the tone. The tone must be escaping. This escaping of tone is a big part of douceur. The emotion is so full and powerful that it simply “leaks” out of the singer in the most expressive fashion in order to move the listener in a gentle manner; almost as if a cloud of emotion descends upon the listener. The French language is very much suited for this manner of singing, which is douceur. De Los Angeles takes many appropriate artistic liberties in slowing down at cadences. As Judy Tarling says, it is Baroque practice to always try something different at cadences. Lully understood douceur and marked it in his scores. He marks for the performer to crescendo on “Amours” repeatedly in the piece and decrescendo on “revenez.” He repeats that word so much to perhaps show an exasperated quality that the performer can bring out; which is in fact, the sound escaping from the singer’s body. Lully marks doux on the word “beauté” and the singer should react thus in a sweet manner. He writes the music in a way that brings out the text more than the beauty of the voice. The right coloring of certain vowels can make the piece more beautiful.

The second example of douceur in the French Baroque canon of repertoire is Rameau’s “Triste Séjour” from Les Palatins. It is an aria that is largo in tempo with a more upbeat middle section and again requires a graduate or professional singer with comparable breath management techniques. There is much opportunity for the singer to show off their douceur by using the messa di voce technique for the long notes. This piece gives much opportunity for the performer to be intimate with the audience by growing and shrinking in those long phrases; the listener is pulled along with the singer. The messa di voce technique in itself is unpredictable and does not allow the listener to know when, if ever, the tone will get louder. The douceur technique may elongate that messa di voce and make it sound more unpredictable than the Italian form. The more unpredictability in expressivity, the better!

In Germany, the use of classical rhetoric was prevalent in such composers as Heinrich Schütz and C. P. E. Bach. The first piece that is rich in rhetoric for our purposes is “Ich werde nicht sterben” from Schütz’sSymphonie Sacrae II. The text comes from Martin Luther and Psalm 118. The dance-like tempo which could be in the meter of one or three is a good example of how the celebratory nature of the text is meant for movement. Dancing, throughout the ages, has always been associated with joy and celebration. The text of this Psalm demonstrates the level of commitment the psalmist has in the strength of God and how that alone is enough to sustain him or her; God is the constant comfort.  Most pieces that are full of rhetoric usually can only be done by experienced singers. That is why I feel this piece is good for Graduate or Professional Lyric Tenor. The performer should accentuate the hemiolas and should confidently lead in the recitative and arioso sections. The hemiola is in itself a rhetorical device that brings out the text. This piece changes meter often. The singer will need to speed up and slow down according to the designation of the emotion of the text. Again, as I said for the French theory of expression, the language, in this case, matters a great deal; and if the rhythm of the language is followed, the beauty of the voice will come along with it.

C. P. E. Bach, in his piece “Jesus Gethsemane” with text by Gellert, is a perfect example of rhetorical writing. The tempo is adagio and experience will lend itself to presenting this song in an easy vocal technique.  I believe sacred music always has the most rhetorical devices. The song has many long, drawn out notes. As if it hasn’t been stated enough, the technique of messa di voce can never be overused. Common Baroque practice and Caccini’s Le nuove musiche state that. The block-chord accompaniment gives the singer ample opportunity to show off the voice. With very little going on in the piano part, the singer must demonstrate something vocally exciting.  This piece could be sung from the viewpoint of Mary Magdalene. Mary Magdalene represents a crucial figure in Christianity in that she was associated with prostitutes and yet was still welcomed into the kingdom of God. If the downtrodden underdog theme doesn’t get the listener already, then the singing of the text in that particular character should. Voiced consonants can be emphasized. I think this piece is most appropriate for low mezzo. Extremes of dynamics are a big part of rhetoric and are present in this piece.  Maureen Forrester and John Newmark beautifully show these extremes in this piece. Rhetoric is alive in the fact that this piece sounds like a dirge or funeral march. It is a preparation for Jesus’ death. Carl Philipp knew these devices as he learned them from his father Johann Sebastian.

In Britain, John Dowland knew very well the rhetorical devices and his work became a model for later composers such as Purcell. I am a huge proponent of John Dowland. I think his music is some of the most beautiful rhetoric in the Baroque repertoire. Dowland’s “Sorrow, stay” is chalk-full of rhetoric.  It is exposed, it is monody, a lute song, and is mostly in the piano dyamic to name just a few examples. The messa di voce  is of course used on the long notes. The first word “sorrow” sounds like a downward sigh. The melody itself sounds like a person reciting a monologue to themselves in private. As the song grows, the dynamic gets louder and more declamatory, as if someone who is talking to themselves gets more excited. The arioso, free, rubato tempo is a rhetorical device that forces the listener to not get stuck in a certain meter, but to listen to the text. On the repeated words “but down I fall” and “down and arise,” these phrases do just that; they descend and ascend. This is only simple rhetoric, but it achieves the purpose of persuasion. I believe that the counter-tenor or alto or Andreas Scholl is just made for Dowland’s music or Baroque lute music in general. The timbre of his voice is like an emotive color that immediately draws the listener in. The passion and expression is heard in the color of his voice. He is able to perfectly control his vibrato and straight tone so that it is always appropriate for the text and the listener hardly even notices it. I think Dowland would have considered Scholl an exemplary performer of his music, although he may have sung it better than Scholl or have been jealous of Scholl’s technique. Who knows? It is an interesting thought. The song centers on extreme depression. The text and music are both by Dowland. Dowland may have in fact himself been depressed judging from his history. I like this piece for either counter-tenor or baritone. The baritone can give a darker color to this song and perhaps emphasize the depression. Impeccable diction is a must for rhetoric to work.

As I mentioned earlier, Purcell may have learned from Dowland and employed the same rhetorical devices. In Purcell’s “Not all my torments,”rhetoric is alive and well. The tempo is in the Arioso and Accompanied Recitative style. Only Graduate or Professional singer should sing this piece in order to do it justice. The theme of the piece isunrequited love, living in sorrow, and going to the grave for that love. The declamatory fashion of singing is prevalent in this song. The repeated words “torments” are in the mf-f dynamic. The accompaniment is bare and thin. The singer again has much room to grow out of nothing into something ecstatic. This piece requires a range of emotion and Magdalena Kozena does an amazing job displaying the breathy quality of “yet to the grave” and the verismo quality of “I love” on the highest note of the piece.  If the singer, in this case, Kozena, saves her dramatic outbursts for the end of the piece, which she does, then the rhetoric has been achieved.

The persuasion of the audience is accomplished if the Rhetoric has worked. You can always tell if your use of rhetoric has worked by just listening to the applause. How enthusiastic is the applause exactly? The only way to achieve the rhetoric that you desire is by laying your soul bare before the audience. This amount of energy is required for every single performance. The act of artful singing is very exhausting, and the musicians of the Baroque era lived and breathed this. They were trained from very young ages. We, as performers today would do well to look to the rhetorical devices of composers from this era to use in our own performances. Sprezzatura in Italy, Douceur in France, and Classical Rhetoric in Germany and England are all related in that they seek to combine the emotions of the listener of music with the performer of the music to make a cohesive whole.

A Survey of Opera Literature

A Survey of Opera Literature

by D. T. Lentz

I. Operatic Economics: Courtly entertainment at a lower price

This is how an ad would have read in Venice around the late 17th century. In order for us to understand this slogan and how it came about, we must look at opera’s origins. Opera started out as high court entertainment. The intermedi of 1589 were funded by the royalty, and therefore, the government. To get an idea of how lavish these productions were in the 1600s, we know that the scenery was made only from “top-of-the line” material. Workers such as carpenters, painters, and singers were guaranteed job security for these elaborate court productions. As long as the court spectacle was produced and performed, the court didn’t care whether or not they actually enjoyed it. Opera served the purpose of entertaining the elite few, and for political reasons, was competitive with other courts to see who had the most expensive scenic designs.

The audience’s role around the beginning of the 17th century was not fully defined until the 1630s in Venice, when opera became public. The only audience for these court spectacles was courtiers, whose job was to attend court functions and elaborate ceremonies. So, I think I can safely say that any entertainment value to be absorbed from the earliest operas was secondary until Venice. In fact, any repetition of the first operas was merely to catch up any upperclass citizens who missed the first performance. It was a kind gesture on the part of the monarch to give the performance a second time on the behalf of his obedient subjects. Another reason for a second performance of a court spectacle was lack of space during the premiere.

II. Music serves the Poetry!

It seems that one name was on the lips of all the intelligent, well-read minds of the early eighteenth century, Metastasio. Of all the librettists in history, he is certainly one of the most respected, sought after poets to be set to music.

As audiences of the late Baroque opera are pleasured by the “spectacle” of the production, a new type of opera emerges, the “aria opera”(Grout, 203). Three schools of opera had also been growing and changing for years: the German, which would imitate and conform to the Italian. The English was fading away with its leader, Purcell, and the French would also progress towards Italianate styles of opera. The “aria opera” consisted of periods of musical reflection, a series, which was outlined by recitatives to form the plot. Recitative served the drama, and the aria was a moment of dramatic rest, according to Grout, but the music of the aria, was much more tense than the recit. I tend to disagree with Grout in that “the central position of the aria as a musical unit” serves only this purpose. I think there was much opportunity at this time to expand the drama from the recit into the aria. In a modern sense, singers are coached to “go somewhere” with the aria. What does it do in the grand scheme of things? Galuppi, translated by Burney gives the definition of good music as “beauty, clearness, and a good modulation.” (Grout, 205) One could correlate this idea of clarity of text to later composers of the German romantic movement of Wagner and Wolf. It seems we have come full circle.

Other facets of eighteeth century opera would evolve, like the french overture, which would become faster, include a slow section and be called Italian, leading the way for the classical symphony. In Naples, the Italian school of composition such as ornamentation, simplicity, and a light texture, would eventually be called Neapolitan. In this group of composers were Leo, Vinci, Steffani, Keiser, and Handel. Music serving the text was a product of many years of tasteful and well thought out librettos. Some of the first librettists to lead the movement of reform were Gravina, Cicognini, Stampiglia, and Metastasio, the big kahuna. His librettos would be set by almost every major Italian opera composer, such as Handel, Pergolesi, Hasse, Gluck, Conti, Caldara, and Bononcini. Why was he such a big deal and compared to Homer and Dante? I think it was because he standardized the prevailing scene-recit form of the eighteenth century, and more importantly, sought to eradicate all unnatural, superfluous elements of the seventeenth century which made it such a spectacle.

“His achievement consisted in the creation of a consistent dramatic structure conforming to the rationalistic ideals of the period, but incorporating lyrical elements suited for musical setting in a such a way as to form an organic whole.” (Grout, 207)

I am of the strong opinon that the Enlightenment during the eighteeth century was the vehicle of change for the text-driven opera. Weiss adds that Metastasio was not only admired as a librettist, but as a literary genius. We begin to see the librettist take great care in attention to the musical setting of their words. In Hoole’s translation, Metastasio talks about the right instrumentation for the right words, and if it isn’t a certain way, it will not be affective. During the enlightenment, the librettist is fast becoming a central figure, occupying the same stature of the composer.

Not that singers were no longer regarded as divas, especially the castrati, but the Italian opera of the early eighteenth century in its truest form centered around the powers of the voices that sung the words and music of the composers and librettists. This perhaps grows out of our last class discussion of the birth of the prima donna. Even though the castrati held their sway in the opera world, only until composers like Hasse did the female singer gain equal share of the diva stature, especially Faustina Bordoni, and Francesca Cuzzoni. The castrati in the eighteenth century were”comparable to Liszt or Paganini in the nineteenth” (Burney).

The interesting form of the Pasticcio or “patchwork” to the modern reader, was just another example of how opera needed a reform. It’s very rigid structure of loosely put-together arias by many composers into one opera was a “greatest hits” of its day.

In my opinion, the aria had room to grow into a dramatic outlet, just as the recitative did. Was recitative purely a musical element of the drama and nothing else? Why was the tragic ending in Metastasio’s Attilo regolo (1740) an innovation? Could lyricism really have a place in the midst of all that anguish and violence?

III. The Philosophy of Bizet and the Sweat of Wagner

Even one of the biggest promoters and supporters of Wagner was also one of his biggest critics. Nietzsche was certainly approaching Wagner’s music from a philosophical standpoint in that music should improve the listener. In this way, he found Wagner’s music flawed. He wanted an intelligent mastermind composer working on the ears of the listener, who did it in a steady and sly manner, like Georges Bizet.

Bizet’s Carmen was a masterpiece to Nietzsche for its “light, graceful, stylish” music that did not “sweat.” (Weiss, 225) The philosopher is talking about the definition of aesthetics, and what it means to different people. What do people prefer? What is disagreeable? One of the flaws Nietzsche points out is Wagner’s over-use of leitmotifs that hits the listener over the head, in contrast to Bizet’s assumption that the listener is intelligent.

The question posed by Nietzsche: “Has anyone ever observed that music emancipates the spirit…the more one becomes a musician the more one is also a philosopher?” really means that music to me is an embodiment of the soul and/or spirit, and that music should for all purposes, improve the life of an individual in some way. It stirs the mind, and makes us question ourselves and others even more, making all of us, especially musicians, into philosophers.

The concept of love as a complex emotion and puzzle that is usually misinterpreted by composers is realized by Nietzsche in Carmen. “I know no case in which the tragic irony that constitutes the kernel of love is expressed with such severity…” (Weiss, 227) He is saying that the composer Bizet really understood love and understood that there is noONE interpretation. Love is an emotion that can rear its ugly head when not returned. Love is a mutual agreement that is not a selfless thing, but a SELFISH thing. One who loves someone else wishes to receive those same powerful sentiments from the other person. “Love is, of all sentiments, the most egotistical and consequently, when hurt, the least generous.” (Weiss, 227) I’m not saying that all forms of love are like this, I’m just agreeing with Nietzsche that an emotion as complex as this, should not be treated in the standard formula of the past.

In Wagner, someone always wants to be saved. This is a highlight of Nietzsche’s support for the composer. He understood that Wagner was deeply concerned with salvation and all its forms. It is a theme that reoccurs in all his operas. He does pose the question of whether or not Wagner should have dissected this theme so thoroughly. Did the composer get too much into his own head?

The harsh criticisms of Wagner’s music by Nietzsche was very surprising to me, given his history with the composer. Although I would agree with the fact that Wagner’s idea of aesthetics did not conform with the audience’s ideas at the time and his comparison of the rise of the Third Reich giving rise to Wagner’s music was example enough of how harsh he could be. Do you think Nietzsche’s criticisms of Wagner are too harsh? Does Wagner’s music have its own place in our world of thought-provoking music, even though many our attention spans would not be able to survive it nowadays?

IV. A New Kind of Opera for the Twentieth Century

Wagner, in a backwards way, influenced Debussy in his music, especially in Pelléas et Mélisande. I think we can also all agree that the goals of these two composers were the same, just approached in a different way, using different tools. In Debussy’s most influential opera of the 20th century, we are directed towards the tendency to avoid Wagnerian techniques, which inadvertently shows Wagner’s influence by Debussy resisting it. While Debussy was resisting Wagner, he was also creating a new type of music that parallelled impressionism in painters.

We see the “idea-leitmotifs” of Pelléas influenced by the mature Wagner in Tristan. Of Wagner’s operatic output, the previously mentioned is the work that stands out to Debussy. From the Smith we learn that the impressionistic composer saw in Tristan the perfect model of leitmotif and harmony that doesn’t detract from the action. Debussy felt that leitmotifs should be used sparingly and that the characters “should not be subjected to the slavery of the leitmotif.” ( 81)

In their music dramas, Wagner and Debussy both sought to paint a vivid landscape with orchestral colors and both achieved this; one used more blatant and powerful forces, and the other used restrained and simple methods. One obvious difference is that Debussy futher explores his harmonic juxtapositions, whereas Wagner makes only appearances and continues in a new direction.

Debussy’s independent method of composition was aimed at indirect symbolism and hidden meanings. “In Pelléas, as in all works meriting the title ‘Symbolist,’ there is a sense in which the words used create a higher level of meaning above the literal, in which to define is to destroy.” (78) Wagner also influenced symbolist thought, as we learn in his Lettre sur la musique quoted by Baudelaire. Baudelaire was considered the father of symbolist thought. (78) The poet and critic quoted Wagner in his Lettre à Berlioz saying that when poetry reaches its limits, the other will then exert itself. Debussy’s opera was a product of its time and in reaction to Wagner, but at the same time a new type of music that would influence composers in the later half of the 20th century. Do we also find the character-motifs used by Wagner and Debussy used in Verdi’s and Puccini’s music? Do we see the ‘stock- villain’ motifs in the characters of Scarpia and Iago? Were Puccini and Verdi influencing Wagner and Debussy?

V. Glass’s Operas: At first a hard pill to swallow

The general consensus of Glass and his music seems to be that most listeners either boo a performance or give five standing ovations. To me, when someone becomes truly innovative, they are usually disregarded by society as unorthodox. In Philip Glass’s operas Einstein and Satyagraha, his innovation is at first a challenge to our conception of music, time, and theater.

Ashby mentions Glass growing up in the New York “progressive theatre” of playwrights such as Brecht, Genet, Pinter, and Beckett, as opposed to “traditional theatre” such as Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. Glass was accustomed to non-conventional forms of art from the very beginning. The kinds of plays that Glass saw would change our ideas of society and sense of time. Some of these plays lasted five hours long with the first half hour in total silence.

Ashby defines minimalism as an “offshoot of avant-garde theatre.” (244) This music is rooted in the New York revolutionary theatre of the 1950s. So, we can see a change in direction of opera’s priorities. We move from Berg’s dramatic portrayal of the orchestra in Wozzeck and Lulu to music which is totally composed for non-traditional theatre, theatre that is “progressive.”

In order for theatre to look forward, it needs to change time, and transform the listener. In the Weiss, the flutist Ransom Wilson comments on Glass’s music: ” As I listened to that five-hour performance, I experienced an amazing transformation. At first I was bored, …The music seemed to have no direction, almost giving the impression of a gigantic phonograph with a stuck needle…I thought of leaving, Then with no conscious awareness, I crossed a threshold and found that the music was touching me, carrying me with it.” (Weiss, 324) What I think Wilson is saying is that the repetitive music forces us to digest it in a very slow way, not rush to conclusions, and become very meditative in our discoveries and realizations. Glass makes us “feel” the music in a physical sense, as if we are changing with it in its meticulous and slight alterations of repetition.

Glass really introduced a form of music for the theatre which was no longer abstract or narrative. The audience would no longer feel detached from the sounds, he or she would either willingly accept and be swept up with it, or resist it. The latter would be slightly pained with classically trained ears. Should we be judgemental of this music? How much of it is ridiculous? How do we decipher through the repetitions what is truly inspiring and what is unnecessary? The music of Glass causes a tension that never really lets us relax. Do we see this as exciting theatre or a nuisance?