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.