A pure voice rings out, shorn of emotion and vibrato as a sheep is shorn of its fleecy wool. Beaming old ladies snore gently, waking every now and then and whispering, 'Isn't this nice?' while bored youngsters fidget on their seats.
This is supposedly the authentic early music style. It's a wonder, think those youngsters, that people weren't bored to death by it all.
Is this how music was sung in the 1600s?
Well... no. Not exactly.
The 'How-To' Manuals of the Day and Seconda Prattica
There are some fascinating manuals of singing styles written during this time - usually as prefaces to collections of madrigals - and they refer to all sorts of stylistic and technical ornaments which enliven the music, quicken it, and bring it literally to life from the manuscript page. Of importance was the necessity to bring real emotion to the performance; although emotion was portrayed with different methods than those used in modern music, the concept was similar. The music must grip the listener.
Baroque music did grip the listener. There are contemporary reports according to which listeners literally fainted with pleasure. They wept openly at hearing the heartbreakingly beautiful 'Ariadne's Lament' from the mostly-lost opera by Monteverdi. That lament became famous all over Italy and beyond, its plangent beauty tugging the heartstrings.
Listen to an amateur performance of that aria today, however, and you might wonder, 'How on earth did this manage to make people weep and faint?'
A 'Genuine Recreation'...?
The answer lies in a common misunderstanding that prevails among amateur singing teachers, amateur singers, and listeners who are unfamiliar with the true beauty of vocal Baroque music. There is an idea that Baroque music must be limpid and emotionless, completely free of vibrato, sung in a voice like a choirboy's.
This notion grew out of the various approaches historically applied to the singing of Baroque arias. Alas, it is all too true that Baroque music has suffered enormously under the misguided attempts of singers in the past. It can be quite painful to listen to recordings of earnest singers attempting to perform Handel's operas, for instance, in the early days before the explosive Handel revival movement. The wobble in those voices, the incredibly slow tempi, the painful extended runs - there is enough there to make the Baroque devotee cringe.
And yet - and yet - these recordings and performances formed the basis of the modern revival of interest in music of the Baroque period. Emerging from those early attempts, we see the beginnings of genuine scholarly attempts to define what approaches would be most successful in recreating the music of the past. 'Authentic' became the catchword in early music, and 'performed on original instruments' seemed to offer alluring prospects in hearing music 'as it would have been performed originally'.
Alternatives to the 'Big Snip'
Countertenor Alfred Deller was one of the early movers in the field of early music, and credit must be given to him for forging the way, leaving the path well open for such remarkable countertenors as James Bowman, Derek Lee Ragin and Andreas Scholl, to name but a few. These singers are genuine superstars in the performances of early music. Are they authentic? Not always - Handel, for instance, preferred to use mezzo sopranos rather than countertenors, and we do not have castrati today. (For some reason, men seem to have an aversion these days to being subjected to the necessary surgery!) Hence, what we have is the 'next best thing', with both mezzos and countertenors offering two alternatives. Mezzos such as Bartoli and Larmore, contraltos such as Fink, and so on, provide luscious, steady, and extraordinarily agile voices well suited to the reportoire of early music. Side by side, those fantastic countertenors sing almost identical roles.
But before all this came about, we had the era of the boy soprano.
Bleaching the Voice - Authentic Sound?
Well, not literally the boy soprano - but the soprano voices that sounded like boys, blanched of emotion, ruthlessly stripped of every vestige of vibrato, and careful not to reveal emotion (no doubt in the belief that 'emotion' wasn't authentic).
This stage, too, was a necessary one, in historical performance terms, for at least it presented a view of early music that revealed its essential purity. One of the lasting problems however, has been the idea that purity of voice is all that is necessary for the performance of Baroque vocal music.
One of the doyennes of early music is the ever-young, ever-amazing Emma Kirkby. When she first began performing, she possessed a voice of crystalline purity which exemplified, in the best way, the choir-boy sound that became almost an overnight success in the early music repertoire. But what Emma Kirkby has that so many of her imitators do not have is true beauty of tone, truly remarkable and extremely 'clean' flexibility in coloratura runs, and an ability to develop as a singer. Her recordings have become better over time (and they weren't bad to begin with!). She remains one of the most beloved and genuine-sounding performers of early music, and long may she continue to delight us with her exquisite voice.
There are other performers of similar style, but lesser quality. No doubt the Researcher who is familiar with early music will know them - those who are not familiar with early music had best avoid recordings that do not do justice to the music. When sung or performed by experts in their field, Baroque music is divinely beautiful, genuinely capable of making the listener weep with the sheer beauty of it. But shorn of the elements that are the pearls upon its texture, it can be made bland... and that is unfair to the music.
The music must breathe with beauty...
With Sighs and Tears... Ravishing the Listener
Modern performers (of international standard) have been able to infuse into the music of the Baroque period all the delicacy, passion, and rapturous pain and pleasure that brings it to life. They bear in mind that such things as sighs in the voice, use of vibrato as an ornament, mordents, trills, trillos, gruppi, (these are various ways of altering the pitch or vibration of the voice, so as to add decoration to the melody), and various colours in the voice (darkening the sound, lightening it, adding the sound of tears, making the music smile), all are completely 'authentic' in style, and were intended by the composer. Some composers 'wrote in' the various trills and mordents which they wanted the singer to produce in a particular piece, whereas others wrote only the basic melody, since the singers of the day were thoroughly schooled in the particular cadenzas and ornaments appropriate to the pieces.
To sing the music of this time without using the ornamentation is to do it a severe injustice. To sing it emotionlessly is even worse.
The test case: if a performance of Couperin's Troisième Leçons de Ténèbres doesn't make you cry with its beauty, the singers are doing something wrong.