Heart to Heart: Expressive Singing in England, 1780-1830.
Robert Toft's book on performance practices in eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century singing may be the first to treat a wide variety of performance topics in a single monograph. Although the author limits himself to English sources pertinent to the period 1780-1830, his informative and fascinating look at vocal practice could very likely be extended to the Continent, since some of his sources are English editions of works by Italian and French singing masters. Toft relies heavily on singing treatises but also includes information from contemporaneous letters and newspaper articles, especially performance reviews. Perhaps the most revealing information comes from singers' annotations in scores (both published and in manuscript) and from treatises on rhetoric.
Chapter 1 offers abundant detail about the different manners of expression suited to four styles of singing (church, chamber, concert, theater), according to which singers varied their delivery in terms of rhythm, accent, tone quality, and ornamentation. Perhaps most interesting is the discussion of the role of rhythmic alteration and ornamentation in the different styles of recitative. The second chapter ("Discovering the Proper Manner of Delivery") offers some surprising information about how singers approached the expression of sentiment, or even a phrase or word. More than one contemporary writer describes something akin to the Stanislavsky method of acting: singers were urged to imagine actually being the person they were representing in a song, and to capture the proper emotion "by endeavoring to recall any similar situation in which we ourselves may have been placed" (p. 15, quoted from Richard Mackenzie Bacon, Elements of Vocal Science: Being a Philosophical Enquiry into Some of the Principles of Sin ging, ed. Edward Foreman [Champaign, Ill.: Pro Musica Press, 1966], 74-75]). Toft also identifies a characteristic approach of Italian singers to word expression: unlike their English counterparts, they tried to express individual words in a literal fashion, a practice resulting in sudden transitions of dynamics and vocal color.
In chapter 3, Toft discusses the adaptation of vocal sound quality as a means of expression. Singers did not strive for continuous beauty of sound; one writer suggests that "[t]he greater the passion ... the less musical will be the voice that expresses it, because the tones of violent passion are by no means melodious" (p. 23, from Maria Anfossi, Trattato teorico-pratico sull'arte del canto... [ca. 1840], 69). Toft also describes four different kinds of vibrato recognized by the authors of treatises, emphasizing that no author condoned the continuous, obvious vibrato heard most often today. In addition, singers were trained not to blend the registers of the voice into one homogenous tonal quality, but to cultivate the emotional effects created by the different registers.
The fourth chapter deals with phrasing anti its relation to rhetoric. Most contemporary authors equate punctuation in singing with grammatical and rhetorical pauses in speaking. Manuel Garcia goes so far as to assert that rests may be introduced by the singer so that the phrasing and emphasis of the text can be made clear; most authors also call for breaths between phrases as well as pauses inserted into a melodic line in order to clarify the sense of the words. All argue against long lines of beautiful sound, contrary to modern practice.
Toft reaches one of the most interesting subjects in his sixth chapter: tempo rubato. Authors divide rhythmic deviation into two categories: simple accelerando and ritardando, in which the singer and accompanist quicken or slow together, and actual tempo rubato, in which the accompanist maintains a firm, steady tempo, while the singer alters the speed and rhythm of the melodic line. This type of rubato is familiar from descriptions of the piano playing of Mozart and Chopin, but today it is as lost to the world of singing as it is to the piano. Toft includes a remarkable example of tempo rubato as performed by the elder Manuel Garcia and transcribed by his son, showing the singer going off on his own way for four measures before reuniting with the orchestral accompaniment.
In chapter 7, Toft addresses execution and ornamentation. After dividing types of ornamentation into graces and divisions, he devotes the largest part of his discussion to the appoggiatura, no doubt in response to the amount of attention devoted to it recently by certain scholars. Toft successfully demonstrates that a wide range of practice existed in England, but the lengthy text and large number of music examples come across as repetitious, and his treatment of other graces seems perfunctory by comparison.
Certainly the most interesting of the book's nine chapters is the eighth, "The Expressive Countenance." To my knowledge, recent books on vocal performance practices either do not address the role of bodily movement and gesture in expressive singing, or merely pay lip service to its importance. Toft offers information from singing treatises as well as practical illustrations from contemporary writings on elocution. One elocution treatise includes detailed notations of gestures suitable for a recitation of Thomas Gray's poem "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard"; Toft provides an overlay of those gestures onto a musical setting of the same poem by composer Steven Storace. Toft's final chapter reprints scores that include detailed annotations of performance directions found in treatises by Thomas Welch and Garcia, providing concrete examples of phrasing, breathing, changes of rhythm, and ornamentation.
Toft's book is a valuable contribution to the field of performance practice. While not every modern performer or teacher will be interested in recreating the delivery style of earlier singers, all should read this book to dispel modern myths about bel canto. It is clear from Toft's work that, rather than smoothing over the differences between the registers and striving above all to create a beautiful sound, bel canto singers took advantage of the tonal differences between the registers and cultivated a variety of tone qualities, all in the name of expression.
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2001|
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