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Lessons in Musical History.

etude-music-study-clubs.jpgBY W. J. BALTZELL.


In our study we cannot have failed to note that the line along which music developed was vocal; instrumental music was subsidiary. In the lessons for May and June we gave attention to the development of musical instruments as preparing the way for a style of music which should be free from the limitations of the human voice, a style which we know today as instrumental music in distinction from vocal music.

For the present, however, we shall retrace and make some studies in regard to vocal music and particularly the execution of vocal music, that is, singing. At the present day we are so accustomed to the idea of a person’s studying singing that we may sometimes think that there was always a science of singing. Not so. The first songs were undoubtedly rude war-chants and religious songs, which were merely a sort of declamation, partaking in no sense of what we call melody. We may deduce some idea of what the early nations practiced in regard to singing from what little we know of music. The Egyptian temple hymns are thought to have been slow and stately, thus well suited to the use of large bodies of worshippers, as was the case in that country. Doubtless noise was the requisite, a characteristic, so it would seem also of the Greeks, since Plutarch warned his disciples against too vociferous singing lest they “cause ruptures and convulsions.” This is similar to the violent efforts of the old flute-players who were accustomed to place bands around their cheeks to prevent bursting. The Jews, in their religious ceremonies, used vocal music,—the antiphonal style is attributed to them; but no thinking person would attribute melodic qualites (sic) to the music that was to be accompanied by the clashing, strident sounds of the instruments used in the Temple services.

The idea of mass of sound rather than music, properly so called, seemed to reign. We must not be misled by the myths of the Egyptians and Greeks, who attributed remarkable effects to certain great singers. These men were simply types and served to personify the powers which the races acknowledged to be in music. David, the Psalmist, must have had vocal gifts far beyond his fellows, but he did not sing as we understand the word. The early Christian church did not neglect singing; in fact, that practice was common among them and they received terms of obloquy from their pagan enemies just as later certain branches were styled “psalm singers.” As the church became established, as cathedrals were built and the church became a great factor in the life of the people, ceremonials requiring music were introduced, and it was inevitable that close attention would be paid to the execution of the music. The spread of Christianity required a systematization of church music, and that it be put into something approaching form. Notation of music, as we have it to-day, was lacking, and tunes were generally taught by instructors to classes. This would tend to introduce a uniform style of singing, good or bad from an artistic standpoint, it may be, yet pointing the way.

The first singing schools for instruction in church music are said to have been instituted at Rome, the fountain head of the church, in 314 a.d. by Pope Sylvester. In the East, in 350 Flavian and Diodorus made antiphonal chanting of the psalms a required part of the church service. In 367 the Council of Laodicea forbade congregational singing and confined the musical service to a trained choir. The chants or melodies used by the early church were very limited in compass and showed little variation in pitch, as the Gregorian melodies now in use clearly indicate. Hence there would be little need for instruction such as we undergo to-day, to extend compass and secure evenness, power, and beauty in all registers. The extreme notes rarely varied more than a sixth.

When later the difference in the range , of the high and low voices of men demanded recognition, the tones used were still within narrow limits. A word or two about the names given to the voices. The lighter voice, possibly the upper part of the average male voice, was generally used in carrying the tune; this was called the Tenor, from the Latin verb, teneo, I hold. When a part for the lower-pitched male voice was added, the term bassus was applied to it, meaning “low”; later it was found that a high-pitched male voice could be used, equivalent to the falsetto, possibly, which was named altus, “high.” When later another part was added to the melody carried by the Tenor, accompanied below by the Bass, and above by the Alto, this third part, sung by boys, whose natural voice is an octave higher in pitch than a man’s voice, was called Triplum, from which comes our word “treble.” The term Soprano came into use later, and is derived from sovrano, head, chief, highest. The singers of the cathedrals and monasteries who sang the music of the polyphonic period must have undergone thorough discipline and training in “reading” music. Anyone who is in doubt on this subject need but refer to the music of Josquin des Pres and his immediate successors. Just what exercises were required of them, what was aimed at in these exercises, whether power of voice, power to sustain a sound, increase of range, etc., such qualities as are demanded of the choir singer to-day, we do not know, but we are assured that the singers of the Sistine Chapel were obliged to give their attention to long vocal exercises, which though not aiming at individual expression in song were not without influence on the art of singing, and especially from the mechanical side. The voices, in the first place, were the pick of thousands; hence they would excel in beauty of tone, in range, and possibly also in power. Composers could write difficult florid passages, for these picked, trained singers could execute such passages. Hence the work of these singers would set a standard for others to reach by diligent training. It must not be forgotten that the vocal music of the period we are now considering is choral, a characteristic which still lingers in the time of Palestrina and the madrigalists. From the mechanical side the choruses of Palestrina and the madrigals of his contemporaries are not easy. They demand ease, considerable range, skill in intonation, and steadiness in time-keeping on account of the complicated polyphony, which demands absolute independence in reading. Hence we may conclude that from the mechanical side the trained choir singers of Palestrina’s time were skilled to a high degree.

The art of song dates from the epoch of the opera. When the monodic style introduced and cultivated by Galilei, Caccina, Peri, and others was an accomplished fact, attention was centered in expression, with its demands on the side of declamation, and enunciation as well as on pure technic. The choralist made way for the soloist; the art that achieved sonorous, superb effects in the mass was inadequate to the delicate, poetical, emotional effects demanded of the individual who personated a character, who had to convey all the powerful emotions that actuate the human soul.

The formal recitative made use of by the first writers of opera, a style which lacked rhythmic and melodic variety, gradually gave way to a different style. Runs were introduced, scale passages of various kinds, elaborate ornamentation, high and low notes, long sustained tones, trills, etc., all of which the singers learned to do with the greatest precision; it must be said, however, that these passages could be considered instrumental rather than vocal by musicians of the present day.

Many of the composers of the early operas were also singers; witness Caccini; and others were teachers of singing. One of the most celebrated of these was Alessandro Scarlatti, who was born at Trapani, in Sicily, in 1659. There are two accounts of his early education, one that he studied in Parma, while some writers declare that he was a pupil of the eminent composer, Carissimi, in Rome. He early became celebrated as a singer and player on the harp and harpsichord. His home for many years was at Naples. He occupied an official position in the Court of Christina, Queen of Sweden, who spent some years at Naples. It was Scarlatti who introduced the custom of having the first part of an air Da Capo, after the second, a form followed by composers for many years. In one of his operas, “Teodora,” composed in 1693, we find the first orchestral ritornel (a short instrumental melody played between the scenes of an opera, or during the action for the purpose of enforcing some particular dramatic effect); also the “symphonies” (sinfonia) introduced between the vocal phrases of a song or anthem; in this second meaning it was much used by composers of the early Italian school. Scarlatti’s works also show the germ of the “recitativo obligato,” with the entire orchestra to accompany the recitative. He wrote about 115 operas, of which 41 are preserved; over 200 masses; secular canatas (sic), oratorios, madrigals, etc. He was a teacher in three of the Naples conservatories and instructed a number of pupils who later attained fame; among them may be mentioned some who will appear later in these lessons: Logroscino, Hasse, Leo, Durante, Greco, Porpora, and his own son Domenico, who has much importance in musical history.

In considering the work of Scarlatti and his contemporaries we must not lose sight of the fact that composers and highly skilled executants react on each other. As the technical powers of singers increased they demanded greater opportunities to display their skill; as composers gained confidence and power in the new methods of opera construction, they scrupled not to write more and more difficult music, until the famous singers of the eighteenth century executed vocal tours de force which would tax the powers of the greatest singers of to-day, and probably are beyond them, since the virtuosic displays of the earlier period have gone out of fashion and are no longer demanded.

As was said before, many of the composers were also singers and teachers, so that their pupils, while gaining instruction in composition, also studied singing; for example, the celebrated Porpora, the greatest singing master of his time, who was also a prolific composer. We may see from this how the art of the executant exerts a great influence on the art of music itself.

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