The Relationship of Words and Music: Interpreting vs. Just Singing
by Fadlou Shehadi,baritone
Song interpretation has many facets. I shall concentrate primarily on the relationship of words and music as it concerns the performer, not the composer, and specifically the performer of art songs.
In opera, if I may be facetious, the relationship between the melodic line and the words has long been solved in a very simple way: The singer sings the melody—loudly, of course—and the words...what words?
I will discuss three main points. The first, I call the quantity of voice; the second, phonetics versus the natural language; and finally, coloring and inflections in the miniature mosaic that is the art song.
The Quantity of Voice
Anna Russell, the musical humorist, once said that those who have big voices go into opera, and those with small voices, who can’t sing opera, choose Lieder (“leedah,” as she would say it). This turns Lieder, or art song, singers into opera rejects, vocal impotents who have to live with their infirmity.
I would like to put a positive spin on this difference in vocal quantity, and suggest that for the art song, the question of how much to give depends on the demands of the genre, not on the size of the voice.
Many years ago, I gave a recital of Schubert songs in a summer resort in Lebanon. Young, and with a voice I wanted to spread like a peacock spreads his tail feathers—exemplifying that mysterious relation between voice and ego—I bulldozed my way through the program. A German lady in the audience came to me after the concert with words that still ring in my ears: “Sie müssen sie nicht so ausgeben.” (You must not give out so much.)
In the time that followed I started to ask myself: “Why not? Maybe refraining from giving out so much is the inherited tradition. But why that tradition in the first place?” Since the art song recital is usually for voice and piano, I mused, it is a form of chamber music, performed in smaller halls where singers don’t have to project over an orchestra to fill vast spaces. Good, but not good enough.
I would like to suggest that the relatively restrained singing needed in the performance of art song has to do with the relation of words to music, which is characteristic of the genre.
We have all heard it said that in opera the scenery, the costumes, the plot, the makeup, and the acting roles go a long way towards creating the dramatic context. By contrast, the singer of art song stands there in a dramatically naked setting, next to a huge box with white and black keys. It is up to that performer to evoke the scene, the mood, the emotion, and supply the narrative and the drama (with the help of the pianist, of course). The singer accomplishes all this through the poetic line, vocal coloring, subtle inflections, and nuanced phrasing.
The late Austrian critic Peter Stadlen described the art of the Lied as, “the elusive art of suggesting the dramatic content of a text by other than operatic means” (The Oxford Dictionary of Music). This applies, of course, to both singer and pianist.
The best tradition of the art song achieves a perfect marriage between the vocal line and the piano part. The pianist is a collaborative artist, not just an oom-pa-pa accompanist. The singer must achieve another marriage, however, within the vocal line itself, between the melody and the words.
In a perfect marriage, each partner gives the other a fair chance. Neither partner consistently asserts his or her needs at the expense of the other. A purely vocal approach to singing does exactly the opposite. The text becomes a marginal phenomenon.
Two aberrations of the purely vocal approach come to mind. The first is chronic, unrelenting loudness. Here the voice is so full of itself, so peacocky, that it stirs up a vocal dust storm that smothers the words. You could call this “music by the pound.”
Loud, expressive passages have a rightful place in art songs and can be very powerful—but they are meant to enhance, rather than overpower the text. You want your audience to say of such moments: “What a powerful emotion,” not just: “What a big voice.”
Chronic loudness distracts from the work being done by the words, and I, as a listener, must have a chance to know and feel what the poetry is doing. In any case, having a big voice, or even a beautiful voice, is, in a way, like being tall, or having broad shoulders: They may be an asset, but they are not a virtue. You can’t claim credit for having achieved them.
A cousin of chronic loudness is habitual, intense and athletic resonance, whether loud or not. The extreme form of this problem is so untamed that the voice goes beyond pitch, and turns into a sound that is sort of on pitch but with no specific pitch. It also tends to drown, to fail to reflect, the subtleties needed in the unfolding of the poetry. (Believe me, I am not erecting a straw man here. I have heard a number of famous singers, opera singers I am afraid to say, who do this in recitals.)
Both chronic loudness and unbridled intense resonance do more than unduly outshine the text in art singing, they also make it physically difficult, if not impossible, to do what you must be doing with the words, much the way sobbing becomes an impediment to speaking. In art songs, the voice must be of such measured quantity, and of such transparent quality, that it can accommodate and be mindful of the poetry that is clamoring to have its proper place in the sun. This is essential if you are going to create on that barren stage the scene, the mood, the emotion, and the drama embedded in the text.
Now of course, you can sing softly and still ignore the role that words must play. So you must want to honor the poetry, whether you’re singing loudly or softly.
Phonetic Singing vs. the Natural Language
In art song, as I have said, the text is as important as the musical line. But it takes more than enunciating clearly to give the text its due. You have to go beyond clear diction of syllables, words, and phonetically correct vowels.
Recently I heard a singer who was doing beautifully in so many ways. What I missed was hearing the words doing their work in sentences or phrases as they might function in the natural language. As soon the singer came to the group in English, her native tongue, everything sprung to life and fell into place. She knew that natural language.
Let me share with you how Maureen Forrester, the famous Canadian contralto, learns her songs. Before she looks at the vocal line, she recites the poetry aloud, as meaningfully as she knows how, giving full due to the rhythms, the surface sounds of the text, and to the subtle shades of phrasing in that language. Having established the contours of the text, the shape of the sentences, as it were, she then considers the text ready to receive and do its share in giving structure to the melodic line.
I would like to add a footnote here. Singing in translation is better than not singing at all—but it can’t help but fall short. The composer gave us the perfect marriage in a particular language, with its particular sounds, contours, rhythms and inflections. Therefore, in my view, it is best for the singer to learn the natural language, rather than settle for the mere phonetic substitute.
The Mosaic of Coloring and Inflections
As we first learn how to sing—how to place the voice, how to breathe, how to sing vowels etc.—we are told that there is just one correct way of doing any of these things. But when you find yourself in the world of artistic interpretation, your attention shifts to serving the art in ways that may require a slight bending of some rules.
I was told, for example, that singers sing on vowels. True enough, if you mean that vowels are what allow pitch. Of the consonants, “l,” “m,” and “n” can take pitch, while “p,” “t,” and “k” cannot. (We are unlikely to have whole songs on “l,m,n”s!) But if pitch singing is essentially on vowels, it does not follow that you sing only vowels. Consonants, the spinal cords of words, have an important poetic and dramatic function. Think of the power and agony built into the consonants of “schmerz” (meaning pain, suffering: six consonants and one short vowel).
Singers must do more with vowels than make them sound in accordance with the international rules of vowelry. If the poem describes a city whose towers emerge from a morning mist, you are not going to consult the vowel dictionary. You should spray a misty, almost mystical quality to the vowels, and to the phrasing. And if there is a poem with different words that share the same vowel (“joy” and “sorrow,” for example), you have to decide which vowel gets which coloring. Even when you have the same word in different sentence settings (such as, “Oh what joy” vs. “Alas, there is no joy”), again, the word “joy” gets a different coloring in each case, because the text requires it. There is no one rule for vowels.
Let me give you an example of what I call inflection. Pierre Bernac, an unrivalled master of textual delivery in song, was once illustrating to me how to sing the word “lointain” (distant, far off), which occurs in Fauré’s “Les Berceaux.” As he inflected that single, simple word—without plot, costumes, makeup or scenery—I could see for miles.
It is clear that interpreting art songs demands more from a singer than simply producing well-placed, gorgeous sound. Mind you, I adore well-placed, gorgeous sound, but it’s not enough. Art singing is characteristically a mosaic of subtleties conveyed directly to an audience by a ménage à trois: the words, the melody and the piano. If you are interpreting, rather than just singing, you must subordinate your voice as an instrument at all times to the artistic demands at hand—and these demands are determined, to a large extent, by the words of the poetry.
Baritone Fadlou Shehadi served as president of the Board of Directors of Joy In Singing, for ten years. During his tenure, Mr. Shehadi secured sponsorship from The Edward T. Cone Foundation for the American Composers Concerts, giving American composers working in the art song form a chance to be heard, while creating performance opportunities for many of the talented singers associated with Joy In Singing.
Mr.Shehadi's final New York City recital performance , Die Winterreise, with Dalton Baldwin at the piano, was
an event many still remember as a rare gift to the audience in the hall that evening. The performance was a shining example of the lifelong artistic journey every gifted artist maintains. The article above originally appeared in Classical Singer Magazine in 2004.