Professor of Singing at the Royal College of Music, Examiner for the Associated Board of the Royal Academy of Music and Royal College of Music. Author of " Life of Verdi," •* Essay of Musical Culture," etc.
Ballad and Oratorio Singing -How to Choose Songs - Faults to be Avoided - Pronunciation
In Dr. Ralph Dunstan's "Cyclopaedic Dictionary of Music " a ballad is defined as (1) a popular song, (2) a simple narrative song. The lyric that attracts the modern composer has not, as a rule, much of the latter element, and its expression, both as regards music and words, is less direct and obvious than was formerly the case. Therefore, the modern song requires a more subtle treatment. I am speaking of the good modern song, and there are many such. There is still room for vast improvement in the taste of the public who support this branch of music, but there are signs that the meretricious and trashy ballad is dying, and that an increasing majority of people are beginning to ask for something better than satisfied them a decade back.
Here I must impress upon students, when the time comes for them to essay songs, to choose examples of an easy compass, and with a flowing, simple melody. Some of the work of the ultra modern school, with its constant modulations and unexpected intervals, is not for them. The first songs must be treated as exercises, in which the principles of tone formation are applied to words. And here I am going to repeat what I said in a former article. Do not tire the voice by singing over a new song. Finger it out at the piano and learn it in that way. And when the melody and the time and the rhythm nave been mastered-then it can be sung without damage to the voice. Even the simplest ballad needs preliminary study. There are many points to be observed-breathing places, the division of phrases, and so on. Try to mentally read the melody of every song before going to the piano-it is excellent practice for your sight-singing, and you will be surprised at the improvement that will show itself after a few months.
An almost invariable fault of amateurs, and a good many professionals as well, is the habit of "dragging" a song, due to an excess of sentiment and to the prolongation of unimportant words. Always remember that, although every singer may be allowed a certain amount of licence in the rendering of a song-still she is, after ail, but the interpreter of the composer, who, it is to be assumed, knows his own mind, and therefore entirely to alter the time of a composition is quite unwarrantable.
The Colour of the Voice Avoid an excess of climaxes. If these are frequently piled up one on the top of the other they lose all their significance. How often have I heard a song entirely ruined for the reason that when the singer came to the closing bars, where a dramatic effect was needed, he had completely exhausted all the emotional means at his command, and the final phrases were entirely robbed of their intended effect. Frequent violent crescendos become wearisome and are totally unnecessary. Many singers think that "loud" and "soft" is all that is required. I advise you to pay much more attention to the colour of the
The Arts voice. Let the tone reflect the real meaning of the word. This is the truest "expression" -not the exhibition of violent contrasts, which is so admired by people who think they are artistic, but, in reality, do not know the meaning of the word.
M. Fournier, a well-known authority in Paris on matters vocal, has lately been impressing upon students the importance of facial expression in relation to correct emission of tone, which, he says, is much more easily produced by these means than by the use of artificial processes. The position of the larynx adapts itself naturally to the play of the features, and greatly facilitates the changes in vocal shades, according to the different sentiments which the performer wishes to express. This is the side of their art which is sadly neglected by singers. Words such as "love" and "hate" cannot be given their due significance and requisite tone colour with a fixed, set expression. Here the temperament of the singer must show itself. I am going to quote in this connection a few lines from a recently published article on "Vocaf Colour" from the pen of Mr. Philip Ashbrooke:
"It is generally admitted that the foundation of all good singing is built on a study of the true vowel sounds and values, without a clear conception of which no real progress can be made; but it is when all this has been achieved, when the voice is ' safe' throughout its compass in attacking any sound, that the brain of the singer must show itself. An intelligent master can do a great deal in pointing the way, but imitative art only must always be unsatisfactory. There must be that individual exercise of the mental faculty, that striving after the true interpretation of the poet's exact meaning, without which a song is nothing more than a glorified vocalise. Great artists get their points by various means, but the ultimate result is 'truth !'"
Guard against "cheap" effects. One of the worst of these is the habit of slurring intervals. To the uncultured mind this implies a tender sentiment, but to those that understand it is an inartistic device worthy of the street singer. An occasional-a very occasional-slur may be allowed, but I have heard singers who couldn't sing two notes without it, and then it becomes, like the persistent tremolo, a positive vice. So choose a good ballad, not necessarily difficult because good, thoroughly study its points, then read the words over aloud, giving
Mr. Albert Visetti due emphasis to those that are important, and forgetting everything but an artistic rendering - "production" must not be ever-present in the mind during a song-let your individuality have free play. As I have said, seek for the poet's meaning, and having found it, give your version of it, not necessarily that of the professional singer you heard the day before; you may have discovered something that he missed.
The Beauty of English Songs A ballad needs the clearest of enunciation; every word has its value, and it is only by the most careful study that a really satisfying performance can be ensured. Students often make a great mistake in holding the ballad too cheaply-because the actual notes are easy they think no study is required, with the result that they miss many little artistic touches that ought to have received attention. It is the very simplicity of the composition that calls for a delicate rendering. If a ballad, in your opinion, is not worthy of study, then leave it alone. And give up that hateful idea that you have to " sing down " to your audience. It is not complimentary to them, and it implies a weakness and lack of confidence in yourself. And never sing anything in public before you have mastered it. A simple song, thoroughly understood, will give more pleasure than a more ambitious one sung indifferently; and judged by your performance of the first, the audience need not necessarily know your limitations with regard to the other.
Lastly, memorise your ballads. How can a singer convey the points of a poem when her head is half hidden behind a sheet of music. Hold a programme containing the words. That should and must be sufficient. Otherwise the time has not arrived for you to mount a platform.
When studying oratorio you must not allow yourself quite as much individuality as in ballad singing. There are traditions that have to be observed in the performance of the standard works, traditions that have come to us from the composers themselves, and from the great singers of the past who were their interpreters. At the present day these are not observed with the same exactitude as was the case a few years ago, and in my opinion it is right that the modern artist should be allowed a certain freedom
The Arts in his ideas, but the student should treat oratorio with the reverence due from youth to old age.
From a vocal and educational point of view, nothing can equal the old oratorios-particularly the works of Handel and Bach. As a study for purity of tone, flexibility and control of breath, they are of the utmost value. And no tricks are possible here; the slightest roughness or faulty vowel pronunciation-or any of the hundred and one pitfalls that the singer must avoid-are immediately laid bare. Remember you will be singing a work that most of your listeners have heard many times, and there are those odious comparisons to be thought of. But do not neglect the study of oratorio on this account, particularly Handel. It will well repay your time and serious attention, for, as someone once said, " it is the very springtime of song-there is something" so imperishably vernal about it."
Pay great attention to the recitative in oratorio. There is no finer study for word values and clearness of diction. Every opportunity should be taken of hearing oratorio artists of repute, and there are very few large centres where this is not possible.
But always remember you are undertaking music that has come down to us clothed in a mantle of tradition, and though you may make a few very small alterations here and there, a modern garment is out of the question.