Christoph Schlüren, 2017
One of the most fundamental requirements for every instrumentalist is the singability of their playing. Georg Philipp Telemann already articulated this clearly:
Singen ist das Fundament zur Musik in allen Dingen.
Wer die Composition ergreifft / muss in seinen Sätzen singen.
Wer auf Instrumenten spielt / muss des Singens kündig seyn.
Also präge man das Singen jungen Leuten fleißig ein.
Singing is the fundament of music in everything.
Whosoever starts on composition / must sing in every set.
Whosoever plays an instrument / must be capable of singing.
So impress on every youth without fail the importance of song.
When listening to musicians from Eastern traditions, from Korea or India to the Levant and the Maghreb, many people might be astounded by the discovery that the playing of the strings – however primitive these sometimes even single-stringed instruments might seem to us at first sight – is characterised in many cases, if you ignore the specific timbre or just listen carefully, by the similarity to someone singing. For a wind player it is even more natural than for a string player to use songlike phrasing and articulation, since he is working directly with the production of the air column, instead of indirectly producing it through the transference of the string’s vibration to the resonator. In any case, it is clear that in archaic traditions it was usual to play as if singing – this is also usual in the musical traditions of the Balkans, especially in the melancholy Doinas of Romanian folk music and the several varieties of Gypsy music over to Andalusia. What does it mean to play singably on the instrument, apart from the resulting fact that the performance reminds us of singing?
To play singably firstly means to realise a concrete physical connection to the intervals. Play as if you would have to produce the notes and melody with your voice. For faster movements and ornamentation this means you should practise a quasi-guttural articulation and the imagined tongue movement. That is how faster sequences get a perceptible corporeal presence, which lends them an appreciable, modifiable expression. This is a bit like the idea of melodic speech, with tonal connections imagined in speech. But the idea of melodic speech does not consider the specific character of the intervals, their tension in relation to one another.
So, a deciding element needs to be added: the imitation of the tension in the sung melody through the notion of needing the effort, increasing towards the higher notes and decreasing towards the lower position, to produce the tone. The higher the note, the more tension is needed for its production – this is a physical matter of course for every singer. The advantage for the string player (and also the reason why he can so easily lose the connection to singability) is that he has no comparable problems with tone production in the extreme positions, only being hampered in the low regions by the predetermined range and in the high notes by the fingering being too tight (in the extremes of the high register there is of course also the problem of very high string tension, which reduces the resonance as well as possible modification of tone).but these are already the special cases which the composer usually leaves to the especially dexterous virtuoso soloist or to a strong string tutti.
Now it must be noted that humans are sensitive to the intricacies of tone production especially in the middle registers, particularly in the euphonic centre, those registers in which they also use their speaking voice, as well as in its extension according to their personal singing capabilities. This spectrum of heightened perceptibility reaches from the bass to the soprano register, and it could be assumed that women are more sensitive in the higher regions and men in the lower ones – as in their respective voices. But this only pertains in a very restricted way, because we are used to listening to others and are therefore accustomed to the whole usual frequency range of the human voice.
As evident as singable phrasing is in many archaic cultures, in Western art music we have increasingly lost our natural feeling for it. This becomes immediately apparent when we listen to recordings of great singers of the past. Bel Canto is not only the specific peculiarity of an era that was dominated by Italian opera, but the continuation of a much older tradition which, in a way, here found its expressive high point and often already started to topple into the decadence of arbitrary shaping of the melodic lines. If we ignore the eccentricities of great singers in the era up to the Second World War, we notice the smooth melodic guidance as well as the lightness with which even large voices entrance us. Today, many singers sing, apart from the natural aspects of tone production (i.e. more tension in the high registers, less tension in the low), not really singably anymore, because they are trained early in the forcing of notes, the forcibly created power to assert themselves even against a large orchestra. While many promising voices are ruined at an early stage by this, it also leads to a jerky, almost shouting singing, the kind that we regularly experience on opera stages today. But even oratorio singers are affected by the deficient training in respect of melodically consistent presentation, and in the so-called Early Music Scene it is especially evident that concentrating on the momentary effects of singing speech has led to a fragmentation of melodic feeling.
The aspects of degeneration described here have naturally had consequences for instrumentalists, who can no longer learn the art of natural phrasing from contemporary singers, as was the case in earlier times. Today we admire the singable playing of the likes of Fritz Kreisler, George Enescu, Adolf Busch or David Oistrach, of Edwin Fischer, Ignace Tiegerman, Eduard Erdmann, Dinu Lipatti or Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, the singable playing of orchestras under Wilhelm Furtwängler, Victor de Sabata, Clemens Krauss or Sergiu Celibidache. And often we ask ourselves why the performances of these artists are of this remarkable quality. This can not only be explained by the fact that technique is never foregrounded, even if in many cases it is immaculate – it can even be said that we are inclined to overlook technical faults because the musical flow and expressiveness invariably carries us along. There are, of course, famous artists in our time who put their emphasis clearly on the ideas they want to transmit and would admit immediately that flawless technique is only a necessary pre-condition – I am speaking of distinctive personalities such as Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Gidon Kremer, Martha Argerich, or Mischa Maisky. Their specific talents are unmistakable. But do they also have a sense of cantability, of the singable? Or aren‘t they rather artists searching for an entirely unprecedented expressiveness, for an extravagant performance practise that wants every ear to be able to distinguish it from everything else?
So, what are we to look out for first? Since singability is the natural human way to present a melody, listening to singing according to its natural principles is an elementary precondition to all ideas of differentiated singing speech, artful play with timbre and virtuoso exaltation. So it is surely necessary to study the differentiated need for power in every register and to let it become second nature, as well as the possibilities of sound production by the voice, i.e. the entrance oscillation, the spectrum of articulation of the lungs, the throat, tongue and lips. This is the natural foundation which forms the starting point for the instrumentalist, to which he can always return.
But it is also the connective formation of the melodic phrase with its harmonic tensions. Since classical singers have today, because of their specialised training and the dearth of living examples, lost the knowledge and the intuition for it, I recommend the study of singing traditions of oral lore. For this the wide spectrum of Oriental traditions, often reaching back thousands of years, is especially interesting. Just compare the sacred song of Muezzins or Jewish cantors with what is left of it in Gregorian chant. At its core, it is often the same melodic form. But how rigid has Gregorian chant become as a rule! Writing it down has preserved the main notes, but neither the original intricacies and modifications such as slurs, ornamentation, glissandos, portamentos, microtonal colouring, special timbres (for instance the gutturally rough, often nasal or droning tone production) nor even the energetically connective realisation. All this could only be transferred by direct contact between teacher and pupil and is lost in written transmission. So today the result is often a redundant spelling out of stanzas that misses any inner necessity. So: off to the orient, to the origins!
The presentation of singing is not only connected to the physical conditions of the human organ. The real art lies in creating the melodic line in its singular connections, its changing tension, which is the manifestation of the underlying harmonic structure. There is no room here for wilful searching or arbitrary interpretation, for the dramatic accentuation of certain virtuosic phrases at the cost of others. The arc of tension in a piece is the interior, singularly articulated continuum which emerges inescapably as a compelling connection from the first to the last note, from the first to the last chord, when we are capable of understanding and living every detail as part of the whole. Then there is also not the often-mentioned contradiction between sentimentality and sobriety. Music is always concerned with the tendency towards sentimentality, otherwise we would not be touched by it and would only have a purely vital or intellectual interest in it. Of course, the art lies in being in touch with the sentiment without succumbing to its tendency to want to linger. What keeps us from falling into sentimentality is the ability to hear ahead and to intuitively remember in the sounding moment, the always deepening ability to correlate the minutiae that want to capture us with the experienced totality, which always, even through deep contradictions, keeps in our consciousness the reference to the beginning and end of a piece. The tension between intervals which are the basis of our harmony and consequently our polyphony, thread through every piece of music in its tone sequences as well as in the proportions of the of the form as a whole. They can only be experienced as a totality in singable, humanising form.
It is not enough in polyphonic forms, especially in their increasingly harmonic complexity and deeply contrasting thematic parts, to school your musicianship regarding connected, essential configuration of melody. Apart from the always necessary education and sharpening of the rhythmic consciousness it is essential to penetrate the mysteries of harmony, to understand modulation and consequently the overlying harmonic articulations in respect of the whole work, to explore the essentials of a living organism beyond schematic terminology. Diametrically opposed to a cantabile shaping are certain conventions which have become dogma in some cases, of a historical performance practise on a purely philological basis, for instance the stereotypical, sometimes even gruff emphasis on the heavy beat (especially, of course, the beginning of the measure) or the arbitrary shortening of notes not connected by legato slurs. That this is, even under rhythmical/metric aspects, an impoverishment of expression and a reduction of the tone colour palette as well as a primitivist suppression of the dance element (which is animated by the emphasis on its syncopic, i.e. conflicting elements) and the potential for metric contrasts, is mentioned here only in passing.
A summary concerning the problems for different instruments regarding singable presentation will illustrate these observations. As already mentioned, nearest to the human voice are the wind instruments, whose tone generation is closely connected with breathing and need more power in the high registers than in the lower ones. The woodwind instrument closest to the human voice is the flute – the transverse flute used in orchestras as well as the recorder. The transverse flute operates especially brilliantly in the soprano register and even higher. In the depths is has little power, as does the human voice. It is natural to play singably on it, but this much-played instrument is seldom heard at a high musical level, because the temptation to shine superficially and present the beautiful tone narcissistically seems to be great. The recorder, on the other hand, has the problem in all its natural simplicity that intensifying the tone carries the constant danger of voicing too high, as well as sinking away too quietly. The clarinet can also come quite near to the human voice, even if its abrupt separation of registers is opposed to that. On the clarinet, you can express everything, and it is just this incredible facility and agility, which knows almost no difficulties, which can get in the way of a substantial interpretation (as is obvious, for instance, in the clarinet adaptation of Beethoven’s violin concerto). If it is sensibly handled, it can do practically anything. The oboe with its extremely short attack presents a completely different challenge, however: heavy and very powerful in the low registers, sharp and thin in the high registers – the musician must work against the natural tendency of his instrument. But in the middle register he has a power, especially of the introvert, which is unparalleled. The bassoon, related to the oboe, is less problematic in general, even if it is only of restricted use in its pale heights. For the related instruments such as the piccolo, the bass clarinet, the cor anglais or the double bassoon the problems are generally analogous, where the piccolo and the double bassoon have their best registers in the extremes, far away from the euphonic centre.
Among the brass instruments, the horn is nearest to the human voice – as is the flute –, including its special susceptibility to physical indisposition. Its slow, soft tone build-up reinforces the singable impression, and the sound of a horn group can remind one remarkably of a men’s choir. The trumpets, trombones, and tubas can also have lovely singable effect, if the playing is schooled accordingly and especially if attention is paid to producing a true piano and pianissimo sound. With the saxophone, the weaknesses lie more in the often-encountered roughness, especially of the tone entrance, which also has to do with the cylindrical bore which has become usual today – a brilliant example for singable phrasing and especially exquisite forming of tone was the alto saxophonist John-Edward Kelly (he used an instrument with the original conical bore).
For string players, it relates to much more schooling of the imagination to align their phrasing with the possibilities of singing. This has not only to do with needing the same pressure in the high and low registers. The bowing of string players corresponds to exhaling on the downbow and inhaling on the upbow. It is almost as if they can sing while inhaling. But the attack is much more powerful on the downbow, and the natural tendency is for the tone to become weaker afterwards; and while the upbow is good for a crescendo, it is not as impulsive by nature. So, it must not only be assured that these differences are equalized, the string player being able to apply up- and downbow without any discernible difference. He must also control his bow changes as silently and strictly as possible, and in any case, he must be taught to make it possible for his bowings to concur as closely as possible with the tension of the phrase. Going by the sonic characteristics alone, the cello is the string instrument most aligned to singing, but it has the same problems as the others. The double bass can face special problems, because the production of soft tones is connected to greater effort than mezzoforte or loud tone.
By having a continuously formable expression throughout the whole tone production, string players can, if they are adequately schooled and talented, achieve a singable quality that is equal to the human voice. Are the instrumentalists playing pizzicato, which can only be equal to arco on the double bass, it is often necessary to assist the tonal capacity by use of lingering vibrato.
There is a difference with plucked and strummed instruments. Here the clear imagination of the energetic course is almost the only thing that can ensure a singable formation. Of course, there are tonal aids, but the pedal technique of the pianist may be ever so highly sophisticated – if he cannot consciously feel the line, there will be no singable expression. And the latter can exist even when he is playing without any pedal, as is possible in Baroque and Classical literature. The pianist’s legato is an illusion which should be continuously created and cherished – as should the ability, not to hit the instrument in fortissimo, but to let it sound rounded. And what an audible difference in many situations, if the finger is kept on the key as long as possible instead of simply using the pedal to extend the sound! Great examples of cantabile, connectedly farsighted and still delicately formed playing is found among today’s pianists in Murray Perahia or Maria João Pires.
The most difficult and compelling requirements on the imagination relate to playing on instruments that do not enable any dynamic modifications of the pre-installed register, for instance the harpsichord or the organ. But a musician like Zuzana Růžičková has proved with her delightful Bach performances that this is possible.
There follow a few notes on vibrato and intonation. This is possible for all wind players, but is mostly frowned upon – apart from the flute and oboe – especially in orchestras, and suppressed in favour of a straightforward tone production. For string players, it is a wonderful aid to approximate a natural human voice, if used in moderation and with good taste. Here the opera singers of our time with their exaggerated amplitude are mostly bad examples. In the lower register, the amplitude can be larger without distorting the tone. In the higher registers the space in which the variations of intonation are tolerable, becomes significantly smaller. Since vibrato is an individual form of expression, one must be careful to keep it as flexible as possible in every conceivable situation, so that it never becomes mechanical – regarding speed as well as pressure and amplitude there are endless nuances possible. Even here it can be very stimulating to listen to singers from orally transmitted oriental or Latin American traditions and to study their richly nuanced melodies. Basically, these principles also apply to the use of rubato.
Finally, regarding intonation it is to be noted that the well-tempered scale of twelve equally spaced notes in the octave only strictly pertains to those pre-tuned instruments that have no other possibilities, for instance the piano, harp, guitar or tuned percussion. Especially the strings can act much more empathetically regarding harmony than is generally recognized, beyond the fact that they do not tune in pure fifths: how uniquely fine, rich and peaceful can a major third sound in a string chord when it is lowered to the fifth overtone, or a lowered minor seventh corresponding to the seventh harmonic – all this is connected to singability, since the human voice will spontaneously tend towards the natural, melodious intonation in harmonic proportion.
In conclusion, the instrumentalist shall not simply imitate the human voice, especially not its natural weaknesses such as its lack of contour and its diffusion in the depths, and closing up and noticeable effort in the heights. Imitation is initially only good for learning. Rather, it is the lasting rootedness of the musician in the feeling of cantability in accordance with musical logic of the melodic tensions and the human conditions of natural expression. Of course, every instrument has its specific character which cannot be replaced by another. This regards the timbre in its multiple aspects (especially the attack), not, however, the shaping of the phrasing. But naturally, since the twentieth century produced the so-called machine music, and bruitism is one aspect of the modern world as experienced by the human being, as we can find it in Prokofiev, Varèse, Honegger or Mossolov. But to what are we referring when we talk about „machine music“? To the human voice, the expression we are used to, as the point of departure from which we experience other things as other. If we experience machine music and today also, in its aftermath, artificially generated music as such, as something inexorably mechanical, which is opposite to the flexible vivacity of human expression, we are free to act musically. If we begin to take the mechanical as natural – due to habits formed by daily exposure or simply its unconscious continual consumption – something has gone wrong.
We react to no other sound source as sensitively and delicately as we do to the human voice. An ugly singing voice is much more unbearable to us than an incompetent bassoonist, trombonist, guitarist or pianist (except if we are specialists). On the natural scale of sensitivity, the instruments rank according to their similarity to the human voice: flute, horn, clarinet, cello, violin, etc. We are least sensitive to percussion and mechanical instruments like the organ. And it is even more fascinating when such an instrument is played with true musicality, as by the great percussionist Peter Sadlo. Here it becomes clear: Cantability is nothing else than the humanising of sound, of tonal relations.