|To mark the fifth anniversary of ITYWLTMT, we are undertaking a long-term project that will introduce - and re-introduce - musical selections in the context of a larger thematic arc I am calling "A Journey of Musical Discovery". Read more here.|
A Fork in the Road
Last month, the first third of our journey through the CM repertoire, focusing on music played by one performer, and working our way up to a full Symphony Orchestra.
The key word here is “played”.
In one of our first posts in this project, we brought up that music can be roughly divided into two large categories – music that is played (which we call sonatas) and music that is sung (which we call cantatas).You could say that, at the on-set of our journey, we came to a fork in the road, and chose to go down the “sonata” path. Today, let’s take a moment to walk back and stroll down the “cantata” path.
Before I go on, I want to make it clear that the world of vocal music has a very broad scope, and that it is somewhat disingenuous of us to claim that a single chapter is enough to fully explore and appreciate this genre. After all, we spent nearly 6 months looking at instrumental music... What I will do, however, is maybe pack in a few more listener guides in this chapter than I have in the past ones, to compensate a tad.
Another fork in the road
We don’t have to venture very far down the vocal path before we encounter another bifurcation point, and this one forces us to consider two aspects of the vocal repertoire – sacred or secular. Sacred, of course, implies music of a religious or liturgical nature, which we typically hear in houses of worship. Secular music, on the other hand, is anything other than sacred.
The best example of sacred music I can think of is “the ordinary of the Mass”, that is to say, music that follows the notional sections of the Catholic liturgy: Kyrie (Lord, Have Mercy), Gloria (Glory to God in the Highest), Credo (The Apostle’s Creed), Sanctus (Holy, Holy, Holy), Benedictus (Blessed is He who Comes in the Name of the Lord) and Agnus Dei (Lamb of God). Although masses since the late 20th century are conducted – and sung – in all languages, the traditional mass is sung in latin, and the text for these familiar rituals and prayers is sung in that language.
Almost all composers have contributed masses, from Claudio Monteverdi to Andrew Lloyd Webber. They can be ordinary masses or special masses (the most common of those being the Requiem Mass, or the Mass for the Dead).
Sacred music isn’t limited to masses, however. Some prayers – like the Ave Maria – have been set to music as either choral pioeces or art songs.
Cantata, Oratorio and Opera – what is what?
As I said off the top, any piece of music that is sung is technically a cantata. That would apply to art songs (or lieder) where a singer is accompanied by a single instrument, to choral works (where more than one voice is required), or to more elaborate works. It is in the case of more elaborate works that we bring up the term cantata – as a sung work with many vocal parts and many sections (like movements, or individual sung numbers). Though cantatas are sacred, many of them can be secular and though they usually tell a story or convey a common idea, cantatas aren’t always “stage works”. In short, a cantata is a concert piece for singer(s) and orchestra.
Although we can find art songs in the baroque and early classical period, the “golden age” of the lieder is the romantic, beginning with the many songs of Franz Schubert, for both male and female singers. Cantatas were a popular form in the baroque, though the genre has remained in use through to modern times, with works like Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky and Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana.
An oratorio is usually a large cantata, which recounts a particular event – typically historical or biblical rather than fictional. Though singers play “parts”, as in a play, oratorios are rarely “staged” or “acted” – there aren’t any set designs, or elaborate mise en scène. That is in my mind when an oratorio crosses the threshold into opera, which is the “full meal deal”: a “sung play”.
(Opera is such a “special case” of vocal music, and is after all a cross between voca;l and stage work that it deserves its own chapter, and its own discussion, so I won’t elaborate here.)
Among examples of oratorios we have Handel’s Messiah, Mendelssohn’s Elijah, and Sir Paul McCartney’s Liverpool Oratorio.
In its strictest sense, vocal range refers to the full spectrum of notes that a singer's voice is able to produce, starting from the bottommost note and reaching to the uppermost note - from the lowest grunt to the highest obtainable vocal squeak. In opera or solo classical music, often only the parts of the range that are considered musically useful are counted as part of the range. Put even more simply, a certain section of a singer's range, (likely the middle portion), will make up his or her most comfortable and practical range.
In classical music, there are six basic voice types - bass, baritone, tenor (male voices), contralto/alto, mezzo-soprano and soprano (female voices)- and then several sub-types within each. There are also intermediate voice types which may have a range or tessitura lying somewhere between two voice types or parts (e.g., a bass-baritone), or may have a vocal weight lying somewhere between light and heavy (e.g., a dramatic coloratura soprano, etc.).
To provide a tonal context, here is a visual chart (BTW, the source article from which I borrowed some of this material is a great read!)
Voice types matter – to quote the playwright (and music critic) George Bernard Shaw, '[Opera is when] a tenor and a soprano want to make love, and are prevented from doing so by a baritone.' Tenor and soprano voices dominate the singing landscape, and are often assigned the primary protagonist roles in oratorios and operas. However, baritones and altos are usually trusted with more arcane aspects of the sung repertoire – their deep voices are entrusted with more somber lyrics.
Suggestions to Explore he Vocal Repertoire
Listener Guide #42 - "Schubert’s Winterreise". Few singers had such an intense relationship with a piece of music as the German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau had with Schubert’s Winterreise (Winter Journey), a song cycle setting 24 poems by Wilhelm Müller to music. He is accompanied by pianist Gerald Moore in this concert performance. (Once of Twice a Fortnight - 28 Sep 2016)
Listener Guide #43 - "Art Song at the Gardner". Art song puts together all the basic ingredients of a great musical experience – it requires great music and musicians of course, but also great texts, great lyrics. Songs by Dvorak, Wolf, Falla and Schuimann (Once or Twice a Fortnight - 17 Oct. 2015)
Listener Guide #44 - "Great Voices from the Past". Clips, from 2011 and 2012 installments of Opera Potpourri where host Sean Bianco discusses and shares recordings of the Nimbus “Viva Voce” series dedicated to vintage acoustic and electrical recordings of some of the great singers of the early 20rth century. Featured are soprano Rosa Ponselle, baritone Giuseppe De Luca, tenor Jussi Bjorling and heldentenor Lauritz Melchior (Once or Twice a Fortnight - 14 May 2015)
Listener Guide #45 - "In Memoriam: Carlo Bergonzi (1924 - 2014)". A look at tenor Carlo Bergonzi with Neapolitan songs and selections from Baroque and Romantic Italian Opera. (ITYWLTMT Podcast #172 - 07 Nov, 2014)
Listener Guide #46 - "Aria. Aria". Our journey continues with some famous duets. (ITYWLTMT Podcast #185 - 13 Feb 2015)
Listener Guide #47 - "The Ordinary of the Mass". Three settings of the Latin mass ordinarium from three different eras. (ITYWLTMT #231 - 30 Sep 2016)
Listener Guide #48 - "Felix Mendelssohn: Lobgesang". A complete performance of Mendelssohn's second symphony for soloists, chorus and orchestra by Kurt Masur and the famed orchestra of the Leipzig Gewandhaus. (ITYWLTMT Podcast #181 - 16 Jan 2015)
Listener Guide #49 - "Gloria!". Settings of the Gloria by Poulenc, Vivaldi and others. (ITYWLTMT Podcast #148 - 21 Mar 2014)
Listener Guides #50 & 51 - "Handel's Messiah". A near-complete version of this enduring oratorio, as assembled for performance by Leonard Bernstein. It is presented here in two parts - titles appropriate for Christmas and for Easter, (Once or Twice a Fortnight - 22 Dec 2014)