by John Koopman

The human voice is really the foundation of all music; and whatever the development of the musical art, however bold the composer's combinations, however brilliant the virtuoso's execution, in the end they must always return to the standard set by vocal music.        ---Richard Wagner


Change, in the history of Western solo vocal performance, has arisen from a variety of unlikely causes. Far from actively guiding the evolution of their art, most composers and singers have been content to simply respond to the challenges and opportunities presented by ever changing circumstance. Thus a conventional approach to the subject, surveying the music written for solo voice, would show the effect rather than the cause of the changes. Hopefully the approach taken here, primarily tracing the development of opera, will be more informative. For as Paul Bekker pointed out in his book, The Changing Opera, "...the singing voice is the root from which the opera has sprouted and grown...the form of the opera arises from the voice; it becomes physically perceptible in such shape as is dictated by the development of the voice...the history of opera becomes the history of the voice."

A comprehensive history of singing is yet to be written, and this brief piece is but an introduction to the subject. In the interest of concision it has been necessary to simplify or omit much of importance, and those interested in more detail are encouraged to use this work as a point of departure. A bibliography of readily available English-language materials has been provided for this purpose. A glossary of the terms which first appear in the text in upper case letters will be found at the end of each section.


Copyright 1999, John Koopman. All rights reserved. No part of these websites, designated A BRIEF HISTORY OF SINGING and UNSUNG SONGS, or their contents may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means--electronic, photocopying or otherwise--without the written permission of the copyright holder. For information about the use of this material please contact the author through the Conservatory of Music, Lawrence University, Appleton, WI , (U.S.A) 54912-0599. Fax 920 832 6633.