Thus far the development of western vocal music has taken place within two broad, on-going venues--religious worship and the theatre. But at this point a new performance format arises, resulting from the development of the technological media--the phonograph, radio, motion pictures and television.

Opera, a quintessentially Italian creation, has always borne a distinctive cultural birthmark. The technological media are essentially American developments (pace, Signor Marconi ) and, in similar fashion, the music created for them is strongly stamped with a distinctive cultural trademark.


1920 - ONWARDS

Cubism, the abstract art style that took things apart and recombined the fragments in unexpected ways, was analogous to the human experience in World War I and the period that followed. The explosion and fragmentation were over, but things would never be the same again.

Having endured the war, the public wanted little more than to forget the past and enjoy the present. But composers also wanted to forget the past and were bent on experimentation and exploration that would lead them away from traditional subjects and conventional harmony and tonality. Unfortunately their new found rhythmic complexities, jarring polytonality, experimental orchestrations and atonality were not at all what the public wanted and, as contemporary classical music became more complex and severe, its audience decreased significantly.

One of the great works of the postwar period was the opera Wozzeck  (1925) by Alban Berg (1885-1935). Berg was a student of Schoenberg and incorporated some twelve tone (SERIAL) material into his opera The score is a landmark of modern music, filled with innovative ideas and several features relating to vocal use should be mentioned. Most noticeable is the use of the vocal style known as Sprechstimme , a manner since used in many serial compositions for voice. In this style, midway between speech and song, the performer is to initiate each pitch accurately, but use the remaining duration of the note to inflect the pitch, as in speaking, rather than maintaining it, as in conventional singing. Other features of Berg's score include the use of extreme vocal range, unconventional tessitura and large intervals in the voice line. These would all become standard techniques in avant-garde vocal music, as composers explored the outer limits of vocal capability in their quest for previously unused expressive sounds.

These features have brought the criticism that such music is unvocal, yet when the question of what makes music vocal or unvocal is addressed, few of the commonly held concepts sustain scrutiny. Traditionalists hold that music is unvocal if it employs large melodic skips (ninths or larger), angular rhythms (snap, dotted or syncopated), unusual dynamic usage (low range/loud or high range/soft) or competitive accompaniments (dissonant or loud). But such thinking leads to the unlikely conclusion that composers who avoided such elements (Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf, Robert Franz, and Leo Delibes are examples), somehow attained an enlightened state that eluded masters such as Alban Berg, Béla Bartók and Benjamin Britten, who employed them.

The composer Arthur Honegger advanced an alternate standard for identifying the true vocal quality of music: Only music that is significantly affected when its vocal part is performed by a surrogate instrument would pass his test. He noted that the great arias of Puccini, Mozart and Verdi lose little when played by a fine violinist. Their basic qualities of grace and pleasant melodiousness remain intact, suggesting that these qualities are not the true, essential substance of vocality. But, he submitted, should the vocal line of Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande  be played on an instrument, the sense of loss would be unmistakable: the music would seem pointless and its reason for existence diminished. This then, in Honegger's view, must be music with true vocal values.

Berg's Wozzeck  reveals another important trait: the desire of modern composers to clarify and control the interpretation of their works by providing ever more detailed and specific editorial instructions. As a result, just a few measures of Berg's music may contain more performance directions than an entire score by J.S. Bach. Some risk may attend this practice. The ambiguities in old scores serve a useful if unintended purpose by allowing successive generations to bring new, vitalizing insights and interpretations to them. Modern composers, by lessening the future infusion of imagination, may be limiting the opportunity for their works to grow with the ages.


Postwar circumstances were such that the everpresent alternate stream of musical creativity--the popular entertainment style--would enjoy an unprecedented surge in importance. Popular music goes back to at least the Dark Ages when the Ionian mode, our major key, was nicknamed modus lascivus---the wicked mode. The trouvères , Stephan Foster, George Gershwin and such disparate works as Sumer is icumen in, The Beggar's Opera, Yankee Doodle  and Star Dust  have all been a part of its history. Now, put off by the unattractiveness of contemporary classical styles, the public would turn successively to Tin Pan Alley, Jazz, Blues and Swing for its musical fare. The capturing of the public interest by these new styles was helped by their easy accessibility, for technology was providing new means for spreading their enjoyment.

People no longer needed to invest their money in an expensive piano for the parlor, or their time in learning to play it. Phonograph recordings and the newest craze--wireless broadcasting--could bring music into their homes. The pleasant, entertaining music that could be enjoyed by simply tuning a radio or winding up the phonograph, would ultimately convert a small but participatory public into a much more broadly based, but passive one.

Again, young performers had to choose between two forms of vocalism so disparate crossover was rarely possible between them: the so-called classical and popular styles. A new American phenomenon, lyric-voiced song stylists called crooners, were idolized by their public, and many established long and lucrative careers. Early on there was Rudy Vallee who, in a time before electronic amplification, made a personal trademark of the megaphone he used to extend the carrying power of his voice. Then came Bing Crosby, whose lifelong career included stage, radio, television, film, and whose recordings, such as White Christmas, are still heard. Later would come Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Tony Bennett and many others, all artists in a style requiring faultless diction, subtle nuancing of text, seamless line and a light, unstudied tone production. The effortlessness of their vocalism was predicated on the use of electronic amplification, and their accompaniment, be it dance band, small instrumental 'combo' or piano, was astutely arranged to be supportive without being competitive. Tailored writing had returned. It has been noted the 'conversational naturalism' of the microphone singer represents a rebirth of the text-centered singing manner favored by the Florentine Camerata. This and other interesting ideas are developed in Henry Pleasant's book, The Great American Popular Singers, and those interested in popular singers and singing, from Al Jolson through Barbra Streisand, should read it.


Before 1925 sound recordings were made by an acoustical process, and it happened that voices were easier to record than instruments. Recording companies filled their catalogs with songs and arias performed by the finest artists available. As the parlor piano had been the mark of culture in the middle-class home of 1900, the gramophone served the same function in 1920. On a hot summer evening, the recorded voices of Enrico Caruso or Amelita Galli-Curci could be heard singing arias out the open windows of almost every town and city in the Western world. People who would never be inside an opera house in their lives, could now casually hum along with La donna è mobile  and Caro nome. It was an important step in widening the public awareness of music and heightening its discernment of singing.

Electronic amplification was introduced in 1925 and the recording of musical instruments (especially string tone) was much improved, as was the ability to record ensembles and larger groups of performers. The orchestral repertoire began to enter record catalogs. The electronic method not only improved fidelity, it allowed the manipulation of sound: balancing tonal forces, controlling volume and timbre. The recording and broadcasting industries were making major strides in the application of technology to sound, and would continue to improve their equipment and techniques during subsequent decades. These advances in audio reproduction were soon used to add sound to motion pictures and, fittingly, it was a film titled The Jazz Singer  (1927) that introduced the idea. The musical entertainment business had become a rapid growth industry.

Hollywood, which had quickly converted to 'talkies', soon took up an entirely new genre--the 'musical'--with gusto. From Rio Rita (1929) to There's No Business Like Show Business  (1954), the Hollywood musical helped raise the public standards of theatrical visual expectation, just as the phonograph had educated the public musical ear. Television, the next significant technological device, carried on from there. All this had a profound effect on singers, for not only were the standards of convincing acting being raised, but innate physical appearance had become important. Other things being equal, the svelte, visually attractive singer would be given preference over the obese or otherwise ill-favored performer. By mid-century a singer had to have outstanding talent or possess a particularly rare vocal ability to gain entry into opera without regard for his appearance. In motion pictures, pleasing appearance soon became a sine qua non , and even the 'tenorissimo' Luciano Pavarotti had to slim down somewhat before Hollywood would consider using him.

The 1927 transatlantic flight of Lindbergh was a harbinger of the easy, rapid air travel of today. As airline transportation improved, and especially with jet travel after W.W. II, singers became increasingly transient, and it became possible to sing in Vienna one evening, London the next and Chicago the next. But the physical stress of such scheduling and travel (jet lag, altitude acclimatization, etc.) is so rigorous few singers can sustain it with impunity. Still, air travel has affected singers in several ways. To attract the most notable artists on the 'jet circuit', it has become necessary for opera companies to perform works in the language in which they were written and to use the accepted standard edition of the work. No superstar soprano is going to spend the time needed to relearn Tosca  in Dutch just so she can sing it for a brief engagement in Antwerp. The so-called International Class opera companies of the world have bowed to this reality and the visual projection of an ongoing vernacular translation has become a regular feature in many houses. Still, in smaller companies, where a resident, closely-knit ensemble is the performance style, or in countries where there has long been a tradition of doing so, opera may still be translated and sung in the vernacular.

World War II pushed technology along new paths, and a magnetic sound recording format, using coated tape, was a pertinent development. It had several advantages over the older wax disc method of recording. It was very easy to edit (cut and splice), enabling mistakes or faults, which occurred while the performance was being recorded, to be easily corrected. Prior to this, all recording had been accomplished in 'complete takes' and if the final note of an aria or scene wasn't perfect, the entire selection had to be performed again in the hope of improving it. The new ease of editing also allowed composite recordings to be made. The best parts of Take #4 could be joined to the best parts of Take #40 (which could be recorded days or months later) and few would be the wiser. In truth, primitive recording tricks had been going on for some time, and a famous soprano once attended a recording session to sing several high notes, which her friend, an aging artist, could no longer perform. The tape recorder also allowed 'live' recordings to be made with much more facility than had discs. Many of the finest recorded performances we enjoy today were made with tape equipment at actual performances, where the special quality of communication that can result when an artist interacts with an audience was captured. Tape has also proved useful for singers in study and training situations, making it relatively easy for them to hear themselves as others do.


After WWII, a young entertainer, Les Paul, almost single-handedly changed the course of popular music by adding electronic pickups to his acoustical guitar, thus inventing the electrical guitar. Further, while tape recording the sounds of his new instrument, he experimented with combining multiple recording tracks together into a composite whole. His ideas became the cornerstones of the popular music recording industry and enabled a new entertainment style--rock and roll.

Rock, unlike ragtime and jazz, is based exclusively on the song format (a textless rock selection is very rare), while its style is defined by using both standard and electronic instruments, conventional harmonies, electronic amplification and a driving rhythmic beat. The texts, addressed to the adolescent and young adult 'market', are often socially audacious or rebellious and are delivered with remarkable emotional intensity and expenditure of energy.

As it happens, people still enjoy virtuosic display and the image of effortful exertion, even when amplified--witness the popularity of rock belters like Rod Stewart and Bruce Springsteen and gospel-inflected shouters and rhetorical balladeers like Whitney Houston and Aretha Franklin.
--John Rockwell, Fine Singing Isn't Dead

Rock presentational conventions include extraordinarily heightened amplification, complex lighting effects, unusual costuming and manic movements by the performers. It is a style that uses singing as a point of departure rather than as an end in itself, and the quality of the vocalism is not as important to the success of the performance as is the intensity and level of excitement the entertainer generates. singing styles, linked with both black song-writing (spirituals, the blues) and instrumental music (jazz, with its instrumentally shaped singing styles, as practiced today by such flamboyant vocal virtuosos as Al Jarreau), have made a profound impact, first on America and long since on the world. Traditional vernacular black vocal production and style, with its throatier, hoarser timbre, expressive pitch shadings and openly emotional fervor, made an enormous impression on Tin Pan Alley and rock...

More recent advances in the recording industry--the high fidelity long-playing record and the digital compact disc--have made a remarkable range of previously inaccessible music readily available. It is commonplace today to enjoy choosing between multiple recorded performances of works that, just decades ago, were so unperformed and obscure only musicologists were aware of their existence. Video recordings now bring both the visual elements and the sound of musical theater and operatic performances to their viewers. Never before has such a sizeable or knowledgeable public existed for music. Never before has a singer's repertory needed to be so broad or his stylistic awareness so keen.


As we have seen, the art of singing is constantly evolving. Today, when more people enjoy a wider variety of music and singing than at any previous time, there can be no doubt the vocal art is vigorously alive and will continue to develop.

Music of one kind or another almost totally pervades our lives. The hope of the turn-of-the-century French composer, Erik Satie, for a music that would be as commonplace and unnoticed in our daily routine as furniture or wallpaper has been fulfilled. Background music attends us everywhere: in shopping malls, washrooms, elevators, medical waiting rooms. Even while holding on the telephone, we are subject to its presence. What long-term effect this musical wallpaper may ultimately have on our perception of other music--designed to be attentively listened to--is impossible to foresee.

As electronic science becomes ever more sophisticated, it appears likely all forms of vocal music will employ amplification. The financial rewards of performing 'live', albeit amplified, for fifteen (or fifty) thousand people, rather than the current maximum, imposed by acoustical limitations, of about four thousand, appear irresistible. Many opera houses have employed amplification when necessary, and the practice will surely increase as performances move to outdoor stages and arenas. Conversely, unforeseeable advances in acoustical architecture may enable the construction of significantly larger auditoriums that are so efficient in balancing and conveying sound, amplification will not be necessary.

With or without electronic amplification, instruments continue to become ever louder. For example, not long ago a pertinent new invention for stringed instruments, the Starker Bridge, was announced. It is a newly designed bridge that transfers more resonance from the strings to the body of the instrument and thus enables performers to play their fine old instruments in larger auditoriums than ever before--without electronic amplification.

There is a trend developing in operatic performance, in which the locale, era and plot elements of a work are 'up-dated' (Rigoletto  set in Al Capone's Chicago, etc.) to make them more entertaining or theatrically relevant. If stage directors prevail in carrying such ideas to their logical end, a rebalancing of traditional operatic priorities could result. Theatrical values may be given primacy over the musical values of opera and singers required to sing from the orchestra pit while highly skilled actors mime the characters on the stage. A parallel technique has long been used in musical motion pictures. Or perhaps the entire musical component of future performances will be pre-recorded, to be played back from the orchestra pit in support of the 'live' theatrical presentation.

It is generally accepted that raising the tuning pitch favors the tone of many modern orchestral instruments, and the tendency has been, for some years, to move the tuning pitch ever higher. That this trend disfavors the singer is of little consequence to those who control the process. When and if the realities of this matter are confronted, it seems possible we will have two tuning standards, one used exclusively for instrumental works and another for music involving voices.

Speech and computer scientists have long since synthesized human speech sounds and computer-generated, synthesized singing was recorded in the Bell Telephone Laboratories as early as 1963. Advances in this field continue, and there is reason to expect remarkable future developments.

Medical science also may contribute to the singing of the future. Surgery for restoring the voice has long been performed for medical reasons, and laryngeal surgery for aesthetic reasons may be undertaken in the years ahead. The use of vocal-tract surgery to enhance a singer's voice does not appear impossible. And advancing knowledge of hormonal chemistry may lead to the sophisticated manipulation and management of various qualities of the vocal instrument.

Ultimately, as improvements in world wide communication and transportation slowly integrate the various human societies into one vast global culture, our present ethnic, region and language-based characteristics may become blended and less distinct. The varied vocal concepts and singing styles of today will inevitably be effaced in such a process, perhaps to the extent that all the singers of the world will finally be joined in a common standard of language, musical style and vocal production.

Clearly, the potential for growth and change in the universal human art of singing, far from being exhausted, is greater than ever before. There is every reason to believe the best is yet to come.

GLOSSARY of terms capitalized in the text.

A system of musical composition, devised by Arnold Schoenberg, based on an arbitrarily arranged series of the twelve chromatic scale tones. This series or tone-row remains unchanged throughout a composition, save for such modifications as transposition of tones at the octave or inversion, order reversal (retrograde), or retrograde inversion of the entire row. The tones of the row may be used either melodically (horizontally) or harmonically (vertically) but the entire sequence must be employed before the row may be repeated. The row is normally designed to avoid outlining the triads or patterns associated with tonality. Berg's Lulu  (1937) and Schoenberg's Moses und Aaron  (1957), both written entirely in serial technique, are considered the two masterpieces of the serial repertoire. Both employ the same arduous vocal style as Wozzeck  and are significant undertakings for performers and audience alike.

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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.