Vocal Traditions in Conflict

Vocal Traditions in Conflict
Descent from Sweet, Clear, Pure and Affecting Italian Singing to Grand Uproar
Richard Bethell
Peacock Press
Softback. 410 pages, 254x178x28mm, ISBN: 978-1912271498

This masterly tome comes from Richard Bethell (Secretary of the National Early Music Association) and is clearly a labour of love. Based on 20 years of research into comparative singing styles, Bethell challenges the opera house singing style of the past century as compared to that of the “long 18th-century” between 1650 to 1830. The last 50 or more years have seen a revolution in instrumental playing of early music, including a realisation that vibrato was a rarely used ornament rather than a persistent effect. But the singing world has failed to respond to the lessons learnt, often resulting in glaring inconsistencies in early music concerts between the orchestra and singers. 

Based on written evidence from the time, Bethell maintains that the best vocalists of the earlier period “… sang in straight voice, with occasional expressive vibrato and messa di voce, produced low notes firmly and high notes softly [partly by ascending regularly into falsetto regions], adopted high/neutral larynx positions, achieved good diction [by adopting a slightly smiling mouth shape], and delivered polished cadential trills“. In comparison, he describes “… most of today’s operatically trained singers emit a permanent wide vibrato, screech or bellow high notes [always in chest voice, excepting only specialist falsettists], adopt a plummy low larynx position, sing with wide-open mouths … impairing diction, seldom use the messa di voce and are mostly incapable of delivering a proper trill“.

As will be obvious from the “Grand Uproar” of the book’s subtitle, and the wording of the description of present-day opera singing, this book is far from a dispassionate analysis. There are present-day singers with strong vibratos that produce documentary “evidence” to support their own singing style which, not surprisingly, they believe to be entirely correct. Such is the nature of historical research and the reliability of sources. Richard Bethell is very obviously a supporter of the “Sweet, Clear, Pure and Affecting Italian Singing” of the long 18th-century and offers a vast amount of documentary evidence to support his thesis.

About half of the 410 pages consist of reviews and descriptions of singers’ voices – a nice reminder that reviewers do have their place in the musical scheme of things. In contrast, the many contributions from treatise writers are sensibly downplayed. For biographical information of the singers mentioned, the reader is referred to other sources. The book is divided into seven sections, subdivided into precisely numbered sub, sub-sub, and sub-sub-sub-sections. So, for example, in Section 2.3.6, we find a reference to the famous castrati Francesco Barnardi (Senesino). After an introduction which described a range of vocal styles and the results of listening tests for the various style, comes a description of the “Golden Age of Italian Singing” between 1650 to 1830. The third section looks at the following period after 1830 and the changes in vocal styles. This is further explored in Section 4, 5 and 6 which look at specific aspects of a singers’ technique – vibrato, chest voice, and larynx position.

The final Section (7) offers present-day examples and playlists of different vocal styles, more of which can be found on Richard Bethell’s own website here. This website is worth exploring in addition to reading the book. It includes many audio examples,  videos of Richard Bethell and playlists of various singing styles. He refers to singing in present-day pop culture and suggests more pop to classical crossovers. Other future actions to deliver historically-informed vocal performance include reforming professional vocal training, launching an early music competition for amateurs, and launching the campaigning organisation CAMREALS (Campaign for Real Singing).

There follows a list of sources and a very complex subject index. Rather than indexing in alphabetical order, the index is divided into around 60 different sections. For example, we have “Vocal Sound2, Unwanted Outcomes 18C Long” as one heading, below which comes such subsections as “Shrieking on High Notes” and “Throaty Low Larynx Emission”. Another subject heading is “Strong Vocal Work Ethic” with just one entry, a singer on page 147 where the only reference I could find that had any link to a “strong vocal work ethic” was a comment that she was “always eager to do her best”. To find a particular name, you need to first try to work out which section that name might come under. I really do not understand why there isn’t a straight forward alphabetical index of topics and names. 

In connection with the issue of the Subject Index, I should perhaps mention that I make a couple of very brief appearances as somebody “reviewing from an HIP perspective”, one noting that my reviews have “put me on to a few singers of interest”, another noting my criticism of a singer with “a huge vibrato”. Curiously, these mentions are listed in the Subject Index under the heading “Facebook Contributors” rather than under my own name or my review website, which is not mentioned at all. I assume this is a reference to the Historical Performance Research Facebook Group, although I have no recollection of contributing anything specific to that group.

Although the general tone is critical of most present-day singers, Bethell does hold out some hope for the future with the comment (on his website) that Fortunately, there is light at the end of the tunnel. A handful of classical vocalists and some pop/jazz trained singers have avoided the traditional opera house sound and are producing sweet, clear, pure and affecting music praised in the past.”

Although this book has its faults, it is a well-intended attempt to shed light on the changes in vocal style from the “long 18th-century” to the present day. It omits the period before 1650, not least because of the dearth of information from that period. French singing of the 1650-1830 period is also omitted, although it is noted that it included more vibrato than Italian. Bethell admits his lack of Italian and French language and more general musicological skills contributed to this gap in the discussion.

This book is a major call-out to singing teachers, particularly those involved in young singers where basic technique is formed. As I have mentioned many times in my own reviews (on this review website and earlier in the now-defunct Early Music Review magazine) young singers in conservatories are pushed into developing big ‘operatic’ voice well before they have developed the skill of knowing how to control those voices. In his introduction, Bethell calls for such institutions to put in place “… facilities to train undergraduates to sing in a historically informed way, thereby diverging in part from their (currently exclusive) role as opera singing factories …”  by recruiting as vocal coaches singers with the necessary knowledge and skills.