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Interpretation in the Art of Singing - Part I
The origin of the song and its birthplace is in the mind and in the inspiration of the poet. The composer could not have written the song had the poet not written the words. The poet sees a vision -- this vision, through his genius, he is able to materialize for the world in a set of words by which it is portrayed. Then comes the composer. He reads the poem of the poet, is inspired by the poet's creation, and further materializes the vision in harmonic form. To each phrase, to each word, he gives a musical tone, blending into one the meaning of the word and the meaning of the sound. Thus is created the song. The object, the mission, the problem of the singer is to re-create the poet's vision -- to make it live, to portray it, to paint a picture of this vision in vocal vibration. The singer, to give a perfect picture, must use different tones such as a painter would use in painting his picture -- different brushes, different colors.
In the last century, the singer had to sing only works by Mozart, Rossini, Donizetti, Handel, etc., with roulades and trills and runs, long sustained musical melodies, written on words that had very little sense and little variety of emotion. It was the age of romanticism, of sweetness, poetical lyricism, of vocal tone. Singers sang with fine technique and produced tones sustained and of sweet quality, but with little if any psychology, either in their singing or in their acting. We can judge that, and reconstruct it from the traditions they left us, against some of which we have to fight so as to make progress in singing and acting. As I have said in my previous article, the type of the singer and his singing is a direct outcome, the reflection of the creative work of the composer. The poet mirrors in his poetry the times in which we live. The composer harmonizes and the singer portrays them. Therefore, what was good and acceptable in the old days of our grandfathers, while it still may give us a certain artistic pleasure, has outlived its epoch, and does not satisfy our minds. We are passing now through an age of intellectual progress of mind and not only of sentiment. Probably had Chaliapin appeared in the 1840s, he might have been hissed off the stage and severely criticized, instead of being hailed as the greatest operatic artist of the century. But why go so far? Only fifteen years ago, he failed to please the New York critics or the New York Olympians, yet then he was just as great as he is now. He was the first to break the conventions of all the stupid traditions of the operatic stage, and the Beckmessers thought it scandalous.
In this world nothing remains stationary; everything moves towards progress and composers have to submit to the same law. Every new movement in musical expression meets with bitter opposition. The ruling Beckmessers, always find that it breaks traditions and conventions, and therefore it is bad, ridiculous. Mussorgsky, the greatest songwriter of the world, died practically in poverty, and was never recognized for the great genius he was while he lived. Like in everything else in the world, the same intolerance! With the advent in the musical world of new composers expressing live emotions in the new musical form, new singers had to come; Tchaikovsky, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, created the so-called Leider-singers, recital singers and gave the world such artists as Von Zür Mullen, Julia Culp, Dr. Wüllner, etc. Most of the songs of those composers were the expressions of true, deep emotion, portraying true sentiment, written on poems of great poets, giving them a corresponding musical harmony. Those composers demanded a singer with a brain, a mind; a singer that would be able to feel, to understand the subtleties of all human emotions, and their love and sufferings, and to give them a true expression in their voices. Being romantics they created a type of romantic singer; they portrayed very little of the grotesque and crude side of life, with the exception of a few songs like Der Erl König, Der Zwerg, and a few others. Their melodic medium of expression is round, fluent, tender, pathetic, melodic, tragic -- demanding the same of the singer. They represent the intellect of their times, they mirror the sentiments of the educated Bourgeois classes.
Wagner and Mussorgsky made still further progress and created a great musical upheaval. They established the musical drama. Accordingly, they created a new type of singer. Wagner -- mystical, allegorical, superhuman, majestic, colossal -- with the sweep of a great brush painting super pictures of human giants, God-portraying force, demanding singers of great physique and power of style! His medium of expression is a musical declamatory singing. Mussorgsky brings a different phase of life into music. While Wagner brings for the greater part a musical drama of the unreal and allegorical, Mussorgsky brings the musical drama of life's reality. He is a realist and portrays life with all her crudeness, ugliness, and at the same time, beauty. He mirrors all the feelings and the life of the Russian peasantry, so called by our social rule, "lower classes," a class that found very little portrayal in the musical expressions, although the folk music that may be the foundation of all music and which is, in any case, the foundation of Mussorgsky, comes from and has been created by the so-called lower classes. Mussorgsky in his songs invents a completely new medium of musical expressions. He arrives at complete realism, and has a perfect realistic musical tone that portrays the meaning of the word, the psychological state behind the word. He again demands another type of singer, a singer who can master an infinite number of colors in his tones -- a singer able to portray in his tone not only beauty and fluent melodic lines, but also the grotesque, and paint realistic pictures with his voice.
The next stage of development is Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, and now "The Six" in Paris. Their music again demands a different style of singing. It is a melodic declaration, on sustained tones, and as the French say, Il faut les dire ("You must speak them"). It is different from Mussorgsky's declamation. They are impressionistic, while he is realistic. What will be the next stage of development nobody can tell, but one thing is sure, we will not remain stationary.
From all this it is obvious that a singer cannot sing Mozart with the same tone as he would use to sing Mussorgsky. Take for instance the song of Mussorgsky in which the village idiot pleads with Savishna, a village girl, to love him. If the singer were to sing the song in his ordinary voice -- the voice that he would use in singing the Hindu Song from Sadko, it would surely be meaningless. Some songs, it is true, are purely descriptive, the singer being merely the narrator. Like, for instance, The Rose and the Nightingale, where the singer tells of a nightingale that fell in love with a rose; or that ballad of Mussorgsky, describing a soldier who was killed and left on the battlefield, while in his own country his wife is crooning her baby to sleep. For such songs, no special tone-color is necessary. The singer is asked only to tell the story with feeling, giving the expression of the emotion of those about whom he relates.
But the great majority of songs are personal, where the singer is a character making a personal appeal; for instance, like Savishna, Steppe, Ich grolle nicht, Invitation au Voyage, etc. In these songs the singer must forget his own personality completely and for the time being assume the personality of the character in the song. He must think, feel, look like a person created by the poet and composer, and which he has to portray with his voice.
Some songs are a combination of the two -- narrative and singer -- like the Death Serenade of Mussorgsky, which begins with a description of a beautiful and a dying girl sitting in a window. At midnight, Death, disguised as a medieval knight, appears at her window and sings a Serenade. Up to that point, the song is a narration. From that moment it is Death making a personal appeal. Or, for instance, The Two Grenadiers, which tells of two Grenadiers retiring from active service in Russia and how they hear the news of France's defeat. It is first a narrative, then a dialogue between the two grenadiers. It is only common sense that the tones which describe the two grenadiers returning and the speech of one and of the other must be different. The question arises: Is it possible, and will that be singing? Here will come complete disagreement from those who hold themselves purists - those who will sacrifice every shade, every color, for purity of tone. To them singing is first of all the producing of a perfect sound, while the realists are ready to sacrifice purity of tone to get the right psychological effect -- the right total production of the emotion -- to convey the vision of the poet.
As I have already said, in the days of the classics the purists were right -- the tone was before everything else. With the sound-treasures that exist in the present-day songs, which portray all of the emotional sides of our life, then I say they are wrong and we are right. Let the purists say that they do not like that kind of song; that is different, and then it would be a question of taste. But to sing those songs with just pure tone is inartistic. The question is: Can a singer find enough color in his tone to give the portrayal of so many varieties of emotion? Without any doubt he can. Singing is a prolonged speech, only instead of a short breath used on a syllable, in singing we used a long one, and while we speak, only a few notes we sing on a scale of two octaves, which really gives to the singer an advantage over speech in the quantity of inflection and color of the voice. The speaking voice of a great actor is able to give an infinite variety of shades of color, sometimes making their voices unrecognizable when the part demands it. What an actor can do with his voice so can a singer -- only much more.
The question is, how is it to be done and what are the signs? Unfortunately, in the limited space of an article it is impossible for me to go into details and give elaborate, scientific explanations, but I will do so in my book, which I hope to finish soon. Meanwhile I will give the outlines and the psychological and physiological fundamentals on which interpretation, in my opinion, should be based. Let us analyze what is interpretation and what is action, mind, brain, body, that give us the power to realize the interpretation. Interpretation of a song means the re-creation of the poet's vision and portraying of it to the public by words and music through the medium of the voice. The truer the portrayal, the greater the interpretation. If you can make the public feel the reality of the emotion -- if you can visualize the picture and the thought you have in your mind, you have succeeded. Now let us consider the physiological process in our body that enables us to give the outward expression of our forethought and vision! The process will be as follows:
In our mind, we have a thought -- a picture, which is transferred into an emotion and transmitted to a corresponding cell of the brain that controls this emotion. The particular brain cell, or cells, when there is a vision of the emotion, sends the message to the corresponding nerve centers in the body. By the command of the brain the nerve centers begin to vibrate, to feel, and in their turn produce an immediate reaction on the body. It produces a reflection on the muscles, giving a bodily form, movement and color of tone to the voice. In my opinion, without the right bodily form you cannot get the right vocal color to portray the emotion, and to get the right bodily form (by which I mean, the expression of the voice, hands, position of your body), one must get the true emotion in the nerve centers. It is only then that the singer can live in every song he sings; it is only then that he can portray the true emotion.
What I say is not new -- it is only the adaptation of the natural laws, our natural selves as we live in everyday life, to song. If songs and singers are to portray emotion, then they must follow those natural laws and not create unnatural ones to portray the natural, or they will never succeed. Watch yourself in everyday life, and you will find that you have practically for every thought a corresponding movement, facial expression, and vocal color in your speech. For example: You have just heard good news, which has made you happy. Your face lights up with a smile; your lungs are filled with air; your voice receives a bright, broad color; all your muscles are extending. On the other hand, you have heard sad news, which would have just the contrary effect. The muscles of your body will contract and the voice will get a direct and a contracted color.
As it is in life, so it must be in singing, for singing is the portrayal of life. The realization of this truth came to me after a concert at which I sang for the first time Savishna. In this song, a village idiot is making love to Savishna and begs her to take pity on him and love him. He says, "No one pities me -- everyone calls me a fool. Oh! Savishna, be kind to me, love me, for I love you so!" In singing this song I endeavored to give the characteristic color of the idiot with my voice, and the song had to be repeated. After the concert a number of people congratulated me on my singing of the song and said that it suited me! Perhaps rather a doubtful complement! At home I tried to analyze what I did when I sang the song, and why, and how I got the right color in my tone, and I remembered that when I sang this song all my body became flabby and loose, dropping the idiot mouth, loose head, curved, bent back, and a broad stupid smile. And with that form of the body and muscular contraction my voice received a corresponding color.
This convinced me that, for the right vocal color, one must have the right corresponding form of the body. The next thing was to find how to create this bodily form. For example, it did not take me long to discover that it is impossible to create the right bodily form just by muscular control. That is to say, a bodily form, which is only created by the muscles is dead -- an imitation does not vibrate nor portray life, and the only way in which a real bodily form can be created that will correspond to the emotion is through the emotion itself; or in other words, by a direct reaction of the nerve center that controls the particular emotion the singer wishes to portray, and that to get the form he must get, first of all, the emotion, and then have the muscles so responsive, so elastic, so under control, that the nerve center would have a perfect muscular reaction that would create the form unhampered by stiffness. And it is imperative to establish, to apply, the coordination of contractions between the brain nerve centers and the muscles.
I began to apply this system in all of my songs, and develop this coordination. With the help of Dr. West, and the brain system of Dr. Vitoz, I was able to have my idea developed on a scientific foundation physiologically and psychologically.
In my next article I will give examples and directions for the application of this system in working out the interpretation of songs.
Originally published in «Musical Courier» October 11, 1923