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Interpretation in the Art of Singing - Part II
The Two Grenadiers
When a singer takes up a song for study he must, first of all, visualize the poem from the beginning to the end. He must create in his mind, a sort of cinematographic film of every movement or emotion that there is in the song. After that he has to place himself into the picture and live in it, becoming actually the character or characters there are in the songs and completely losing his own personality.
In this song, you visualize a long, dreary road, two Grenadiers wearily treading along -- exhausted, ill, their uniforms in rags. Then you see them arrive at the frontier of Germany where they hear the terrible news of the defeat of their army and the captivity of their idol, the Emperor. Their suffering becomes intense. Picture them now, sitting by the wayside with heads downcast, one in a dying condition. In that part of the song, the singer is only the narrator. He gives you the prologue. He describes the situation and conveys to the mind of the public the picture mentioned above. Then the role changes, and he takes upon himself the dual personality of the two Grenadiers, as the song becomes a dialogue between the two men.
The first to speak is the dying soldier. Imagine him being the older of the two -- a man with bristly, mustache and beard -- his body covered with wounds! Feel in your body, the pain of the wounds, the exhaustion! Realize that his last moments have come. His first word is "Brother! My heart is paining and the old wounds are troubling me!" The other, a younger soldier, maybe one of the younger recruits, stronger in health. He answers, "Comrade." In this word he must portray the emotion of affection, distress and anxiety for his comrade. "I should die also, but at home my wife and babies are waiting for me. They have nothing to live on." Here the singer is confronted with a double vision of being himself, the younger soldier, and visualizing the vision of his wife and children. Then again speaks the older grenadier, and the singer again becomes the older man. He is angry with the younger one: "What does the family matter if the country is in danger and the Emperor is in captivity?" After this outburst he realizes that his last moment has come, and he asks his comrade that if he dies, to take his body to be buried in France with his Order pinned upon his breast, his sword at his waist and his gun in his hand. Here the singer has to given his voice the pride of the old soldier, his love for the Army -- for France -- for the Emperor; the longing to find his last repose in the beloved soil of his country. Then comes his last exaltation before the end. He sings the Marseillaise, and says that in his coffin he will be like a sentinel on guard, and when he will hear the clattering of the horses’ hoofs, the sound of trumpets and the boom of the canons, he will know that it will be the Emperor passing over the graves with his flying standards speaking of victory! "Then will I come out of my coffin to meet my Emperor -- his faithful soldier!" Here the singer has to portray the hallucinations of the dying man. The climax is reached when the Emperor appears in his vision. Then his last breath comes with the words, "faithful soldier."
Having set the picture and the different emotions contained in the song, the next step is to adapt your brain, nerve centers and muscles to different roles.
The old school teaches us that we should make different facial expressions and different bodily movements to express different emotions; in other words, they put the cart before the horse, for they tried to bring an emotion through a muscular contraction while it is just the contrary, and one should bring a muscular contraction through the emotion. The emotion can be got over by a powerful imagination, when you completely efface your own personality -- your own thoughts, and insert in your brain in the belief that you are that particular person and that your feelings are his feelings. Forget in that moment you are a tenor "Y," a baritone "Z" or a soprano "W," but that you have suddenly become the dying soldier, or the Cossack’s wife as in Hopak by Mussorgsky, or whatever personality the song demands. To be able to adopt the personalities, the singer must have an extremely cultivated mind. He must -- by reading and studying books of all nations -- understand different types of people, different nationalities. He must study psychology -- must try to understand how other people feel; their mentality, their emotions. He must have a perfect control over his brain so as to be able, at a moment’s notice, to cast off his own self and become anything or anybody.
Besides the power of imagination to interpret songs, there is another, a more scientific way. It is the direct control of your nervous system and through it the muscles of your body by the brain. In this article I should be unable to give the method to achieve it, for it needs a great deal of space. I want only to say that such a thing is possible, and the result remarkable.
One of the most extraordinary things in life is that we are not acquainted with our own bodies. We do not know the power that lies in our bodies. Artists who have to portray life, emotion, hardly ever study their own bodies, they only study outside forms, but they do not study the fundamentals -- the power that governs the body. They are not conscious of the possibilities of the functions and actions of their bodies. It is one of the most important things that they should know, and they should develop the elasticity of its working, then the brain and the will of the mind will control and bring into play any nerve or any muscle that you need to use to portray certain emotions. In this way you can play on your nervous system as you would play on the piano keyboard. You only need to strike a note, and it will sound; you only need to order a certain nerve to vibrate, and it will vibrate, and with its vibration it will immediately give you the emotion and the corresponding muscular action.
Now let us analyze the nerves and action of your body in singing The Two Grenadiers.
In trying to portray the picture we have set our minds to the public, and to make them believe that they are witnessing the story, we must evoke in their minds the same picture as we have in ours. As I've said before, every emotion that we feel has a corresponding muscular action in our body that produces form, movement of body and color of the voice. In the opening verses of the song, the singer is only the narrator and is himself, giving in his tone the suggestion of the weariness -- of the suffering, the disappointment of the two grenadiers. From the moment the music starts, he must have a mental vision of the two grenadiers that I have before described, and with every verse he sings he must have a corresponding vision in his brain. The personal feeling of the singer must be sympathy, pity toward the two grenadiers. Say to yourself, "I am sorry for them, poor men! What they must have suffered!" When you say those words, you must also feel them. You must order your nervous system to react. The moment it does, your body will change from indifferent stiffness and will be filled with a vibration of a feeling of kindness and pity, giving your muscles a flow of vitality and energy -- a desire to go forward and give a helping hand, while the muscles of your face have a slight contraction upwards. The tone of your voice will at once become warmer, darker in quality, and will portray that feeling of sympathy and pity that you have invoked in your self through your mind and nerve centers.
The difficult part of the song begins for the singer after the narration in the dialogue between the two soldiers. In a fraction of a second after the last words that one of them says, the singer must lose his own personality and must insert in his mind and body the mind and body of the old grenadier, and with his first word "Brother," the public must feel the transformation. Naturally, the transformation is purely internal, and it only reacts on the muscles giving them a form corresponding to the feelings. I do not pretend that the singer could look exactly like the grenadier, but his feelings will be like the feelings of the grenadier and by his feelings he will be able to convey the picture to the mind of the public. But to have this feeling as perfect -- as complete as possible, his mind and body must be by the power of his brain incarnated in a flash into the mind and body of the grenadier, with all his sorrow and pain.
Now see what will happen! The feeling of exhaustion, weakness, pain, will make your knees bend -- also the trunk of the body. The head will fall on the chest, the muscles of the face will be drawn and haggard, as if contracted with pain; the voice broken, weak and gasping for breath. The moment the singer finishes the sentence of the old grenadier he must come back to himself to say, "The other one answers." He must then completely efface from his brain the old grenadier and become again the narrator. Then, as in a flash, the singer must become the incarnation of the other soldier. His thoughts and feelings -- not only for his comrade in the misfortunes of his country, but also for the longing to get back to his family -- should be expressed. His body -- though bent -- must show greater muscular strength. Besides the muscles in his face contracting from privatization and suffering, there should also be a contraction of the brows denoting anxiety. His voice will, accordingly, have brighter quality and stronger volume, at the same time expressing emotion, anxiety and longing.
The reaction on the body from those emotions will be -- bent knees and trunk of the body, but not to the same extent as the old soldier. His head, instead of falling on his chest, will be half turned, as if looking at his comrade, and then later fixing his gaze in the direction of France, the muscles of his face will be contracted upwards and backwards -- portraying the anxiety and longing, and reflecting more life and vitality than the old grenadier whose facial contraction is downwards as if the muscles were drooping from lack of strength. The voice will have a corresponding color. It will be brighter in sound, and, at the same time, darkened by the color of anxiety and longing. No sooner is the last note and word of the younger grenadier sung than the singer must again become the old grenadier. The anxiety of the young grenadier about his family makes the older man angry -- for to him all that matters is France, the Emperor and the army. His anger gives him a momentary rise in energy; the trunk of his body accordingly gets straighter, his voice will take the color of anger and will become stronger naturally. After the sentence, "My Emperor in captivity," comes a collapse -- a realization that the last moment has arrived and with it comes the longing to find his last repose on the French soil. A terrible weakness must go through the body of the singer. He has to lose all vitality -- all life. He must feel complete collapse -- the knees, the trunk of the body, the head, will droop more than before, and the eyes will be practically closed. The voice will become weaker -- husky -- colored by the emotions of longing -- love for France and pride in his decorations and arms which he wants buried with him. With the opening bars of the Marseillaise comes his hallucination -- the last effort of the brain -- stimulating for one short instant the dying body, giving it the last strength. Accordingly, the body of the singer will get quite straight -- practically rigid; the eyes will be wide open as if seeing a vision, the hands will be tightly clenched, a voice will be strong, solemn, victorious -- until the last climax which will be reached at the words -- "to you, my Emperor from his tomb." Then comes the collapse. The strength departs, the body droops -- feeling numb and senseless as if not existing; the voice drops to a husky whisper. At the end, the singer must get his mind into a completely blank state and come back to himself only after the last chord has been played. Such interpretation -- if it is sincerely done -- if the body responds to every call of the brain -- will make the public live with the singer and give them a complete picture of the form that will photograph itself into the brain and will stay for a long time with them -- even after the concert is over.
Now let us have a different kind of song -- lullaby -- The Lullaby by Gretchaninoff. The rough translation of the poem is -- "Sleep, my baby darling, sleep -- the Moon quietly peeps with her silvery rays into your cradle. I will tell you a fairy story and will sing you a song -- while you will close your dear eyes and gently fall asleep. Sleep, my darling, sleep." The song is simple to dissect -- the emotion is Love -- protective, parental love. But it is not easy to get its color in the voice unless the singer is able to evoke in himself this love. Let us first of all visualize this scene: A cozy nursery; evening; the moon shining through the window with the rays falling on the cradle -- a parent bending over the cradle; a darling little baby lying in it, gradually, with the progress of the song, falling asleep. The entire being of the singer must be possessed by the adoration of this child -- by a desire to protect, to cherish, to kiss it. The reaction of the emotion on the muscles will create the following form: body slightly stooping -- bent forward; head a little on one side; hands lifted (which I always advise to have clasped) up to the chest -- the palm of the right-hand downwards, with the feeling, the desire to caress. Eyes half closed, looking down towards the imaginary cradle -- the upper lip lifted in a half happy smile. This will give a voice color of infinite softness -- tenderness. It will caress -- it will love -- it will croon, and with the last note "sleep" -- done so softly so as not to wake the baby that at last has fallen asleep -- the public, with the singer, will feel the love for the baby and in their minds will see the picture of the poet's vision -- recreated by the singer.
Now let us see how interpretation will affect the audience, through what natural law is transmuted to them, and reaches the brain and mind. Human beings get all their impressions and emotions in life through their five senses -- sense of hearing, site, touch, taste and smell. They transmit everything to our brain that makes its analysis, deductions, visualization, and finally passes its judgment depending on the state of mind of each individual.
Naturally, singing will affect only the sense of hearing. The natural law teaches us that everything in life is vibration; certain vibrations create sound, others color, form, light, etc. Every thought is a vibration of the brain, creating an emotion, passing through the nerve centers, and going out like waves. One can compare a human being to a wireless station that sends out radio waves, and if tuned to the same length of the wave, the message will be picked up by the other wireless stations and understood. Take one of the best examples -- telepathy or reading of the mind, etc! It is nothing but a perfect harmony of two brains that can transmit a message to each other by unseen vibrations of thought that on reaching the other, will form itself again in the brain of the other in exactly the same thought, words, emotions, as has been sent out.
Or take the mysterious force, which we call sympathy and antipathy! When we meet a person for the first time, how often we feel towards that person either distinct sympathy or antipathy, and what may be sympathetic to one is antipathetic to another. For instance, a criminal type will be repulsive to you, but when two criminals meet they find each other extremely sympathetic. What it means is that their vibrations are attuned and harmonious, they reach each other's brain and mind and create their feeling of sympathy or antipathy.
As it is in life, so it is in art. If the vocal vibrations of the singer are colored by the true vibrations of his emotion, the direct result of his mind, such vibrations will go into the hall and will strike the sympathetic nerve centers of the listener and will be transmitted to his brain through the sense of hearing. Should the mind of the singer and that of the listener be sympathetic in their vibrations, the listener will like the singer's interpretation. On the other hand, if their minds should differ in vibration, the listener will dislike the singer for it will have the wrong reaction on his emotions.
But take out of singing, out of the vocal vibrations, the emotions -- the mind -- and the singer will never be able to reach the mind of his listener, will never produce in him any emotional reaction and will give him only a satisfaction to his sense of hearing, leaving complete emptiness in his heart and soul.
Then why not try and combine the beauty of sound with the real true sincere emotion that will bring to the listener the message that there is in each song? It is then that singing fulfills its mission in this world, and it is to that ultimate goal that we singers must strive to arrive.
Originally published in «Musical Courier» October 18, 1923