Historical Performance Practice, Part 3: Baroque Vocal Music

The two previous installments in this three-part series explored vocal historical performance practices in medieval and renaissance times. As I move into the baroque period, I sense a raising of the stakes. This is the repertory in which I am, personally, most invested. As a singer who is eager to advance my career in the field of baroque performance, I need to understand how to perform this music. I have applied my instrument to this repertoire in many fashions, sometimes choosing to sing without vibrato, larynx unchecked and rising up and down willy nilly like an elevator (horror), and I have also sung baroque repertoire in what some may call a rebellious, reckless 21st century fashion, with a stable larynx and open throat, an incorporation of various degrees of vibrato. I have attempted to please the audience in every choice that I have made, and I have especially attempted to impress directors. At some point during the elevator phase, I lost my sense of identity as a vocalist. What am I supposed to sound like, I thought. What is my voice? I don’t even know anymore. I became distressed and frustrated in my art. It was at that point that I sought and found a teacher who could help me get on track and find peace in my singing. I went back to an open throat, and sought to strengthen my instrument to its full potential across all genres, that I may color it according to what the music at hand demands. Thankfully, my performance of baroque repertoire became stronger, and now I know how want to perform the music, and I seek to please others a little bit less. Still, the issue of baroque vocal historical performance practice remains a subject I must explore. Few things vex me more than a person (usually an amateur musician or an aficionado) who tells me how I should or should not sing early music. I want to be able to protect and defend myself when this happens. I want to back my choices with facts from the literature, and with an understanding of current trends in HPP. I want answers.

I have considered HPP from a few angles recently... One thought that occurs to me is that there is no truly reliable method of understanding how music was performed before recording technology was invented. Instead, we base our understanding of HPP on the primary sources that we do have, including diaries, letters, reviews, and treatises. However, there is a mild question of validity in these sources. First of all, the language used was often flowery and far from scientific, so interpreting the writings is subjective. Secondly, I wonder whether the authors themselves should be given credibility simply because they wrote something down. If I were to write my opinion on a subject, any subject, and if my writings were among the only remaining sources on that topic 400 years later, my words may be given weight and value by historians and professionals in the field about which I wrote. Yet, the simple act of having written something down does not make me an expert. It is also only reflective of my personal opinion, which may not even follow the standard trend of my time. To focus too strongly on such primary sources, possibly even at the expense of intuitive, artistic music-making, would be unfortunate and short-sighted.

This said, I do understand that historians can attempt to construct a picture of HPP by gathering and comparing many primary sources, looking for similar opinions and accounts; this is how they are able to decipher performance practice trends. One such trend in the baroque period was the emphasis on text. Schrock writes, “A chief aspect of this ideal [vocal timbre], one of utmost importance during the [baroque] era, was a desire for singers to express text clearly.” Many, many primary sources insisted that above all, the text must be understood and expressed. In his book, Performance Practices in the Baroque Era, Dennis Schrock quotes seventeen original sources, from 1600 to 1723, who wrote on the importance of text.

Schrock writes, “Such an overwhelming importance given to clarity of text in the performance of vocal music had an effect on the general timbre and volume of vocal production. A certain degree of lightness, softness, and purity of vowels, and of the absence of much vibrato are all characteristics that support and aid clear pronunciation.”

Alessandro Guidotti, in his preface to Cavalieri’s Rappresentazione di Anima, et di Corpo (1600), addresses the ideal performance practice of the work, stating: “Wishing, I say, to perform the work, it appears necessary for all things to be excellent. Let the singer have a beautiful voice with good intonation, and well supported, and let him sing with expression, soft and loud, and without passagework, and in particular he should express the words well, so that they may be understood...” - Schrock, p. 29

While text clarity, “purity” and “sweetness” of tone, flexibility, and the ability to sing with an unobtrusive vibrato and the ability to sing softly as well as loudly (within reason) were all valued in the baroque period, I wrestle to determine the degree to which these precise qualities need to be duplicated today. Is there one right answer? Cyr cautions modern performers not to let their 21st century expectations influence their views of early practices, “but instead attempt to study these early techniques in relation to the music written for them,” (Performing Baroque Music, Mary Cyr). Yet no matter how closely we attempt to match the performance practices of the baroque period, we can never truly recreate those musical experiences for one unavoidable reason: the audience is not the same. We can play with baroque instruments, we can do our utmost to sing as closely as possible to the original singing style, and we can even match the staging, scenery, costumes, and choreography... but the audience will always be a 21st century audience. They will take in the music with 21st century ears. So, arguably, maybe the question that matters most is this: how can we perform this music in a way that achieves the same purpose it was meant to achieve when it was written? Rather than striving for ultimate historical accuracy (which already isn’t possible since we no longer have castrati, and since women are now allowed to sing the repertoire that had been reserved originally for castrati and boys), can we not strive for the ultimate comparable emotional effect? Perhaps the most we should strive for is to perform the baroque repertory in a way that honors the composer’s intensions and touches the audience, without trying to be flawlessly historically accurate. We should try to capture the baroque spirit.

Michael Sartorius says it well with this statement: While the debate on authenticity in baroque performance will continue, certain essential characteristics should be present, if the performance is to reflect the true baroque spirit. The musicians must first and foremost show a respect and an affection for the music; this is most important. A violinist or singer performing with real sensitivity, even just for a few lines, immediately seizes one's attention. 


Matthew Lynch seconds this mindset in his online article, “What would Handel Do? Historically informed performance, then and now.” Lynch addresses the “exciting” new developments in recent years of historically informed performance (HIP). “The movement has become increasingly free of rigidity.” Lynch states. “Performers are recognizing that there is so much that we don’t and cannot know about Baroque performance practice, and that imagination and liberties can (and must) be taken in an attempt to fill the gaps.” At the bottom of Lynch’s article is a sensational and somewhat shocking performance of Purcell’s Sound the Trumpet, which incorporates, well, there’s no other word for it - jazz (of sorts) - at the 3 minute mark.

I can’t decide if it is brilliantly inspired or a little cheesy. - Well, yes I can. It’s both. But I dunno, it works! The entire performance is accessible, beautiful, and within the bounds of historically informed performance practices. Most importantly, it certainly captures that baroque spirit. Just listen to the audience gush with applause! One would think Farrinelli was bringing down the house. Viva la passione barocca!


Additional thought: 

Recently, I learned of the Vox Humana organ stop, which is so named because of its resemblance to the human voice. Specifically, the stop employs a vibrato! 🤯 What an amazing piece of information to have in one's pocket when debating in favor of spin in the voice! 

The Encyclopedia of Organ Stops states that "The Vox Humana is one of the oldest organ stops, dating back at least as far as the late 1500's... It is arguably the only stop to survive, in its original form, through the symphonic excesses of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century...

It has been often stated that the most important stop in any organ is the room into which it speaks, and the Vox Humana epitomizes this principle. The success or failure of this stop depends not so much on the details of its construction, but rather on its acoustical environment. A large, reverberant room, distance from the listener, and enclosure in a swell box all contribute greatly to its effect. A tremulant is also essential, which must be carefully adjusted."


Other Quotes from my Literature Excavation:

“Musical notation by its very nature is inexact... Performers must rely to a considerable extent upon experience and intuition whenever they transfer music from notation into sound, for much is left to the individual’s discretion.” - Cyr, p. 21

“Musicians studying performance practice must take care not to let twentieth-century expectations influence their views of early practices, but instead attempt to study these early techniques in relation to the music written for them. The characteristics of the instruments themselves tend to contribute to the musical style of a composition, and the instruments are therefore an essential part of the study of performance practices for any musical repertory. Singers, too, may find that instruments provide valuable clues about the variety of tone color and types of articulation appropriate to baroque music.” - Cyr, p. 25

“While current taste in singers for early music seems to have shifted from the straight, white sound favored ten or twenty years ago to voices with more natural vibrato, vibrato must be used in a manner appropriate for seventeenth-century music. Singers must take into consideration the harmony of the music, the articulation of ornaments, and the ideal of gentle and unforced tone production.” - Elliot, p. 18

“... It is thus important for singers of Baroque music to be able to make clear distinctions between notes that vibrate with vibrato and those that are rearticulated either on one pitch (as a trillo) or on two pitches (as a gruppo). Elliot, p. 25

“Both Toft and Jones have concluded that the historical evidence indicates a wide variety of valid approaches to performing seventeenth-century English song.” Elliot, p. 40 
 Bénigne de Bacilly, singing treatise (1668), Chapter 7 “Different Voice Types”

Bénigne de Bacilly, singing treatise (1668), Chapter 7 “Different Voice Types”

“First, I make a great differentiation between the pretty voice and the good voice. A single tone of a pretty voice is very pleasing to the ear because of its clearness and sweetness, and above all because of the nice vibrato which usually accompanies it. The good voice, on the other hand, may not have all this sweetness and natural vibrato, but nevertheless is effective because of its vigor, strength, and its capacity to sing with expression, which is the soul of the vocal art. The pretty voices are ordinarily not capable of this, nature having partitioned its gifts in this instance as in all others.” - Schrock, p. 40 (There’s more where that came from...)

Johann Mattheson, The Complete Music Director (1739), Part 2, Chapter 3 “On the Art of Singing and Playing with Graces” “The tremolo or the trembling of the voice is neither a so-called mordant, as many assert, nor any other figure consisting of two tones, as is asserted by Printz’s erroneous view and his invalid example, but is the slightest possible oscillation on a single fixed tone...” - Schrock

Georg Muffat, Florilegium Secundum (1698), Observations on the Lully Style of Performance, Part 1, “Playing in Tune” 

“There is no difference among the finest masters of any nation regarding purity of sound or accuracy of intonation. Only apprentices, ignoramuses, and incompetents in all countries disobey the rules. Nothing is better in avoiding ugly sounds than instruction and correction by an experienced master, from whom, we imagine, the basic principles of this art will already have been learned... [In] addition to good instruction, frequent music-making with people of excellent taste will be a great help in acquiring and conserving a sensitive ear. One should avoid playing with those who would do more to spoil the ear than to improve it.” - Schrock, p. 100

Cyr, Mary. Performing Baroque Music 
Schrock, Dennis. Performance Practices in the Baroque Era 
Le Huray, Peter. Authenticity in Performance 
Elliot, Martha. Singing in Style