Historical Performance Practice, Part 2: Renaissance Vocal Music

A common personal battle among singers is the challenge of navigating through the waters of early historical performance practice.  Each singer inevitably must make important decisions regarding their personal vocal identity and subsequent vocal application.  “How do I want to sound?” the singer must ask.  “What kinds of opportunities am I willing to accept?  Do I want a choral gig?  Do I need a choral gig in order to keep up with my finances?  If I take a choral gig, how much will I be asked to compromise my instrument by singing with a high larynx and no vibrato?  Even if the conductor asks for senza vibrato in a diplomatic fashion, does he understand the specific sound that he wants and how to achieve it, or is he just paying lip service so that he doesn’t get push-back for asking for what he really wants: a totally straight tone?  Following another line of thought, do I like the idea of singing early music as a soloist?  If so, how should I sing that music?  Am I allowed to use vibrato?  What should I know about singing early music?”

In the last installment, I considered vocal performance practices of the Medieval Period.  In this entry, I am taking a look at vocal performance practices during the Renaissance.  

I’d first like to dissect a quote by Gary Fisher in his article, “Renaissance Vocal Technique for the Choral Conductor,” published in The Choral Journal in 1988.  Fisher postulates that warm vocalism is a necessary component of Renaissance vocal production in that it preserves clarity.  This necessarily requires the use of vibrato.  However, Fisher points out:

Unfortunately, the Renaissance writers do not help us to distinguish between a normal, healthy vibrato which adds warmth, and the fairly large vibrato, using the lowered larynx to attain a greater volume and size of sound, which we associate with the Romantic singer.

I have to observe that Fisher’s definition is biased toward what he calls a “normal, healthy vibrato,” and at the same time the definition is vague and incomplete.  The reader must assume that by “normal” and “healthy,” he refers to a more narrow oscillation.  One might also draw the conclusion that he could be referring to a higher laryngeal position, because he refers to a lowered larynx in his counter definition of vibrato for the Romantic singer.  (Note: I believe that the most beautiful and effective early music vocal sound combines a free-but-unobtrusive vibration with an open throat position, i.e. a stable larynx.) While I feel able to decipher Fisher's meaning simply because I am aware of the age-long vibrato controversy, I think he could have been more specific.

Fisher then quotes Michael Praetorius (Syntagma musicum, 1619), who recommends that the singer "must have a pleasantly vibrating voice (not, however, as some are trained to do in schools, but with particular moderation) and a smooth round throat."

Fisher speculates that Praetorius was suggesting that the singer employ a natural, but not noticeable, vibrato.  I agree with Fisher’s assessment.  But what stands out even more to me is Praetorius’s call for a smooth round throat.  I appreciate these valuable words by Praetorius, because it implies an open throat, a lowered larynx, which supports a comfortable and healthy vocal production.

I’d like to move on to another article so that we can do some comparing, but Fisher really did find some gems from the early treatises, and I have to share!  Here is a quote from Ludovico Zacconi (Prattica di musica, 1592):

I have to help the singer, I say also that the tremolo, that is, the trembling voice, is the true gate to enter the passages and to become proficient in the gorgia; because the boat moves with greater ease when it is first pushed, and the dancer leaps better if first he prepares for the leap.

The tremolo should be short and beautiful, for if it is long and forceful it tires and bores. And it is of such a nature that those who employ it must always use it, so that it becomes a habit. The continual movement of the voice aids and voluntarily pushes the movement of the gorgia, and admirably facilitates the beginnings of the passages. This movement I am speaking of should only be made with proper speed, and lively and vehemently.

Thanks for your help, Zacconi!  We need it!  I like this quote because Zacconi advocates moderate oscillation of the voice not as an ornament but as a continual component of healthy vocal production.  I am delighted and amazed that this was written as early as 1592!   

Here is another quote from Maffei that I think is important:

However, to make things clearer, by the "flexible" voice you must understand (as it were) a pliable voice, that is, one that is varied sweetly, so that the ear is satisfied ....So if the throat is soft, it will produce a flexible, pleasing, and variable voice, but if it chances to be hard, it will produce a rigid and harsh voice.

Maffei advocates a relaxed throat so that the sound can be flexible, pleasing, and varied.  I interpret this to mean that the sound is not pressed, so that multiple vocal colors and acrobatics can be achieved.  

In Richard Bethell’s article, “Vocal vibrato in Early Music,” Bethell refers to the opinion of Gaffurio: 

[Gaffurio said that singers] should avoid tones having a wide and ringing vibrato, since these tones do not maintain a true pitch and because of the continuous wobble cannot form a balanced concord with other voices. (Gaffurio’s Practica Musicae, 1496)

Even this quote leaves room for a small degree of oscillation.  

Moving on to Ellen Hargis’s article, “The Solo Voice,” in Kite-Powell’s A Performer’s Guide to Renaissance Music, I appreciate Hargis’s scholarly thoughts on the topics of vibrato, technique, and qualities that constitute good singing of this repertoire.  About vibrato, Hargis leaves room for interpretation:

Thankfully, after years of “straight-tone” singing being the ideal, it is now generally accepted that a gentle vibration of the voice is natural and expressive, and an inherent part of a healthy singing voice.  It is really the degree of pressure and pitch obfuscation that is the problem with the modern vibrato; therefore, the argument should be about how much and what quality of vibrato is being applied in a given musical context… The only vibrato that is really completely inappropriate to Renaissance music is one with a wide pitch variation, or any vibrato that cannot be consciously altered by the singer.

Regarding technique, Hargis states openly that the primary sources are weak:

There is little information in primary sources to give us a clue about vocal technique in the Renaissance, but there are descriptions of good and bad singing that give us an idea about what was prized in a voice…

Hargis proposes that we can glean information about Renaissance vocal performance practice by hearing modern copies of old instruments.  By this, she is inferring that vocalists and instrumentalists shared similar qualities of sound.  This is similar to a quote from Fisher, who writes: 

Given a fairly strong middle register of instrument and voice, and the relatively narrow range of the Renaissance parts, the blend and sound quality of the two mediums can and should be quite homogeneous.

In her article, Ellen Hargis spells out the desirable qualities of a Renaissance singer:

Renaissance music calls for purity of tone, a focused, clear sound without excessive vibrato, the ability to sing lightly and with agility, and the command of a wide range of dynamics… It will be reassuring to the new singer of early music to know that good technique is still good technique. Essential elements include good breath support, well- formed resonant vowels, and focused sound.

I like Hargis’s detailed description of a successful Renaissance vocal sound.  While I sometimes want to recoil at the “shoulds” coming from the lips of some conductors and early music enthusiasts, there is nothing vocally threatening about Hargis’s description.  She makes room for the presence of some degree of vibrato.  The only thing I’d like to see addressed additionally is the concept of an open throat, which is an indispensable element of good vocal production across many vocal treatises, including those of renowned 19th century pedagogue Manual Garcia II.  Indeed, I harken back to Praetorius’s call for a smooth round throat.  (What an indispensable quote that is!)  

These articles lay out a few inspired guidelines for Renaissance vocal performance.