Historical Performance Practice, Part 1: Medieval Vocal Music

For years, I have tossed and turned and otherwise agonized over the inconclusive mystery of historical performance practice (HPP) from the Medieval Period through the Baroque Period. How should I apply my instrument within the various early music genres in today’s classical music market? Should I be willing to implement straight-tone much of the time? How do I feel about that? Am I even comfortable with the idea of limiting my instrument to a degree of straight tone in a performance? For that matter, how do I identify as a vocalist? Even though my voice can sing straight and small and bright, do I want to make a career of this kind of singing? To that end, do I want to sing in ensembles where straight-tone is a must, or go against the grain and reserve my instrument for solo singing? What about the matter of bright, often high-throat singing that is often heard in today’s interpretation of early music, versus a chiaroscuro balance of light and dark qualities in the sound? Can I perform early music with a chiaroscuro quality and maintain the integrity of historical performance practice? All of these questions lead to the mother of questions: what do early music directors and casting agents want??? But most importantly, what do want? What if those two desires clash? Aggghhhh! My brain might explode from so much fretting!

For a long time, I have felt that I need more information about HPP, simply to boost my own confidence in my career endeavors. So here I am, writing a blog on early vocal performance practice. This is the first installment of a three-part series covering Medieval, Renassiance, and Baroque historical vocal performance practice. To quote Julie Andrews, “Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start!”

How did Medieval vocal music sound? What was the vocal aesthetic of the time? If that aesthetic was different than today’s aesthetic for early vocal music, is it ethically inappropriate to sing Medieval music within the modern aesthetic for early music? A purist will argue that we should endeavor to match the original performance practice as closely as possible. But in this we run into a significant quandry: a lack of solid, specific, clear descriptions of performance practice within available sources.

Recordings did not exist at the time, so we rely on the writings of critics, theorists, and clergymen for our information regarding performance practice. Not surprisingly, these writings are highly subjective and inconclusive. The writings were not specific and detailed enough to establish a clear standard of performance practice. What we do have in the treatises is subject to interpretation. Many writings are so pejorative that they are surely a mixture of truthful opinion and biased slander, making it is impossible to distinguish between the two and glean solid instruction from the flowery and metaphorical criticism. For instance, what did the anonymous author of Instituta mean by his impassioned remark:

Let us abjure and forbid in our choirs voices like those of actors, or babbling, Alpine or highland, thundering or sibilant voices, neighing (as if the voice of a she-ass), lowing or bleating (like farm animals), effeminate voices, and every counterfeit, ostentation, and novelty of voices, since these practices smack more of vanity and folly than of religion. Such voices are not proper amongst spiritual men in the presence of God and his angels, in the holy land of the saints. Those who have such voices lack a natural manner, since they have not ever been trained in the skill of some musical instrument, and thus are incapable of having the flexibility of a voice required for neumes...

Oo! Sounds personal, doesn’t it? Who dumped him, am I right? Let’s break down this description and speculate interpretations for these harsh descriptions.

  •  - Voices like actors: Perhaps he refers to theatrical expression. I suspect that he prefers a modest emotional interpretation. This opinion was shared among the majority of church leaders, and was the standard of musical interpretation in the church.
  • -  Babbling: A lack of articulation? Talking during the performance?
  • -  Alpine or highland singing: The singing style of untrained peasants in the nearby Alps, which

    was considered abhorrent to those who fancied themselves superior in taste and spiritual ethics. Who can say exactly what this singing style sounded like? Perhaps it was more raw and unrefined than the careful style of the church. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily make such singing less worshipful or beautiful... but that’s a subject for another day. I’m sure the medieval music critics would not agree!
    - Thundering or sibilant (hissing) voices: These adjectives seem like antonymns... What do they mean? Thunderous: Too loud? Sibilant: Too airy? Maybe too strident and bright? Are their consonants not articulated together? On that note, just how trained were Medieval choirs? Did they think about singing consonants 100% together at this point?
    -  Neighing as if a she-ass: Seriously? What would neighing even sound like? Bad intonation? An overly bright tone? WHO KNOWS...
    -  Effeminate voices: 😒 😑 Where’s Hildegard when you need her...
    -  Every counterfeit, ostentation, and novelty of voice: Don’t be fake, fancy, or, Heaven forbid, unique! No innovation, no overt expression, no experimentation. That would be vanity! (But if the Holy Spirit told you to do it, then by all means... You’d better prove it with some fancy visions or something.)

So! What is good vocal technique according to Medieval standards? Timothy McGee summarizes various Medieval treatises to offer a comprehensive list of desirable qualities in a technically trained and aesthetically pleasing Medieval singer:

  1. Clean articulation
  2. Flexibility of sound
  3. Expression
  4. A refined quality
  5. Familiarity with the rules of mode and consonance.


The first two qualities are pretty straight-forward. Clean articulation isn’t very open for multiple interpretations. Pronounce your words clearly and uniformily as an ensemble. End of story. Flexibility of sound is also pretty cut and dry. Be able to move the voice.

Expression is a relative measure... How much expression is allowed? Apparently, the practice at the time was to be expressive, but not too expressive. Express enough to bring out the text, but not so much that you overpower the text with the music. That would make you a heathen. Remember, “modest is hottest.” (But don’t be hot, either. Because that would also make you a heathen.)

Then there is the incredibly vague “refined quality” attributed to good Medieval vocal technique. Hmmm... Could mean smooth, could mean precise and clean intonation, could refer to the quality of vocal production, or it could mean to wear your fascinator and have a cup of tea while singing. WHO THE HECK KNOWS?

Or how about this seventh-century quote from Isadore of Seville, who advocated a “loud, sweet, and clear” voice? Seville states:

The perfect voice, moreover, is loud, sweet, and clear; loud in order to reach on high; clear in order to fill the ears; and sweet in order to entice the souls of the listeners. If any voice should be at all deficient in any of these things, it is not perfect.

Again, let’s attempt to interpret these instructions.

  1. Loud: I interpret this to mean “resonant,” a voice that carries through the church.
  2. Sweet: I interpret this to mean expressive and aesthetically pleasing, because it is described as “enticing souls.” As to what kind of aesthetic Medieval singers strived for, McGee concludes that the treatise writers call for “a bright and well-supported voice that is projected from the front of the mouth, one that has the agility to articulate gracefully and the technique to shade sounds and express the texts.” 


    This isn’t overly-specific. I dare say it could be interpretted a couple of ways, either with a closed throat/high laryngeal position, or an open throat/low laryngeal position, which would achieve two different vocal colors. Many people seem to think that bright is synonymous with a high larynx. But I argue firstly that brightness is measured in degrees, and that a beautiful bright quality can be achieved merely by shaping the vowels with a forward tongue position, thus saving the larynx from the taxation of instability. This does not mean that the larynx should be fixed an inflexible; merely that it generally operates from a lower and more stable position.

  3. Clear: For the purpose of “filling the ears” clear could mean “resonant,” or “articulate,” or maybe even “sans vibrato.” Was voice production pretty much acheived with minimum to no vibrato? I would bet on it, especially in choral singing. Back then, the subject of vocal technique was not developed enough to require the engagement of voice teachers, so even the “trained” singers were not likely to be thinking about achieving vocal athleticism with ideas like an open throat or a balance of light and dark qualities in voice production. The vocal aesthetic was likely a speech-like, bright sound, more akin to the singing of folk music and contemporary commercial music than modern opera. Still, I propose that this music can be sung with an open throat and a chiaroscuro sound (a balance of light and dark qualities) while still keeping within the borders of accurate historical performance practice. In fact, I offer this twelfth-century quote by St. Bernard of Clairvaux to back my theory of singing with chiaroscuro/warmth:

If there is to be singing, the melody should be grave and neither lascivious nor rustic. It should be sweet but not light; it should both enchant the ears and move the heart...

What did St. Bernard mean? In addressing the melody, I think he could have been referring either to the composition itself, or to the singer’s performance of the composition. Since he is discussing singing, I will assume the latter. He says that the melody should be grave, which could be taken to mean that the singer should perform with a serious countenance, or perhaps it could mean that the singer should perform with warmth and depth of tone. 🤷 🧐 Then St. Bernard specifies that the melody should not be lascivious (lusty and overtly empassioned) nor rustic (simple and unrefined). No extremes, please! Ugh, treatise writers make Medieval music sound like a #snorefest... which it is SO not!

To further justify the choice of open-throat singing in Medieval repertoire, I refer to Vaughan Williams, who put it this way:

[A] musical score is merely an indication of potential music... a most clumsy and ill- devised indication. How clumsy it is may be seen from the importance of the ‘individual renderings’ of any piece of music. If a composer could indicate what he wanted with any precision there would be no room for this; as it is, two singers or players may follow faithfully the composer’s intentions as given in the written notes, and yet produce widely differing results.

From this quote, Peter Le Huray concludes:

The search for an ‘authentic’ interpretation, therefore, is not the search for a single hard and fast answer, but for a range of possibilities from which to make performing decisions...

I think this leaves room for the possibility of singing Medieval repertoire with an open throat and maybe even a slightly oscillating sound once in a while, particularly in solo music. I could be “wrong,” but who’s to say? If it’s beautiful and if it communicates to an audience, then who cares if it’s “wrong” by someone’s specific standards? If the Medieval treatises are any indication, harsh criticism was a part of the Medieval Period. So if I get criticised for how I sing Medieval music, then perhaps even the criticism itself can be viewed as a part of historical performance practice! 😉

In fact, Medieval music critics would probably tell the entire twenty-first century society that they are singing sacreligiously by enjoying the music too much! Heck, they would even tell the audience (Oo, sorry, the church congregation...) that if they enjoy the music more than they meditate on the text, they are breaking the rules of listening! 🙄 Soooo, I think it’s safe to say that pure historical performance practice is destined to be a #fail to some degree. If anyone asks me about my vocal approach to this early music, I’ll just say that I’m singing with a sustainable vocal technique and quality that I identify as my instrument, while keeping within the limited and subjective guidelines of the Medieval treatises. Can’t argue with that!

At the end of the day, people will divide into various HPP camps, and they will come to battle each other with their Medieval pitchforks. But here’s what I say: do the research. Gather the historical information. Mull over it. Glean from it. Consider how the history surrounding this music may inform the performance practice, but humbly keep in mind that we will never truly know everything about the singing style of that day. Then when it is actually time to open your mouth and sing, follow your gut, be in the moment, and make music.

Musical art is living and breathing. It is made in the moment and then it is gone. We have paintings from that time, and we have musical scores, but we will never have recordings of the actual music. Therefore, historical performance practice will never exist in its purest form, because we will always be performing it anew, in the present. We will always be twenty-first century performers, interpreting Medieval music through the lens of our modern experiences and sensibilities, regardless of how educated we may be in the art of HPP. Theoretically, there are some basic guidelines to follow (as listed above), but beyond that, license of interpretation may be allotted.

I leave you with this final thought from Peter Le Huray:

Authenticity is no dogma. There has never been, nor can there ever be, one way of interpreting a composition. Neither is it practicable or even desirable to insist exclusively on ‘period’ instruments and ‘period’ techniques. Humility must be a vital ingredient of the modern performer’s equipment... in order to transform the ‘timetable’ into a truly musical journey.

Sources:

  1. McGee, Timothy. The Sound of Medieval Song. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
  2. Le Huray, Peter. Authenticity in Performance: Eighteenth-Century Case Studies. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
  3. Cyr, Mary. Performing Baroque Music. Portland, Oregon: Amadeus Press, 1992.