This, the most popular kind of music, dates, barring individual experiments, from the end of the sixteenth century, and owes its beginnings to the efforts of the Academy of Florence to recover the music of the ancients. Its first successes are due to Giacomo Carissimi, who lived long enough (1604-74) to see it attain considerable perfection both in his own compositions and through the efforts of others, not only in Italy but also in France and England, who profited indirectly as well as directly from his example or instruction. Its development was subsequently carried still further in Germany. As we have it now, its two kinds, sacred and secular, may be roughly classed as music for solo voice, music for two or more solo voices, choral music, and music wherein any two or all of these classes may be combined. Thus we have the solo with chorus; the duet, trio, or quartet with chorus; the chorus proper interspersed with solos, and so on.
The repertoire of vocal solos is practically inexhaustible. Probably a composer has never lived who has not written a song, and many composers have written hundreds. Till comparatively recent times, solos for the lower voices of both sexes (contraltos and basses) were far less numerous than those for the higher (sopranos and tenors). Lord Mount Edgcumbe (died 1839), who lived to make acquaintance with the now consummated change in this matter, contended (in his “Musical Reminiscences”) that this change was not an improvement, nor one likely to contribute to the welfare of music; that however it might be with respect to contraltos, basses could not in the proper sense of the word be made to sing; and that the expression basso cantante, new in his day, was a practical admission of the truth of this. His proposition, contradicted by isolated facts before it was made, has subsequently been refuted by a thousand. It is in-conceivable, for instance, that Handel should have given to the world airs like “Tears such as tender fathers shed,” or “How willing my paternal love”the list could be easily extendedwithout the hope or certainty that somebody would some day be found to sing them. Principal parts in some of the most en-during of musical dramas have in later times called into existence, or resulted from the existence of, basses as well as contraltos who have proved them-selves among the greatest vocalists.
The stock of airs for the soprano voice is, however, still considerably in excess of that for the contralto. Moreover, the greater part of music for contralto voice is due to Italian composers, the Germans and French having contributed comparatively little to it. This is due in large measure to a physical causethe abundance of contraltos in Italy and their paucity in Germany and France. Furthermore, to this day the performance of a contralto or “second” part is regardedhow ignorantly and foolishly every musician knowsas requiring less skill than that of a soprano or “first” part. Most women wish to have, or to be considered to have, soprano voices, and to sing first parts. They might as well wish for eyes of another color than that which nature has given them, as for a voice of another compass and quality. The parallel, however, stops here; for whereas wishing for blue eyes will not spoil black, wishing for a soprano voice on the part of a contralto often induces an attempt to sing soprano parts, a procedure commonly ending in the possession of no voice at all.
Young women whose eventual compass and quality no experienced singing-master would hesitate to fore-cast as contralto are often misled by the possession of a second register of considerable extent. The application of this to soprano parts, though for a time possible, and even easy, is much to be discouraged With well-directed practice the extent of this second register will diminish, while what remains of it will approximate itself to the first, and thus contribute to the completion of a voice at once extensive and homogeneous. Men have an advantage over women in being able earlier and with more certainty to ascertain. what the compass and quality of their voices are or are likely to be. Again, whatever may be their wishes in the matter, they commonly bow to the decrees of nature with better grace than women. Though very young men generally desire to be basses, and middle-aged to be tenors, we as rarely find a bass trying to sing tenor as a tenor to sing bass.
For the mezzo soprano, as for its male counterpart the barytone, solos expressly fit are neither few nor inferior. In concerted music, as a rule, there is no defined place for either. In most cases the mezzo soprano will be found best suited by a contralto part, the barytone by a bass; when either of such parts is divided, by the higher of the two. The treatment of the mezzo soprano, as of the barytone voice, some-times requires very delicate management. Occupying a sort of border-land, both may be, or might have been, in many instances, transferred to either of the territories which this border-land separates. Many barytones, it is certain, might have been tenors, many mezzo sopranos, sopranos, had the production of their voices been so directed as to enable them to extend their compass upward with ease and good effect. No doubt a certain energy, not always at his command; is needed for the supposed barytone, before he can occupy permanently, as generally he can temporarily, the tenor register. Certain it is that some of the greatest of tenors have been at first treated, and have even sung in public, as barytones.
The solo performances, instrumental as well as vocal, of amateurs are now commonly less ambitious, and therefore more pleasing, than they were once wont to be. The increase in the number of instrumental pieces dependent for their effect rather on sentiment than mechanical skill, and the revived interest in old-time music of that sort, have driven out both the show-piece and the frequently dry and always prolix second and third rate sonata. Enormously as skill in pianoforte-playing has been developed, its application has tended to approximate instrumental to vocal artto make the pianoforte sing. Mendelssohn is not our only composer of “Songs without Words.” The designation might be extended to a great deal of the best music, old as well as new, that we now hear in the house and even in. the concert-room.
In vocal performance too, public as well as private, the tendency has been for a long time in the same direction. Rarely do we look through an old vocal music-book without finding several “bravuras” to the execution of which few, even among modern artists, are now equal. From the dramatic or quasi-dramatic scena physical incapacity and want of training are likely always to deter the amateur; nor is even its competent execution in the house, inevitably without scenic accessories and associations, likely to give pleasure. Whatever the sentiment of chamber music, its expression should be accompanied by something of reticence. Vehement outbursts of rage, of despair, even of grief, are fine things in their proper places, with their own antecedents and surroundings, all re-moved from us in space as well as time. Medea, Semiramis, and Lucrezia Borgia are fascinating, how-ever formidable, figures when on the other side of footlights which illumine the worlds of fiction or history to which they belong. At our elbows they are anachronisms, monsters, with whose ways we have nothing in common, for whose sorrows we have little sympathy.
The chamber solo need as little be cold as extravagant. It may be characterized by passion as well as by sentiment; but the passion must not be “torn to tatters,” nor the sentiment too strongly emphasized. Even the dramatic singer cannot afford to throw off all consciousness of his personality, or to forget that he is an artist. “If an actor,” said Charles M. Young, the English player, “allows himself to be overpowered by his feelings, his audience will never find out what’s the matter with him.”
Poets seem often to have forgotten that a song is a thing to be snng, and that with their verse music has of necessity to be conjoined; composers, that this con-junction should be made through music not only beautiful in itself, but accordant in sentiment and rhythm with that which suggests it. Singers often seem to think that the words of a song are nopart of it whatever, or a part so insignificant that no care need be taken about their utterance or the making them intelligible. A discussion about the language of a song is really not an uncommon commentary on its execution; hearers, not having understood a word, taking it for granted that it must be foreign. Something of this is no doubt often to be laid to the share of the composerto false emphasis arising from misappropriation of notes to words; some of it to overloaded or overplayed accompaniment. But the fault is most often in the singer, who possibly speaks plainly enough under ordinary circumstances, but who finds a difficulty in uttering this or that sound on this or that vowel, and avoids that difficulty by the sacrifice, not of the note, but of the syllable. The voice is so much more easily produced from the central point of the variable cavity than from any other, i.e., on the vowel aa, that the vowels of many otherwise good artists have a constant tendency to approximate it. Thus we get say for see, saae for say, taaonc for tone, traaop for troop; and in diphthongs, an undue preponderance being given to aa or o, we get naaight for night, foin for fine, and the like. A good deal of this is, it must be feared, not easily remediable after a certain time of lifethe time during which the mature voice of man or woman is assuming its permanent character, and in the course of which the power of producing any note of it on any syllable must be acquired, if ever. Still something may be done, even after this, and would be done, were the necessity for doing it more generally felt. How pressing is this necessity needs little demonstration.
Could the auditors in an average musical party be cross-questioned or polled, it would probably be found that for every one among them capable of appreciating or taking an intelligent interest in the notes of a song, at least half a dozen would be found to appreciate the words, and the words only. The exact pro-portion that these two sets of hearers bear to one another does not affect the argument. This much is certain, that a vocalist who can say as well as sing inevitably enlarges greatly the sphere of his influence. Indeed it is notorious that prodigious effect has again and again been given to verse by persons whose powers of dealing with the music seemingly inseparable from it were the smallest conceivable. Rachel’s utterance, hardly to be called musical, of the “Marseillaise,” at-fords an example. On the other hand the playing of songs by great violinists has been known to create similar excitement. An illustration of this might be found in “The Erlking,” as played by Heinrich Ernst, the Austrian virtuoso. But the singer can, or could, do the work both of a Rachel and of an Ernstgive us the melody as well as the verse of Rouget de Lisle, and interpret the poetry of Goethe through the music of Schubert.
Now if there be any one particular in which the amateur vocalist might reasonably hope to equal the artist, it is in this matter of refined and intelligible utterance. It is the side of the singer’s art on which general culture tells more than on any other. For the utterance of those who have read much, thought much, been much and early in good company, is distinguished in a thousand ways from that of persons who have not enjoyed these advantages: and this too notwithstanding provincialisms and peculiarities which no training has enabled those who have caught or inherited them to shake off.
The artist has excuses in this matter of verbal clearness to which the amateur cannot lay claim. He is often called upon to exercise his art in rooms of a magnitude exceeding not only that of any ever found. in private houses, but of any which his predecessors had to fill. The first business of him who addresses the public, whether in speech or song, is to be heard; and if the vowel a is more easily heard than e, and the vowel as than a. we must continue to put up with say for see, and saac for say.
All this has reference to and is suggested by the English language. Of an English-speaking audience to whom a song in a foreign language is addressed a very small minority is ever able to take in the full meaning of the words on a first hearing, be they ever so clearly enunciated. On the other hand, every song suffers enormously from being sung to words other than those to which its music was first set. No question is here raised as to the superior fitness for music of one language over another. Every language probably could be shown to be fit for music, by a composer who was master of it, or a vocalist who could really speak itor any other : for the singer with whom clear utterance is a habit will, with a little practice, otter one language as clearly as another. The singing of English by Italians. in some cases but imperfectly acquainted with it, is generally distinctalmost to a fault. One language may of itself be more generally becoming to the voice than another, because more abounding in resonant vowels; but the air originally set to German words will suffer as much from being sung to Italian, as that originally set to. Italian from being sung to German.
The folk-songs of England. Scotland, and Ireland offer beautiful melodies and interesting words. The exhaustive collection in Chappell’s “Music of the Olden Time” will prove a treasure-house of the first. The best of the second, it must be admitted, lose much of their charm when ungraced by the accentas difficult to acquire as it is to lose. Single words here and there tentatively vocalized in approximate Scottish fashiontown pronounced toon, away as awaw, and the likeonly suggest the absence of, without in the least replacing, the true Doric, a language, be it always remembered, not a dialect, and the language of some of the greatest of lyric poets. From this difficulty or any similar, the performance of Irish melodies is wholly free. It would be hard to point to any body of songswords worth singing, and melodies fit to sing them towhich would better reward feeling, intelligent, and intelligible delivery. That to them, as to Scottish songs, a superior flavor may be imparted by an accent slightly Milesian, is certain. But this flavor, however charming, is not essential; they are English as well in their vocabulary as their idiom.
For songs of this kind, in which the words and the melody are all important, great care is needed in the choice of a key. This choice the singer must make for himself, nor rest till he is certain of having made it successfully. The compass or range of folk-melody is often very large : so large, indeed, as to make its vocal utterance a matter of some difficulty. But thesinger who wishes to give it effect must toerate-sometimes he will be obliged to altera too high or too low note here and there, in order that the may bring the majority of the notes into that part of his voice in which he is sure to be able to speak best, i.e., the middle. The Irish melodies lie for the most part under the disadvantage of indifferent arrangement. The “symphonies” associated with them are o Often in-congruous, and the accompaniments overladen. The former can be dealt with very simply, by omission; the latter must generally be rearranged–the more simply and unpretentiously the better.
If not quite so large as that among solos, the field of choice among duets, trios, quartets, and other accompanied pieces requiring only one voice to a part, is quite large enough to furnish inexhaustible occupation for the most diligent of readers and the most enthusiastic of executants. Modern opera, from the time of Mozart, abounds in concerted pieces which, though most effective on the scene, have quite charm enough, regarded as pure music, to justify their repetition off it. The trio in “Idomeneo” (“Soave sia il vento”) or the quintet in “Cosi fan tithe” (“Cosa sento”) loses little by its transference from the stage to the drawing-room. To those who have acquired the taste for music of epochs still more remote, the repertoire is still larger, although the amateur will unfortunately find some of it difficult of access.
But many of the compositions to which attention has been called are isolated movements, which do not form parts of large continuous works. Such pieces are, as a rule, generally inferior in interest and effect to those that do; and even the latter, when torn from their contexts, will be found immeasurably less interesting and effective than they were as portions of connected wholes. Take, for example, the well-known air from Mendelssohn’s “Elijah,” “0 rest in the Lord.” No doubt, delivered by a touching voice, and with just expression, it will even of itself give pleasure; but preceded by the recitatives “Arise, Elijah” and “0 Lord, I have labored in vain.” and followed by the chorus, “IIe that shall endure to the end,” the same voice will be more touching. the same singer’s expression more just, and the air itself will give such pleasure as can only be given by a thing in its place. For relief and repose are as needful for the ear as for the eye; and the familiar and commonplace can be no more banished from art than from nature. There is a pas-sage in one of Ruskin’s early books in which he tells us how, finding himself in one of the most romantic scenes of Switzerland, he was glad to take refuge from the ravine and the torrent in the company of a few common wild-flowers on the wayside. More-over, connection is of itself a source of interest; and forms which grow out of one another are as superior to those that are unconnected as is a collar of metal-work to a bead necklace. No doubt, if the choice of hearing the best passages only of a great musical work, or of hearing the work in its entirety, be offered to an average auditor, he will probably choose to hear the former. He will be wrong. even from his own point of view. For be his knowledge and taste the lowest conceivable, his pleasure in these best passages will be less than it would have been had he heard them in their places and set off by others.
But the student should begin by believing that not only has this or that in a great work its beauty, but everything its use. To master in its entirety a great poem, building, picture, statue, or piece of music, is an aim from the successful realization of which comesnot merely information, but increase in the powers by which it has been attainedpowers through whose exercise we rise continually in the scale of being, be-come more critical yet more catholic, stronger, wiser, and better than we were.