Saturday, January 22, 2005

Music: sacred & profane-2


For the most part, music is an aristocracy, but there are some exceptions to the rule: Anything with a German name carries a certain prestige. This is true is many fields besides music. An American name lacks the same caché.

By the same token, chauvinism promotes certain composers out of due proportion to their intrinsic worth--merely as a matter of national pride. A mediocre composer on the international stage may enjoy a national following because he has no domestic competitors, or because the indigenous standard is so uniformly low that what’s bad is good.

Ironically, some mediocre composers make it into the standard repertory as an act of diplomatic deference--in the musical equivalent of the UN--where every native son, however ne'er-do-well, has a seat at the table.

Some mediocre composers figure in the standard repertory because their music is a war-horse or virtuoso vehicle for a diva or big-ticket pianist or violinist.

Likewise, some mediocre composers make the cut in a musical subdivision like opera. It may not be great music, but all it needs is the sponsorship of a particular constituency or special-interest group.

Similarly, mediocre composers figure in the standard repertory of a particular instrument, because the solo repertory is so limited for that particular instrument.

Finally, some mediocre music gets performed because it's oh-so avant-. No one may play it a generation from now when it takes is place beside yesterday’s newspaper, but for the time being it’s the toast of the town.


There is a perennial battle--especially in opera--between the Dionysians and the Apollonians. The Apollonians are the voice-lovers, while the Dionysians champion the singing-actor. Dionysians attack singers golden-throated singers who are fat, can’t act, and sacrifice diction for euphony.

It’s funny to read music reviewers who solemnly inform the reader that the younger generation will no longer put up with overweight singers. Raised on TV and film, young operagoers are going to demand opera singers with a credible physique.

Of course, this rather elitist prediction makes the assumption that fat people can’t fall in love--or that fat operagoers can’t identify with fat opera singers. And year after year, voice-lovers continue to patronize the opera singers with the best set of vocal cords. What is more, this comes in a roly-poly package. There is the rare singer who is pleasing to eye and ear alike. But that’s a bonus point. As long as you’ve got the vocal equipment, you can look like you’re auditioning for the circus and still have a very lucrative career on the opera stage.

The Dionysian complaint suffers from a fundamental misunderstanding of the medium. It is the job of the composer, not the singer, to capture the mood and the meaning of the text. When setting words to music, a composer’s duty is to translate dramatic values into musical values. And, by that same token, the singer’s duty is to sing well. If the composer has done his job, then the singer will be true to the text by being true to the vocal line, respecting the dynamic markings, and so forth. The drama lies in the music and musicianship.

This is not to deny that a naturally expressive or verbally alert singer can enhance the dramatic effect. No doubt divas like Sutherland, Caballe, and Milanov are fairly faceless--like musical mannequins. To turn from one of them to a recording of Regine Crespin in her prime is like going from a disembodied voice to a woman in the flesh. And if you can get all this in one juicy package, which is very rare, then so much the better. But it is unfair to the singer and uncomprehending of the art form to constantly berate singers who do full justice to the music while always praising singers whose acting, however compelling, is in spite of and at the expense of musical values.


Some Christians disapprove of choirs and soloists because they think it’s prideful and egotistical to stick out. The focus has shifted from God to man.

There is, of course, a grain of truth to this. Some folks are wittier and prettier. They have star-power.

This is unavoidable. It is never truer than in the pulpit. But you might as well say that a beautiful woman should go around with a sack over her head. Come to think if it, there’s a religious tradition--Islam--which says that very thing.

But in Paul’s master metaphor, the church is a body with many members. The solution is not to level everyone down to the same lowly member, but to honor every member for its distinct contribution to the whole, and to deploy each member according to its particular gift.

IV. Semiotics

Although music is an abstract artistic medium, it has a marvelous mimetic and synesthetic potential in simulating and stimulating moods, hues, and visual cues. This operates at many levels.

Rhythmic intervals reflect time while pitch intervals simulate space. Sound is folded space.

A major key naturally conveys an upbeat mood, and a minor key a downbeat mood. Notice how "upbeat" and "downbeat" are, of themselves, musical metaphors.

A rising cadence conveys as comic mood--in the classical sense of comedy--whereas a falling cadence conveys a triste or tragic mood.

The very fact that we think of music as high and low, rising and falling, represents a synesthetic carryover of a naturally visual cue. The musical analogue is a case of second-order synesthesia.

Fast music conveys agitation or exhilaration, while slow music conveys a sad or meditative mood.

The contrast between staccato and legato can have the same effect.

We lavish a variety of visual and tactile metaphors on timbre, describing a certain sound as bright and dark, warm and cold, creamy, silvery, velvety, abrasive, and so on. For some striking comparisons, cf. N. Wolterstorff, Art in Action: Toward a Christian aesthetic (Eerdmans, 1980), 96ff.

What accounts for this cross-categorial affinity? And why we invest certain sensory properties and spatial relations with such moral and emotional significance?

This is because the material order is a moral order. God has made the sensible world to be a simile of the spiritual world. God has encoded these associations in the human mind--associations which are triggered when the mind comes into contact with a suitable stimulus. Herein line the power of painting and poetry as well as music.

V. Genre


Is there such a thing as a sacred style of music? To some ears, certain types of sacred music sound profane. Voltaire described Haydn and Mozart church music as opera for the masses. One can only imagine what epithets he would have reserved for the sacred music of Rossini, Berlioz and Bizet.

Conversely, certain types of profane music sound sacred, viz., "Ombra mai fu," Gluck’s dance of the blessed spirits, &c.).

In terms of musical style, there is no sacred genre, per se. And to some extent, what strikes a listener as reverent or irreverent has a lot to do with the music’s cultural associations. Contemporary music has the strongest cultural associations because it is something we directly experience in conjunction with the current state of the general culture. As music drops outside the lifetime of the listener, it tends to lose whatever odious associations it may otherwise have.

One reviewer criticized a hymnal because one of the hymn tunes was taken from Brahms’ first symphony. I find this objection decidedly odd.

It is one thing to disapprove of a hymn-tune because it triggers unsuitable textual associations. There was, for example, a time when you could hear a "sacred" setting of the Drinking Song from Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia when you went to Mass.

But most orchestral (or chamber) music has no textual referent. So what if we associate a hymn-tune with a symphony? If we don’t find the symphony offensive, why do we find the hymn-tune offensive?

To me, the more important distinction is between good music and bad music. If a hymnodist can plunder the Egyptians, in Augustine’s apt phrase, so much the better.

Finally, if a singer is astute enough to associate a hymn-tune with a Brahms' symphony, he is astute enough to discount this adventitious association. Sophistication is a two-way street. It can disallow or make allowance--whichever is better.


The distinction between old music and new music is deeply misleading. Music has a date, but music isn’t dated in the same sense that Jane Austen or Thomas Gainsborough is dated. That is because music is an abstract medium in a way that portrait painting or a novel of manners, with its concrete setting, is not. Music is a product of a particular period and place, but it is not a period piece in the same sense as many other art forms.

Its time of composition doesn’t come stamped upon it, and if you didn’t know the history of music, you couldn’t tell to what century a given piece of music belongs. To someone whose musical ideal is the George Beverly Shea repertory, an Ira Sankey hymn sounds up-to-date while a carol by John Rutter sounds old-fashioned--even though Sankey is long dead while Rutter is very much alive.

A partial exception to the law of diminishing invidious returns is opera music. If a listener is an opera buff, he is likely to recognize an opera tune, and, what is more, it will conjure up all the dramatic associations as well. This is especially the case with 19C opera, which still forms the backbone of the repertory.


There is, however, a more intrinsic sense in which some music is more reverent than other music. And that lies in music’s mimetic capacity to simulate and evoke certain moods. Indeed, the emotional appeal of music is what makes music such an appealing art form to so many men and women.

And some moods are more appropriate to worship than others. Of course, a good worship service varies the mood. So the intuitive view of a sacred style, however, inchoate, has more than a grain of truth.

VI. Gender


Nothing is more stereotypical than opera. Sopranos and tenors play young lovers, baritones play the stalwart friend of the hero, mezzos play bad girls, while bassos and altos play mom and pop or other authority figures, whether benevolent or malevolent.

More often than not, the stereotype precipitates a comic clash between sight as sound as a chunky-built, overripe soprano plays an ingénue while a chunky-built, overripe tenor plays the fresh-faced suitor.

Is this just a convention, or does the stereotype run deeper than that? That’s is an important question because it goes, in part, to why we find beauty so elusive of definition, of why we find certain sights and sounds agreeable, and others disagreeable.

On the face of it, there’s no logical reason why opera should even exist. Why are there folks who find the vocal medium so compelling? Why can they get into heated debates over the relative merits of Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland? Why do they put up with these ridiculously overwrought plots in which everyone is dead by the last act?

No doubt there’s a heavy element of decadence in all this. But it has a basis in natural revelation and common grace.

The world is at once a natural order and a moral order. At one level, the natural order is a metaphor for the moral order. The reason we associate certain vocal ranges with certain role-relations, the reason we, or--at least, some of us--find a particular timbre pleasing, is that God has encoded natural law into certain sights and sounds. We are preprogrammed to register, at a subliminal level, a moral norm or abstract universal in a concrete particular.

Various vocal categories symbolize and simulate various social roles and relations--a masculine ideal, a feminine ideal, the friend, the lover, the father, the mother, the hero, the heroine, the priest, prophet, king, or villain.

At a literal level, the only difference between Joan Sutherland and Florence Foster Jenkins is a different set of overtones. At that level, there’s no reason why we attach so much emotional significance to one sound wave over another.

From a biological perspective, the primary purpose of the larynx in not to generate a high C, but to regulate food and oxygen intake. Nothing especially romantic about that. On the face of it, singing is a rather freakish secondary adaptation of muscle designed to do something else.

And yet, from a theological standpoint, that explanation is unduly reductionistic. For one thing, the idea of dual-use technology in the engineering of the human body is not an alien concept. An obvious example is the way in which the same organs perform sexual and excretory functions.

We know that man was graced with the gift of speech (Gen 2), so that application of the larynx is a primary, and not a secondary application.

Singing is an extension of speech, and song is a Biblical means and mandate of worship. That does not, of itself, prescribe a particular technique, but it does suggest that the capacity of the larynx to sing as well as speak is written into the original design of the organ. Among other things, the larynx is meant to be used as a musical instrument.

To approach this from another angle, the many references to the turtledove in Canticles (1:15; 2:12,14; 4:1; 5:2,12; 6:9) is such a romantic cliché that we may not give it a second thought. We associate songbirds with spring, and spring with the season of love. Nothing is more trite than calling a smitten couple a pair of lovebirds--wooing and cooing in each other’s company. Yes, that’s the stuff of love poetry the world round.

But this is more than a cliché, this is a Biblical cliché. It is important to know which cultural clichés enjoy divine warrant.


The question of gender also raises the question of gender-specific music. For some, the sexless style of Palestrina and Tudor music, with their prepubescent boys and foppish countertenors, sheered of any orchestral accompaniment or rhythmic vitality, represents the ideal. Anything else is irreverent.

This sort of music exemplifies the popular preconception of angelic song. Indeed, the voice of a boy soprano is typically described as "angelic."

Now, I have no problem with boy choirs or girl choirs. A lot of parents also thing it’s cute when kids sing out of tune. But there’s no reason why boys and girls can’t be taught to sing properly.

There is, however, no good reason why we should be writing music for the angels. We may have an immortal, incorporeal soul, but we are also creatures of flesh-and-blood, differentiated by sex and sexual maturation.

The Bible condemns any gender-bending ethic. But pop vocalism has an insidious way of reversing the roles. Women belt out their numbers in a raw, mannish chest voice while men croon like drag queens. Gender-blending isn’t limited to pop vocalism. Countertenors are literally effeminate.

Conversely, the Italian tradition fosters a compartmentalized piety, in which we have sexless church music and oversexed opera music. Some opera buffs even find their religious inspiration on the operatic stage. Rudolf Bing attributed Renata Tebaldi’s cult-like fandome to the confluence of Marian iconography with Tebaldi’s stage persona.

We need to strike a balance. There ought to be no sacred/profane dichotomy, but rather, a style suitable to both. There is nothing wrong with a degree of muted sensuality in church--a sensuality that doesn’t flaunt itself, but is simply a God-given and God-honoring expression of our natural manhood or womanhood. We ought to foster a closer connection between Christian anthropology and Christian axiology. Men should sound like men, and women like women. It’s a judgment on the church when the opera house often does a better job of modeling manhood and womanhood than the sanctuary.


Opera presents a corrupt version of the chivalric code. One reason for the development of opera is that it deals with subject-matter disallowed in traditional church music. Indeed, we have here something of a vicious cycle. Opera music is so profane because it is not an outgrowth of a Christian outlook on life. Opera is essentially a product of Catholic culture. And in Catholicism you have a dichotomy between the religious orders and the laity. The subject-matter of Catholic church music is the Mass and the cult of the saints.

What this leaves entirely out of view is normal family life--of men and women who come of age, fall in love, marry, and raise of family--who work inside or outside the home to support a family--as well as many other aspects of ordinary life, such as friendship, sports, war, adventure, exploration, the natural world, the life-cycle, &c.

These are things which the rank-and-file are going to think about, write about, sing about, and act on with or without religious guidance. By failing to integrate that larger slice of life into Christian music, it cannot be consecrated and sanctified to the glory of God.

One of the legacies of the Protestant Reformation was the notion that every Christian has a divine vocation, that the layman has a Christian calling to serve God.

This, however, did not work its way into Christian music because Lutheran music is cross-centered, while Reformed music is Psalm-centered. Bach set the Mass to music. He replaced the cult of the saints with the Passion of Christ. And he wrote a few secular cantatas, as well as many sacred cantatas. For his part, Handel set OT narrative to music--along with many Italian operas, as well as a few in English--while Mendelssohn set NT narrative to music.

Much of this marks an advance over the subject-matter of Catholic church music. There is an important place for this. But, for the most part, it still leaves the laity on the outside, looking in.

You can see the same divided piety at work in "gospel" music and the crossover artist. A gospel-singer who "crosses over" is stigmatized for cashing in on a lucrative market. And there is usually an element of moral and spiritual compromise at work here. In that respect, a crossover artist deserves to be ostracized.

Yet the standard fare of gospel music, which is all about getting saved and getting to heaven, but not much in-between, presents a severely truncated view of the Christian lifestyle. There’s more to the walk of faith than a conversion experience followed by a funeral.

It ought to be possible for a believer to sing about falling in love and staying in love without having to check his faith at the doorstep.

VII. Vox et verbum.


Every language or dialect has a distinctive timbre which tends, in turn, to cultivate a certain vocal placement.

Spoken French is beautiful, but sung French is very tricky, for sustaining the nasals produces a nasal twang, which is not at all bel canto--reminding one of Rudolf Bing’s quip that if the Met had a bad night, the Paris Opera had a bad century.

German is better for low voices than high voices. Among the great Wagnerians, Melchior was Danish, Nilsson Finnish, and Flagstad Norwegian. But Germany has produced some fine altos, baritones, and bassos.

Russian is also better for low voices than high voices--especially the basso, although Russian opera doesn’t make the same demands on the low range as the choral repertory. The women, by contrast, are often squally in the high range.

English depends on the dialect. The Oxbridge accent, however elegant for the spoken word, is fatal for the sung word.

However, other English accents seem to fare better: Forrester and Vickers are Canadians, Melba and Sutherland Aussies, Te Kanawa a New Zealander.

French, German, and English women normally have a fairly clear division between the head and chest registers. Is this an effect of language, or a result of their ecclesiastical choral tradition, with men and boys co-opting the soprano/alto line? It doesn’t have that effect on Italians, who share the same ecclesiastical tradition.

Speaking of boy sopranos, the sound which we’re accustomed to hearing today--involving a cool, pure, and straight-edged head-tone is not necessarily how the treble used to sound in times past. If you listen to Earnest Lough’s recordings from the 20s, he has a mixed tone with a natural vibrato. Although the timbre is unmistakably male, the production is more characteristic of grown woman. This may be because boys' voices broke at a later age back then--around the upper teens.

The Welsh language also turns out some fine singers (Burrows, Howell, Terfel, Price).

Black-Americans often have deep, resonant speaking voices, although they incline to a nasal or chesty production, with a rough transition over the break. You can hear this in Norman and Price when they sing around the break. Blacks have yet to produce a great operatic bass, although some black men clearly have the raw equipment. But their musical tradition selects for pop vocalism instead of classical vocalism.

The typical white American accent tends to be somewhat pinched and nasal. This works well enough for country-western, but not for classical vocalism. It has the same aesthetic appeal as Japanese opera--where you sing through the nose instead of the mouth.

Latin and Italian are best, although the placement can be a bit too forward or bottom-heavy. Spanish singers can easily pass in the Italian repertory, although Caballe, for one, has to guard against a nasal attack.


There are partial exceptions to the rule. Crespin sang French that was both beautiful and idiomatic, but that’s because she was Italian on her mother’s side, which had a moderating influence on the placement--with its pure, open vowels and bounded phrasing.

Frida Leider was an outstanding German soprano. As a dramatic soprano, she can to cultivate the chest register, which, in turn, filled out the head-tone. She also mastered the Italian repertory, which had a further softening effect on the Teutonic vocal production--melting the Alpine frost with a shaft of southern sunshine.

VIII. Vocal technique.


The human voice naturally divides into two registers, head and chest. This is equally true of men and women, children and adults.

In men, the chest register is dominant--in women, the head. Low female voices tend to be chestier, and high men’s voices tend to be headier.

In classical vocal technique, a man sings entirely from the chest--unless he’s a dandified countertenor, whereas a woman tries to bridge the two registers by cultivating a middle voice, which is a mixed tone. If you want to hear a seamless female voice, listen to Flagstad

Because women sing in both registers, they naturally have a longer voice (wider range) than men. A male vocalist has about two usable octaves--two-and-a-half if he’s exceptional, whereas a female vocalist has about two-and-a-half usable octaves--three if she’s exceptional.

The vocal apparatus must make certain muscular adjustments in going from low to high or vice versa. In terms of vocal technique, you can build a voice from the bottom up or the top down. To some extent this corresponds with the natural range of the voice. It is more natural for a lower, heavier voice to build from the bottom-up, and a higher, lighter voice to build from the top-down.

Each technique carries a trade-off. As Jerome Hines put it, every solution has its problems. You trade high notes for low notes, a higher center of gravity for a lower center of gravity.

Take some sopranos. Flagstad, Tebaldi, Milanov, and Ponselle represent the bottom-up approach. This makes for a fulsome low and middle range, with a columnar tone and even emission of sound. These were all dramatic sopranos, with the same basic range as mezzo-sopranos.

Put another way, their voices have more chest resonance mixed into the middle voice. To some ears, this is the most beautiful type of timbre.

But there’s a price to be paid. It generally works better in slow music than fast music. And the effect is to tug the voice down, making high notes an audible effort. Also, big deep voices have a matronly, even matriarchal, tone which limits their sex appeal when they aspire to sing the virginal heroine.

By contrast, Sutherland, Caballe, and Leontyne Price represent the top-down approach. This makes for a vibrant, floating tone, with easy, ringing high notes and a round, ebullient middle range. They are basically corn-fed lyric sopranos.

Put another way, their voices have more head resonance mixed into the middle voice. To some ears, this pitches the voice at a more natural altitude, resulting in a more youthful tone and authentic soprano sound. True songbirds, they can live up there in a way a heavier voice cannot. They make their home in the branches, while their earthbound sisters live closer to the ground. A word like "warbler" comes naturally to Sutherland in a way it doesn’t to Flagstad. Flagstad is swan gliding on a pond, but La Stupenda is a nightingale in the treetops.

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