Archive for August 14th, 2010

Behind the Song

So I had commented on Facebook that yesterday’s blog post would be about why it’s important to know where a song comes from, but then I got all involved in making the video, so it is today’s blog post instead. XD

The sun is shining and I have been cleaning.

And now I'm singing.

Still images of singing can be pretty funny. XD

So one of the things I found most perplexing about the difference in teaching styles at my university were the different requirements for learning songs. The general way voice students are taught in a college setting is that there are a certain number of voice faculty, and each one has a certain number of students, which is called their studio. So in my voice studio, and certain others (there were five in total at my school, some schools only have one or two, others have eight or nine, it depends), we were required not only to translate the song, but also to research the song and write a paper about it. This not only included analyzing the text of the piece and the meaning behind the words, but also involved catching stylistic elements in the music (“it crescendos here because it’s the point of utmost anguish in her heart”) and also researching how that song fit into either the opera it was from or the style period and composer’s overall library.

There was a marked difference between the performers who were required to do this research and those who weren’t, and I’m not just saying that because my studio required it. XD Those students who didn’t translate or research their songs rarely had any kind of emotional connection to them. They didn’t know anything about the song other than the notes and the memorized words. Even the English songs they sang had no depth to them, watching them perform was about as interesting as watching rocks roll down a hill.

My voice teacher told me an amusing story about an audition (I believe it was graduate school) she did where she launched into a very peppy, upbeat version of the aria “Stride la vampa”, from Il Trovatore. It’s an aria sung by a gypsy woman about watching her mother being burned at the stake by an angry crowd. Needless to say, happy and bouncy isn’t what you want to invoke when singing it, but she had never learned what the words actually meant or what the context of the aria was in the opera, so, after she was finished, they asked her if she knew any of that, and she admitted she didn’t, and was horrified when they explained it to her.

So knowing the context of the piece is important. I’m going to use an example from the other day, the song Prison by Faure. Prison, the original poem, was written by Paul Verlaine, and was written when he was in an actual prison for shooting his lover (not fatally). The poem is beautiful on its own, and expresses lovely and bittersweet sentiments about lack of freedom, mistakes made in the heat of the moment, and cries for help to an uncaring God. Faure did an amazing job of sculpting the music to fit the poem, and the resulting song is absolutely beautiful and worth singing and hearing. But if you didn’t know anything about Paul Verlaine, or anything beside that the poem is about a prison in some way, could you really express those sentiments very well?

Arias are even more complicated, as not only do you need to know the meaning of the words and where the composer and librettist were emotionally and stylistically, you also need to know the entire plot of the opera and what character sings the aria, as well as where in the plot it sits. One good example is an aria I’m working on right now, “Porgi amor” from Mozart’s La Nozze di Figaro. It’s sung by Countess Almaviva, who is lamenting the fact that her husband has decided to be an utter jerkface and cheat on her with other women. This is before she even finds out from her handmaiden (who is getting married to the titular character, Figaro) that he is planning to sleep with said handmaiden, which drives her into even more violent throes of anguish. Porgi amor is a very simple aria, in that it only has about four lines of lyrics, repeated a few times. But the sentiment comes from a very deep place in the character, a woman who is rich and powerful and yet so unhappy because her husband no longer seems to love her at all. She simply wants the return of that love, or for a quick death to release her from her pain. It’s a very familiar sentiment in Italian opera (and art songs), but Mozart’s amazing artistic ability makes it even more poignant and heartbreaking. You really feel for the Countess, a woman who has done nothing to deserve what she’s gotten, and has no means of escape.

It’s important to know those things when you go to sing a song. And that doesn’t just apply to opera and classical forms of singing. I mean, if you go to sing “I Could Have Dance All Night” without knowing anything about My Fair Lady or the context of its genesis, how can you possibly express as much as you need to? And would you really want to attempt “Paint it Black” without understanding the meaning behind why it was written and performed? No. That cheapens the piece, as well as limiting your ability to display the needed emotions. If you don’t really understand where the song comes from, you can’t perform the song very well at all.

Next time, on “Music Geek Theater”, we’ll talk about why eye contact with the audience is so important. ;D


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