October 2011

Classical singing is misunderstood

"There is so much sacrifice and uncertainty in this profession"

Classical singing is a misunderstood art. I was a voice major in college, and was a big choir geek before that in high school. During that time, I was told I wasn’t competitive by the athletes, laughed at by the strings players and chided by the academics. At the same time, I had difficult voice teachers, learned the profession was impossible, and struggled with music theory more valiantly than I ever did with chemistry.

Aaron Copland's "Appalachian Spring"

Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring is probably one of the most commonly heard compositions in the United States today. It advertises all kinds of things and is used at climatic moments in all sorts of movies and television shows. You know it; it quotes the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts” about ten thousand times in different messed up ways.

Obviously, the piece is really accessible because the direct quotes of “Simple Gifts” and other popular songs that were obvious to Copland’s first listeners in the ‘30s. He also does an absurd amount of repetition with not a lot of messing. People like to hear things they already know. For example, he makes use of the leap down of a fifth and back up to the starting note in a triplet about a million times in the first section.

Joseph Haydn

Joseph Haydn, an Austrian composer, was a contemporary of Mozart who has often been called the Father of the Symphony or the Father of the String quarte

Haydn was seen as a musical genius with the same talent in music as Shakespeare had in writing. One program bulletin said, “HAYDN should be an object of homage, and even of idolatry; for like our own SHAKSPEARE he moves and governs the passions at will.” This review from a London daily, comparing him to London’s own genius, Shakespeare, illustrates they must have really loved Haydn to compare him, a foreigner, to a genius of their own country. They also seemed to view him as a man who almost reached a godlike state by calling him “sublime.” By this time, it seems Haydn’s popularity had most definitely been established in London because of the final line of the review, “It was HAYDN; what can we, what need we say more?”

Haydn was an employee of the king, and was supposed to compose music for him. Like Bach, this strict scheduling of composition may have made Haydn think of composing as a something he had to do, rather than something he chose to do out of a divine inspiration. He could not compose only what he wanted to compose, in the style he wanted to, or when he felt the inspiration to because he was on a strict schedule for compositions. Again like Bach, he probably employed similar techniques and styles throughout the pieces because he knew his Serene Highness liked them and he, Haydn, knew they would be workable on a quick deadline.

In addition, as one of the king’s employee’s, Haydn was to abstain from attitudes and behaviors that the king found vulgar. He was supposed to be a role-model to his musicians, who must have been considered representatives of the court to the citizens and abroad. This also says something about Haydn’s character. In order to secure this job, he must have been willing to allow the king to micromanage his life, including his personal life.

In his string quartet in E-flat Major, Op.33, No.2, dubbed the “Joke,” Haydn makes fun of the repeating of the first theme so many times. Even after the listener thinks the piece is over, Haydn brings in the first theme yet again. This time, however, he messes with the listener’s expectation by intertwining short segments of the first theme with grand pauses. Also in this string quartet, Haydn uses a pedal tone and an unresolved 7th to make the listener think something big is coming. Instead, the listener gets yet another return to the first theme. Listen to Hayden’s “Joke” Quartet: