Thursday, October 15, 2009

Music and Memory, Part 3: Emotion and Meaning

I intend no insult to my colleagues, and hope none is taken, when I repeat here the generally-accepted meme that classical singers lack the musicianship skills of instrumentalists. It's mostly true, but not because singers are stupid. The main reason for this skill deficit is that singers start serious study later than instrumentalists. In all but a few very rare prodigies, the vocal mechanism does not mature until a singer is in her teens (sometimes later for men), and it's unwise to attempt to develop a singing technique -- i.e., a reliable physiological method for producing the refined sound required by the classical vocal repertoire -- in a still-developing body. So, while pianists and violinists can start as young as four or five, most singers lag behind by at least ten years. And, while little pianists and violinists are learning to read and analyze music as they learn to play, some singers never acquire those abilities at the highest level. It is well-known, for example, that Pavarotti could not read music easily. But for every Pavarotti -- a truly great instinctive musician -- there is also a Maria Callas or a Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, not only great singers but also virtuoso musicians of the highest possible order, whose musical ability was arguably the true root of their greatness.

When I enrolled in my master's degree program in voice in the 1990s, I found myself among musicians whose skills far outstripped my own. Though I strove to distinguish myself among my singer colleagues, my theory and analysis abilities were relatively dismal, and I was required to take undergraduate theory. At the same time, however, I tested into the highest-level sight-reading and ear-training class on the graduate level, and I recall how the professor, when I came into his classroom at the first meeting, was sure that a mistake had been made (he demanded, "What are you doing in this class?"); singers were almost never admitted to it, especially not singers who'd been demoted to undergraduate theory. But, if my musicianship was weak, my musicality was strong; half of the reason, I think, that I got into the advanced class was that I instinctively knew how a piece of music written in the so-called common practice period was meant to go, and therefore, even under pressure, could sight-sing accurately.

I come from a family of accomplished musicians on both sides, and my two older brothers demonstrated unusual musical ability while still children, and went on to receive advanced degress and have professional careers in music. I, on the other hand, was a comparatively late bloomer. I had always sung, but didn't start doing it seriously until I was fifteen. My sudden emergence on the family musical scene upset the family dynamic to the extent that I was discouraged, rather than encouraged, from continuing, but I stuck to it, because I was receiving encouragement from outside the family (I had begun winning awards and honors as a high-school-aged singer), and besides, I loved doing it, and believed I had found my groove. It wasn't until I was about twenty that my mother, having come to hear me in a rehearsal, tearfully gave her blessing to my pursuit.

In college, my piano professor (mistakenly) believed that I should prepare to audition for the yearly concerto competition -- on piano -- the winner of which played a movement from a concerto written for his instrument with the college orchestra. I declined; I knew my limitations. I was, and am, merely an adequate pianist. But my professor wrote that year in an evaluation of my work with her, "Pentimento spends too much emotion away from the keyboard." I've thought about that caveat ever since. Is emotion what is required of classical musicians? Yes . . . and no. Yes, we must be able to access deep reserves of feeling. But we cannot allow emotion to dominate performance. The singers who do this are often noted for performances that move audiences profoundly, relying on hastily-put-together techniques that too often cause the practitioner to burn out fast. It's not emotion that drives a singing technique. Technique must be mastered so that emotions can be accessed in a safe way for the vocal mechanism, and so that they can be expressed in a way that moves the audience but not the singer. This is one of the most difficult aspects of performance to master. The great soprano Renée Fleming has written of singing the title role in Carlisle Floyd's Susannah at the Met while going through an excruciating divorce. Although she was able to access her despair for the role (Floyd's opera transposes the story of Susanna and the Elders to rural Tennessee in the first half of the twentieth century) to the extent that tears streamed down her face in the midst of her performance, the audience didn't get it; a friend who was there told Fleming, "You really have to work on your acting" (in fact, I was also in the audience for Fleming's short run of Susannahs in 1999, and I felt the same thing). The way to give the audience the emotional experience -- indeed, the catharsis -- that they are craving, and that the singer may be craving too, is to give it away, to forego the pleasure of an emotional transport and use one's technique, as well as gesture and movement, to demonstrate it for the audience instead.

All of this is a circuitous road to my real point, which is the intersection of music and memory, in particular the chance encounter with music that evokes felicitous memory. During my early days in one of the undergraduate theory classes in which I was embarrassed to be the only graduate student, the professor illustrated a point by going to the piano and playing the opening bars of the Variation VII Grazioso from Brahms's Variations on a Theme by Haydn -- which may be heard here by scrolling down to the right-hand side of the screen -- with such delicacy and understatement that I could feel my insides clench in recognition, though I'd never heard the piece before. And, while my theory-analytical music vocabulary was then, and remains, inadequate to explain why this piece works like that, I can tell you that Brahms is the master of expressing the sense of bittersweet resignation, and of joy muted by grief and experience, particularly through his use of harmonic progression and the subtleties of his writing for the lower voices.

I turned on the radio yesterday, and heard the Variation VII Grazioso, and my gut clenched in exactly the same way as it had in undergraduate theory, and I wondered about my fellow students from way back then -- did Esther, the Orthodox Jewish violinist who wore a shearling coat and platform shoes, end up marrying a scripture scholar and finding an orchestral job that would allow her to get a sub every Friday night, as she'd hoped? -- and our wonderful, humane professor. And what made our professor most humane, I think, along with all the other professors, is that they were showing us how important classical music was -- how it could be a true lifeline that helped us connect to our humanity at the deepest level, and how we could learn how to help our audiences do the same.

Above: the incomparable Bianca Castafiore, the "Milanese Nightingale" of the Tintin series (whose name, incidentally, means white chaste flower).


Anonymous said...

When you wrote "a sub on Friday night" I remembered the students of La Boheme having their Friday night blowout.

What did they order? A sub equivalent, no doubt.

Amazing, what artists and musicians will put up with, for the sake of their muse, and for the sake of those of us that made our compromises long ago.


Pentimento said...

Well, Esther's sub would have had to have been kosher (bada-bing).

I'm going to write another post when I have a minute that addresses the non-joke part of your comment, O. I hope you love Signora Castafiore, as I do.

Anonymous said...

Great post. I linked it.

Pentimento said...

TQ, if I'm really able to do as you say, it will all have been worth it. And you picked up on something I had deleted before publishing the post, the notion that music can be salvific. I deleted that statement, because I remembered that it cannot, but certainly I yearned for a long time that it could.

mrsdarwin said...

I like what you have to say about technique taking precedence over emotion. My background is in theater, and that was something we learned early on -- that an actor has to harness his emotions to serve the play. To wallow in emotion may prove cathartic for the actor, but only puzzles and alienates an audience. I think everyone knows the tense, horrific feeling of watching something unplanned intrude into a live, structured setting, whether it's theater or music, or, say, the Mass.

Pentimento said...

So true, Mrs. Darwin. When a singer draws upon emotional recall onstage, what the audience sees is opaque at best. And what the audience hears is almost always compromised. There's no such thing as Method acting for opera. The Michael Chekhov approach works much better (though I had an actor friend who broke his collarbone in a Chekhov class once because he really believed he was swinging on an imaginary rope).