From James Anderson’s “We Sang Better, Volume 2”:
The ability to sing a simple song simply but well was a prominent feature of the older singers. Will Crutchfield remarked that ‘any number of elderly 19thC singers to be heard on early recordings’ could produce a ‘simple melody’ with a tone that is ‘clear, steady, agile, reliable.’ You must keep this idea throughout the development of your voice.
This is of course always a tension in the world of serious music: the tension of whether you should be devoting yourself entirely to the loftiest and grandest of compositions, or whether you present music that’s more instantly approachable for the man in the street. There are plenty in the industry who want the former. That might include many of the serious composers and critics and often the accompanying orchestral musicians or pianists who want to be stretched. But to keep the whole art alive, the cycling of it all to everyone’s advantage, and the preservation of the best qualities of the human voice, you need both the serious and the simple.
Keeping some of those simpler items there will always pull in newcomers from ‘the street’, but it will also ensure that the overall art does not become too rarified. After all, if singers can’t sing an ordinary song to affect the man in the street, how is it to be expected that they can take the same man in the street satisfactorily through a Mozart aria?
The great singers seem to realize this instinctively. McCormack expressed it well:
I like the songs of simple melody and with simple harmonic construction. I mean, of course, the finer examples of such songs, in which the melodic line had genuine beauty and the treatment is of proportionate value…
…I emphatically do not mean trash…The songs like those of Stephen Foster are what I refer to; and their beauties are unquestioned because they have endured and because they unfailingly arouse our sincere emotions.
If a man or a woman does not happen to understand a Bach fugue it does not follow that the man or woman has no perception of musical beauty. The musical potentiality may be there, without having been cultivated. Give it food and light and air, in the form of understandable songs sung in a language that the hearer knows, and the hearer comes to appreciate and, presently, begins to acquire musical intelligence.
But – and this I hold to be vitally important – the song must be sung to people in their own tongue, and with an enunciation that makes every word understood…
Do you know what piece of music Adelina Patti once sang for an important opera audition? You are probably expecting that it would have had to have been some bravura showpiece aria. The answer in fact: Home, sweet home. Simple song-singing can show a great deal about a singer and her art.
Here is a sampling of artists of the past singing ‘simple songs.’