Tone in Our Words, and Words in Our Tone

The title of this blog post comes from an admonition of Herbert Witherspoon, writing in his book 36 Lessons in Singing for Teacher and Student (1930):

The vowel is the tone, the tone is the vowel. We put words in our tones and tone in our words.

Herbert Witherspoon

Witherspoon’s wisdom is reflected in this moving story from music history:

One of the last of the great castrato sopranos, Gasparo Pacchierotti, singing the role of Arbace in Bertoni’s Artaserse, had to deliver the words, Eppur, son innocente [And yet, I am innocent], followed by an instrumental ritornello. To his surprise, the orchestra failed to enter on cue; Pacchierotti turned to the conductor, to discover that the whole orchestra had been so moved by his delivery of the three words, that they were weeping.

This story demonstrates further the elusive quality of bel canto when it is understood that beauty of tone alone did not move those instrumentalists, for Pacchierotti was possessed of a very unequal instrument, having struggled with his voice from the beginning of his studies. (Rossini considered Pacchierotti the greatest singer he ever heard.) What moved the listeners was the emotional TONE of Pacchierotti’s words. 

To sing well, we must work out not only the details of our voices from a technical view which takes a lifetime, but we must also insure that our acquired technique doesn’t set a barrier against the expression of deeply felt human emotions, which color the voice in a way that no science can explain. To hear an authentic ‘catch’ or ‘sob’ in someone’s voice – especially a singer’s – offers an audience a chance to experience something that I believe is the most important aspect of learning to sing – catharsis.

Gaspare Pacchierotti (1740-1821), was one of Rossini’s favorite singers. On the singer’s complaining that the latter’s music was too noisy, the composer retorted: “Give me another Pacchierotti and I will know how to write for him!”  Another visitor was Stendhal, who remarked that: “I learned more about music in six conversations with this great artist, than from any book; it was the soul speaking to the soul.”

It is my belief that as musicians we are operating as a kind of therapist for our audiences. Few adopt this view, owing to the more ego-oriented world of music performance in our modern age. But isn’t it is a much healthier and nobler approach to see one’s life as a singer as helping others to discover deep emotional feelings through musical art?

Domenico Corri, the last pupil of the legendary Nicola Porpora, defined singing as follows:


By which is understood a Voice uttering Sounds conjoined with words, it may be observed that although Sounds and Words separately produce effect and meaning, yet, when happily combined, the power of both is encreased [sic]; but unless the combination be so just that each appears created by the same impulse: that the Mind, the Heart, and Features of the Countenance, which is the Index of the Passions, be impressed with the feeling, those Words and Sounds convey no correspondent sensation can be produced on the Auditor; for a smiling Face accompanying the plaintive tones of Grief, or a melancholy one uttering the gay sounds of Joy, could not effect the aim of the Singer, which ought not only to please, but to delight and charm; for Mediocrity in a Singer, as well as in a Poet or a Painter is not to be admitted, but a Scholar should endeavour [sic] to proceed towards that perfection which touches the Heart so delicately, as the finest Pen is incapable of describing to the understanding.

Corri, Domenico: Corri’s Preceptor. London, 1810.
Reprinted in The Porpora Tradition, Vol. III of the
series Masterworks on Singing, Pro musica press, 1968.

Corri’s description, according to this blog author, should be printed and kept before the eyes of every singer and teacher of voice!

Edward Foreman, writing in his essay An Imaginary Trip Down Pedagogy Lane, went into greater detail on Corri’s description:

If this seems a somewhat flowery definition for our more hard-headed modern age, let it
suffice to say that that attitude is precisely the major reason Singing has fallen upon such hard times. In the Italian Baroque period, the aim of singing was first the diletto (delight) of the listener, and then muovere gli affetti (to move the emotions) of the listener. Neither diletto nor muovere gli affetti can occur when the vocal emission is so central to the singer’s preoccupation that the sense of the words is lost, nor so manipulated that the sound of the words is lost. Some singers—and recordings enable us to study this closely – actually seem to understand the primary importance of the words. Others seem unaware that without the words there would be no song, since it is usually—this is not a hard-and-fast rule—the existence of the poem which inspires the composer to set it to music. The singer ought not drown the words—which inspired the melody—in “voice.”

Edward Foreman, “An Imaginary Trip Down Pedagogy Lane.”

How long has it been since three words in a recitative caused you to hold your breath or weep?

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