A History of Music for Singers: An Introduction

History of MusicOur new blog series for the remainder of the summer is a history of music for singers. This isn’t meant to be a “history of singing”, not least because it’s a fairly under researched area. Instead, I want to touch on some of the changes and developments in music that affect us vocalists. I’m also planning to highlight some key composers of vocal music, which may or may not be the ones you’d expect to hear about for each time period.

Following on from this series, I plan to have a composer of the month beginning from September. Each month, we’ll feature a composer, including a brief post on his or her life, and one looking at the fingerprints of his or her vocal music. For that month, the “history of music binder” pages for our composer of the month will also be available for free download. After that, you’ll be able to buy them from my (soon to be launched) resources shop, either individually, or in a range of bundles.

So let us begin with a trundle through music and the role of the voice from ancient times to the medieval age:

In The Beginning…

Music in human culture almost certainly originated with the singing voice. Some people even claim we might have sung before we spoke. Whether or not that’s true, singing had practical uses for early cultures. Have you ever tried comparing singing with shouting over long distances? Singing caries further. That’s why yodelling developed in the Alps! We don’t know much about early singing, mainly because there’s very little evidence. The soft tissue of the body doesn’t last very long after death, and there’s not much in the way of music that’s been written down. Nevertheless, we know that early civilisations like the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans all had cultural practices which included singing.

Greek vase

Greek and Roman myth is full of mythology filled with songs, like the mermaids who sung sailors to their death on the rocks. That alone is enough to demonstrate that these early cultures recognised song as an art that had power over human life. However, music also begins to be studied in these cultures, with Greek philosophy starting to unpack the science of music. We still use some of their terms like the modal scale names today. The Greeks also thought about the role of music in the universe, with Plato imagining the planets sang as they moved through the heavens! (Isn’t that a wonderful idea?)

gerrit-van-honthorst-king-david-playing-the-harp

The Jewish culture at this time was also rich with song – the Old Testament contains many of the lyrics of songs which have become poems now that the music has long been lost. There are only tantalising references in the book of Psalms to the instruments use to play it, or the composer.
Coming, as Christianity did, out of Jewish culture, the early church also used music and the voice as part of worship. At first, these were borrowed from the Jewish music, but as Christians spread across Europe and the globe, so they adopted other local styles of music and made them their own – and they’re still doing it today!

The church authorities were unhappy about this borrowing from secular styles, and they tried to stop it (things don’t change, do they?). They mostly succeeded in this to begin with, and singing was limited to plainchant – mainly unison singing to begin with. Slowly, as time went on, the singing became more adventurous, with some very limited harmony being included. This harmony


threeClericsSinging-300x295Most of the evidence for how singing sounded at this time comes from drawings in manuscripts. It seems likely from the descriptions and pictures that singing was quite nasal in sound – very twangy. I imagine it sounding a lot like very bad country music that’s sung all on one note…was largely based on fourths and fifths as those intervals are very stable – they’re “perfect”. The third or “triton” could be major or minor, and thus was considered to be the devil’s music!

 

Here’s an example of plainchant from the 11th Century, sung by a modern day professional tenor.

As harmonies grew more complicated, the need for a wider range of voices grew. The church couldn’t bring itself to allow women to sing, as they believed it was banned by the bible. Instead, they allowed boys to train as trebles for church choirs, just as they still do today. There were, of course, disadvantages to this as boys do eventually grow into men. This led to the use of castrati: men who have had their testes removed to prevent puberty, and thus their voice dropping. Unpleasant, but it did allow greater variety and experimentation with choral music.

sumerisicumenin

Alongside these changes in church music, secular music developed more complicated forms. One very early example of non-church music is the round “Summer is Icumen in”. Rounds were a popular form for medieval songs as they were easy to learn and could be sung both by individuals and by groups (probably in the pub…).


By the end of the medieval era, as the Tudors in England and Stuarts in Scotland were ascending their thrones, vocal music had developed into a more melodic and harmonious form than ever before. Meanwhile, on the continent of Europe, the rebirth of science and art was beginning to take hold. This was the Renaissance, and it marked the true beginnings of what is now called “Western Art Music”.

 

–> Next post: The Grand Renaissance

 

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