1. Debussy’s Songs, Christopher Maltman, Baritone; Malcolm Marineau, Piano; 2001, CDA67357, Hyperion Records Ltd., London: “Ballade que Villon feit a la requeste de sa mere” (Dame du ciel)
2. Ego Scripto Cantilenae: The Music of Ezra Pound, “Dame du ciel”, From Pound’s opera Le Testament, Musicians of the Western Opera Theater with the Associated Students of the University of California, Berkeley, Chamber Singers, Renee Blowers, director; Robert Hughes, conductor. Recorded at Fantasy Studios, Berkeley, 1971; originally released on Fantasy 12001; Sandra Bush, Soprano.
3. Bitter Music: Collected Journals, Essays, Introductions, and Librettos, Harry Partch; 2000, University of Illinois Press; “Bach and Temperament”, 1941.
4. Genesis of A Music: An Account Of A Creative Work, Its Roots, And Its Fulfillments, Second Edition, Harry Partch, paperback reprint of 1974 Second Enlarged Edition, Da Capo Press, New York
The Greek and Chinese conception – as old as history – that music is poetry has deteriorated until now; even when words are used, they are merely a vehicle for tones. The voice is just another violin, or another cello
With this metamorphosis was the ancient conception lost? By no means. It was obscured, left to folk peoples – sailors, soldiers, gypsies. But it flowed on in a broad deep stream, in the troubadours of Provence, the Meistersingers of Nuremberg, the Japanese Noh and kabuki, the recitative of Peri and Monteverdi (not the vocal tour de force of present-day recitative), the folk music of England and our own southern mountains, the pure Negro spiritual (not “symphonized”), and a minor degree in both Wagner and Debussy. (Bitter Music, pg. 163)
This evening, after arriving home from work, I listened with great enjoyment to Christopher Maltman and Malcolm Martineau perform the above referenced Villon by Debussy. Maltman has a sonorous voice with a good range and great control. Martineau has a very sensitive touch and blends his piano playing perfectly with the rhythm and dynamics of Maltman’s singing. Please believe me: nobody has ever accused me of showing favoritism toward the piano
Yet to my ears there is something fundamentally lacking. I kept waiting for Maltman to go beyond his training and express the words and notes in a way that I could actually hear in the words and the notes behind his voice. I just wanted him to lose control, not be more “impassioned” or “emotive”. After a while (the Villon wasn’t the only song on the CD to which I listened) his total control – or rather, the experience of his total control, the control being in front as the most insistent presence, was making me sick. It’s not that I wanted to hear him scream or miss notes or to hear his voice crack. Rather, I wanted it to sound natural, as though it might actually be a person singing it rather than an instrument of the orchestra. It’s an elusive quality. And I’m not sure that I’ve ever actually heard what I’m looking for, though Sandra Bush comes nearer to it on the recording of Le Testament cited above.
This isn’t really a criticism of Maltman. Not at all. It’s a criticism of the ideal embodied by Maltman, the attainment of which took many years of training and hard work on Maltman’s part – and which even then wouldn’t have been enough if he hadn’t been born with a beautiful voice, and if he didn’t have great sensitivity toward and love of the music. No, this isn’t a criticism of Maltman at all.
But, from the time of my young youth something always bothered me about the singing of art song, bel canto, opera, oratorio – even the requiems I loved even back then. And it was my shortcoming that, instead of confronting it and deciding what it was that troubled me about it, I turned away from it and listened instead to other forms of singing that didn’t bother me in this way. During the past few years, for a variety of reasons (and with some help) that I won’t go into here, I’ve been opening up to all of these forms of singing as well as others. I enjoy a lot of it. Yet, there’s still always a reservation, something I feel is lacking.
When I read Harry Partch’s Genesis of A Music, it became very clear to me what my reservations have been. I’m not talking about his system of temperament, of which I only have the shadiest notions. And, since I have no qualifications – not only am I not trained in music, but I’ve actually warped my own exposure to it – it’s possible, maybe even likely, that I’ve completely misunderstood Partch. But I Don’t think so
Partch, after providing an excerpt from Gluck’s Essay on the Revolutions of Music:
Let us not be rash in concluding, when we hear modern revivals of Shutz and Gluck, that reform comes cheap to these composers. For one thing, the works rampant on the stage of their day, which aroused their righteous instincts, have long since passed from opera repertory, and, for another, let this fact be contemplated: syllables from Monteverdi, Schutz, Gluck, Mozart, Weber, Wagner, Verdi, Puccini, Moussorgsky, Wolf, Debussy, and Ravel, are expelled from the gullet in exactly the same vocalistic manner by almost any “serious” singer, and the Italian, French, German, or Russian of their origin makes less than an iota of difference. If this seems a cruel concentration of onus it will be relieved; the middle initial of all musicians – all of us – is C, for “Culpable.” (Genesis of A Music, p. 27)
The first and last sentences are retained because the full thought requires them.
Ah, but the performance where I feel this least? Le Testament. Not always, but often, more often than in any other “serious” vocal work I’ve encountered. Why is this? Is there something inherently different between the treatment of this Ballade of Francois Villon by Debussy and that of Pound which results in a performance which feels more spontaneous and alive? I don’t know. The music of the Debussy is certainly very beautiful and tastefully set not to interrupt the words. But in Pound’s setting, there was never any danger of the words being interrupted. The poem IS the music. And, from what I can gather with my limited insight into the technical aspects of music, Pound’s setting forces the singer in ways that Debussy’s does not.
Well, so, yes, I do conclude that there is an inherent quality in the score that makes Pound’s setting more vibrant than Debussy’s.
But Debussy’s setting has a long performance tradition associated with it while Pound’s does not. From my interpretation of Partch (which interpretation I agree with, and hope that it means that I agree with Partch), this could be tantamount to saying that Debussy’s score has been dragged down into the mire and that the comparison is no longer a fair one because Pound’s hasn’t been tainted by the vocal traditionMaybe. But I still think Pound’s is the way it is because he worked very consciously to compose something that wouldn’t just be “expelled from the gullet in exactly the same vocalistic manner.” Well, you decide and let me know.
Also, there are obvious differences in taste between the conductor of Le Testament and the music producer of the Debussy CD. Clearly the approach of Le Testament is far more to my liking. It’s better!