Reconstructing historical singing: reality or fantasy?

Wistreich, R. (2016) Reconstructing historical singing: reality or fantasy? In: Diversity in Historically Informed Performance, 17 May 2016, King's Place, London. (Unpublished)


One might well argue that 'historical singing' presents a fundamentally different case to that of instrumental playing, because of the fact that, unlike, say, the piano or the oboe, the human voice box itself is an unchanged and unchanging instrument. This position was unequivocally stated a few years ago by the early opera conductor and erstwhile singer, René Jacobs, in an interview with Le Monde: ‘There are no Baroque voices: unlike instruments, which become outmoded and develop, the voice does not evolve. The only thing of which we can be sure is that voices today are identical to those of the past’. But if there are no ‘baroque’ voices (and, by implication, no ‘medieval’, ‘renaissance’, or for that matter, ‘romantic’ or even ‘modern’ voices), then Jacobs’s logic would suggest that although you might make more or less historically-informed gestures towards stylistic differences between repertoires (such as in ornamentation or, perhaps, language), at the level of vocal sound production itself, you should simply stick confidently and faithfully to the apparent ‘certainties’ of some universally agreed notion of ‘proper singing’. Seen in the context of all the other premises of the historically informed performance movement, this looks like a seriously irrational side-stepping of a whole range of issues, including not only questions of historical evidence and the possible fruits of experimentation, but also fundamental ideological implications for how we construct our notions of what might constitute this ‘proper singing’. It is, however, the position that has by and large been accepted, adopted, and promoted both in the profession, and — particularly significantly for most of today’s professional singers — in the conservatoire, right up to the present time. So, could we even begin to reconstruct ‘historical’ singing’? And could we try to do it effectively within the context of the world of ‘historically-informed performance’ whose myriad contingencies I briefly sketch in this essay? And if we could reconstruct, say, aspects of early Baroque Italian vocal technique, what would it be like? Would we like it? Would it be worth the effort? Would we want to sing Palestrina, Monteverdi, Bach, Handel or Mozart with a wide range of very different techniques and vocal productions, which would, in turn, quite possibly entail new vocal timbres that could well go right against our desire to sing as beautifully as possible and also upset the expectations of our audiences?

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