Mozart and Singers

Due to the nature of the music I’m studying in various classes right now, I seem to be on a bit of a classical kick.  Up this week is Mozart!

Mozart uses timbre in so many ways, but the one I want to focus on is how he thinks about timbre with regard to singers. Mozart understood that the human voice is a very unique instrument, and that vocal classifications are a complicated business. Singers are divided into categories based on range, tessitura (where it’s easy to sing), weight of the voice, brightness/darkness, and relative mobility. Sopranos, for example, can be divided into classifications including coloratura, dramatic coloratura, soubrette, light lyric, full lyric, spinto, dramatic, and Wagnerian! So when he wrote for voice, Mozart took into account that every singer was different, and he accommodated them accordingly.

Singers during Mozart’s time had a LOT more say about what they performed than they do today. If they didn’t like what a composer gave them, they could refuse to sing it, or ask the composer for a rewrite.  (Singers don’t usually risk that today, as they’re highly replaceable!) Mozart even composed a few arias for singers to be used in operas written by other composers, if the arias written by that composer did not sufficiently show off the singer’s voice. We still sing these arias today: they are usually referred to as Mozart “concert arias.” In fact, I included one such aria, “Vado, ma dove?” (“I go, but where?”) on my senior recital this year. This aria was originally written for the singer Luisa Villeneuve. Displeased with the current arias, she asked Mozart to write substitute arias for her role as Lucilla in Vicente Martin y Soler’s opera, Il burbero di buon cuore.   (If you’re so inclined, a bit of shameless self-promotion:

Anyway, back to the point: Mozart was very interested in keeping his singers happy, and in writing music that specifically catered to their voices. This goes beyond specific voice parts singing specific roles: Mozart conceived roles for particular singers, and changed them with any casting changes. He knew exactly how he wanted his music to sound, and if one singer’s voice wasn’t exactly suited to the role, he rewrote it so that it was. An example of this can be found in his opera Le nozze di Figaro. This is one of my all-time favorite operas, both for the hilarious drama and the beautiful music.  Le nozze di Figaro had two premieres, first in Vienna and then in Prague. There was a different cast in each city and so Mozart altered the score to accommodate the new singers. This is very apparent in the lines of Susanna and the Countess, the two principal women. For many of the ensemble numbers, particularly in Acts II and IV, Susanna’s melodies have been switched with those of the Countess.  This was done because the Susanna in Prague did not have the high notes that Mozart was looking for, and they were better supplied by the singer playing the Countess. Because these two women sing in relatively the same range, nothing was disturbed contrapuntally by this swapping of lines. And the switch was probably not made because one of the women actually couldn’t sing those notes, they just probably didn’t sound as good, or didn’t have the sound Mozart was envisioning.

Interestingly, these changes have made it down to the manuscripts of this opera today: some scores have high notes for Susanna and others for the Countess. I think this requires that directors make a very careful choice when selecting singers and scores, because Mozart obviously really cared about this. If he was willing to rewrite his music to ensure it would be sung as beautifully as possible, the least we can do is attempt to cast his operas appropriately to come as close as possible to his intended sound.

Here’s an example of the Trio in Act II, one of the scenes affected by these changes.

 The actual trio starts at 2:19. In this version, the Prague score is being used, so the Countess has the higher notes. I wonder if Mozart would have left the parts this way for these specific voices. Kathleen Battle has a lighter and brighter voice than Carol Vaness, perfect for wafting the high notes, though the way it is, Vaness’s runs up to the high C sound beautiful.

Though I couldn’t find a good example of this, I honestly think the Viennese score is generally the more appropriate one to use today, because the Countess is almost exclusively cast as a heavier soprano voice. Allowing a lighter soprano the higher notes will ensure that all voices will be heard equally, as the higher notes will naturally cut through the texture. Otherwise, the Susanna may not be heard, if the Countess’s larger voice drowns her out! In any case, Figaro has a lot of really exquisite music, and I’ll end this post with a clip of the incredible Act II finale. Enjoy!


And there was LIGHT!

When scholars look at orchestration and concepts dealing with timbre, they often start with Berlioz. This makes sense, to a degree, considering that Berlioz was a huge innovator in these subjects. But earlier composers used timbre and orchestration in innovative ways as well. For example, Haydn.

Haydn, christened “father of the symphony,” composed during a time when the majority of musical instruments he called for would be used in performance. This was different than the music from composers of previous eras (think Middle Ages and even Renaissance), for whose works we have notated music, but no real idea of the instrumentation. This is a really important concept because it means he was definitely thinking about exactly how his works would sound as he was composing. In some works, Haydn even called for particular instruments that were unusual for orchestras of the day (like timpani and trumpets) and would have to be borrowed (from the military).

Haydn’s oratorio, “Die Schöpfung,” or “The Creation,” is a beautiful work that relies a good deal on timbre to convey its meaning. Composed at the very end of the 18th century, this work uses text from the Bible and Paradise Lost by John Milton to depict the creation of the world (as told in Genesis). The text and music are closely tied together, each building off the other to create a complete story.


 (feel free to ignore the graphics…)

The beginning of this work is intended to portray the world before creation; it is Haydn’s depiction of chaos. And he does this quite well; in fact, I would not guess him as the composer until at least 1:45. The chromatic, wandering lines he writes are far more typical of the Romantic Era, and he is more concerned with aural effect than melody or form.  In the Classical Era, this chromaticism and loose structure would have been interpreted as chaotic.

No 2.

This famous recitative section is absolutely amazing. Listen for yourselves through the first two minutes to the words and the way Haydn sets them. The most incredible moment comes around 1:44, with the words, “and God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” Haydn sets the final “light,” on a fully orchestrated, triumphant C Major chord. The chord is so powerful for a number of reasons: its juxtaposition to the previous material, the pitch range used, the number of different instruments, and the contrast of the “darkness” and “brightness” of the instrumental sounds. To give you a visual, here is what the spectrograph captured from 1:45-2:20. The x-axis is time, the y-axis is frequency in Hertz, and the intensity of the color indicates the intensity of the relative frequencies.Screen shot 2013-02-07 at 7.20.30 AM

No. 3 

The music in this section, beginning at 0:41, depicts the newly-created “stormy seas.” Here, Haydn draws upon an idea now referred to as “Sturm und Drang,” or “Storm and Stress.” This encompassed a period in art, literature and music in which dramatic depictions of expression and emotion took precedence over the restraint of the Enlightenment period. Though Haydn would not have referred to this type of music with precisely that title, his use of this style was deliberate in painting an aural picture.  “Sturm und Drang” in music is associated with drama, driving rhythms, and minor keys, all of which we hear in this section. Listen to the first 20 sections a few times and see if you can pick out the different musical layers. Here is what I’m hearing:

  • low strings set a driving rhythmic pulse for the section
  • the middle strings play continuous runs, which I hear as rollicking seas or howling winds
  • upper strings have an angular melody, dramatic melody
  • winds have sustained pitches that cut through the sound because of their relatively high spectral centroid, or “brightness”