Timbre and the Indeterminate Voice

Something that struck me recently was how intensely voice teachers must deal with timbre on a daily basis. Our instruments, more than any others, demand close attention to what sounds are being produced and how.  Unlike a viola or trombone, our resonance chambers are constantly shifting, for better or for worse. Learning how to navigate our own voices is made doubly difficult by the fact that we hear ourselves differently than everyone else.

Timbre is particularly important when dealing with the voices of young singers. Teachers, coaches, and audition panels listen not only for the weaknesses and strengths of the underdeveloped voice, but also for hints of what is to come. What fach (voice category) will this voice eventually fit into? Is the singer singing appropriate rep? How will they sound in 5 years? 10? To the educated ear, these hypotheses are based not on guesswork, but on an audial repository of many voices, and what they have gone on to become.

For me, this tricky field of vocal speculation is particularly interesting because my voice, like many, doesn’t fit neatly into a category. My teachers throughout the years have disagreed as to whether my voice fits better the characteristics of a soprano or of a mezzo. Every time it seems as though things are settled, someone pops up with a countering opinion.

It’s cool. I’m young. I have time to work these things out. But what’s really interesting from a timbral perspective is hearing why people hold the opinions they do. A teacher I studied with recently offered great insight into her thought process on the tricky “mezzo vs. soprano” debate.  While common knowledge on this subject suggests that soprano voices are universally higher, and mezzos have the low notes, that is simply too cut and dry. The most telling sign is actually tessitura, in what part of the voice the singer “sits” most comfortably. Sopranos are most likely to be comfortable having the majority of their notes be relatively high, while mezzos feel most at home in the middle part of their voices. But for me, this explanation still leaves much to be desired. I wanted to know what “sound” people were looking for. What, in timbre, could explain the difference between these voices?

The answer I got was very interesting. A big clue is the way the voice navigates the passaggio (Italian for passage, used to describe the place in the voice where the musculature switches, causing a break. Singers are taught to make this change as smoothly as possible).  Mezzos tend to thin out through the passage, loosing the lower overtones in their sound, whereas sopranos will have a roundness of sound that increases as they comfortably climb the scale. Mezzos may need more effort to ascend, while sopranos will sit with great ease above the passaggio. This, of course, is only one timbral clue among many. But for voices that have both high and low notes, and many overtones in their voice, it’s a helpful and interesting revelation. Given the large number of fachs that even soprano and mezzo voices are broken into, it is also a gross oversimplification. But it does help people like me understand why teachers say what they do about our voices.  And it can help me make educated choices for the future, in terms of repertoire.

I love having concrete things to pick out as I listen to great singers, and this new knowledge made listening to recordings of various sopranos and mezzos very educational.

Here are a few recordings for your enjoyment! It’s really interesting to contrast singers of other fachs singing these same arts songs, or for the arias, other singers of the same voice type.  Have fun!

A Rachmaninoff Romance (Op. 38, No. 5) sung by soprano, Elisabeth Söderström



Susan Graham, mezzo, singing “A Chloris” by Renaldo Hahn


Soprano, Carol Vaness, as Donn’ Elvira from Don Giovanni by Mozart. A very interesting voice—powerful soprano who absolutely has low notes.



Dorabella’s Aria from Cosi fan tutte by Mozart, sung by mezzo Elina Garanca



Five Satires


I initially wrote these “program notes” as part of a class assignment, and have been meaning to post them for a while. I picked the work somewhat arbitrarily from the options we were given, but became truly fascinated with the work. It is a little known cycle; in fact, there are unfortunately no YouTube recordings I can link to, but it is an interesting and important work that bears seeking out.

Five Satires (Pictures from the Past) by Dmitri Shostakovich

Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich, illustrious composer at the height of Soviet-era Russia, was born in 1906 to a Polish-Lithuanian family.  His compositions from his earliest years onward were influenced by the political turmoil of revolutionary Russia. Shostakovich’s Five Satires is a perfect example of a work that significantly features politics.

Against his personal beliefs, Shostakovich “came to prominence as a hero of Soviet culture” while he was still quite young.  He struggled with this identity for the rest of his career, simultaneously composing works that were true to his beliefs, as well as “official” works for the state, and adjusting his aesthetic to avoid censorship.  This manifested itself in numerous ways, in fact, (Pictures from the Past) was only added to the title Five Satires at the suggestion of his singer to “mask the contemporary relevance of the work,” thus helping protecting it from censors.

Five Satires was composed in 1960, towards the end of Shostakovich’s life, for the singer Galina Vishnevskaya. She and her husband, Mstislav Rostropovich, premiered this work on February 21, 1961. Though the critical reception had been lukewarm, the audience enjoyed it so much they demanded an encore of the complete cycle. Shostakovich was better known for his symphonies and other instrumental works, but he did set numerous texts and poems throughout his life in song cycles and operas. Five Satires (Pictures from the Past), was set to political poems by Sasha Chorney, poet and children’s writer from the early 1900s. These poems address and mock various aspects of life in Russia during the revolution, sentiments Shostakovich imbues with additional meaning through the use of musical allusions and references. Each “satire” begins the same way: the piano opens with a single repeating note, and the vocal line with a declamatory phrase (the title of the work). After this unifying “intro,” the songs evolve into separate entities.

The first satire, “To the Critic,” sets up the rest of the poems. Its text wittily explains that the pronoun “I” in a poem does not represent the poet, but the subject of the poem. This serves as a warning in the interpretation of the rest of the poems; the ambiguity in the poem’s subject hides some of the political tension. In the beginning, the text is set to speech-like rhythms and melodic inflections, rather than a true melody, and the vocal line becomes progressively more sustained and melodic throughout the piece. At the end, the piano takes over with a brief, dance-like postlude, a sort of musical “laugh” after the humorous final lines of the poem, “The poet is a man. He even has a beard!”

The second, satire “Taste of Spring,” purports to be about the speaker’s excitement at the beginning of spring. The poem, however, is actually a political metaphor that Shostakovich intended to represent the “Thaw,” a time of “loosened controls on cultural and political expression” that occurred during the 1950s and 60s. Shostakovich sets each stanza slightly differently; the first two and final two stanzas have variations on the same musical material: excited, wild, whirling piano arpeggios, and jubilant vocal exclamations, as the narrator talks about the promise of springtime. This raucous music also serves to highlight the poet and Shostakovich’s uninhibited excitement at the dawn of a less-regulated era. The third stanza stands alone, employing a reference to a Russian street song with the imitations of an accordion in the piano’s left hand, to support the depictions of street cleaners.

“Progeny,” the third satire, is set strophically to a driving, waltz-like accompaniment. This repetitiveness in the piano forces the listener to focus on the text, which blatantly denounces the current regime and expresses disillusionment with the idea of a better future. This poem is crux of the cycle, and it was the poem that put the cycle most in danger of being censored.

The final two satires, “The Misunderstanding,” and “The Kreutzer Sonata,” differ from the rest of the poems in the cycle because they are set in the third person, and they read as parables.  The latter, though it does not refer to the Beethoven sonata of the same name, but to the Tolstoy short story about the sonata, quotes material from the sonata in an obvious reference. These two satires evoke various musical references in the setting of their stanzas the fourth uses melodies to represent the dichotomy between characters, while the fifth employs waltz- and march-music to evoke salons and calls-to-action.

Researching this cycle really piqued my performing curiosity, so I am starting to work on these songs, and am finding them challenging but extremely interesting works. I highly recommend listening to them, and only wish I could provide links to recordings!

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: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k2B2zLFk6FY)

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!