Music and Feeling: An Inquiry into the Relationship of Notation and Technique by Daniel Durand

Chapter IV - Characterization In Notation

How lucky you singers are…. The composer provides you with one most important element – the rhythm of your inner emotions. That is what we actors have to create for ourselves out of a vacuum. All you have to do is to listen to the rhythm of the music and make it your own. The written word is the theme of the author, but the melody is the emotional experience of that theme.

Constantin Stanislavski: Stanislavski on Opera


The distinction between feelings of well-being and feelings resulting from outside stimuli needs to be carefully drawn. When music expresses feelings of love, anger, hate, disappointment, etc., it is the composer's musical perception of these that are in the notation, by definition. Mozart was very specific about this when he wrote to his father, and so was Verdi. Singers and instrumentalists, through their neutral feelings of well-being (feeling like singing or playing), allow the deeper emotional inflections of the score to activate their own feelings to come through their performance. Any kind of active emotional response on the part of the performer, which does not allow for the deeper emotions of the composer to create the musical expression, interferes with the depth of musical expression that we look for in "dead" music in the first place.

Some will argue that the performer is being reduced to a puppet-like imitator of the composer, but this is not true. When a performer's feelings are neutral, the emotional aspect of the score engages the performer and triggers emotional responses in him or her never before heard or duplicated even by the same performer. We tend to forget this in the era of recorded performances that produce the same feelings over and over, leaving the listeners with the idea that there is only one definitive performance of a work from any one artist. But Horowitz referred to this precise sense of neutral feelings informed by the music when he said that he never played the same piece twice in the same way. The conclusion to be drawn from this is that performers do not merely reproduce the feelings that inhere in the composer's ideas. Rather, the emotional content of the composer's ideas acts on the performer's emotions in such a way as to engage and enlarge them because the performer has opened his or her self to do that very thing. The music that results gains immeasurably. This is true of all musical performance.

In vocal music, though, it is still a matter of speech, emotionally delivered by the guidance of the bar line, that produces the dramatic intent of the com­poser, not the imposed false feelings of emoting. This is even more true in dramatic music. Theater is life writ large, and musical theater is life writ at its largest in human experience, i.e. opera is essentially, by definition, sung drama. Applying Monteverdi's dictum, we can only conclude that speech is mistress of the music and springboard to the larger than life portrayal of conflict and resolution through musical expression. That, in itself, justifies the necessity of speaking the text and not singing the music. It does not contradict the supremacy of the music in the expression of the text, for music is an enlargement of the text. Music grows organically from the text; it is not an extraneous element imposed from without and sprung from the com­poser's dissociated imagination, at least not in great music drama.

Debussy was very specific in this matter when speaking of composing Pelléas et Mélisande. He stated that the opera audience usually hears two distinct kinds of emotion: the musical emotion and the emotion of the characters, and that he never allowed his music to anticipate or slow down the feelings or passions of his characters for the reasons of musical time span. Thus, the two different kinds of emotions would be able to merge and be simultaneous, leaving the drama its complete freedom. This is the mark of the quintessential opera composer. Few have received that gift and fewer understood it initially, for it is a truth that reveals itself usually later in composer's lives.

We present some examples of how notation is our clearest guide in these matters that are usually reserved for interpretation.

When Ariadne comes down from the mountain after participating in the sacred festival, finds Jason gone, and understands that he felt that she betrayed him, Monteverdi has her lament, "lasciatemi morire'', that is, "Let me die." Now when someone says that, he or she will not say "LET me die" or "Let ME die." The human factor instinctively and poetically says, "Let me DIE." But Monteverdi's pitches in the first statement are higher than "morire" by a fourth and a diminished fifth and in the second statement the highest pitch on the staff is on "mi." Adding pressure going up the staff will have her say, "LET me die, let ME die." This is absurd. But by keeping to emotional speech, the singer(s) as Ariadne will move us to experience the depths of her despair -- arising from the realization of the world of abandonment she entered when she betrayed her priesthood for the man she loves, as portrayed through Monteverdi 's imagination.

In other words, the higher pitches on the staff that are written for weaker parts of the statement acquire a power that is grander than anything singers can do to plumb the depths of musical emotion by muscling up the staff.


No aria has been more maligned and misunderstood than Che faro from Gluck's Orfeo. The major tonality of the melody is a stumbling block to those who sing music and do not speak texts. The tragedy of Eurydice's second death evokes a response from Orpheus which, when the text is spoken and the music left to its own expression via the performer's emotional cooperation with Gluck, reaches heights of poetic expression that arrive at true pathos. The subtexts in the situation point to such sorrow that the human response is shock with a calm overlay that allows the listener to experience all the more the depths of grief . This could have been done effectively with a melody in minor key, but the apposition of despair to the major key melody allows much greater expression of Orpheus' grief. To sing the music instead of the text merely confuses the ear because the melody itself without the emotional reference of text will not carry the drama. "It is too pretty", as someone said.

Another example of the use of major tonality to express sadness occurs in the Countess' two arias in Marriage of Figaro. When the texts are spoken, the simple nobility of her personality and her station con­trast with the disappointment of her desire to return to the feelings of love that had formerly been hers for her husband. Again minor keys could convey her poignancy, but the countess is made of grander stuff than mere self-pity. With the use of major keys Mozart delves deeper into the human psyche and delivers us into the presence of quintessential humanity. Opera thus portrays large and complex realities of psychological truth in drama. However, dramatic power is rooted in a theatrical text, and to short-circuit its emotional power by singing music instead of the text reduces its effectiveness.

An interesting aspect of Figaro's personality always gets missed by singers who do not speak text. In the first act of The Marriage of Figaro, he says, "If you want to dance, Lord Countling, I'll play the guitar." Musically this aria starts as a rather innocent­ sounding minuet, but if the performer leaves the music alone and speaks the text with fullness of its intention, the result is a rather different personality from what one usually imagines Figaro to be. He actually sounds menacing and determined (for the moment -- actually it's bravado). The musical structure takes on a more complex set of subtexts of which audiences today are cheated. For the music in the dance form of minuet says also that Figaro is still a servant and may not address his master in a menacing tone, even if the count is not present. Worse, when singers sing the music instead of speaking the text, they have to resort to shtick (especially for the F's above the staff) to convey Figaro's heated determination, and that takes them off their voice all the more, with the result that they are even more ineffectual and the orchestra is stuck doing all the dramatic work while the opera becomes a vehicle of the singer's technique. However, the resulting problems are the result of the notation's emotional truths being ignored, a condition that results from singing notes instead of speaking texts.

Incidentally, translations can also interfere with opera's capacity to move us by giving false emphases. Music grows out of the text, and the best blessing for the music lover hearing opera originally written in a foreign language is supertitles (or translations on the back of the seat in front of the patron). This will obviate Mozart's complaint about a poor German translation of Figaro. He felt that he had to protest that Figaro and Susanna should not address the count and countess as if those worthies were pigs!

The most disturbing example of the modern performer's lack of connection with the composer is the character of the Queen of the Night in the Magic Flute. She sings two arias, each of which has a distinct purpose. In the first act, she inveigles the prince with fioritura, deliberately alluring, meant to urge him to Pamina's rescue. In the second act, she threatens vengeance on her daughter with another kind of fireworks. But if the soprano reverts to notes and technique to get through these passages, she removes herself from the musical expression of the drama and the audience listens to a bunch of notes to see if they were all sung accurately. That is definitely not what the queen is trying to convey, and it certainly interrupts the dramatic movement.

The arias are certainly challenging to master. However, logic says that the notation Mozart wrote to convey the queen's seductiveness and bitchiness should be looked at for its principles of emotion and drama and not subjected to muscling to the top of the coloratura soprano range with inflexibility of attack on every note. The poor stage director then gets stuck trying to make drama out of a doubly static scene; not only is the music stiff and expressionless but most coloratura sopranos do not want to move around the stage while delivering those arias. However if the arias are delivered as speech throughout, Mozart carries the drama beautifully. And this is certainly not the time to add pressure going up the staff .

When Don José sings, "La fleur que tu m'avais jetée, the word "la" occurs on the very first beat of the first measure that the tenor sings. If the singer merely accents the first beat, the result is stiff and unmoving. If the singer gives it no mind and stresses "fleur", the result is that the word "the" will become an upbeat to "flower" on a downbeat, a stylistic anomaly that can­ not even be justified egocentrically, for it is devoid of any kind of consideration that Bizet might have known better and intended better.

When the singer says "la" with a first beat emotional stress, still saying "la fleur" naturally, the result is an unequivocal statement that this is the very flower that Carmen gave him, heightening the poignancy of his relationship with someone for whom he fell madly in heat in an instant. Thus the brief stress on "the" car­ries with it multiple emotional messages on a very large scale but without having to dwell on them. Thus does opera tell a larger emotional tale in one note. This is known as subtext, the emotional undercurrents that make statements more deeply communicative. Awareness of it is what actors look for and singers have given to them if they care to notice.

In the mother's aria in Amahl and the Night Visitors, the notation has her say, "ALL that gold". However too many performers sing, "All that GOLD", a distinction which may seem a bit fussy. But if the bar line is observed, the complexity of her greed melds into the single purpose to take just a little gold for her son because she sees too much for the kings to give away to a baby. All the subsequent arguments that she uses serve as an enlargement of a time-honored moral dilemma, creating the very essence of dramatic conflict. In other words, it is dramatically deeper to say, "ALL that gold" than to say the more superficial, "All that GOLD."

Even in oratorio, such as the aria, "If with all your hearts" from Mendelssohn's Elijah, when the text is spoken instead of sung, the listener will not hear "If WITH all your hearts ye truly seek me"; rather they will hear "If with all your hearts ye truly SEEK me". Then all Mendelssohn's higher pitches on unstressed words acquire depth of expression from their subtextual meaning. Also, the rising (on the staff) scale of "ye shall ever surely FIND me" becomes the logical linear conclusion of the opening conditional clause.

Further, in this aria we can arrive at a greater refinement of musical expression when we explore the idea that the emotional weight of a dependent or conditional clause is less than the emotional weight of the principal clause, just as in speech. Speaking, "If with all your hearts ye truly seek me" with less emotional weight than the main clause which follows, we arrive at an enormous profundity of emotional expression too often missed in performances today.

Again, this argument may leave one with the impression that the performance must be controlled by the brain, but it is still the argument of this opusculum that such distinctions can and must become embodied in the emotions where the true source of expressive depth resides.

In the same aria at bars 20 and 21 the tenor sings, "O that I knew where I might FIND Him". If the words are spoken and the voice not raised to the C of "knew", the power from the weakness of the word "where" gives a remarkable cry of wondering, human frailty, and blind search. Thus, to come full circle back to Stanislavsky, Mendelssohn gives all the subtextual ramifications and emotional rhythms to the singer as opposed to those who add pressure going up the staff and spend their lives trying (and inevitably failing) to figure out weak words and syllables on notes that are high on the staff.

No protagonist on the lyric stage is more neglected in such matters than the chorus. The choral principles in use in oratorio societies and in church choirs seem to be in constant conflict with the pernicious vocal techniques of wanna-bes shouting for attention on the operatic stage. The results are consistently negative, both musically and dramatically. Given that many (unfortunately not all) chorus singers have vocal training, what a difference it would make to the drama if they could be taught to speak the choruses with emotional inflections derived from speech, as in the choruses of Greek drama. Then the dramatic purpose of the chorus would become evident, and its part of protagonist in the play would bring greater meaning to an art form that is meant to be larger than life.

The functions of the chorus are varied. It serves as a specific character participating in the drama in the tremendous choral scenes of act II of Idomeneo and Acts I and III of La Traviata, as a commentator in the Greek manner in Act III of Idomeneo, as the accompanying splendor of the decorative scene of the Triumphal March in Aida, and background to Amneris complaint to the gods in the same opera. Just these few examples give the idea of the dramatic flexibility that choruses give to the mise en scene, and obviously they require deeper training than usually given in most theaters if opera is meant to be more than spectacular entertainment.

In oratorio the same principle of dramatic characterization is apparent in notation. In the Bach passions, if the chorus sings "kreuzige(n)" with the attention focused on the sharpness of the rhythm, they lose the flesh and blood of the mob that surfaces with attention to the emotional weight of each note and rhythm when spoken. If the singers all stay focused on the word, the unity of purpose of the mob becomes dramatically apparent while Bach's rhythms give definition to their unruliness. If the chorus and orchestra are taught to deliver chiseled rhythmic precision, the result is disciplined but dramatically poor, something inimical to the purpose of recreating a mob.

Principles of characterization are also operative in American musical theater of the non-rock genre. Unfortunately there is a serious degeneration from eighteenth century opera buffa and Singspiel to the musicals of today. The spoken play may or may not be moving but when the music starts, all anyone with sensitive ears can think is: Damn them to hell for dragging me out of what is supposed to be a deeply emotional experience into a bunch of bloody notes. How annoying to feel this, when the entire principle of Broadway musicals is to have a spoken play break into music as an intensification of the drama at a precise moment, when that intensification is demanded. But to hear prepositions and weak syllables accented because they are higher on the staff is not in any definition of the words poetic or musical or dramatically viable.

Broadway composers of the non-rock tradition have the same approach to conventional musical notation that all common practice composers do, but for the most part Broadway singers lack the technical expertise to realize the notation to make the music in the play an emotional boost to the mise en scene. Instead they use peculiar devices like falsetto and straight tone with manufactured vibrato at the end to hide their deficiencies, not to speak of yelling high notes. All too often they also use a lot of acting shtick to cover their lack of musicality and poor vocal mastery, but that goes on in the operatic world as well too much, too often. Indeed one can assert, as a rule of thumb, that when shtick appears with notes high on the staff the singer is covering deficiency with pure flimflam. Shaw wrote of this wonderfully and precisely in describing music hall singing (Music in London August 27, 1890).

A platitude of criticism states that when a show gets to the boards, if it is fraying for lack of substance, the producers will boost the lighting and the costumes and turn up the shtick to cover the deficiencies. One can only wonder what it would be like if they simply hired sensitive singers instead of belters with faces pasted into phony and frozen gaiety. (That assumes that the play is worthwhile.) With sensitive artists, the producers would know what is salvageable.


What music in common practice notation does in drama is give the performer a character instead of a personality. This distinction operates at the very basic level of drama, for if a performer in a dramatic situa­tion is merely a personality, that performer has not released the self to free the composer (or the playwright) to do what he or she set out to do. But the release of the self, which accompanies singing from the principles espoused in this exposition, will also deliver the composer's view of the characters in the drama and allow those characters to become the every­ man that speaks to the entire audience and involves them in the drama.

Verdi was always specific in his demand that singers hired for his latest opus must be able to act. But, as we saw in Chapter 1, he demanded that they not make effects, i.e. interpret, what he wrote. It can only be done by observing what the notation conveys emotionally.

Someone once pointed out that hell is always more interesting on the stage than depictions of heaven. This would not be true on the lyric stage if the singers spoke the text instead of the conductor or the director making effects. This applies to goodness and evil in dramatic characterization as well. If Ann Trulove is to show the strength of character and nobility of soul that Stravinsky saw in her, the performer must find the means of releasing herself into the character, not impose upon the notation an interpretation rooted in pressure and muscularity. The "high" C at the end of Act 1 is the proof . The octave leap is not there just to wow; it is there to move the audience to admi­ration of a woman who will not hesitate to sacrifice herself to help or maybe save her lover. Then they can say "wow" during the applause and the intermission.


To close this chapter, a less dramatic example will help to point out the process and importance of finding a subtext. The hymn, Simple Gifts, is known and loved by just about everyone, and its universal appeal lies in its subtlety of expression. When sung with the emotional awareness that reveals itself through metric stress instead of with the awareness of mere pitch and rhythm, the text exposes itself with a major difference. It is easy to sing in rhythm and pitch, "Tis the GIFT to be SIMple, tis the GIFT to be FREE", and at that level many people are satisfied. (Generally the syllables in upper case are delivered as musical accentuation.) But what a huge well of deep feeling comes up when we sing, "Tis the GIFT to be simple, tis the GIFT to be free, tis the GIFT to come down WHERE we ought to be". (The syllables in upper case are emotionally rooted vocal stresses and not musical accents.) First, in this mode of expression the melody dances with grace and beauty in a way that the other approach ignores because the line is longer in its tensile strength. Second, and more importantly, the poetic expression of the text, enlarged by musical power, leads the singer to understand the theological implications of the words, not merely as a mental process but as a human process. The singer arrives more closely at the totality of experience that musical art strives to give us poor mortals who are so stubborn in resisting the fullness of its revelations; that is, the hymn leads to the embodiment of absorption that leads to a kind of ecstasy, surely what the Shakers were intending and what modern mankind fears because it means giving up control. With that assertion we arrive at the final chapter of our inquiry into the relationship of notation and technique.