Sunday, 14 April 2013

Expressing grief in song

The other day I was coaching someone on the interpretation of Fauré's lovely song "Après un Rêve". In sleep, the poet dreams of his lost love, seeing her again as beautiful as ever and hearing her lovely voice.....but when he wakes, the vision fades. In desperation he cries out: "Come back, radiant one!" but to no avail....the "mysterious night" has gone and with it his happiness.

Technically this is a difficult song, with very long sustained phrases and requiring expansive singing and a full tone. Added to that are its considerable emotional demands. Grief is perhaps the most difficult emotion to express through song: if the singer feels sorrow too strongly, the voice "chokes" and maintaining a stable tone and accurate pitch becomes all but impossible. And yet the singer must feel the emotion strongly enough for the audience to feel it too. Finding the balance between too much and too little emotion is quite a challenge.

Après un Rêve is by no means the only song that has this problem. Richard Strauss's Allerseelen is even more challenging. Whereas Après un Rêve speaks of a faded dream, Allerseelen is a living nightmare - a recent bereavement and terrible unresolved grief. By the grave of the beloved on All Souls' Day, the poet remembers how they were in May.....and desperately pleads for her to come back, even if only for one day, so that they can be again as they were then.

Both composers helpfully set the cry of pain in their respective songs high in the voice and loud. In classical music we usually adjust the pitch of songs to suit the singer, and this offers an opportunity to choose a pitch that helps express emotion. Because of the emotional intensity of Allerseelen I normally sing it in a key which is on the high side for me, and I don't restrain the high notes at the end - such pain cannot be held back. I know some people may find this too loud and intense for chamber music, but which is more important - preserving people's sense of decorum, or accurately portraying the suffering of the principal actor in this mini-drama?

The Fauré piece is more subtle and the emotion is less raw. The night has gone and the vision has faded, but there will be another night......I choose a medium key for this piece and the high notes at the end are within the general dynamic range of the song. But "Hélas! triste reveil des songes...." is still a cry of pain and needs to sound like one. I still let rip, just at medium pitch so it isn't quite as loud and intense as the climax of Allerseelen.

Deliberately restraining emotion in song is not a good idea. Coldness is perhaps the worst crime of all in art singing: if you don't feel the emotion yourself, you shouldn't sing the song. We have to let our songs affect us. I remember my teacher, Tony Hocking, suggesting that I should sing Hageman's setting of Rabindranath Tagore's harrowing poem "Do not go my love", about a parent watching his child slowly dying. My own children were very young at the time, and I found this song almost impossible to sing....but Tony's brutal remark was that my emotional reaction improved it. So if there is a song that really moves you, sing prepared for the choke in the voice, sing as loudly as you need to to maintain tone (never mind the dynamic markings - actually producing the sound is more important), and have a box of tissues handy. Eventually, you will be able to sing the song with feeling but without tears.

Mind you, tears and a choke in the voice can be part of a great Sinead O'Connor's singing of "Nothing Compares 2U" shows us. Sometimes beautiful singing is not enough. Grief is ugly.....

(When I am organised enough I will produce my own recordings of the classical songs in this post songs.....but for the moment, the singers are Véronique Gens (Fauré), Barbara Bonney (Strauss) and Elizabeth Bailey (Hageman). My thanks to them.)

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