‘Getting Started’ in the June–August issue of Early Music Today looks at ways to introduce period style into your vocal performance. Exclusively for our online readers, Dame Emma Kirkby offers some extra comments on advice on the challenges of singing early music
I am all too aware how lucky I was when I started; at university I sang in a marvellous choir that covered the obvious repertoire, classical through to modern, but also performed Renaissance polyphony; we even recorded a Taverner Mass, in an edition made by one of the tenors. I had never heard anything like those weaving, dancing vocal lines! And I sang in smaller groups there with early instruments: lute, rebec, Renaissance wind, baroque wind and strings. So from the beginning I was aware of those special sounds and responded instinctively in my singing.
The next phase for me featured mainly vocal consort music and the chance to live with some of the best music ever written anywhere – Marenzio, Wert, Monteverdi, Dowland, Gibbons – the list could go on and on. At that time most singers neither knew about nor aimed for such things, but for me it was decades of heaven, and the best vocal grounding too.
How different it is today! Very good news for early music and for audiences – but with so many excellent young singers, the field is crowded. How can a singer get a profile in all this? How be individually recognisable?
One of the best things happening now (along with girls’ choirs in our cathedrals!) is the proliferation of vocal consorts of all sizes; the repertoire is limitless, dramatic, exhilarating and demands almost theatrical engagement (after all, opera came out of it!), singers also learn sight-reading in the best way (I heard recently that British singers are particularly employable in some other countries because, needing less rehearsal time, they keep the budgets down).
Crucially to me, singers in these groups can make their own special balance and dynamic contrasts, away from the conventional, chubby, samey dynamic of the (average) modern piano which holds sway in conservatoires. I respect the piano in the music that was written for it – I love to hear great pianists play recitals of almost anything, but for song I prefer the pianos the composers knew: instruments typically half as loud as their modern counterparts, and also offering special colours (try Haydn’s ‘The Wanderer’ with the modifier!).
I am very wary of the piano as accompaniment for Bach arias, Purcell, any lute songs ever, or even later arias by Handel, Mozart or Haydn where the texture is actually a chamber balance of voice with assorted wind instruments. I am still in shock from something I heard of recently; a long-standing competition in New York for oratorio singers where even the final has singers performing with the piano! You can see it on their website – with its lid down (poor thing) in case, with its full glorious sound emerging free, it should drown the singers. But the oratorio composers have specified instruments that occupy the acoustic space in a different and far kinder way, leaving room for the singer to join in, and providing so many colours for them to match as well – solo oboe one minute, purring strings the next … of course I am describing a challenge which many gifted and imaginative pianists are rising to meet on a daily basis, but I would like it recognised at least for what it is; and I would like to see all young singers offered, alongside the convenient piano, a host of other sounds and dynamics to work with.