There it is, the piano vocal score of your new opera. All those notes. Hundreds of pages of meticulously elevated text. Characters limned through motives, orchestration, clever gimmicks. You flip through the thing, looking for the memorable tunes and....
“I can’t teach you how to write a good tune,” Ned Rorem told me during my first lesson in September 1981 in the tiny attic studio in the mansion at 1726 Locust Street that served as the Curtis Institute, “but I can show you how to make a ‘perfect’ song.” Professional composers craft "inevitability," which listeners and enthusiasts interpret as inspiration. Some readers confuse the joy of “shop-talk” with academic study, and attack composers who pull back the veil in little essays such as this that demystify the process by which a composer does her work.
The fundamental problem with contemporary opera—which is in fabulous shape, in my opinion: lots of new composers trying their hand at lots of vital, socially-conscious subjects, in lots of alternative venues, using all sorts of new technologies—is that, still, still, the overwhelming majority of composers think that creating “elevated parlando” of the sort that this little essay discusses crafting is enough. In fact, if a composer succeeds in creating an opera that sets text in this manner more than half the time, then it is going to be yet another show in search of tunes. Bernstein, looking at one of the tunes that I had penned for my Shining Brow long ago, said that the fact that it rose into recognizable lyric melody was what made it good, and that when it did that, it reminded him of what Marc Blitzstein used to say: “Peace, Justice, and Good Tunes!”
I can’t teach how to compose a good tune any more than Ned (or Lenny) could. And they never talked to me the way that I’m going to talk about setting a line of text to music in this essay. My aim is not to lay down rules, or to make value judgements. This is not particularly deeply thought-through; it is not meant to be a comprehensive overview of strategies. (For example, I’ve completely omitted humorous line-readings, and settings that make the singer a liar, or in disagreement with the words. I'm also leaving out triple and compund meters, and music where the pulse is moving at the eighth note.) I don’t pretend to be an academic. Nothing you’ll read here can be empirically proven to be right or wrong, better or worse. I offer the following thoughts about setting a simple English phrase to music for the delight of non-musicians and the amusement of fellow-composers. We’ve all been here, and, with opera enjoying the resurgence here in the States that it is, there are more of us here than ever.
This essay is not particularly about prosody; rather, it talks about how to make a “highly-elevated” parlando setting of a single, stand-alone common English phrase: “Now is the time for all good souls to come to the aid of their party.”
Somebody once told me: “Play the clarinet in the room; not the one in your head.” It’s great advice. In the case of setting words to music, one has to remember that singers lean heavily on the tradition of “strong” and “weak” beats when deciding how to phrase a melody. Further, when they study their role, they are trained to look for important words, which, traditionally, are put on strong beats. The most important word in a phrase is generally the highest note. If a composer plays against these basic traditions, she should do so knowingly.
I usually begin setting a line of text by doing a “cold read” of it. I set for “sense” first, not for “feel.” Some words, as Jack Beeson explained to me once many years ago, are “inherently fast:” short words, and single syllable words that, if elongated, postpone the amount of time that a listener must wait until they understand what the singer is saying. My stance is that the listener should understand the text above all. Only after I’ve achieved that may I begin to add emotion, color, and psychological effects using the various musical tools in my toolbox. Every moment that an audience is in front of the singer, waiting for her to give them the sense of what they are saying, diminishes the drama just as much as a plot point so obvious that the reveal comes as no surprise.
Having chosen the word deemed “most important” (in this case, I've chosen the word “come”), let’s make it the climax tone. (This is where all those counterpoint exercises you did as a kid come in useful.) Sometimes the most important word is not one that will sound good slung high; that's when you go to Plan B—either by choosing a different word, or through a number of clever tricks we won't talk about here. Then, simply lead up to it, and down from it. Repeatedly hitting the climax tone ends up sounding funny (as Adams intentionally has Madam Mao cluck, chicken-like, about “the book” in Nixon in China) or naive. In any event, it is common sense that, the higher a singer sings, the harder it is to sing; the harder it is to sing, the more intense the emotion. That is the bread and butter of writing for voice.
“Irrational rhythms” include all “tuplets” and non-naturalistic syncopations. (The more "irrational" the rhythm, the more vehemence is being conveyed.) In fact, with parlando recitative, which is what we’re trying to craft here, one starts by trying to capture in the simplest rhythms the essence of a natural line reading, and then, with increasing stylization, aims to enhance the effect of that reading to maximally carry emotional and psychological information. Any time you tie a note across a beat, or introduce a tuplet, emotion increases. The relative weight of the words also shift, making the climax stronger.
One can enhance the naturalism of the line reading by dropping the pitch of the least important words in the lyric. In this case, I dropped the words is, to, and of.
Another strategy is to make certain words “lower neighbors” that are associated with passing chords and secondary dominants in the harmony. In this case, the words is, all, come, and there are associated with intensifying chords. This further puts the spotlight on the most important words. I’ve also made the line more “abstract” this time, separating it into three parts as I would a fugue subject. This is particularly useful if you intend to have the phrase recur in an ensemble later, where you’ll need to be able to treat it contrapuntally. The held tones leave space for other voices to be heard. There’s more artistry and elegance in this line reading, of course, and, with the elegance comes greater lyricism.
The bigger the melodic leap for a singer, the more emotion is generated. Verdi taught us that a dotted rhythm preceding a leap is a thing of great joy and comfort to singers, and excitement to listeners. Dotted rhythms bring out a “marked” quality that voices naturally take on—even stentato can be achieved—remember the way that your mom called out to you the fourth time when you didn’t come in from playing in the backyard for dinner the first three times she called. Big octave leaps also deal efficiently with the problem of moving through the passaggio, if brutally.
Conversely, a line reading can be infused with an enormous amount of emotion quite easily by filling it with suspensions, little staggered breaks, and stretto. This “sobbing” effect is to me the sexiest, most emotionally compelling thing about Monteverdi and company; voices “throb” marvelously (and spontaneously) when asked to do this because of the rubbing together of the vertical harmonies that are being implied by the lubricious melody. This simple arch form is now quite ripe for maximum emotional punch in the hands of any singer—partly because of the hundreds of years of performance practice from whence it cadges its moves.
A singer looking for clues to their character often look to what the composer elects to put above the passaggio; a composer who wants her words understood places them below the passaggio. The “break” in the voice—let’s say it is a D on the second line from the top in treble clef for females and the same place an octave lower for males—is a naturally-occurring resource, or curse, depending on how you look at it. Singers work hard to iron out the change of sound between the two voices whilst traversing it. Composers playing “the clarinet in the room” need to be aware of that. One can help a singer out enormously by simply putting a rest in where they would customarily change voices. In this case, I also messed with the suspensions, pushing them together in stretto to increase the excitement of the line reading.
Another way of creating “arc,” or “lift” to a phrase while enhancing the sense of the words is to make of entire clauses musical gestures. In this case, I’ve made the first measure into an up-beat to the word “souls,” and the rest a simple “paying off,” as in when a ship has just crested a wave.
Another, subtler, method of intensifying understandability and emotion simultaneously is the insertion of dissonance on key words. In this case, I’ve limned the words time, all, souls, aid, and party as though smudging them with my thumb. They “grind” a bit, and hit the ear harder. Combined with lower neighbors, the underlying tune remains secure, but the decorations act as melodic intensifiers. Also, in this example, I’ve intentionally placed two segments of the line “time for all good” and “come to the aid” across the passaggio to intensify them through physical challenge, separating off the head and the tail of the line in a way that accentuate the importance of the central climax.
Combining all the effects discussed above, one final result is a “highly-elevated” parlando setting of the text. It would be impossible for a singer not to sound entirely energized singing it unless they were told by their coach to ignore the many articulations, rhythmic nuances, and other effects arrayed by the composer in an effort to help them shine. I haven’t talked about the crucial matter of articulations. I have elsewhere, and I will do so in another essay. But, for now, I will only encourage any young composer to look at the way that Benjamin Britten uses articulations in his music—and, particularly, in the way that Peter Pears executed them. They constitute an astonishingly varied and specific collection of colors, effects, and techniques.
Having now created really exciting dialogue and recitative for your opera, you can sit down and write the excellent tunes that are opera’s true heart and soul. Nothing is more revealing and inspiring than when a composer throws themselves over the parapet of song; nothing is safer and more disheartening (and frustrating) than a well-intentioned opera filled with nothing more than the sort of highly-effective, honorable, ultimately forgettable vocal writing described above.