Classical Music and The Human Voice

a musical travelogue

All musical compositions mentioned in my article are linked to corresponding YouTube video clips. Clicking a musical link should open new browser tabs or windows for you. Musical quality is very good. You can alternately search for and audit most or all of these selections on Amazon, iTunes or similar sources.

Here is a mercifully brief history of my evolving discovery of the human voice in classical music. If you have an audio pipe to “hi-fi PC speakers” or a home entertainment system, now is the time to switch to it.

I’ve been a classical music buff all my life. I still could just never bring myself to understand opera! 99% of it always sounded like glorified yodeling to me. You see, I understood completely that exposure to the genre is the key to understanding it. It was just the exposure to opera that I studiously avoided.

These days, even old dogs learn new tricks. With the help of the amazingly complete YouTube libraries, here are some musical “stops” on my discovery of the human voice in classical music.

non-operatic classical vocals

I somehow did learn that the human voice is potentially the grandest musical instrument of them all. As early as high school I fell in love with two non-operatic classical vocals:

Much, much later I was introduced to the Renaissance church music of Lassus and Thomas Tallis. As you’re no doubt already aware on some level, those abbey monks contributed a lot more to the future of our culture than the fundamentals of wine-making. I’m not even religious in any accepted conventional sense, but I don’t know how one can listen to Lassus and NOT feel a profound reverence for the human spirit. I give you:

Thomas Tallis: A more muted composer who wrote in English for the courts of Henry the Eighth and Queen Elizabeth. Tallis speaks of devotion, solace, and perhaps of loss and regret, but all with incredible clarity and precision of expression.

This led to my introduction to the astounding modern twentieth century Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. Listeners who know nothing else of Arvo Pärt’s music would generally recognize this piece. It is longish (9:50), but listen how hauntingly Pärt blends human voice and human instrumentation into a single unquenchable voice in these pieces from Berliner Messe.

Igor Stravinsky: Best known perhaps for his “Firebird” symphony and “Rite of Spring” ballet, many listeners find the music too dissonant and cacophonous. I happen to like Le Sacre du Printemps, “Rite of Spring.” Incredibly, he also wrote some of the most soothing music in the western world, and I give you two quite different short clips of his work Pastorale:

    • Pastorale: piano by Stravinsky himself (2004)
    • Pastorale: with Dame Joan Sutherland, soprano

Compare Stravinsky’s Pastorale with Arvo Pärt’s instrumental piece Spiegel im Spiegel (Mirror in Mirror).

Classical opera arias I like:

This first one (by Verdi) is something I gloried in as early as junior high school. I heard it on our local FM station – but never found out what it was. I forgot all about it until I heard it again a few years ago. “Aida” is an opera, all right, but this is an orchestral part. It is one of those pieces most people “know” but (sadly) can’t identify:

The second piece is known to tens of millions of TV viewers. British Airways used a muted orchestral version of Delibes’ “Lakmé” (Flower Duet) in a 1980’s TV commercial.  It doesn’t do justice to the original. Fast-forward to around 2009-2010, for a TV ad for Kohler, a high-end manufacturer of faucets and shower-heads [clip here]. A plumber finishes installing a “smart” shower-head and tests it by getting into the running shower, turning its awesome music system to “Lakmé,” and singing along with the operatic passage. He then dries himself off and leaves the bewildered homeowners.

You will recognize it instantly:

The thing is, Lakmé is bona fide opera, and I like it. At least, I like that part of it.

Finally, we return to today with a clip in that great body of classical music that is non-operatic but uses the human voice integrally as part of the story. Of “Powaqqatsi” by modern composer Philip Glass as part of a film score, Wikipedia writes: “Here, human voices (especially children’s and mainly from South America and Africa) appear more than in Koyaanisqatsi, in harmony with the film’s message and images.”

The film and the music may have different meanings for different listeners. For myself, the songs in the score draws me back to my backpacking days in the high Sierras. The mighty mountains surround me with their booming presence. The delicate verdant meadows and wildflowers sing to me. I am transported through time. It is my own time, but for the moment, it is eternal …

The following short clip appears to be the actual trailer for the 1988 movie. Segments of many different tracks in the score are spliced together but they are effective in conveying the power of the idea. The video is spectacular too. Turn up the sound!

One small step for man …

Other References

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