Saturday, May 15, 2010

Past n' Present

While still on the subject of past vs. present, I thought I would transcribe the opening of maybe the definitive essay by my favorite living critic (of anything), Conrad L. Osborne. This is "A Plain Case For the Golden Age" from the October 1967 issue of High Fidelity, and it was and still is a controversial piece, because he does something I probably would never have the nerve to do: argues openly and at length that artistic standards have gotten worse. (Of course he can get away with this partly because he's talking about an art, classical singing, where the style and most of the actual music was very remote from his own time. When it comes to movies or books, I don't think an argument like that is legitimate, unless it's applied to specific genres.)

But in the opening of the piece, he rather charmingly anticipates the main argument against him: that he's just being nostalgic, like those old sports fans who insist -- with no proof whatsoever -- that the players of their time were better. And he not only anticipates it, he sort of embraces it. But then he makes a crucial distinction between nostalgia and criticism: nostalgia is based on fond memories, but his essay is going to be based on recorded evidence and analysis of good technique. But mainly the passage is a look at a New York adolescence, and the link that exists between sports fandom and opera fandom, with a mix of nostalgia, especially for the old Met that was torn down, and self-mocking irony. He conveys more in these few paragraphs than most critics could convey in a life's work. I have been using the term "garrulous old dribbler" for many years, thanks to CLO.

When I was a stripling in the lower right-field stands of Yankee Stadium, my compatriots always advised me to stay away from the garrulous old dribbler who sat up near the back, burbling about how Billy Johnson wasn't fit to soap up Tony Lazzeri's glove, or about how Bill Bevens' sore arm wasn't no excuse -- in the old days, a man'd pitch a doubleheader with a sore arm, no whines or alibis.

And I always planted myself alongside the old bore, because he didn't bore me. I liked hearing tales of baseball when it was baseball, and I more or less believed them, too.

In those days a stripling could lead a sensible stripling existence. The baseball season was 154 games, not 162, and didn't keep you up nights, and the opera season was twenty weeks, not thirty; the two dovetailed, and didn't stumble and sprawl all over each other as they do now. So when the World Series had ended and there had been a short period for the application of one's thoughts to things like first-year algebra, I moved from the lower right-field stand to the left-field upper deck (alias Family Circle standing room) of the Metropolitan Opera House -- the one, you remember, down near the Crossroads of duh Woild, where for so many years it impeded the Progress & Development of the Borough of Manhattan, Inc. And there would be another garrulous old dribbler (or mayhap the same one, I couldn't be sure), burbling about how Stella Roman didn't deserve to powder Elisabeth Rethberg's wig, and about how things were in the days when opera was opera. And there was everyone else, moving on down the rail to get away, and me, sitting there listening and believing.

When it comes to opera, you can be reasonably sure that it wasn't all fantasy. It is just possible that Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb weren't a whit better than Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle, but Pinza and Chaliapin were sure as hell better than (enter name of your favorite bass), and all that is required to prove it is the lowering of a stylus into a groove. That proposition is, approximately, the subject of the present article.

It is tiresome, of course, to listen to someone who merely prefers the way it used to be. I crave your indulgence, and confess my bias: I was dragged up on the records of Caruso, Chaliapin, Galli-Curci, Gigli, Ruffo, Battistini, Pinza, Ponselle, and a few others, and it always hit me as sacrilegious that when music could be sung that was, it could also come out sounding as it did on the radio at two o'clock on Saturday afternoons. You might with some justice say that I was a garrulous old dribbler at the age of twelve.

But a lot of hot air has blown through the tunnel since then, and here I am, a little punchy but possessed of a certain queasy equilibrium, and still getting a stronger signal from (see above) than from (enter names of your favorite singers). There have been times, especially since I began my career as Keeper of the Flame and Upholder of the True and Living Art, when the goggles have fogged over a bit. A few months of new record releases in tandem with live performances can truly make it seem as if it has always been this way, is now, and ever shall be. Then I will dig through the pile to an LP of re-pressings from the Messrs. Rococo, or Olympia, or Eterna, or Odeon, or RCA Victor, and plunk it on. A couple of seconds of scratch, and then -- Qual lampo! -- it comes to me again: the incredible expressive capabilities of the human voice, as developed in Western Europe in the last couple of centuries -- its capacity for a true legato that cannot be obtained by any instrument, its wealth of emotional color, its extraordinary power and flexibility.

Later, in the more in-depth and technical section of the article, Osborne also gives his simplest and yet fullest explanation of what good singing and good criticism are about:

Speaking broadly, vocal training has two goals. The first is to cultivate a desirable combination of tonal beauty, range, flexibility, and size. The second is to create a functional situation that will serve the singer well over a period of many years. Although the two things are of course interrelated, this does not mean that a singer who succeeds in one area will necessarily succeed to the same degree in the other; we can all think of singers who produced attractive, large, and exciting tone, whose voices were wide-ranged and capable of certain technical feats, but whose singing prime was of short duration. And none of us is at a loss to call to mind singers whose voices seem to endure forever without marked deterioration, but who have never produced truly beautiful sound or astonished anyone with bursts of technical brilliance. The very greatest singers, of course, combine exceptional achievements in both areas — these are the artists who sing unusually well for an unusually long time.

Still, keeping in mind that, like all generalizations, this one has its exceptions, the voices that sound best are the ones that tend to endure the longest. Our reasoning becomes a bit curved here, for the more one learns about singing, the more one tends to listen to the way a voice works; consequently, sounds that one might have accepted and even cherished lose much of their appeal if they are functionally precarious. That is true in any discipline: one's taste is strongly influenced by the state of one's knowledge. And that is why mere taste, however refined, is a poor guide in such matters. One can say (on grounds of taste) that a wobble is not really so offensive; some people can't stand it, others are willing to put up with it in the presence of other virtues. But the matter does not end there, for a wobble represents a malfunction as well as an unfulfilled musical possibility. The casual listener may ignore it if he chooses; he will not be hearing it for long.

There are, of course, many factors influencing vocal longevity, among which the most important is health, mental and physical. That is why it is a bit dangerous to inflate the importance of longevity as a standard of technical perfection. What can be said is that any audible perfection stands for some technical malfunction, and that whenever a voice does begin to deteriorate, early or later, the deterioration will almost invariably take the form of an intensification of that imperfection.

And how do we decide what constitutes an imperfection? I suppose we must answer, by a combination of imagination and cumulative hindsight, plus the context of European musical culture. (I append this last simply to acknowledge that we are not dealing with an absolute. The artists of the classical Chinese opera, for instance, cultivated a kind of sound and technical capability markedly different from that demanded by Western operatic music, and worked out functional systems that supported those requirements.) That is, the technical method which enables a singer to operate to the greatest effect for the longest time within the framework established by our active literature is the one we would call closest to perfection.

These requirements have not led to a universally agreed-upon method, but they have led to a set of descriptive rules which more or less summarize the goals of such a method. This working description has not altered much since the eighteenth century, and it might be written down this way: if a voice can negotiate a firm, smooth, even-tempered scale over every note of its required range, on each of the pure vowel sounds, and if it possesses the capacity to swell and diminish between a legitimate pp and a legitimate ff without waver or break on each of those pitches and vowels, then the technique is perfect. This may not sound like such a large order but I can assure you that it is. I can assure you that there are many admired singers at the top of their profession who could not execute such a scale really well on even two or three of the five pure vowels, and who could not execute a proper swell and diminish (the messa di voce) on more than a few semitones in a restricted area of the range. In fact, there has probably never been a singer who could meet all the conditions stated. Such a singer would be capable of rendering in a technically efficient manner any piece of music written for his general voice range.

One last quote: before getting into the meat of the article, the play-by-play analysis of recordings that represent the best in vocalism, he once again anticipates an argument against him and once again embraces it:

Anyone who has done any reading in the literature of vocal pedagogy (a literature in which the diversity of unsupported assertions, unfounded assumptions. nonconsecutive arguments, and illogical conclusions is matched only by the near-illiteracy of their authors) is well aware that every generation of singers and deachers since the time of Tosi has complained of the faltering standards and abominable taste of the oncoming bunch -- "tutto declina... non c'è più virtu," as Boito's Falstaff remarks. This fact is frequently cited as evidence that there has been no progressive deterioration, only changes of taste or fashion. Personally, I am perfectly prepared to believe that things have been getting steadily worse for two or three hundred years now, but the actual evidence dates back only to the beginning of this century.


Steve said...

While I totally agree with Osborne here, I can't help but wonder how the recording technologies and procedures of the eras influence our perception of opera singers of the past. For example,in Caruso's day the technology was basically belting into a giant horn. The reproduction quality left a great deal to be desired, and perhaps our ears filled in the missing gaps and forgave the "malfunctions" that, if heard in a current day recording, would drive us to distraction. In other words, we may have a romanticized ideal of Caruso. But who would want it any other way?

Jaime J. Weinman said...

This is true, though some of the singers he mentioned, like Ponselle and Pinza, did a considerable amount of their recording after the invention of electrical recording (which was the big step forward in making recordings that actually gave a plausible reproduction of real sound). So we do know more or less what they sounded like in a way that we probably don't know with Caruso.

Addison said...

During the many years after he left the opera business, Rossini mourned the end of true bel canto. "Today there is no such school, there are neither models nor interpreters, for which reason not a single voice of the new generation is capable of rendering in bel canto the aria 'Casta diva' or 'Pria che spunti'; or any other that you like. ..." An evening at Rossini's in Beau-Sejour, 1858