Reynaldo Hahn: the concept of singing

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Beginning in 1913, composer Reynaldo Hahn delivered many series of lectures on singing that were compiled into a book, Du Chant, that was later reissued and translated into English under the tile On singers and singing. In the first part of his lectures, entitled Why do we sing?, Hahn reflects on his concept of the art of singing.


For someone who is deeply interested in singing, nothing in the domain of vocal sound or sound vibrations in general is useless: the briefest utterance, the least sound, the slightest noise, contains some kind of lesson; and one of the most severe charges that I bring against singers is that they are not curious about everything that concerns their art, that they make no effort to glean information from every corner. I have had the privilege of spending a good deal of time with the young but already renowned composer Stravinsky, who possesses a prodigious talent for orchestration. Just as Théophile Gautier used to say: “I am a man for whom the exterior world exists,” so M. Stravinsky could say: “I am a man for whom the world of sound exists.” The slightest resonance or vibration arouses his attention: a fork striking a glass, a cane lightly touching a chair, the rustle of a silken cloth, the grating of a door, the sound of footsteps. His infallible ear is immediately alert and prompt to analyze these sounds for new musical ideas. I wish singers would evince the same interest, but I shall not experience that pleasure soon because most of them, far from being interested in these modest events of everyday life, are scarcely concerned even with the voice and singing itself. Their colleagues are conceived only as competitors; they could not care less about those many first-rate singers they could listen to with profit virtually everywhere: in churches, theaters, music halls (where one sometimes encounters remarkable singers). For most, their art is but a means of realizing success, a way of satisfying their egos and securing material rewards. […]

I myself simply do not understand this point of view. I have loved singing from the bottom of my heart since my earliest years, and it is this love alone that gives me the right to appear before you to speak about singing. True love gives rise to profound insights; and so, in matters of singing, I am convinced that I have understood things I have not specifically learned but somehow divined due to the depth of my love. […]

What constitutes the real beauty and value, the final raison d’être, of singing, is the combination, the mixing, the indisoluble union of sound and thought. No matter how beautiful a sound may be, it is nothing if it expresses nothing. To admit that we are partial to the purely sensuous beauty of a voice is to confess to a certain weakness or susceptibility to the physical. Conversely, to find pleasure in a singer whose articulation and delivery are skilled but who lacks true singing ability is to prove that we care very little for music but prefer mere declamation.

The secret of singing is difficult to define: it lies in a close association of the speaking and the singing voice. Naturally, a beautiful sound is very appealing; there is unquestionably a great beauty in the fullness, softness, richness, flexibility and range of an exceptional voice. The Italians of old attached so much importance to this aspect of singing that they often neglected the other elements essential to the art […]. Indeed a beautiful voice controlled by the will of the singer, whether naturally beautiful or made so by training, is a most beautiful thing even in the absence of the intellectual element that should be added to it. However, a beautiful voice does not suffice; it may produce pleasant sensation, but this has nothing to do with the real beauty of singing.

Let me repeat: the genuine beauty of singing consists in a perfect union, an amalgam, a mysterious alloy of the singing and the speaking voice, or to put it better, the melody and the spoken word. […]

I remain opposed to singing in which vocal virtuosity is the sole interest; I still will not admit that even the possessor of a beautiful and well-disciplined voice can ignore for any length of time the intellectual or emotional element. And, finally, I came to consider singing as not really a tangible thing, but malleable, in which sounds and words have equal importance, completing each other through some transcendent process of coordination, esthetic as well as mechanical, lending each other perpetual aid and collaborating in a joint action.

I will go further. I do not believe, in spite of many an opposing opinion, that one can “enunciate well”, really well, and sing altogether badly. Someone who sings well and enunciates badly does not interest me; if such singing is beautiful simply in itself, it would be infinitely better for that artist to limit himself to singing consecutive vowels without pronouncing words, but such singing could not be a work of art. The word, well articulated, well invested with thought, will place the voice naturally where it should be, will give it the color that it should have at each precise moment —and thus half the task is accomplished. As soon as the appropriate vocal sound has been inspired, suggested, by the word, that same sound will envelop the word, magnify it, refine and increase the dimension of that very word which was responsible in the first place for its birth. The idea is helped by the sound, and the sound is explained, justified, by the idea: an accomplishment that is physical, psychological, harmonious and perfectly balanced. It is this concordance, this connection, that makes singing fascinating and creates a precious amalgam of a great many abstract and concrete molecules welded together.

Such is my concept on singing.

Text excerpted from On singers and singing, Reynaldo Hahn, Portland, 1990.