Within Christian and other spiritual traditions, it is understood that a human being is comprised of three parts: spirit, soul, and body. The soul is the personality or the nature of the person, and we all know what the body is. But it is the spirit that is often confused with or aligned with the soul, to the detriment of our general understanding.
What Is the Spirit?
The spirit is that part of us that is eternal, that comes from eternity and goes back to it. It is our essence that is beyond flesh and feelings and emotions and even our rationality. It is our distillation, our inner core, the self which connects to that which cannot be seen but is as real as anything we touch or feel. It is the part of us that communes with the Divine and through which the Divine communicates to us and through us.
As singers, we sing with all three parts of ourselves. Our bodies are our very instrument: we “play ourselves” when we sing. We spend years perfecting the talent we were given when we were created: how to make our larynx and our lungs and our trachea and our mouth and lips produce what is music and beautiful singing. We access and utilize our souls to express feeling and emotion, to convey what the song or aria we are singing is about.
But with the spirit, we are going beyond and delving within, to the place of transcendence, to the world which cannot be seen but from which all other dimensions and powers emanate. And it is from this place that we yearn to sing spiritual music and derive great satisfaction from listening to it and performing it.
What Are the Spiritual Elements of Singing?
Remember that when you sing you are a conduit for spiritual power. You are a messenger, a vessel, an intermediary, and more than just an artist who is communicating: you can open yourself and the listener to the realms of the spirit. Your spirit is your essence, that part of you which is neither body nor intellect nor emotion—the part that taps into the eternal and the unseen. It is made from it and will return to it.
Consider these elements of singing.
• The element of abandon. You let yourself go and lose yourself in the joy of the creative moment. The best abandon is done, however, within the context of excellent vocal technique.
• The element of love. Do you not love what you are doing? Do you not love the sound of your own voice? Do you not love the act of music-making and the act of singing?
• The element of bravery. It takes courage to get up before a bunch of people and reveal yourself as we do when we sing. Do other careers or life paths involve so much risk? There is the reward of our endeavors being appreciated and perhaps even respected, but there is always the possibility of not being “good enough” or not singing “well enough.”
• The element of nakedness. Herein I think is the spiritual element that has the most significance for the singer. Actors and performance artists and singers are naked on the stage. Perhaps we are reticent in our private lives or take care to reveal less in any other situation—but in singing we reveal more than anyone would in any other type of life expression. This is the heart in sound. This is the self, stripped and on display, and people then know you.
• The element of risk. What we reveal and what we dare to expose can have the potential to be rejected. Perhaps our artistry is not up to the standards of the audience. Perhaps we will not move into the next career level. Perhaps I have spent too much time and money on a career that will never have a stable outcome. Perhaps I may fail. Perhaps I may succeed. Perhaps they will not accept me. Perhaps it is all worth it despite the cost or risks.
• The element of truth. What else do we do when we sing but reveal and display truth? We cannot sing well unless we tap into truth, unless we are willing to give everything to be the vehicle for it. This means that extra long breath, that extra crispness of the consonants, the letting go and getting in. Otherwise it is just singing a song and not a work of art.
• The element of openness. I know there are singers who are naturally introverts, but the majority of performers are extroverts by nature. We do not mind expressing ourselves publicly and leaving it out in the open, even if it does leave us to the possibility of rejection or lack of appreciation.
• The element of meaning. We cannot possibly sing, or sing well, if we do not understand the meaning of what we are singing. This is why we study the text of our songs and arias and why we study the languages in which we sing. To sing without meaning is meaningless singing.
• The element of vulnerability. On stage we are without protection. What keeps us from the critical eye and ear of our audience? Nothing. But it is the vulnerability of the singer that can open the avenue to great poignancy and the spontaneity inherent in such candidness of expression.
• The element of longing. We desire to make it beautiful, we desire to sing that music, we desire to hear our voice make something beautiful, we desire to be appreciated and respected. We yearn for many to hear us and we yearn to sing within the depths of ourselves.
• The element of service. Singing is very near to a ministry or a position of leadership or ordination. Truly we serve when we sing—we offer ourselves, we sacrifice ourselves, and we become servants of the music and the sound, of what our hearts need to say, and of what we feel our audience needs to hear.
How Have the Elements of Singing Been Expressed in Various Musical Traditions?
Traditions around the world have been and are keenly aware of the spiritual elements of singing. In pagan and indigenous traditions, there are shamans and witch doctors who use their voices to call upon the spirits from whom they seek help or power. Within the Yogi traditions of India, the voice is used to bring the seeker in contact with the spiritual elements within him and approach and access the power of the spiritual realm for health and healing. A cantor is a most venerated person within Judaism, endowed with the sacred task of leading the worshipers in prayer and supplication and thanksgiving.
In the New Testament, there is the story of the apostles Paul and Silas, who sang to God with such fervency that an angel came to them and miraculously released them from prison. We also have admonitions from the selfsame Paul for worshipers to “sing in the Spirit.” Within Christianity there are myriad traditions which use singing and voices—not just for worship but also for artistic and musical expression.
Surely Western civilization has tapped into the spiritual elements of singing to culminate in the highest expressions of art, music, and worship. And it is through the spirit of a person—the connection to the universal and Divine within each of us—that we can begin to understand and utilize the spiritual elements of singing.
As classical singers we have much exposure to the spiritual music of Western tradition. Our very music itself—everything from a lute song to an art song to an oratorio or opera aria—can be traced to the developments of polyphony to the school of Notre Dame of the 13th century, which is itself based on ancient chant commonly known as Gregorian chant, plainchant, or plainsong. Tradition holds that in the 6th century the Holy Spirit came to Pope Gregory in the form of a dove and whispered these chants into his ear, which he then copied down. Medieval chant in turn finds even deeper and older roots in the chants of ancient Jewish tradition, together becoming the roots and bedrock of the last 2,000 years of Western music.
What Sorts of Spiritual Music Are Available for the Classical Singer to Sing?
Chant is so much embedded into our musical vocabulary that we feel like we are coming home when we sing it. The ancient Greeks tapped into the spiritual elements of singing when they named each of their modes, or musical scales, and attributed certain qualities of emotional or spiritual power to each one. The Dorian mode, for example, was associated with war, and the Mixolydian with sadness. The early church modes appropriated these names and possibly some of the spirit of the ancient Greek chants, and the church also held certain chants to be appropriate for certain feast or festival days or certain text settings.
Medieval theorists believed each of the church modes to have a certain unique “character,” such as happiness or piety. I believe they were understanding on an intuitive level what composers and musicians know to be true—that certain frequencies and certain harmonics within a sound can produce certain feelings and responses. The performance practice of singing music of the pre-classical era at A415 instead of A440 (which is the standard modern tuning) attests to the respect placed on the actual frequencies accordant with shifts or timbre and even powers inherent within them.
Certainly classical singers who have sung Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise” in recital could offer a spectacular rendering of “Victimae paschali laudes” from the Liber Usualis or one of the Virtues from the liturgical drama Ordo Virtutum of mystic Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179). I would love to hear full-voiced operatic singers get their vocal muscle into some a capella chant at their next recital! What a unique and powerful way to open or close a program or set!
Early polyphony developed from chant in the Notre Dame school of the 13th century, and from this we see the development of the motet—a form of choral spiritual music that continues to be written and appreciated today. Further developments include the mass, the cantata, and the oratorio, all which provide rich singing opportunities for the classical singer interested in singing specifically spiritual music. Although Bach never wrote an opera, his arias are as passionate and emotional as any comparable Handel or Vivaldi opera aria of the period. Couple the depth of spirituality inherent in Bach’s music with a singer interested in interpreting spiritual music, and you have the potential for a deeply powerful and moving experience for both artist and audience.
In America we have been privileged to have been the seedbed of the musical genre that bears spirituality in its name, the spiritual. Spirituals have been born of the pain, suffering, prayers, and tears of African slaves who took Christian faith and made it their own. These poignant melodies are rich in opportunities for a classical singer seeking spiritual expression in a concert or recital.
Other traditions of Western spiritual music include the American Sacred Harp and other folk hymn traditions. These harmonies and melodies hearken back to the echoes of medieval and early Renaissance music that the early settlers of our country brought with them when they crossed the Atlantic from Europe. The use of modes and nondiatonic scales, such as the pentatonic or 5-note scale (which can be played by using the black keys on the piano), is hauntingly and often painfully beautiful, and singing them is a powerful experience indeed. Classical singers should be encouraged to seek out these songs, hymns, and melodies and incorporate them into a recital or concert set. You can start with a copy of The Sacred Harp or Southern Harmony.
There are an array of art songs written for the purpose of performance in a church or concert/recital setting. The “Panis Angelicus” of César Franck, the “Pietà, Signore” of the perennial 24 Italian Songs and Arias, and the Bach/Gounod “Ave Maria” are examples of songs rich in spiritual beauty and expression.
Oratorio roles abound in diversity and complexity. I enjoyed singing the lead role in Handel’s oratorio about the early Christian martyress Theodora. Some oratorios in recent years are being semi-staged. One does not have to classify oneself as “an opera singer” or “an oratorio singer”—the vocal and technical demands and constructs are the same, so do not limit or exclude yourself. Use your glorious voice for some glorious spiritual singing!
How Does Language Affect Our Performance?
I have often felt that much is “lost in translation” when singing spiritual music in a language that the listener does not speak or understand. In our classical singing tradition, it is expected that we sing in the language in which the song or aria was written—and expected that we do it well. But if good translations can be made, which respect the vowel placement and the best renderings of the text, I would like to see the option explored by classical singers more often in certain contexts—such as an afternoon recital or the Sunday morning church solo.
I have translated Bach arias and sung them in English. I performed in English the cantata by Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707) entitled “Herr, auf dich traue ich,” and it worked very well as “Lord, in Thee do I trust.” I would love to hear whole motets or oratorios sung in English—if they are translated well. Perhaps this way, the deepest spiritual meaning of the great alto aria “Erbarme dich, mein Gott” or the beautiful bass aria “Mache dich, mein Herze rein” from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion can be better understood by hearing the text “Have mercy, my God” or “Make thyself clean, my heart.”
Perhaps the reluctance to sing in our own language via translation is a bit of social snobbery. But not every audience you will sing for will be versed in German, Latin, or Italian. Do you want to be purely “artistically correct” or do you wish to communicate spiritual truth? This is for you to decide if and how to do either, or both.
The book that changed the world was Gutenberg’s Bible—and that was in German, the language of the people. After 400 years, the 1611 King James Bible remains the most influential book in the English language and, thus, the world. For those interested in the spiritual elements of singing, imagine the added power and communicative ability to perform standard German, Italian, or Latin art songs or arias in the language that your audience speaks and understands!
The power to communicate spiritual truth and reality, the ability to connect to the spiritual realm, and the ability to offer oneself as a vehicle for spiritual power, are all part of the spiritual elements of singing. I encourage all classical singers to research and explore the wide range of spiritual music available and always seek to sing in the spirit!