The Singer’s Library : New Books Demystify Unconventional Songs

Exploring new repertoire can be a task that is both exciting and daunting. So often, even when looking for something new, we gravitate to what is already at least somewhat familiar. Perhaps our default is song repertoire written in the languages in which we are already sufficiently comfortable. Or maybe we give preference to the music of composers we have already performed in the past.

It can certainly be more intimidating to venture into languages that we are less secure in or to choose the songs of lesser-known composers from countries that we may know quite little about. This problem is heightened if a particular composer’s preferred tonality is not even tonal!

Gratefully, Rowman & Littlefield has published two new books whose primary aim is to provide a systematic introduction to unfamiliar song repertoire. They provide the background, context, and details to serve as a starting point for singers to delve beyond the conventional to reap new musical rewards.

Rowman & Littlefield has been a pioneer in publishing song and diction guides for languages outside of the standard four (French, German, Italian, and English). These volumes have included Singing in Czech by Timothy Cheek, Singing in Russian by Emily Olin, Singing in Polish by Benjamin Schultz, and Singing in Greek by Lydía Zervanos (profiled in the January 2016 Classical Singer).

The latest release is a three-fold guide that tackles the languages and song repertoire from the collection of countries in northern Europe known as Scandinavia. Anna Hersey’s Scandinavian Song: A Guide to Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish Repertoire and Diction addresses what the author calls “the richness of the Scandinavian song repertoire” in contrast to “the regrettable dearth of resources on the subject.”

The book is divided into three main parts: Diction, Art Song Repertoire, and Translations and Transcriptions. Each of these parts is then further divided into an introductory chapter and then one chapter each for Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish.

By presenting the diction information of all three languages in consecutive chapters, readers can either focus on one language at a time or can immediately make side-by-side comparisons, looking for the similarities and differences that define the particulars of each language. This will be helpful when studying composers (like Edvard Grieg and Wilhelm Peterson-Berger) who wrote songs with texts in more than one Scandinavian language.

As with any diction guide, dialects, accents, and other such regionalisms make universal consensus on pronunciation nearly impossible. Therefore, Hersey was careful to consult experts from all fronts to make informed and consistent choices about how to present the material, making special note where there are significant discrepancies.

The translations and IPA transcriptions part of the book is one of the more useful sections, covering numerous song texts as set by various composers (all of whom are given biographical descriptions as well). To provide further clarity, a companion website is offered featuring selected texts read aloud by native speakers.
In narrowing down which composers and which songs she would cover in the volume, Hersey made special effort to include what she feels are the most significant songs in the repertoire as well as those with scores that are the most easily accessible in North America. She admits that these choices came at the expense of making the volume a more exhaustive resource. For readers with little exposure to this repertoire, however, the contribution is still extensive.

Considering that these art songs are solidly in the Western music tradition, the primary barrier for most performers in approaching Scandinavian song literature is an unfamiliarity with the language. In this regard, Hersey has done much of the hard work for us, allowing the book to afford immense advantages for singers willing to branch out.

Hersey acknowledges the problems inherent in trying to define musical styles based on nation (or even region), especially for the Scandinavian countries which are geographically, historically, and ethnically diverse. But the information in the book provides more than enough resources for individuals to dive into the repertoire and begin to discover their own stylistic connections. Indeed, while intending to fill a gap in resources, Hersey also hopes the book will be an invitation for others to add their own voices through research, dialogue, and collaboration on the topics included.

Classical music is full of categories. Composers and their works are labeled based on genre, region, time period, and style in order to provide reference points for performers and audiences. Devoid of these reference points, if a friend asked you to go see an opera, you could expect anything from Monteverdi to Menotti. But if you were told it was a late 19th-century Italian opera, you would have a much better idea of what you were getting into.

Categorizing composers into groups like Les Six and the Mighty Five gives us information about the time and place their music emerged from while providing additional context through their association with specific contemporaries.

Though the aforementioned groups were retroactively named by historians, the composers who make up the Second Viennese School did not wait for history to weigh in on their influence. Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern created their moniker to identify with Viennese musical heritage and to better promote their musical style and ideals.

Although these ideals included rejection of the virtuosity of 19th-century romanticism, accuracy to the printed score, and use of Classical forms, the predominant association with Schoenberg and his two prize pupils stems from their frequent use of atonality and serialism.

This element alone has prevented many singers from exploring their vocal music, due to a preconception that atonal music is excessively difficult to learn. Author Loralee Songer hopes to change this situation with her new book Songs of the Second Viennese School: A Performer’s Guide to Selected Solo Vocal Works. Believing the songs are too often overlooked by singers and pianists, “There are many vocal works, both tonal and atonal, by the Second Viennese School that are musically achievable for performers and satisfying for audiences,” writes Songer.

The book begins with an overview of the history and culture that led to the formation of the Second Viennese School, after which individual chapters are dedicated to Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg. In each chapter, biographical information is provided followed by a description of compositional style—divided into tonal and atonal periods—and an analysis of representative works.

Additionally, Songer offers tips and techniques for learning atonal music, especially for singers who do not benefit from perfect pitch. Some of the advice is offered as a result of her own experience performing and teaching atonal songs, while other practices were gleaned from prominent singers of modern music, including Martha Elliott, Patrice Pastore, Rita Shane, Mimmi Fulmer, Sharon Mabry, and Phyllis Bryn-Julson as well as composer Paul Matthews.

After these early chapters, the majority of the book’s pages make up the extended appendix, which provides information on 169 songs for solo voice and piano written by the three composers of the Second Viennese School. Each entry identifies the song’s title, composer, poet, publisher, date of composition, voice classification, level of difficulty, key (if applicable), time signature, tempo, tessitura, range, and form. It also provides a brief description of the vocal line and the piano part as well as the full text of the poem alongside an English translation.

The book ends with suggested recital programs that feature the works of these composers, a discography, and a bibliography for further study.

The idea that the music of the composers of the Second Viennese School is overwhelmingly difficult or “not worth the effort” has deterred generations of singers from giving this vocal repertoire an honest chance. Songer’s manual, however, provides a useful catalog and a step-by-step approach for the adventurous singer to begin to explore this significant and underperformed literature.

Brian Manternach

Brian Manternach, DM (he/him), is an associate professor at the University of Utah Department of Theatre and a research associate at the Utah Center for Vocology, where he is on the faculty of the Summer Vocology Institute. He is an associate editor of the Journal of Singing, and his research, reviews, articles, and essays have appeared in numerous voice-related publications. /