From the grunts and groans of ancient man, to the highly trained and remarkable vocalizations of modern day opera singers, we can trace the development of vocal music through the ages.
The human voice sets us aside from all other creatures on earth. It is certainly one of the defining aspects of being human. The voice’s ability to change pitch or sing, is the first, oldest and most highly developed and sophisticated of all musical instruments.
People in the oldest civilized cultures of Greek and Roman societies sang in religious settings and theatrical events. The ancient Jewish tradition of chanting phased into the beginning of Christianity. The chanting evolved into vocal music during the early development of Christianity.
The Medieval or Middle Ages (500-1450) was known as the “Golden Age of Melody” or Monophony: meaning one voice, or one part. This was the music designated as Plain Song, Plain Chant or Gregorian Chant. This music was not written until the monks of the Middle Ages wrote music down in an early form of notation. This music was sacred and liturgical in nature. Secular music was sung by Troubadours and Trouveres in France and Minnesingers and Meistersingers in Germany. They were itinerant musicians that went from town to town performing for, hopefully, money.
The Rennaissance (1450-1600) was the “Golden Age of Polyphony.” Meaning “more than one voice or part,” this is music written for two, three, four or more parts. This was a huge step up from Monophony. Before the Rennaissance, vocal music was by far the predominating form of music. Instrumental music became more important and prominent during this period of music history. During the Baroque period (1600-1750) vocal and instrumental music shared prominence. In the classic period (1750-1827) instrumental music was the leading force in musical composition and has remained so to the present day. Vocal music lost its leading role in the musical world to a plethora of instrumental musical forms and styles.
Human vocal ranges are usually divided into six ranges: Three female voices: soprano, mezzo-soprano and contralto and three male voices: tenor, baritone and bass. If the singer is an opera singer, a further classification is used: dramatic, lyric and coloratura soprano and dramatic contralto. Male opera singers include: robust, lyric and heroic tenors and basso profondo, basso buffo and agile bass.
High vocal parts presented a problem for the Roman Catholic Church. Females were not permitted to sing in acts of worship, so they used pre-pubescent boys to sing the high parts. Another solution, although controversial, was the castrato, a young male singer castrated before puberty to preserve his high voice. This option became an important aspect of Catholic choirs all over Europe for the next two centuries. In 1599 a castrato was on the payroll of the Sistine Choir in Rome.
In John Stanley’s book, Classical Music, he writes, “Castrati were also used extensively in opera, primarily singing women’s roles. The castrati provided a new and more powerful voice to sing the high parts with support, volume, intensity and control.” Stanley writes, “Music of the Roman Catholic Church, with a few notable exceptions, is a mere shadow of its former glory, while the Anglican choral tradition (a choir of men and boys) continues to flourish.”
Vocal Music in the United States
The early colonist brought with them the musical training they learned in Europe. Many came to our shores for religious freedom and quickly set up church services. Hymn singing was an integral part of their services. The first book printed in British North America was The Bay Psalm Book (The Bay Song Book) in 1640 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
As singing took on greater importance, especially in churches, the Reverend John Tufts of Newbury, Massachusetts published the first practical book in singing in 1712. The better singers in church services tended to sit together and gradually became choir groups. The so-called “singing schools” were formed to improve and develop the church choirs. They first appeared in the colonies in 1720 and they quickly spread throughout New England. The directors of these singing schools were concerned with the ability to read music and interpret a variety of choral works. The rudiments of music and sight singing were paramount in the instruction.
It wasn’t long before music was introduced into the classroom of public schools. The first formal inclusion of music in schools occurred in Boston in 1838. The aim was to have a citizenry exposed to music as part of the common cultural heritage. Some schools followed the pestalozzian principles of music instruction, namely to teach sounds before signs and make children sing before they learn the written notes. Principles and theory came after the practice and not before.
As a result of these early practices, music instruction today is present in virtually all public school systems. In some school districts it is considered an indispensable and essential part of a student’s education. Let’s hope music education will continue in our schools for many years into the future, preserving this precious cultural heritage for generations to come.
Don’t miss the Danville Community Band’s annual concert at the Blackhawk Automotive Museum, 3700 Blackhawk Plaza Circle, Danville, Sunday, March 29, 2015, 2:00 p.m.
The Danville Community Band was founded by Dr. Lawrence Anderson and his wife, Jan in 2001 and quickly became the largest community band in the Bay Area. The band is currently directed by Professor, Robert Calonico, director of bands, at the University of California, Berkeley. The band currently has openings for percussion players. Please submit your questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org Visit our website at www.danvilleband.org for up-to-date information about the Danville Community Band.