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The Singing of Mozart

The title of this blog post is a not-too-subtle nod to Herman(n) Klein's "An Essay on the Bel Canto" (1923) which has the subtitle "With particular reference to the singing of Mozart." Klein is one of the great figures of the late nineteenth - early twentieth century musical world. His pedigree is unimpeachable, and his writings both critical and expository are insightful and direct.

I also cannot fail to express an enormous debt of gratitude to Daniel James Shigo for his indispensable historical vocal pedagogy blog: He has also published an edition of Klein's essay with an informative and enlightening introduction. It is highly recommended not least of which for the background to Klein's fascinating idea of employing the developing technology of the phonograph to aid in the dissemination of bel canto vocal technique.

All that follows is merely a distillation of these and many others' ideas.

"Light and full" - this phrase repeats like a mantra in my head when singing Mozart. It is my goal in breathing, phonation, resonance, and articulation. The foundational breath must be deep and realized low in the body (abdominal) and released into the throat with the most delicate balance of support from below (compressed). Phonation must be firm and complete, employing the lightest touch. Resonance must be open-throated, free, and vibrant. Articulation must be precise and comprehensive. Of course these are also basic tenets of bel canto vocalism whereby the beauty of the voice is derived from the unique combination of sonic quality and flexibility of vocal expression, i.e. agility, portamento, sostenuto, legato, and "messa di voce."

What makes the singing of Mozart unique? For me it is the equitable relationship between music and text. The music is deceptively simple, adhering to the Classical ideals of beauty and balance, but the memorable tunes in his operas are inextricably linked to the expression of the poetry. This is why Mozart's operas work so well when the text is translated into the language of the audience. I do love singing Mozart in the original language which creates a direct link to the sound world inhabited by the composer, but a good translation, true to the meaning and spirit of the original is more important to the vital connection between performer and audience essential to these works. Manuel Garcia says this in Hints on Singing: "Music, though the language of the emotions, can only arouse them in a vague and general manner. To express any feeling or idea we must make use of words. Hence the importance for the singer of delivering them with the utmost distinctness, correctness, and meaning, under the penalty of losing the attention of the audience." In other words, the storytelling must be simple and clear, mirroring the essence of the music. Clear diction is essential, but only a beginning. The clarity of individual words is important so as not to distract from the meaning of the thought and the emotional expression upon which the audience relies to remain connected to the story.

None of this is a mystery. Mozart is not mysterious. What appears to be hidden must be made clear. Example: The Magic Flute is full of symbolism, but explicit to the audience. If there is mystery in Mozart it is the fault of the performers. So, practically, how does this happen? How does a singing actor sing the simple tunes, tell the story, and express the direct and immediate emotional content? Legato: the uniting of notes of identical quality and color with unbroken smoothness. How is this achieved? The first step is the management of the breath. Every note must be supported from the area of the diaphragm with the degree of pressure that it demands, not for itself alone, but in its relation to its neighbors and the musical shape of the melodic line. The higher the pitch, the greater degree of pressure required and vice versa. The ear and the sense of volume must combine to secure and preserve the equal gradation of the scale up and down. The great point is to make sure of the identity of the tone. Coupled with this is the subtle blending of the different registers of the voice. Unless the differences of sensation and changes of mechanism which characterize what are know as the "registers" of the human voice have merged into each other to create the illusion of the harmonious whole, smoothness of scale and legato singing are beyond reach. The development of what the French call "voix mixte" can be important in the blending of vocal registration into a seemingly seamless whole. This sensation of "mixed voice" or "middle voice" - lying somewhere between chest voice and head voice - is essential to the flexibility and a feeling of spontaneity that infuses the vocal line with color and expression, allowing the text to appear alive and vibrant.

Balance is the key in the singing of Mozart. Herein lies the delicate difficulty: to wed an expressive declamation of the text to an unbroken legato line. A continuing study and exercise of the principles of bel canto and a commitment to clarity and precision in the the telling of the story are essential to meeting the demands of this most accessible and universal art.

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