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Volume 12, Issue 3: Musica

Effortless Singing?

Duck Shuler

I recently purchased the video Autumn Journey, a documentary on the work of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (b. 1925), the most famous baritone of the twentieth century and arguably one of the greatest singers ever recorded. Since literally hundreds of films were made of his work, we are able to watch him sing from the early part of his career to his last concert (Dec. 31, 1992), a time span of nearly fifty years. He is most famous for his interpretation of Romantic Lieder, i.e. German art songs from the nineteenth century, musical settings of well-known poetry of the period.

Fischer-Dieskau was famous for the rich, velvety-smooth quality of his voice, which he seemed to produce effortlessly. In the video, however, he discusses vocal production and all that is involved in producing a beautiful sound. "Singing is, in itself, a tremendous undertaking," say Fischer-Dieskau. Many hours of practice went into each song before it was sung in public. He talks about the thinking that went into preparing the songs that he sang, as well as the work on the text, melody, and accompaniment. The film shows his collaboration with the wide variety of accompanists he sang with and the hours spent working out details of interpretation and ensemble.
My family and I just returned from a long car trip. My wife enjoys torturing us by finding "oldies" stations on the car radio, not because she likes oldies, but because she is fascinated by how bad they are. Listening to various singers, facetious remarks kept popping up, something like, "He sounds as good as Fischer-Dieskau," or "Why should Fischer-Dieskau work so hard when this guy sounds as good as he does?" Actually, we should have been saying, "Why arenít some of those popular music singers more embarrassed by how they sound or by what they are singing?" I am always amazed when I hear intelligent adults make comments about how profound the music of the Beatles is.1 It makes me wonder whether they have ever listened to good music.
The point I am trying to make is that there is value in the thought and effort that we put into our art works, and the better the thought and effort, the better the result. Fischer-Dieskau says of his own vocal development: "Vocal technique lies in the pure spiritual expression of what is already in the voice . . . . I wanted to be able to express everything with the organ that was given to me and to achieve some kind of unforced expression. . . . This can only be the result of long, painstaking work."
These ideas are practically unknown in popular music. But you may say the pop singerís voice is more natural, easier to listen to. Is it really more natural to sing with a twang or raw voice than one that has been developed to sound its best? Imagine a radio or television announcer speaking to us with the same kind of voice. We would see them as unsophisticated and generally regard them as less intelligent. Why do we have one standard for professional speakers and another for professional singers?
It is because we hate thought and effort. The capacity to put forth real effort is a sign of maturity. Does a four-year-old generally relish doing the difficult? Not mine. When discussing his early musical development, Fischer-Dieskau says, "Like most children, I was not very keen on work and had to catch up later through much pain and patience." Could this be a reason why popular music is a primary expression of youth culture?
Popular music is designed to keep us from thinking. We celebrate the musician who canít read music We say that a singer who sings without control sings with soul, and that singers of art music sing with too much control and not from deep within. Statements like these are made by people who have not taken the time to study and listen to the great singers of art song.
True biblical thinking requires that we engage in great effort of thought. "And that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind (Eph. 4:23), "And have put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him" (Col. 3:15 NASB). This is not done in ignorance or without effort. Beauty in a fallen world is not sought after unless the Holy Spirit enlightens us to seek it. Even when enlightened, our flesh cries out for something else, "For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind" (Rom. 7:22, 23 NASB). In Christians, the desires of our members so often win over the desires of our mind because we donít allow the war between our members and mind to take place. We often immediately capitulate to the members because it is the easiest road to take. This is why popular culture is so dangerous; it appeals first to the members rather than the mind. This is why the sanctification process is so difficult, it requires thought and effort. Popular music is not a vehicle that drives us to sanctification.
Listen to Fischer-Dieskau sing any pitch and compare that sound to anyone singing in the pop medium. What is the difference? Beauty of sound. Is beauty of sound a goal of most pop music? Is truth? How about goodness? Although art music can certainly fall short in these areas as well, it is more likely to be a conveyor of the best man can produce. Listen to Fischer-Dieskau singing the part of Jesus in Bachís St. Matthew Passion. Here is beauty and truth perfectly wed.

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