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The tongue-twisting show-stopper not for the faint hearted. At the heart of light opera lies the humorous, yet challenging comic patter song. An audience pleaser not for the faint hearted, the patter song has become the staple of light opera and musical theatre. Also known as Opera Buffa’, it has no stereotypes, humouring all, regardless of age, gender, religion, culture and language. Performed in-between the serious acts of the operas, it has rhythmic patterns, constantly increasing speed, and large volumes of lyrics, only corresponding one syllable per note.
The patter song takes centre stage for both audience entertainment and performers commitment.
The comic element of opera is frequently the most troublesome aria to perform. It takes months for the singers to memorize the lyrics let alone be able to perform the aria confidently and coherently. The notation for such elements is replete with challenge. Within this notation, aspects such as tempo, lyrics and dynamic are pushed to the limits, often with a black and white contrast to each.
Patter song is an exaggeration of properties inherent to language, music and song . Paving the way in the comic patter genre, was the Victorian-era theatrical partnership of Gilbert and Sullivan. Primary composers of the patter song, the duo paved the way creating masterpieces which has withstood the test of time. Gilbert and Sullivan had taken their place as integral to the definition of the patter song as a form of song . They were most renowned for their composition of the Major-General’s song, I am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General, from the Pirates of Penzance.
From the get-go, this aria has numerous notational challenges creating performance difficulties; the first of these being frequently modified key signatures (see example 1).
The aria begins in A major, which remains predominant throughout. Sullivan, the composer in the duo, added in the third measure to support the sub-dominant key of F-sharp minor. This adds a deeper dimension to the music, introducing outside’ sounds to the original structures (an illustration of this can be seen in example 2 on the hand out). This snippet is in C-major with the harmony playing in consecutive open fifths, creating a pedal note type affect, giving the melody the opportunity of playing in an ambiguous fashion, throwing in notes not in the C-major scale, thus adding a new tonality to the existing harmonies. The difficulties with these notated key signatures vary instrument to instrument, especially given the added pressure of performance situations. For string players, their instruments have open strings, G/D/A plus either C or E, so the most familiar patterns are the ones based around scales which include these open-string notes. By adding accidentals to the notation, players are forced to refer to less-familiar fingerings and hand positions.
The piano is an interesting case also. C-major is very simple and familiar, with no black notes required, but add in intricate keys, the hand is forced into a flatter position since all the diatonic notes lie on a single plane. This can create a thumb-crossing challenge, and pianists cannot easily play with the hands interlocked. The clarinet has its own set of notational challenges because it is a transposing instrument. Two different versions are common today; one in A and one in B-flat. The accidentals in the Major-General’s song add a layer of dissonance to the aria, creating upper structures, extensions to chords, and thickening of harmony. In a performance situation, the orchestra will have to constantly remember any accidentals in the notation. This can create some issues in the fast-paced performance scenario as the orchestra need to apply accidentals to the notes affected. Bar lines cancel accidentals found in the previous measure, with the exception of notes tied across the bar-line. There are running examples of these throughout the aria, a C-sharp in one bar is a natural the next (see example 3).
Like the singer, the orchestra must familiarise as much as they can as this is not a work which is easily sight-read. Instrumentalists will need to scan ahead specifically to look for accidentals. For singers and instrumentalists alike, blending together is critical, and the notation can create issues with this. From the singer’s perspective, lyrics are one of the crucial elements of performance. There are many chorus lines within this aria, as can be heard in link at 0.45. Gilbert, the librettist, included social issues within his words with the Major-General role often played in an effeminate manner with homosexual connotations. A good lyric must link performer and audience, telling stories of life, love, and how it is to be a human. A good opera singer offers a reflection of the character, making the audience see, hear, and feel. The combination of dramatic narrative, stagecraft and music, and especially the range and vulnerability of the human voice, make opera the art form that comes closest to expressing pure emotion. It is story telling at its most vivid and manipulative . Opera is a play set to music, and lyrics are often a crucial ingredient of the notation. An opera singer not only needs to be able to sing but act too.
The Major-General’s song needs to be dramatic for it to be put across successfully. The pure speed and volume of lyrics in the notation make it hard to add this element to the performance. The performer needs to be able to sing the song perfectly on its own, mastering melody and words before nailing the acting. It is easy with notation as rapid as this for lyrics to be performed in a monotone. In many arias, singers can use notation to their advantage; climatic or dramatic notes helping with acting and conveying emotion. Notes which differ to others can be used to give flavour and emphasis. The Major-General’s songs longest note is a quaver so he would not have room for these dramatic embellishments, having to deliver them promptly without support from the notation. Another issue with the notation in a performance is the lack of rests and proper breaks for the singer. Not only are the volume of notes and words difficult to perform, but with no rests in phrases, the singer finds it hard to find a place to take a breath- as heard in link from 0.20 ” 0.45 Like a car with no fuel, vocal chords with no breath do not work. Dr Gillis Bratt did a study into breath support in singing and concluded that for a singer to perform to their maximum potential, their lower back should expand with each breath.
This ensures the breath is going low enough and cements a lower position under the diaphragm, creating optimum usage of the lungs. Paradoxically, if a singer takes in too much breath, the vocal chords are put under pressure and can be damaged. Equilibrium is needed to coordinate lungs and vocal chords creating enough breathing space’. Without the necessary rests to help with this, the notation makes this considerably harder to do in performance. Singers consider their tone to be an important part of performance. Embedded in this is their consideration for crisp, clear and precise articulation to complement their vocal delivery. The brain runs faster than the mouth and often the mouth cannot keep up, and when it is faced with a tongue-twister it struggles to recognise the order of words put together and the tongue cannot keep up and stumbles over itself. New research has discovered that the brain needs to exercise split-second, symphony-like control to coordinate the tongue, jaw, and larynx to articulate words. Just like an orchestra relies on the conductor to coordinate its beats to the music, lyrics like tongue-twisters demand well-timed instructions from the brain. Notationally, the music does not allow much time for this.
An illustration of this can be found in example 4. Articulation and diction are an important component of singing. The audience needs to understand what the singer is saying, and it is crucial that a singer can produce words and sentences which are clear and accurate, especially in arias sung at speed. As written in the notation, one syllable corresponding to one note at rapid succession has its performance challenges (this is illustrated in example 5). Settings of masses such as the Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus and Agnus Dei were of melismatic style- allowing room for emphasis and embellishments- until the Catholic church decided this obscured the text. But in mine opinion, the song that shall be made thereunto would not be full of notes but, as near as may be, for every syllable a note . Songs like The Star-Spangled Banner, and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star are examples of syllabic singing. The strict regime of syllabic singing, unlike melismatic singing, gives the performer no room for embellishment, thus meaning they have to sing the notation as written with no support from the music. Although there is a current tradition of changing the words to the patter songs and there seems to have been a certain amount of extemporising the original cast in spoken dialogue, Gilbert and Sullivan generally insisted that the notes and the words of the songs be sung as written .
Similarly, Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Nightmare Song, Iolanthe, possesses its own notational difficulties. Composing another comic patter song, the duo used their notation- tempo, a large volume of notes and lyrics- to keep humour at the centre of every performance. The Nightmare Song has a wide range of emotions and style, with innovative use of instrumentation, underscoring and dramatic situations. The aria starts predominantly in the strings, creating an atmosphere of tension, as heard in link from the beginning until 0.50 The short narrative is common place to many arias and is in the rhythm of ordinary speech. This recitative introduction is dramatically colourful and sombre, giving the opposite impression of a comic patter song. Notationally here, The Lord Chancellor is instructed to sing allegro at a forte dynamic. The forte dynamic has its performance issues. Firstly, the singer has to make sure they do not strain their voice. Secondly, they need to watch their tuning. It is most common for a performer to sing, or play, sharp when loud and flat when quiet. Opera singing was developed during a period where, as a performance tradition, there were no microphones, so special singing techniques had to be developed for singers to cut through the orchestra.
The time signature of this notation also raises performance issues. 4/4 is common time, and the aria preceding this is set in that, creating a difficult switch between time measures to 6/8. The eighth note will receive the quarter notes usual one count, a quarter note will now receive two counts. To add yet more performance issues, 6/8 time signature is very similar to 3/4 and an illustration of this can be found in example 6. The downbeat for 3/4 time is on the first beat of the bar, 123, 123, 123, and 6/8 has the emphasis on the first beat of the bar, but also the fourth beat, but this forth beat has less strength to it, thus creating difficulties in performance situations to keep to the beat. The accompaniment for this aria is chordal, and the block chords leave the voice exposed; not offering rhythmic or melodic support, creating issues in a performance situation, as heard on link at 0.56.
The block-chord style means means the singer lacks support in those in-between’ creating potential issues with keeping in the singer lacks support in those in-between’ notes creating potential issues with keeping in time and tuning. This a Capella type accompaniment gives the performer freedom from restrictions, but this genre of music does not warrant that (an illustration of this can be found in example 7). Block chords descend from choral music which takes a slower tempo, perhaps meaning the chordal accompaniment is more appropriate for that style. The first example of the patter song’ was in the fifteenth-century found in the Oxford English Dictionary; To repeat the pasternoster or other prayer, esp. in a rapid, mechanical, or indistinct fashion: to mumble or mutter one’s prayers .Like the Major-General’s song, finding a place for the singer to breathe is extremely difficult. The notation of the score vocal line is 137 bars continuously rolling with only sporadic rests.
This can be heard in link 0.50 until the end. This is physically challenging for the singer as these intense passages do not allow time for the diaphragm to take a proper breath, and the almost violent breaths that need to be taken are so quick and sharp that they could lead to hyperventilation, also known as respiratory alkalosis in singers. Patter songs are a feature of opera buffa: these are tongue twisters delivered at presto speed that are an art in itself that requires an acute sense of comic timing, in order for the singer to make the words intelligible, and vocal virtuosity equivalent to words coming out of a type writer at breakneck speed . Gilbert and Sullivan’s notations have extensive use of words and notes, and on looking at the score, it is easy to wonder how they are all going to fit in. As Peter Shaffer wrote in his play, Amadeus, My dear young man, don’t take it too hard. Your work is ingenious. Its quality work. And there are simply to many notes, that’s all. Just cut a few and it will be perfect. Mozart: Which few did you have in mind, Majesty .
Extensive quavers in the notation would add performance challenges for a few reasons, one being the use of vocal vibrato. Vibratoless singing is rare in opera, and many singers have been trained to sing with heavy vibrato. Vibrato is a natural element of singing and happens due to a spontaneous secondary oscillation of the vocal chords. This occurs when the breath and muscles are properly coordinated and relaxed. If vibrato is supressed, it distorts the proper use of all vocal mechanisms and this can cause muscle strain, damaging the vocal chords. The quaver length of each note allows the singer no time for vibrato, thus risking damage to the vocal chords. The lack of space to breath may also contribute to performance issues with vibrato. a wrong method of breathing, that the vibrato and tremolo are highly offensive .
In summary, there is a very strong relationship between notation and performance. Complicated notation leads to increased complexity for the performer, increasing the challenge of successfully interpreting the composers work and communicating it to the audience. Sometimes complexity has its uses- in building tension and communicating humour for example- but there is a price to be paid in terms of the level of challenge facing the performer.
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