Extracts from reviews of
Vocal Traditions in Conflict
by Richard Bethell

Edward Breen, writing in Early Music Performer, April 2020:

‘Whatever we know or don't know about 13th century singing and, God knows, there’s very little we can say for certain about it, we may be certain that it didn't sound like 20th century sing­ing.’ The words of Michael Morrow, director of Musica Reservata, one of the first early-music ensembles to experiment with vocal sound and style. He worked with many musicians who would go on to define early-music performance in the last quarter of the twentieth century: Andrew Parrott, Anthony Rooley, Christopher Page, and the sounds that he asked of singer Jantina Noorman would go on to influence many later performers such as Dominique Visse. The author of this new volume about vocal traditions, and vocal vibrato – Richard Bethell – is another Musica Reservata alumnus who, alongside a business career, has remained a recognisable figure within British early-music circles as Secretary of the National Early Music Association (NEMA) […] In many ways this book is rooted in Morrow's ideas: it seeks to look beyond modern performance norms.

Bethell’s publication is the culmination of many years’ research reflecting the author’s fascination with the human voice, and love of vocal music from many centuries and genres. This extraordinarily wide-ranging study seeks to chart a change in vocal traditions from a ‘default straight, clear tone’ to a ‘loud, throaty and vibrato-laden sound’. Readers would be correct to detect a pejorative in the title, as this is one author who is not afraid to keep his own views at the fore as he collates the opinions of others. It makes for an intriguing, if at times frus­trating, read and results in a volume full of fascinating insights and plentiful suggestions for further research.

The structure of the book is, on the surface, straightforward: the seven chapters begin with a general introduction in which Bethell demarcates his three broad vocal categories:‘Operatic’ (singer’s formant, continuous vibrato and low larynx position), ‘Early Music Mainstream’ (higher larynx position but more­-or-less continuous vibrato) and ‘Clear Smooth Sweet Chaste’ (a softer version of the early music voice, with vibrato only as an ornament) illustrated through pitch/time graphs of audio demonstrations by soprano Peyee Chen […] These categories were first explored in Bethell’s 2009 survey where participants voted for the voice type they would prefer to hear singing Handel’s music. Details of that survey are interesting but, crucially, it is unclear the extent to which participants were aware of how these categories relate to each other, for instance if they knew that Bethell regarded Emma Kirkby as ‘Early Music Mainstream’ rather than ‘Clear Smooth Sweet Chaste’. A section detailing the methodology of Bethell’s vocal categories would be most useful.

The second chapter could really have been a book in itself. taking a very long eighteenth century (from 1650-1829), Bethell outlines a ‘Golden Age of Italian singing’ through selected and aggregated reviews and quotations on sounds of singers intended to show a stability of vocal practice in the ‘Clear Smooth Sweet Chaste’ category. It's a powerful argument and makes for very interesting reading but one is immediately suspicious of this method of mining data to prove a point. Bethell relies on English sources and translations, almost entirely excluding French sources, and does not take into account style. Whilst these shortcomings are readily admitted, this does nothing to reassure the reader that the chosen reviews were not selected merely because they support the author's viewpoint and that more problematic examples have been passed over […]

It is important, despite my methodological misgivings, to highlight what a fascinating and thought-provoking read this book is. There are so many enjoyable quotations, including Burney’s remark concerning 'Madame [Francesca] Le Brun's song of the greatest com­pass, which goes up to B flat in altissimo’: ‘But I must own that such tricks, such cork-cutting notes, as they were once well called by a musical lady of high rank, are unworthy of a great singer, and always give me more pain than pleasure.’ And particularly Adelina Patti’s vocal habits as ob­served in The Examiner: ‘Her confidence, too, is unbounded; she dashes continually at the chro­matic scale of two octaves, of which the first notes may be chromatic, but the rest a kind ofsliding down the bannisters after a diatonic fashion.’ Only in the appendices do we realise what a paean to independent research this has all been: working outside the University system, with its privileged journal and archival access, Bethell has made thorough use of full-text data­bases freely available online […]

Rarely do we get such a detailed insight into the beliefs of an informed and active performer/audience-member. Bethell leaves us with much food for thought but his argument fails to convince that he is approaching archival evidence with an open mind.

Klaus Miehling,from a review entitled ‘Why nearly all operas have to be re-recorded’, available for download at www.academia.edu:

Vocal Traditions in Conflict  describes the aesthetics of singing since 1650 and its dramatic change throughout the 19th century in a more detailed account than has been attempted previously, using the unique potential provided by the Internet in collating thousands of sources relating to singer’s voices […] For more recent times, sound recordings have been used. Bethell distinguishes a ‘Golden Age of Italian Singing (1650 to 1829)’, which was followed by a ‘Vocal Revolution (1830 to 1949)’ consisting of a ‘Descent from Default Straight Voice to Permanent Vibrato’, a ‘Descent from Dual Register Emission to Constant Chest Voice’ and a ‘Descent from Natural Voice to Made Voice’ (which primarily means the darkening of sound due to low larynx position and vowel equalization). The use of the term ‘descent’ shows that the author is not impartial; however, he is in good company with the many contemporary critics who also describe these developments as an artistic decay. As is well known, also Rossini was anything but enthusiastic about the ‘high C’ by Gilbert Duprez, produced with chest voice. Through statistical evaluations, Bethell sheds light on the confusion of the many reports and is thus able to map the gradual change from the old to the new singing style. In ‘Golden Age’ writings, voices were primarily described as ‘sweet’, ‘clear’, ‘round’ and ‘pure’ and the repeated comparison of female voices with the sound of a glass harmonica is particularly striking.

A graphic on page 236 is a useful tool in demonstrating the development of vibrato during the 19th century and its use (almost always labelled tremolo) is frequently criticised and occasionally referred to as a bad French habit […]  around 1870, the majority of singers were disparaged for their use of the technique; thirty years later, this was to include nearly all. It is important to note, though, that early sound recordings show that the vibrato used at that time was faster than today and had less fluctuation in frequency, therefore a lesser impact on intonation […] The viewpoints regarding the use of falsetto or chest voice for high notes in men are less unanimous. Nevertheless, a positive evaluation of falsetto prevailed until around 1870. Only later was it mostly subject to criticism.

Finally, some recordings of modern singers from the classical, but also from the popular music field, which are largely free of vibrato singing and available on streaming services such asYouTube or Spotify are listed, as are statements from Facebook discussions, and measures to restore the historical art of singing are suggested.

Whichever aesthetic point of view is taken, the consensus is that the vocal style generally taught today is mostly incompatible with music before 1900. The frequent use of vibrato was not unknown at the end of the 19th century, but it was generally criticised and, as such, is unlikely to be representative of the timbres composers expected […] Bethell also refers to the deficiency that even purportedly ‘historically informed’ interpretations, mainly of operas, show a large disparity between instrumental and vocal practices, a problem that continues today. Therefore, says Bethell, almost the entire repertoire would have to be re-recorded. Well, get to work!