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Songs Without Words

Vocalise … it’s more than an exercise (Image: Public Domain)

This week’s show is dedicated to all those folks out there who forget the words to song. The Ether Game Brain Trust is exploring vocal music that has no words at all, just “oohs,” “ahhs” and “hmms.” You’ll be humming along to our show we’re calling “Songs Without Words”!

Check out our wordless playlist below:


  • Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847), Songs Without Words, Op. 19, No. 1 in E major – We’ll begin our exploration of wordless vocal music with a piece that not only has no words, but also has no voice! (FYI, a song by its very definition is a piece of music that is sung—and a surefire way to anger any musician is to say, “hey, don’t you love that Beethoven song? You know the one that goes ‘dun dun dun DUNNN!’”) Well, Felix Mendelssohn (and his sister Fanny) ignored that necessary requirement of song by writing several dozen Lieder Ohne Worte, or “Songs Without Words.” These solo piano pieces had all the melodic tunefulness of an art song without that pesky singer to worry about. These Songs Without Words became fixtures of 19th-century middle class homes throughout Europe, performed in the parlors of amateur musicians. Even a world-class professional musician like Franz Liszt enjoyed them: he arranged this first Song Without Words as a grand concert piece for 2 pianos.

 

  • Giacomo Puccini (1858–1924), Madama Butterfly: Humming Chorus – Sometimes words aren’t necessary to convey the deep emotional impact of a moment. That’s the case for the famed “Humming Chorus” from the opera Madama Butterfly. The chorus comes at the end of Act II, as Chio-Chio San (Madame Butterfly) waits patiently for the arrival of Pinkerton, an American naval officer whom she married three years earlier and hasn’t seen since. This moment is special for Chio-Chio San because finally, after three years, she gets to introduce Pinkerton to their son. Puccini indicates that the chorus perform bocca chiusa, literally “closed mouth,” which is a lovely musical effect, but also symbolic of the words left unsaid between the two characters. Chio-Chio San soon learns that Pinkerton has remarried, and has no intention of seeing her out of his sense of shame. At the end of the opera, Chio-Chio San takes her own life, out of her sense of grief.

 

  • Gustav Holst (1874–1934), The Planets: Neptune, the Mystic – Gustav Holst’s Planets suite is in part based on the celestial objects orbiting the sun and in part based on the mythical gods that gave them their name. The “Neptune” movement is named after Neptune, the mystic Roman god of the dark, tranquil sea. When this piece was written in 1916, Neptune was thought to be the last planet in our solar system (it still is today after Pluto was demoted, but in 1916, Pluto hadn’t even been discovered!). In this haunting movement, Holst wrote one of the first “fade outs” in classical music, meant to represent the stasis and emptiness of space, stretching out forever beyond Neptune. To represent the mystery of the celestial unknown, he also included a women’s choral part, but with a wordless text. To achieve this fadeout effect, Holst placed the women’s choir offstage in an adjacent room singing a wordless tune. During the final bar of the piece, the door to the room was slowly and silently closed, while the final bar was repeated softer and softer until no sound was heard.

 

  • Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873–1943), Vocalise, Op. 34, No. 14 – Vocalise refers to the genre of a wordless song for solo voice and accompaniment. Given the simplicity of the idea—a song without words—the genre emerged relatively late in music history. The consensus was that a wordless vocalization was a musical exercise, not a concert piece. The first known vocalise concert piece came in 1848 when German composer Louis Spohr wrote a Sonatina for solo voice and piano, treating the voice like a flute or violin. The genre really took off in the 20th century, when many composers started writing solo vocalises, including Fauré and Vaughan Williams. The most famous of these is likely this one, written by Sergei Rachmaninoff in 1915, as the last of a set of 14 songs. Rachmaninoff later arranged this piece for orchestra (both with and without the vocalist). But one thing he did not indicate in his score is which vowel sound the singer should use. Most, by the way, use “ah.”

 

  • Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887–1959), Aria from Bachianas Brasileiras, No. 5 – Brazilian composer Heitor Villa Lobos often looked to music history for his influences. Among his best-known compositions in this vein are a set of nine Bachianas Brasileiras.  These works, each composed for a slightly different instrumentation, are a fascinating fusion of Brazilian folkloric music with the Baroque compositional procedures of J.S. Bach.  Each movement has two titles, one in the Baroque style and the other Brazilian. The most famous of the set is Bachiana number five, and its the first movement titled both Aria and Cantilena. The work is scored for the unique combination of solo soprano and eight cellos.  At the premiere, the solo soprano part was sung by Ruth Valadares Correa. Ruth did double duty – she not only sang the soprano part and its wordless introduction, but also penned the text for the middle section of this movement.

 

  • Maurice Ravel (1875–1937), Vocalise-Etude (En forme de Habañera) – Ravel gained a reputation for incorporating Spanish influences in his music after he premiered Boléro as a ballet piece in 1928, but his interest in Spanish music started two decades earlier. In 1907, Ravel completed Etude En forme de Habañera as a vocalise, combining a wordless vocal line with the slow, sultry feel of a Spanish dance known as the Habañera. Both Ravel’s Boléro and Habañera are based on popular Cuban dances, thought the Boléro is danced in triple time while the Habañera is a slow duple. Don’t be fooled by the composition’s slow tempo, this vocalise has a reputation for being very difficult to perform. Though it’s often performed with soprano voice, Ravel initially scored the work for piano and bass voice. After he published another arrangement for cello and piano, all manner of voice types and instruments began attempting the piece.

 

  • Reinhold Glière (1875–1957), Concerto for Coloratura Soprano and Orchestra – Composer Reinhold Glière pushes the vocalise genre to its limits by writing a piece that is not just a song without words, but an entire concerto. It was written in the 1940s, and is relatively conservative in style, almost like it could have been written 50 years earlier. Glière was nearly an exact contemporary of Rachmaninoff (another vocalise composer, as we’ve seen), and he was working in the Soviet Union at the same time as more revolutionary composer Dmitri Shostakovich. Unlike both of those composers, Glière never had any conflicts, artistically or personally, with the Soviet government. He toed the line, teaching at the Moscow Conservatory, composing more traditional music, and largely staying out of the “formalism” debate in Russian music schools. As a result, he was rewarded by the Stalin regime, winning the Stalin Prize for Arts in 1946 for this Concerto for Coloratura Soprano.

 

  • Judd Greenstein (b. 1979), A E I O U – The vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth have a mission statement: they are dedicated to reimagining the expressive potential of the human voice. This eight-member ensemble made waves in 2013 when Caroline Shaw, a member of the group, became the youngest person ever to win a Pulitzer Prize for Music for her work Partita for 8 Voices, written for the ensemble. On that same CD, Roomful of Teeth recorded other works that fulfilled their mission statement, recording original music by composers like Merrill Garbus of the band tUnE-yArDs and composer Judd Greenstein. Greenstein’s work A E I O U is a showcase of the virtuosic capabilities of the vocal ensemble, removing all words and using only vowel sounds instead. Greenstein is a New York based composer and a graduate of Yale and Princeton, who has written works for other prominent new music ensembles, including yMusic and the NOW Ensemble.

 

  • Bobby McFerrin (b. 1950), “Circlesong One” – While it may sound like this piece has words, these are in fact nonsense syllables. On his 1997 album Circlesongs, singer Bobby McFerrin took the jazz idea of scat singing—improvisatory singing with nonsense syllables—and applied it to large ensemble choral singing. The album features an ensemble McFerrin called the Voicestra, an ensemble of professional singers drawn from different practices, including Paul Hillier (an acclaimed early music vocalist), Sussan Deyhim (an Iranian folk musician), and Janice Siegel (from the jazz group Manhattan Transfer). The result are eight “Circlesongs,” fully improvised choral works based on musical ideas and nonsense vocalizations invented by McFerrin on the spot. The album was a crossover hit for McFerrin. And two decades later, he reformed the Voicestra and went on tour, creating spontaneously invented choral music in front of audiences worldwide.

Music Heard On This Episode

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