OW SHOULD we interpret Renaissance music? This question will undoubtedly elicit as many different responses as we have readers. Hermann Finck (d. 1558), an organist and theorist, wrote about choral sound and performance. 1 I think his words are worth considering.
Specifically, Finck wrote a treatise called Practica Musica (published in 1556AD) and complained that some singers sounded like bleating goats, suggesting that in polyphonic music:
“…the treble and alto should not ascend too high, and no voice should overpower the others and disturb us by shouting—or be so strained that the singer changes color, becoming black in the face or seeming to run out of breath, such as those basses who buzz like a hornet inside a boot, or puff and blow like a burst bellows.”
“The treble should be sung with a delicate and sonorous tone, the bass, however, with a harder and heavier tone: the middle voices should move with uniformity and try to match themselves to the outer parts sweetly and harmoniously.”
He suggests that the dynamic level of each voice should remain rather constant…
“…so that there is no discrepancy in sound between the beginning and the end: the tone should not be too soft or too loud, but rather—like a properly built organ—the ensemble should remain unaltered and constant. […] The higher a voice rises, the quieter and more gentle should be the tone; the lower it goes, the richer should be the sound, just as in an organ. […] When there is a tasteful point of imitation at the beginning of a work this is to be rendered with a more definite and distinct tone than is employed elsewhere, and the following parts—if they start with the same point as the first—should perform it in the same way. This should be observed by all the parts whenever a new point occurs.”
Julie Anne Sadie has attempted to interpret what Finck had in mind, and here are her conclusions:
Finck called for a sweet and tender treble and a bright, sonorous bass. In the church style the voices were expected to merge imperceptibly: as basses rise in pitch, they should sound like tenors, while rising tenors should sound like altos and altos like trebles, necessitating the use of falsetto or head voice; when descending, voices should approach the timbre of the next below. By comparison, modern choral singing is top-heavy, with singers trying to maintain their tonal quality throughout their range.
NOTES FROM THIS ARTICLE:
1 The full title of Finck’s 1556 publication was Practica musica, exempla variorum signorum, proportionum, et canonum, judicium de tonis ac quaedam de arte suaviter et artificiose cantandi continens.