Art Songs by the Beatles

Did you know that the Beatles wrote “art songs”? Yep. Did you know that Bob Dylan wrote songs that don’t deserve a beautiful voice?

Well, that’s the attitude I ran into tonight at a venue on the Upper West Side. The material presented was largely not classical, but it was certainly presented in a quasi-classical manner. That this kind of performance somehow “elevates” it seems implied. The essential elements written into the music (like rhythmic clarity) were missing as was the vocal quality one expects to come along with the style.

This is a tough situation to address. On the one hand, the singing was indeed excellent, from a vocal production point of view, and in some instances it was close to appropriate to the material being performed, but, and this is a big one, it other cases, it was completely out of keeping with what the composers had in mind when the songs were written.

Sadly, I missed Audra MacDonald’s recent performance as Billie Holiday but everyone I know (who knows singing) all raved about her performance because she did not sing like an opera singer, she sang like a jazz artist, and she did not “classicalize” Billie’s songs. That was certainly not the case this evening. It seems to me that you need to honor the composers on both sides of the fence. If you are going to hold to bel canto as a style that is different from verismo, or Handelian style as being different from Puccini, then you need to honor The Beatles just as much as Bob Dylan or Duke Ellington and sing the music the way they expected it to be sung. This is not an impossible standard to uphold.

That this is ignorance or arrogance is hard to determine. Perhaps it is both. There are, as I frequently say, no voice police, and no one is likely to step in and say, “Hey, don’t you know this is old-fashioned? Don’t you realize that you are doing something that isn’t really acceptable in the places where this music has its roots and is still being performed now? Don’t you care?” Vocal diversity isn’t that hard to manage and most singers can do far more with their voices than they are encouraged to do in traditional classical training. That they are encouraged to make everything some version of “classical” is a shame. That this idea is perpetuated by those in a position of authority is even more of a disappointment.

We have a very long way to go before vocal training is universally understood and before all singing and all singers can sing authentically in any style. What will help, however, is for those who understand the difference, and want to uphold the integrity of all composers and all styles, is to step up to the plate and object (politely, of course) when there is an opportunity. If we say nothing, things don’t change.

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