We don’t know how the great singers of the 15th, 16th, 17th and 18th centuries sounded. There are some writings about them and musicologists think they have figured out what the sounds were like. They have decided that certain things about music from those times are stylistically correct and others are not, based on what they have read. When they get new information, they change their thinking. One very big assumption was that there was generally no vibrato in the early days of classical singing. Straight tone was considered somehow “better” in certain circles, especially that of choral conductors, but now, that is held less rigidly as an idea. Things change.
The “castrati” were supposedly able to sing with great power and agility and were famous in their day for their feats of vocal stamina and expertise. We don’t really have an idea of how a mature male would sound after having been trained for decades even though his voice had never changed. It surely wouldn’t sound the same as any of the present moment lyric tenors who sing in a very high range, or as our countertenors who sing mostly in a “re-inforced” falsetto, but who also (typically) retain their normal chest dominant speech.
In fact, the world of musicology and ethnomusicology is fascinating because it looks at music as an expression of history and culture. I wonder what scholars of two or three hundred years from now will make of our musical culture? We leave behind millions of recordings and many thousands of films and TV shows of all kinds for them to see and hear but they may not be able to understand who was famous for what reason and why some music stayed around but other music disappeared.
You don’t much hear now what used to be called “Irish Tenors” or light lyric tenors. Even the famous “Three Tenors” who were actually from Ireland weren’t all “Irish Tenors” in the sense that John McCormack was, or even Dennis Day. Robert White, a present moment light lyric tenor, is in this category and he has had a very good career, but it’s a special niche which, for the moment at least, is not much in the “mainstream”. I guess Michael Jackson was a lyric tenor but we hardly think of him that way, mostly due the style of music he sang and the electronic interface that was always there impacting in his vocal output.
I often think that the classical music that will go on into the next several hundred years is that which was written for films. The average person can relate, for the most part, to the music written by John Williams, and understands it to be “classical” even if the classical world turns up its nose at him. Modern composers, whose music is well accepted by the cognoscenti, may have their music described as being “ethereal” or “transcendant” but, frequently, it’s not very memorable. Hmmmmmm. People remember what touches their hearts, not what impresses their intellect. Time will tell.
Indeed, when the various famous vocalists of the past hundred years died, they left behind their energy through their vocal recordings or even their movie musicals, in a way that no previous human beings had ever had an opportunity to do. Even though some of these great singers have been dead for quite a while, we can still hear them every day on the radio, as background music in the restaurants, or in other venues. If it’s true that the sound carries the vibration of the soul, in a very real way, these people are more with us than gone. Something to ponder.
In a way, their song may be over, but their melodies linger on. That’s true for John Lennon, for Billy Holliday, Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Pavarotti, Tebaldi, Elvis, Michael Jackson, Barry Gibb, and Whitney Houston. It could be true for you, too, if you make a recording. Wouldn’t you like your melody to stay around after you are no longer amongst us?