Italy—The Birth Place Of The Art Of Singing Pt. 1: Sinatra Evokes Singing Styles Of The Italian Masters
When I first began to register the qualities of Sinatra's voice and singing that I believed were exceptional, I realized that his art brings to American singing a much older tradition, a tradition that began in Italy several centuries ago. In his classic book, Early History Of Singing, W.J. Henderson describes how the art of singing evolved from its earliest roots in the choral music of the Middle Ages to its highest form of expression in the 17th and 18th (especially) centuries. Even though vocal music was first religious and only later operatic, in Early History Of Singing (pg. 183) Henderson describes what he calls “the early ideals of singing;” specifically how great singing was defined in the 16th century:
“At the same time the smooth and elegant delivery of Cantilena (or singing) retained its place in the system. In short, the cantabile (style of singing) with all that the name implies in sustained equality, smoothness, beauty of tone, in finish of phrasing and delicacy of accent, was one factor of the vocal art of this time, while the other was floridity with all that its name implies in the way of clarity, equality, undulating grace and airy suspension.”
It’s striking that this description bears a strong resemblance to how Sinatra's singing, at its best, is often described by critics and fans alike: long, smooth, and seamless phrasing, fine musicianship, outstanding clarity of voice, and skillfully modulated tonal nuance to fit the emotions expressed. Moreover, we hear in this little passage the essence of what much later would be called the Bel Canto singing style. There is no question that Sinatra’s singing, at its best, falls within that tradition.
There is another aspect of Sinatra’s art that is reminiscent of yet another ancient tradition of Italian singing. In the Roman Catholic music of the Middle Ages and Renaissance (e.g., plainchant), as well as in early Baroque operatic music, the word was king. Unlike modern music where the instrumental music plays a crucial role in creating melody lines, the music of Medieval, Renaissance, and early Baroque was constructed around the melody lines that arose directly out of the natural inflections of the words being sung. How the words were articulated reflected the general meaning of the music being performed (e.g., the worship of Christ). This form of word-based, articulation-based melodic music is called in musicological parlance “word melody.” In absolute word melody, all instrumental music is thoroughly reliant on word articulation for its melodic guidance; instrumental music does not have a melodic life of its own in pure word melody. If the voices were deleted from a representative work of Roman Catholic plainchant, for instance, as a sort of listening experiment, all melodic coherence and structure would instantly vanish. In this strict sense, word melody did not survive much past the early Baroque period (1600-1654).
In today’s vocal music, by contrast, singers are expected to observe the melody lines that are created by composers of the music and reinforced by instrumental accompaniment (mostly prearranged). Singers are also given “artistic license” to modify melody lines as long as they do so only minimally. (An exception is made for jazz singers who enjoy, and are given the freedom, to recompose melody lines as they sing.) Despite the importance of instrumental music and the singer’s artistic choices in creating melody lines in today’s music, many of the finest singers still place a special emphasis on word articulation as an essential part of their melodic approach, and so, in this sense, have a sort of word melody aspect to their styles.
Frank Sinatra, for instance, because of his uncompromising devotion to diction, lyrical meaning, and storyline, stands first among the greatest singers in this regard. A good example of a Sinatra version of word melody is his rendition of Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer’s classic, One For My Baby. Here, a very uncomplicated—in fact, almost sparse—piano accompaniment gives Sinatra the interpretive freedom to take the melodic lead and use the words (how they are articulated)—and the story they express—to create a word-based melody line that is simple, direct, and moving.
It’s doubtful that Sinatra learned his form of word melody singing by studying the melodic styles of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the early Baroque. It’s more likely, as at least one biographer has suggested, that his allegiance to word and storyline derives, at least in part, from his work as an actor, and that he incorporated into his singing style acting techniques that emphasize word articulation and narrative interpretation. This may true, but Sinatra never established this relationship firmly in print or in interviews. At most he said that he learned a song by first reciting its lyrics without any musical accompaniment— almost as if he were reciting a poem. It was only after he understood the lyrical intention (the storyline) of the song, and was able to express it in how he articulated (enunciated) the words, that he was ready to sing the lyrics together with the song’s music.