Notating vocal music

December 30, 2010

When music students learn species counterpoint or Renaissance polyphony, we usually have them notate in time signatures like 4/2, 3/2 or 2/2, so the page is full of half notes and quarters–rarely will one see eighth notes. Since Stravinsky, composers have dropped the typical individual flag notation, common in Italian operas from the 18th and 19th centuries. These two old traditions have problems for the readers: one looks at the page and sees a forest of flagged notes or quarters flowing, uncertain exactly how many are in the group. Whereas when we use ligatures, or beams, the brain more readily recognizes groups of notes. Stravinsky’s vocal notation is all over the place: lots of 5/8-2/4-5/16 (Les Noces, Sacre) type music as well as the traditional 3/4-4/4 music (Symphony of Psalms); I don’t recall much 4/2-3/2 type notation in his scores. In this example from “Les Noces” his publisher has not yet embraced using ligatures for vocal notation, but it is there in the instrumental parts. You see him favoring the 3/8-2/8 notational choice.
noces exc

What is odd, is that in my most recent vocal chamber work, “Duarte Love Songs” scored for baritone, violin, cello and piano, three of the four movements are largely in 4/2, 3/2 and 2/2. I find that there is a “meatiness” in the sustain representation of a quarter note or a half note. Eighths and sixteenths, even at slow tempi, LOOK fast. And when I’m writing for a VOICE, the sustain is of utmost importance when I’m composing. So, it may just be a psychological composing device for me. Here is an excerpt of my piece using the 3/2-2/2 option.
I am unclear how performers like this olden music notation these days, I guess I’ll find out.

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