– a broken bridge or a cliff?


            "I’ve always enjoyed research, try­ing to find for­got­ten music to enlarge the rep­er­toire, being that con­tem­por­ary com­posers can’t seem to write for opera sing­ers like me. It would be won­der­ful to work with a com­poser writ­ing for [sic] just for us. Moz­art wrote his operas know­ing the voices of the sing­ers who would inter­pret the roles. Today, it’s no longer like that: atonal music cre­ates a bar­rier between com­poser and singer, so in order to find new music to sing I have to search in the past."[1]

This quote is from Cecilia Bartoli, one of the world's leading singers, speaking about the 'problem' at issue here.The writer of the article from ‘Schmopera’ however, criticises this statement heavily: “Does Cecilia really think that the composer-singer relationship stopped after Mozart? … Composers have been writing for singers they know for as long as there have been composers and singers. I mean, there's Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, Carlisle Floyd and Phyllis Curtin, Francis Poulenc and Denis Duval...” [2] The writer then challenges singers of modern music to ‘defend’ today’s vocal writing:  “Contemporary singers, what say you? How does newly written music stack up to the singability of Mozart and his friends? Are today's composers irreverent of the singer's task? Is Cecilia Bartoli right?”[3] But what mostly grabbed me, was the essence of the suggestion to the singer, which could be my own message to singers as well: "It would be wonderful to work with a composer..." So do it? Work with a living composer, and educate him or her about what makes good vocal writing, about the natural demands and limitations of different voices.[4]





2.1. A short look at a long relationship


            Composing and singing was not always separated in the Western civilization. In the ancient way of music making, often the singer is his own composer (from the troubadours even until modern singer-songwriters—or think of any folk music). Our classical traditions however divide this ancient ‘androgynous creature’, and separate it into either composer or singer. Thus begins a thousand year long relationship.

Opera then adds a new element: a singer is also an actor. This slowly develops into a change in the power structure, where singers, who became stars (think of the castrati), even sung other arias from previous operas, if they didn’t like what the composer had written for them. A slow turn from there is the end of 19th century and especially the 20th, where more precise notation and respect for innovation places the composer in such a high position that often the singer has no space for their own personal interpretation, and is looked upon just as an executor.


2.2. The ‘break’


            In the 19th century, besides opera, lied also gets stronger – a need for chamber music, more concentrated focus, smaller performing spaces, performing for a group of friends, and working really closely with your singer and even your poet.

On the other side, in the opera industry, capitalism takes over: fitting in more audience members requires both growing halls and growing voices, which results in most focus being placed on singers' sound production. Other musical and scenic parameters might suffer from that. Thus, the two mentalities drive each other to extremes, up until a breaking point comes.

            With the turn of the 20th century new ideologies arise with the couleur local— looking for one’s own identity, national identities, and the importance of folk music. Kodály and Bartók, to mention examples from my own musical background, are famous for their work in collecting folk songs. Yet when putting their findings on stage, they still work with classically trained singers, who present the folk melodies in a canonized form, so it appeals to learned listeners who are used to that sound. Their accompaniments also resemble the fashionable, mainly Germanic music of their times, only incorporating folk motives and turning it into their own Hungarian flavour. The same process can be seen in America with Gershwin for example: jazz is born, from Afro-American influences, and later fuses with Anglo-Saxon and Irish influences and develops into pop and rock. Exotic traditions also came with the Paris World Exposition at the turn of the new century, and influenced many composers (for example the gamelan from Indonesia had a huge impact on impressionists and later reaches even Messiaen, who incorporates it as a basic element of his music). The search for new voices is on. Sprächgesang was used by Schönberg to alienate the singer, often even using a non-trained voice of an actress.

            Amplification changes everything of course. The focus shifts from producing sound to expressivity. Connecting to audiences through vulnerable and ‘honest’ sounds (as later discussed in chapter 3). It allows the singer to drop the projection, resonance and bigger vibrato, used to fill a concert hall, and makes it possible to incorporate any sound from this ‘honest’ speech-like singing, thus strengthening the communication between performer and listener. Pop singing too – a generation of composers grew up on this sound ideal, and continue writing vocal pieces in that style. The ‘problem’ comes however, when they are still written for classical voices, which ‘shouldn’t sound classical’. Electronics develop rapidly, new sounds and hybrids of what we can do with the voice and how to process it digitally. Recently, even singing machines and simulators are being developed.

            In the last 30-40 years, completely new aesthetics arrived too: those like sound-based art, zero aesthetic, ‘found object aesthetics’ from sonology. All derive from creative processes, where creating a system that generates the sounds or the music itself, and the creator doesn’t interfere, but is an observer. The taste of how we listen to this music is also ‘non-narrative’, in a way non-human, so performing it also requires a new attitude. In many genres improvisation became a basic tool, being up-to-date and having a broad taste both as performer and creator – and even as listener! - is essential. Nowadays we live in a totally multicultural environment. A creator can ‘pick’ his own influences, and virtually anything is accessible. The ‘Common knowledge’, as they still speak about it in Hungary for example, doesn’t exist anymore in the West. Each and every individual has their own taste, and develops knowledge in different subjects. In such a context thus we start observing how the relationship between modern composers and classically trained singers has come to be.


2.3. Famous couples


            It could be a research topic on his own to observe the endless variations on famous composer-singer relationships, and how sometimes they extended beyond purely working connections: “Just think of Mozart and the four Weber sisters, marital in the case of Rossini and his famous wife Isabella Colbran, to the amorous in the case of Puccini’s multiple affairs. Occasionally it was one singer that caught the attention of numerous composers, like Giuditta Pasta, who had multiple roles written specifically for her ranging from Bellini’s Norma and Sonnambula to Donizetti’s Anna Bolena.”[1] In some cases the composer even got married to his muse, like in the case of Richard Strauss and Pauline de Ahna, whom Strauss describes as “very complex, very feminine, a little perverse, a little coquettish, never like herself, at every minute different from how she had been a moment before.”[2] She captured his attention after she threw a piano score at him in 1894, during a rehearsal of his first opera, Guntram (that wasn’t really a success). Was her violent act (that charmed Strauss for a lifetime) a protest against his innovative vocal composing? As the author of the article about their relationship says: "Her presence is felt in the power and sensuality with which he wrote for the female voice, whether in the frenzied finale scene of Salome, the celebrated trio towards the end of Der Rosenkavalier, or the ecstatic and soaring lines of his solo songs, including his wedding present to Pauline, Cäcilie."[3] We see that beyond their love relationship her personality and singing influenced his way of thinking about composing for the voice in general.

            Another famous couple from later in the 20th century is obviously Luciano Berio and Cathy Berberian. They were married between 1950-1966: “In 1957, at a John Cage concert in Rome, she sang his Aria with Fontana Mix”[4]—this was her first big break through in the contemporary scene. “In a series of works (notably Circles, Sequenza III, Visage and Recital I) he was inspired by her vocal virtuosity, darting, witty intelligence and vivid presence, in effect limned the voices, styles and temperament of this remarkable performer."[5]

            Many more couples could be discussed, but as in any interpersonal relationship, it is one thing to make generalised observations, and another to test yourself such connections. As I have an extensive empiric experience in such collaborations from both sides, I already collected quite some issues and solutions myself. Yet, to contextualise them, I conducted two interviews, and use them as sources: one from each ‘side’—to check if my suspicions are matched by the professional lives of remarkable singers and composers, to challenge my views and those of my interview subjects, and to underline my findings in this research.


[2] "The composer and his muse: Richard Strauss’ tempestuous relationship with his wife Pauline de Ahna,"

[3] “The Composer and his Muse: the great women behind great men,”

[4] Porter, Andrew. “Berberian, Cathy [Catherine]” Oxford Music Online, 2001

[5] Porter, Andrew. “Berberian, Cathy [Catherine]” Oxford Music Online, 2001


Strauss and his wife