Lehmann was a legendary artist who was successful in both opera and lied. Surely, she would not have been a Prima donna in opera if she had not mastered the requisite vocal technique. This chapter discusses some of the central aspects of Lehman’s singing on pre-war recordings. Legato, portamento, messa di voce, vibrato, rhythmic and tempo flexibility are the main aspects that Lehmann used to expressive effect. 

  • Legato and Portamento 

          Legato and portamento are the essential elements in singing that are similar but have different meanings and sounding results. There are many aspects that distinguish legato and portamento, but there is some debate in the literature about the use and definition of these terms. Vocal pedagogue Manuel Garcia II (1805-1906) indicates legato as slurred sounds that the air must be in continuous pressure to connect all the notes. He explains: 

To sing legato means to pass from one sound to another in a neat, sudden, and smooth manner, without interrupting the flow of the voice; yet not allowing it to drag or slur over any intermediate sound. In this case as with slurred sounds, the air must be subjected to a regular and continuous pressure, so as intimately to unite all the notes with each other.1

This definition of legato by Garcia is similar to pedagogue Francesco Lamperti’s (1811-1892) definition of portamentoLamperti (1890) explained portamento as ‘passing from one note to the other by slurring the voice but in such a manner that the intervening notes are heard as little as possible’.2 Garcia explained con portamento ‘to slur is to conduct the voice from one note to another through all intermediate sounds.’3 Portamento is most similar to legato in the manner in which it allows for continuity of tone and rhythmic flexibility, portamento occurs between any two notes either ascending or descendingor portamento can appear as a scoop such as with slides over a repeated pitch or slides into the beginning of a phrase from silence.  This continuity of tone can cause an early or late arrival on different melodic notes in relation to the accompaniment. As a consequenceportamento will blur the exact rhythmic and location of pitches.  

          Although Lamperti writes: ‘Legato means passing from one note to another quickly, so that the voice does not dwell upon the intervening notes just as if it were executed upon a piano or any other keyed instrument, his statement does not distinguish any concrete delineation between portamento and legato.4 This explanation will be confusing for us to understand if we listen to Adelina Patti’s (1843-1919) singing who was a former student of Garcia. The way she used portamento and legato were likely perceived differently by musicians of the past than by those of today. This might explain much of the pedagogical writings of the time suggesting the use of portamento with great discretion - since perhaps much of what we now hear as portamento was back then heard as legato. However, legato and portamento by function have different roles. Legato is a general rule in every kind of singing. Lamperti writes: He who cannot sing Legato cannot sing well5 (chi non lega non canta). Meanwhile, portamento functions as an expressive tool. It is used to color specific words for dramatic effect, in accordance with the text.6 Musicologist Johnn Potter in his article “The Rise and Fall of Portamento” explains that portamento can also be used as a declamatory or rhetorical device for singers to show their expression.  

Gliding from note to note has rhetorical implications for tempo: the singer can control the pace of the phrase by sliding, and has the possibility of introducing para-linguistic tropes such as sighing, sobbing, and other effects designed to manage the rhetorical communication of emotion.7

          Musicologist Kai Köpp classified portamento into six different types based on a comparison of early recordings and violin and vocal treatises from the 19th century. Köpp adds violinist Louis Spohr’s explanations from his Violinschule of how vocal portamentos are technically achieved in string playing for greater clarity: 

Portamento Techniques in 19th -Century String and Vocal Practice:8  

  • PL: (Portamento Langsam) Sliding with one finger during a slur 

(Small intervals up to a perfect fourth, according to Spohr) 

  • PS: (Portamento Schnell) Sliding with two different fingers during a slur  

(Large intervals of a perfect fifth or greater; Spohr prefers sliding with the guide finger rather than with the arrival finger) 

  • I: (Intonazione) Sliding into the beginning of a phrase 

(Small intervals, sliding with the arrival finger) 

  • C: (Cercar della nota) Sliding with the arrival finger after a bow change 

(Small and large intervals) 

  • A: (Anticipazione della nota) Sliding with the arrival finger before the bow change 

(Small and large intervals) 

  • L: (Librar la voce) Changing fingers on the same note 

(Small intervals) 

          Today portamento is often viewed as an unwanted effect.9 After the Second World War, portamento is one of the elements of vocal performance style that changed most radically. Potter notes: ‘taste has clearly moved on from Garcia's day, when portamento was considered an aid to sincerity. He argues that Lotte Lehmann reduced the use amount of portamento over the course of the war in her performances. Martha Elliot in her book “Singing in Style suggests that portamento should not be overused as it will become a tasteless mannerism. The norms accepted by listeners in the past in this regard are very different.10 Soprano and researcher Sarah Potter thus situates portamento in today's practice as follows: 

The portamento is an element of historical singing all but ignored in modern performances of historical repertoire, despite protestations by those in the academic community. This is most likely due to its gradual decline in popularity during the twentieth century; the technique is now often regarded as old-fashioned, and something that is only to be heard used consistently in early recordings. 11 

The rejection of portamento in modern practice results in cleaner performancesThis rhymes well with the ideologies of mainstream performance practice. Stam notes: 

As a result, portamento challenges the framework of neatness and tidiness considered desirable in MSPs. Teachers, juries and conductors have told me on numerous occasions not to use portamento in my performances, even in repertoires where historical evidence shows that portamento was used frequently by musicians closely associated with those works. [...] early recordings demonstrate that the technique, along with devices like tempo and rhythmic flexibility, was widely used by string players and singers connected with late-19th and early-20th century repertoires.12

  • Vibrato and Messa di Voce 

          Vibrato and messa di voce are important to the performances of both pre-war and post-war singers. As a pre-war singer, Lehmann explained 

One seldom hears a voice which is capable of altering its timbre. For me it goes absolutely against the grain to sing always with the same tone color. Dynamics gradations seems dead without the animating interplay of dark and light, clear and restrained.13 

Leech-Wilkinson argues that post-war singers rely heavily on the intensity of vibrato for expression.14 Vibrato can be viewed as uniting the color of the voice. In lied singing, vibrato is often used as an expressive tool. Vibrato is pictured in spectrograms as a wavy line.15 An unstable vibrato or wide continuous vibrato that produces a wobbly sound is viewed as unacceptable in any genre and as a sign of unhealthy singing technique 

          The relationship between vibrato and messa di voce can also be viewed through the lens of violin technique. Musicologist Clive Brown observes: ‘In nineteenth-century string music particularly the sign <>, evidently related to the traditional messa di voce which was normally associated with vibrato, came increasingly to imply a vibrato when placed over a single note.16 

          The literal meaning of messa di voce from Italian is the mass or emission of voice. It is a dynamic produced through crescendo from pp to ff before returning with a decrescendo from ff to pp. Musicologist Richard Millerexplains that this could also be a test of how well breath emission and vocal fold approximation are coordinated. Singers must understand how to maintain consistency of timbre and vibrancy during a change of intensity. He writes,  

If early depletion of the breath supply happens before completion of sustained phonation, or if vocal fold closure becomes slack before the exact moment of release, the tone is breathy and loses vibrancy. […] A singer must first be able to execute clean, vibrant onsets on short phonations to achieve proper vowel definitions and sostenuto control.17 

According to Miller, singers often misapplied messa di voce by interrupting musical phrases or poetic ideas with it, thereby destroying the stylistic effectThe constantly altering dynamics in every syllable will remove any sense of direction in the vocal line.18

          Due to the limitations of early recording technology, the horn that used as a microphone device was unable to capture the full frequency spectrum of Lehmann's voice. The strong loud sound would cause distortion or the needle jumping. The pre-war singers who dealt with the wax cylinder recordings technology, had to move back and forth to control their dynamics and remembered where they should stand at particular moments of the aria or song. Lehmann referred to this as ‘more dancing than singing’However, despite of these limitation Lehmann succeeds to draw her dynamics line clearly. Gary Hickling the author of “Lotte Lehmann & Her Legacy” wrote “we now marvel at the ability of the artist to concentrate on singing as they moved about and dealt with the other technical considerations.19

  • Rhythmic and Tempo Flexibility 

           Early recordings demonstrate flexibility and freedom in the approach taken to rhythm rarely found in contemporary MSPs. MSP performances aim for steadiness and vertical togetherness in rhythm which precludes this kind of flexibilityContemporary concepts of tempo and rhythm thus run counter to both Lehmann’s ideas and her approach as heard on recordings. She writes that: “Singing should never be just a straight going ahead, it should have a sweeping flow, it should glide in soft rhythmical waves which follow one another harmoniously”.20 Sarah Potter argues that in the twentieth century, the modern sense of simultaneous onset and regular tactus became the norm, while early recordings show great tempo variation. She notes: Changes in tempo could be large scale, affecting whole movements, sections, or phrases, or much more localised, affecting only sections of a phase, a single bar, or even one or two individual notes.21  

          Rhythmic flexibility plays an essential part in pre-war expressive singing. Vocal pedagogue, Lili Lehmann (1848-1929, no relation to Lotte) notes: Even if not indicated, the rhythm must sometimes be hastened a little or sometimes not noticeably broadened. Lili Lehmann also gives a more general view about the importance of rhythmic flexibility to make fine, expressive shading.22 

          What is called Tempo rubato was seen as part of this rhythmic flexibility whereas Garcia also makes usof the terms accelerando and rallentando: Accelerando and rallentando movements require the voice and accompaniment to proceed in concert, whereas tempo rubato allows liberty to the voice only.’ In other words, Garcia suggests that in tempo rubatthe voice will become desynchronized with the accompaniment. Garcia also argues that tempo rubato should be resorted to only in passages where the harmony is stable or only slightly varied. He described this as follows: 

By tempo rubato is meant the momentary increase of value, which is given to one or several sounds, to the detriment of the rest, while the total length of the bar remains unaltered. This distribution of notes into long and short, breaks the monotony of regular movements, and gives greater vehemence to bursts of passion.23  

Tempo rubato as described by Garcia is very different from today’s practice. Garcia’s tempo rubato might mean singing some notes longer and other notes shorter than their notated length, making them no longer synchronized with the accompaniment. This is quite different from modern conceptions of rubato, in which singers most often slow down and are followed in this slowing by the accompaniment in order to emphasize high points in a phrase or phrase-endings 

          Lehmann’s own recordings demonstrate greater use of the kind of rhythmic flexibility described by Garcia before the war and a gradual straightening out of her rhythmic approach post-war. Her tempo rubato, as described by Garcia above appears often in her 1930s recordings while from 1941 her approach is more likely to be vertically aligned with the accompanimentHaving said this, her approach is still far more flexible than most other renowned singers of the post-war generation.