Guided Listening #4: Four Voices

For this Guided Listening you will need the following:

A copy of these teaching steps
Audio asset: Excerpt from Five Songs for Dark Voice by Harry Somers
Audio asset: Excerpt from Lonely Child by Claude Vivier
Audio asset: Excerpt from Songs for an Acrobat by Linda Bouchard
Audio asset: Excerpt from Au Château de Pompairain by Bruce Mather
Text asset: Harry Somers, Five Songs for Dark Voice
Text asset: Claude Vivier, Lonely Child
Text asset: Linda Bouchard, Songs for an Acrobat
Text asset: Bruce Mather, Au Château de Pompairain

I. Listen and Identify

  • Ask students to name all voice types that they know (soprano, etc.). List on the board under the heading “voice types” and jot down any of the information students give you about each type.
  • Listen to each of the excerpts. Ask: what kind of voice it is, can you describe the sound qualities (range and colour), and do you know the name of the singer?
  • Pause for discussion about each excerpt and chart student responses on the board.
  • Here is the abbreviated information about each of the excerpts:

Five Songs for Dark Voice by Harry Somers
Voice type – contralto
Singer – Maureen Forrester

Lonely Child by Claude Vivier
Voice type – soprano
Singer – Sylvia McNair

Songs for an Acrobat by Linda Bouchard
Voice type - baritone
Singer - Kevin McMillan

Au Château de Pompairain by Bruce Mather
Voice type – mezzo soprano
Singer – Phyllis Mailing

II. Discuss

  • Form four groups and distribute copies of the text assets about the excerpts. Assign one reading per group so that all four composers and works are covered.
  • As the groups read about their composition, ask them to consider:
    • What might have prompted the composer's decision in choosing a specific voice range? Would the piece be as effective if it had been written for another voice range?
  • Allow time for groups to read and discuss, and then have each group present their conclusions to the class.
  • Teacher note: Some points to draw out in the group discussion are the composer choices.
    • For instance three of the four compositions are written for middle to low voice ranges, and the upper range is not exploited extensively in the one piece for a higher (soprano) voice. Considering that the showiest voices of the singing world are soprano and tenor, the use of the less flashy voice ranges is interesting. Why might a composer have opted for composing for lower voices?
    • Also important to point out is Maureen Forrester whose contralto voice is a relatively rare occurrence. A contralto is lower than mezzo and has a darker, thicker sound. There are debates about what exactly distinguishes a contralto from a mezzo but most would agree that the great contralto voices of this century include Marion Anderson, Kathleen Ferrier, and Maureen Forrester. Share the following:
      • Lyricist Michael Fram's daughter describes her father's with the composer and Maureen Forrester “I remember well the Songs for Dark Voice, and Maureen Forrester singing them at our house, with my father and Harry Somers looking on. The most marvelous voice, huge yet gentle, filling our tiny living room, but not overpowering.”

III. Composer Strategy

  • Ask: How can we describe the strategies these composers used to write for the human voice? (writing for a chosen singer, choosing a text and then choosing a voice range). Add these strategies to your Composing Strategies for the Voice chart.

Excerpt from Five Songs for Dark Voice by Harry Somers (0:01:33)

Excerpt from Five Songs for Dark Voice by Harry Somers - Play now

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This is the first of five songs describing human isolation. Notice the unique colour and depth of the contralto voice.

“Now every grief is personal. How can I walk in this city? Too many sightless eyes, too many hopeless hands, too many and too many. Now every grief is personal. Too many avenues of pity, How can I walk in this city?”

Excerpt II from Lonely Child by Claude Vivier (0:01:39)

Excerpt II from Lonely Child by Claude Vivier - Play now

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This excerpt begins with the now familiar sound of the rin. Listen carefully to the voice – you may find it difficult to determine what language it is in. Much of the text in Lonely Child is French but in this instance, Vivier is using a language he has invented, made up of sounds that are familiar and not. The effect is mysterious and somewhat hypnotic.

Excerpt from Songs for an Acrobat by Linda Bouchard (0:01:05)

Excerpt from Songs for an Acrobat by Linda Bouchard - Play now

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The orchestra portrays the anger and agony of dealing with serious illness as described in the poem, White.

“Walls whiter than a blind man’s cane. Sheets are icy paper showing no trace of a real story. The constant parade of arms and legs, a distorted mask peeking in every door. Hands white from holding too tight the leather and iron chair with crushing silent wheels. In this arctic waiting hell, words roll out like white smoke from the mouths of a crew holding you hostage. I will free you.”

Excerpt I from Au Château de Pompairain by Bruce Mather (0:01:17)

Excerpt I from Au Château de Pompairain by Bruce Mather - Play now

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This excerpt from Bruce Mather’s Au Château de Pompairain is full of contrasts. Mezzo soprano Phyllis Mailing sings an expansive and animated passage, all without text. The orchestral accompaniment shimmers with the sounds of gongs, tubular bells and cymbals.

Text asset: Harry Somers, Five Songs for Dark Voice
Harry Somers (1925-1999), wrote Five Songs for Dark Voice in collaboration with writer Michael Fram. The work was commissioned by the Stratford Festival in 1956 for a young Maureen Forrester. The five songs flow together to describe human isolation within a bleakly described city. Fram and Somers were known to work collaboratively together, going back and forth with in the development of the music and lyrics. Maureen Forrester describes the composer's choice as “Most alto works are – as the title of Harry Somer's cycle for me puts it – dark songs for the dark voice. Singers see in colours and they can plan the shading they want.”

Text asset: Claude Vivier, Lonely Child
Vivier (1948-1983) was born in Montréal and died tragically in Paris, France, shortly before his thirty-fifth birthday. He was an orphan who never knew his mother. The vocal line of Lonely Child is written for soprano and covers a spectrum of emotions ranging from strangely emotionless to caressing warmth, suggesting perhaps the voice of the mother Vivier could only imagine.

Vivier builds the entire composition upon a single melody which is heard at the start. (Note that it is familiar interval of the falling third, childlike in nature.) His text alternates between French and invented language, which creates an unusual set of sounds for the singer to produce. Vivier makes exquisite use of colour both in the vocal line and the orchestration, which is scored to include the hauntingly mysterious sounds of gong, tam tam, rin, brake drums, vibraphone and tubular chimes.

Text asset: Linda Bouchard, Songs for an Acrobat
Linda Bouchard (b. 1957) is one of Canada's most prolific and well known composers. As an active proponent of contemporary music she has organized concerts to showcase new composers and their works. Bouchard composes for a wide range of genres including chamber music, vocal, dance and orchestra.

Songs for an Acrobat is the orchestration of a set of poems by the Quebec writer Maurice Tourigny (1954-1999). The poems follow the course of love, sickness, death, and new life without the beloved. Bouchard's orchestrations are powerful and mirror the richness of the text. The vocal line, sung by baritone Kevin McMillan ranges from lyrical to percussive, with nuances stretched out and shaded, deepened by the vivid orchestration. “Music is colour, texture and rhythm and the live instrumentalists create the alchemy” says Bouchard.

Text asset: Bruce Mather, Au Château de Pompairain
Bruce Mather (b. 1939) began composing early in life and by the age of ten had already won a prize from CAPAC for a piano composition. He was a composition student of Godfrey Ridout and Oskar Morawetz in Canada and later studied at the Paris Conservatoire with Darius Milhaud and Olivier Messiaen.

Au Château de Pompairain was written while the composer Bruce Mather was on a sabbatical in France. The process of writing commissioned work was lengthy – five months in total and with seven starts. Written for mezzo soprano Phyllis Mailing, the vocal line is textless and sung to ah. The orchestration is rich in timbre and creates a tapestry of sound with percussion instruments such as marimba, tubular bells, gongs and cymbals. The harp is often paired in conversation with the voice to beautiful effect.

Credits and Copyright

  • Audio asset: Excerpt from Five Songs for Dark Voice by Harry Somers
    1956, Harry Somers
  • Audio asset: Excerpt from Lonely Child by Claude Vivier
    1980, Claude Vivier
  • Audio asset: Excerpt from Songs for an Acrobat by Linda Bouchard
    1995, Linda Bouchard
  • Audio asset: Excerpt from Au Château de Pompairain by Bruce Mather
    1975, Bruce Mather
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