Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, and… Benjamin Britten

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I think it started with Whitney Houston. Then Mariah Carey. And then it spread to any R&B singer with a record deal. And then American Idol. And now, just about every YouTube video you see.

It’s melisma. In singing, it’s any discrete changing of pitch while sustaining a single syllable. A common technique in baroque vocal music as well as ancient church practices of all western religions, it has become the hallmark of virtuosity. “Good” singing has become measured in extraneous flourishes, grace notes, and the extending of a phrase well past any reasonable proportion.

So what is there to do? Well. Nothing, really. Just hunker down and hope this strange, overwrought mannerism falls out of fashion eventually.

In the meantime, I present you a more character motivated example of melisma in Benjamin Britten’s masterpiece Peter Grimes.

This first excerpt is Peter’s tragic fantasy of an imagined life with Ellen Orford, one of two townspeople who shows him any kindness at all. Against a repeated triplet accompaniment, Peter’s fantasy gets more and more elaborate as it continues, each verse shoving more pitches into each syllable in an attempt to will this fantasy into existence. The first verse is done straight, the second (0:48) has two notes per syllable, the last verse (1:21) has five notes for each two syllables (three then two). Be sure to marvel at Peter Pears’s seemingly effortless B natural at 1:51. That guy could sing!

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Then a few moments later, a different fantasy takes over.  Peter is haunted by a vision of the young apprentice who died under his care before the opera started. The triplet accompaniment from his fantasy is transformed into an erie bitonal mockery by the piccolo and oboe, yet the dreamlike, melismatic vocal line remains. Note the same progression of the use of melisma in the phrase, first one note per syllable, then two, and finally five for each two, as if his nightmarish vision is become more and more elaborate as it lingers.

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Fast forward to the end of the opera. It’s Peter’s last stand, he’s wandering the foggy shoreline as the people in his neighborhood are cheerfully searching for him, hoping to swap recipes, borrow some sugar, and lynch him for causing the death of his young apprentice. Whoops. Make that two apprentices.

Peter hears his neighbors calling his name, and he responds, echoing his name in a deranged lament, culminating in a baleful 12 note melisma. He is beyond repair. There is no future, no hope, nothing to look forward to.

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Thanks to Chloe Veltman for reminding me of this pet peeve in her recent article on the more tortured renditions of God Bless America we’ve endured this post season.

And thanks to this foul-mouthed Whitney Houston wannabe, for reminding me of the same.

One Response to Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, and… Benjamin Britten

  1. David says:

    That video is so terrifying.

    I shall not sleep this even’.

    Thanks Brian. Thanks a lot.

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