Vocal style in Wagner from the Golden Age to the Present – Lower Male Voices

Lower Male Voices

Any discussion of the singing of Wagner’s music in any period ought to start with the singing that Wagner himself imagined and the singers he heard. Another essential element in such a discussion must be Wagner’s own opinion on the singers of his time and what he expected of them. These two elements underpin any analysis of the vocal performances of his operas since his death, and draw a firm base line in order to make comparisons.

The mid-nineteenth century was a time of major change in composing for the voice, although much of the training of singers remained infused with the aims and precepts of the previous century: the era dominated by the castrati. Their technical expertise had evolved into the extraordinary flights of agility found in the music of Rossini, Donizetti, Mercadente and their contemporaries. Display had, for the moment, displaced meaning and truth; emotion was invoked in the audience as much by the singers’ skill as by the expression of the text. But at the same time, the second goal of the castrato training – faithful and truthfully expressed emotion created from the meaning of the words – existed at the same time in the work of composers like Spontini and Weber. A fusion of both sides of the training had already been achieved in a previous generation by Mozart – not really surprising as his early vocal tuition was from a castrato.

Notwithstanding the musical atmosphere of his youth, Wagner moved away from the prevailing worship of agility and followed the path pioneered by Glück, which put the accent on dramatic truth. Nevertheless, he believed strongly in the need for vocal training to be based on the principles of the previous century – clearly shown by his article Pasticcio, in 1834, which lists the technical requirements for good singing: a perfect trill and mordent, agility, legato, equalization of the registers and above all, singing in tune; with the proviso that the text should be clearly enunciated and made totally audible. An interesting insight into his opinion on vocal style is the pseudonym used at the end of his article: canto spianato, which translates as ‘smooth song’ – a spotlight on his devotion to legato singing. Alongside these beliefs towered his demand for dramatic truth and his insistence that the theatre, and particularly the musical theatre, should be a temple of meaning and emotion.

The production of Rienzi in Dresden gave him, for the first time, singers who could do justice to his music at the high standards he demanded, particularly the tenor Josef Tichatschek who became the model for every tenor role that followed. Also in the cast was Wilhelmine Schröder Devrient, whose committed dramatic performances some years before had been an inspiration. But it wasn’t until Tannhäuser that he met the baritone Anton Mitterwurzer who was to set the standard for baritone and bass-baritone roles in the future. Mitterwurzer was the first Wolfram and, although he was only twenty-seven, Wagner became impressed, not only with his voice and singing, but with his blotting- paper attitude to the advice showered on him by the Meister. Later, he was the first Kurwenal and also included Telramund and Hans Sachs in his wide repertoire, which included Glück, Marschner, and Weber. He owned a powerful voice and Wagner thought him both intelligent and a good actor. Which was more than could be said of the first Biterolf, Johann Michael Wächter, who, although the possessor of a fine voice, and whose singing was much praised by Berlioz, was a great disappointment to Wagner at the première of Der Fliegende Holländer. He thought him too overweight and totally unresponsive to drama; opposite Schröder Devrient, he showed himself to be a poor actor and quite out of his element. At the premiere of Lohengrin at Weimar under the direction of Liszt, the role of Telramund was entrusted to Hans Feodor von Milde, a regular at the court opera. He had studied with Manuel Garcia, one of the most famous and successful teachers of that period, whose great treatise was a synthesis of the method practised and taught by his distinguished father, one of Rossini’s virtuoso tenors. After Telramund, von Milde’s wide repertoire eventually included the Holländer, Kurwenal and Hans Sachs.

All these singers belonged to the generation before Wagner turned his attention to casting for the first performances of the Ring in 1876; by then Mitterwurzer and Wächter were dead, and the others were either retired or at the end of their careers. Although most of them had concentrated their careers on German roles, it is clear from their repertoires that all were baritones of some sort or another; there is not one bass amongst them. In Germany, following the pattern of the previous century, composers – including Beethoven, Weber and Marschner – wrote for baritones expecting them to be able to sing both high and low; the Italian style of writing for the higher tessitura favoured by Rossini, Donizetti and eventually Verdi, did not catch on in Germany. However, Wagner’s choice of singer for the role of Wotan had spent a large part of his career singing Italian and French music, but had distinguished himself from all other candidates by succeeding in the role of Hans Sachs at its première in Munich in 1868. He was Franz Betz.

Betz had made his debut in Hanover at the age of twenty-one singing the Heerrufer in Lohengrin, starting as a lyric baritone; he continued to sing lyric and lyric-dramatic roles well into the part of his career when he had made his mark as a singer of Wagner. For instance, he sang both Telramund – a heavy dramatic part – and the lyric part of Valentin in Faust, in the same season in 1863. His voice deepened as he grew older, as happens to most singers, and in consequence König Marke – a lyrical bass role without a low tessitura – was added in the same year he created Wotan. His enormous repertoire ranged from Don Giovanni and Wolfram, through Pizarro and Posa to the Holländer, Amonasro, Kurwenal, Marke, Sachs and Wotan, expanding finally to Falstaff in 1894. Most of his long career was spent as a member of the ensemble in Berlin; Lilli Lehmann, a colleague for many years and herself a singer of almost every Wagner soprano role, eulogised him thus: ‘How noble and beautiful his voice sounded in all its ranges; of what even strength it was, and how infallibly fresh!’ The perfect description, surely, of the ideal voice for any opera; for the operas of Wagner; and probably, from all the evidence, close to Wagner’s ideal.

As Wagner’s life neared its end, two more singers of roles written for low voices came to prominence: Emil Scaria and Theodor Reichmann: they were his choices for Gurnemanz and Amfortas.

Scaria was a star in Vienna and had been Wagner’s first choice for Hagen. However, in 1876 he blotted his copybook with the residents of Wahnfried by asking for more than professional rates for the rehearsals and performances of the Ring: he was in debt. Cosima, in particular, was deeply affronted. In consequence of this misdemeanour he was dispensed with. Nevertheless, after this setback, at the subsequent performances of the Ring in Vienna a few years later – not, by the way, chosen by Wagner but approved of by him – he sang Wotan and the Wanderer with total success. His excellence put him first in line for Gurnemanz at the première in 1882, when he gave complete satisfaction. Scaria is the first instance of a high bass being approved of by Wagner singing baritone and bass-baritone roles which, up till his appearance, had always been cast with voices with a predominantly baritone timbre. In fact, it is quite possible that Scaria, with his singing of Wotan in Vienna, is the first bass-baritone in roles which till then had been sung by baritone-basses – to coin a phrase. The present Fach of Heldenbariton is subtitled Hoher Bass and consists of mostly baritone roles with a few bass roles thrown in; which is another indication that the difference between the two voice types is blurred even today. My attempt at clarification is based on the repertoire of roles, apart from Wagner, which are regularly sung: bass-baritones singing mainly bass roles and baritone-basses sticking to the generally higher baritone repertoire.

The last singer of interest chosen by Wagner is Theodor Reichmann, the first Amfortas. Before Parsifal, he had already sung a series of German and Italian dramatic baritone parts while still in his twenties, including the Wanderer at the age of twenty-nine. In 1882 he substituted for Scaria as Wotan in concert in London; and his career, after Wagner’s death, lead to his return to Bayreuth as Hans Sachs and Wolfram and the repeat of his debut role. He became a regular at Covent Garden in later years where he was engaged as Telramund, Holländer, Sachs and Wotan/Wanderer. In New York, his versatility and the baritone basis of his powerful voice was demonstrated in an eclectic repertoire, which ranged from the Holländer to Don Giovanni, di Luna, Renato, Amonasro, Nelusko and finally Escamillo. Iago was added in Vienna in 1888, and his long, successful career concluded in Munich with Hans Sachs.

What has become clear in this survey of Wagner’s singers is that most of their voices had a baritone base; they were all baritones with a lower extension, which enabled a few to sing lyric bass roles like König Marke, but, in the main, their basic repertoire did not normally include bass parts. Several studied with teachers of the technique which is often referred to as bel canto: von Milde and Scaria with Manuel Garcia, and Reichmann with Lamperti; and it seems reasonable to assume that every one of them came up to the technical standards demanded by Wagner in 1834. All of them sang Mozart at one time or another during their careers, most including Don Giovanni – a part not normally sung by basses. For some of the older singers, the opportunity to sing much Italian opera didn’t exist, either because large parts of that repertoire weren’t written, or were unknown and unfamiliar in German theatres. But the later singers – like Betz and Reichmann – were able to include dramatic Verdi parts like Amonasro, di Luna, Iago and Falstaff in their repertoires, presaging the Heldenbariton Fach of the twentieth century.

During the twenty years after Wagner’s death, the singing style of his music was subject to a concentration on the enunciation of the text, which to the present day influences how Wagner is sung. This phenomenon, known in English as the ‘Bayreuth Bark’ and in German by the literal and perhaps more pejorative Konsonanten Spuckerei (the spitting of consonants), stems from Bayreuth during the first twenty years of the regime of Cosima, and it has had a strong and, in my opinion, negative effect ever since, as it expressly goes against Wagner’s own demand for the words to be audible on a singing legato line. As a consequence of this new influence, there have been two conflicting strands of vocal style in parallel for the whole of the twentieth century and beyond. This concentration on enunciation has often resulted in singers, coaches and conductors following the Bayreuth line too rigidly, and consequently giving performances which severely imbalance what was originally intended. The combination of ‘spitting consonants’ and singing over-loudly creates performances where the words are heard, but both music and meaning have vanished from the vocal line.

As orchestras increased in power, owing to improvements in the manufacture of instruments, vocal performances were prompted to increase in volume. Another major influence at this period was the appearance of verismo operas into the repertoire, with their heavier orchestration; by the turn of the twentieth century the demand for large voices had increased several-fold. Wagner’s music itself, with its heavier demands on power and stamina, had altered peoples’ conceptions of what was necessary to make a successful career as a singer. As a result of these influences, the thirty years after his death produced an astonishing outburst of new theories of how to sing, most of them concerned with maximising resonance. This was the vocal legacy inherited by the next century.

Furthermore, the increasing popularity, and subsequent proliferation, of Wagner performances throughout the world from the beginning of the twentieth century, meant that many of them took place in small and medium houses with open pits. This imposed a greater necessity for singers to be heard. Wagner’s orchestra of over a hundred players, for the Ring, was now let loose into theatres for which it was not designed, and singers’ voices had to take the consequences. His final masterpiece, Parsifal, broke free at last from its Bayreuth bonds – officially from 1913 when the copyright ran out – and the whole Wagner repertoire became available for everyone. The increase in the number of performances enabled singers to concentrate a much larger part of their careers to Wagner – something unknown in his lifetime.

From 1902, a novel form of musical performance became available, which introduced singers to a much wider public. Anyone who could afford a gramophone, and buy a record to play on it, was now able to listen to the best singers the world had to offer – hitherto a pastime only available for the rich. Performances of Wagner’s operas increased and so did recordings of the best singers of his music. For the first time, comparisons between them could be made by anyone interested. Of course, it could be argued that recordings were not equivalent to the real thing – and the earlier ones certainly were not – but as time passed, it became possible to judge quality, style and technique in the comfort of one’s own home. The recorded history of Wagnerian voices became a library of comparison totally unavailable before.

However, what is not possible is a direct comparison with the singers Wagner chose himself. The Wagnerian singers of the recorded era faced several new problems which were non-existent during Wagner’s lifetime, among these were: the increased power of the orchestra; the cult of the conductor; the increase in the repertoire of operas demanding powerful voices; the decrease in appreciation of the arts of bel canto; and the increased workload on singers due to the number of operatic performances available, in a time of increased travel opportunity.

Various improvements in the manufacture of brass and wind instruments, particularly in the second half of the twentieth century, created an orchestral sound which was louder than the orchestra Wagner knew a hundred years before. Horns, trombones and trumpets, oboes, flutes and bassoons, all were constructed to produce a fatter sound – a complex sound rich in lower harmonics – which improved orchestral sonority, but did nothing to assist singers’ audibility. Audiences in theatres designed in the previous century now had much less chance of hearing the words clearly than before; and operas like Wagner’s, where the libretto was as important as the music, suffered more than most. The result was that singers were both forced, and encouraged, to sing louder. Combined with the Bayreuth mantra on spitting consonants, this created a style far removed from the middle of the previous century. Naturally big voices were encouraged to sing Wagner, and in consequence a type of singer not seen before came into existence – loud certainly, but with little control of piano and agility. Dramatic voices which specialised in Wagner became a race apart and much of the subtlety scattered about his scores disappeared in performance. Gradually, it seems to me, the emphasis on legato and nuance, that Wagner so obviously loved, faded away under the inexorable quest for more and more volume.

Conductors dominated the art form. The combination of dominant conductors and increased orchestral power created an uneasy situation for the singer who, to hold his own – and perhaps in some cases to stay in work – had to sing with power to survive. The new repertoire, much of which used the new orchestral sonorities first used by Wagner, created more chances for big voices to shine. Increased travel opportunities as the century progressed and a worldwide expansion of the number of theatres, enabled the singers of heavier repertoire to concentrate only on repertoire which required big voices. Bit by bit, Wagner’s sound world faded into the distance and his nuanced works became inhabited by singers who emphasised the heroic side of the dramas to perfection, but were only rarely able to achieve the quieter and gentler moments contained in them.

Nevertheless, there were always singers who, in their search for poetry and nuance, were able to stand apart from the general trend to emphasise the heroic. Their search derived from a deeper understanding of the content of Wagner’s scores and his original intentions – an insight into the less obvious musical and psychological strands of meaning and character which lay under the surface. Among them were two outstanding singers, who, between them, dominated the international scene during the first half of the twentieth century: Friedrich Schorr and Hans Hotter.

Between the two World Wars, a particularly rich period for heroic baritones, Schorr was the outstanding singer of the whole gamut of Wagner roles. His voice was of great natural beauty and he sang with very clear diction and a fine legato line; as his career progressed, the clarity of text continued but the upper notes lost their earlier freedom and the legato lost its firmness. Hotter – the leading singer of the next generation – like Schorr before him, started singing large Wagner roles in his twenties: Wotan (Rheingold), the Wanderer (Siegfried) and Wolfram (Tannhäuser). His enormous soft-grained voice was capable of great delicacy and finesse as well as a godlike volume when necessary; coupled with a lieder singer’s use of words he offered performances which, for contrast of timbre and depth of emotion, have not been surpassed since Wagner’s death. Rudolf Bockelmann and Hans Hermann Nissen, both favourites at Bayreuth during the thirties, belong to a generation of singers who, gifted with beautiful voices, did not match Schorr and Hotter in realising all of Wagner’s intentions, but gave what might be called conventional performances. At this period, political problems interfered with several careers: Jewish singers were forced to leave Germany, among them Schorr and the two outstanding basses Alexander Kipnis and Emanuel List; anti-Nazi artists including Hotter found their careers greatly impeded; and pro-Nazi sympathisers like Bockelmann were never employed again after the war’s conclusion. Hotter came into his own after the war and was soon joined by Ferdinand Franz and George London, both exceptional examples of the heroic style, but not his equal in the subtleties.

Kipnis, a high bass, followed the path first trodden by Scaria and, for a time, took Wotan into his large repertoire. This was mirrored later in the century by other high basses such as Jerome Hines, Donald McIntyre and John Tomlinson; whereas the so-called ‘black basses’: Emanuel List, Ivar Andresen, Josef Greindl and, outstandingly, Gottlob Frick, remained rooted in their own dark world. As a rule, basses didn’t venture very far into the bass-baritone field, if they did their voices usually showed signs of wear and strain, particularly at the top. Wotan became the meeting point of the two types of voice, needing sensitivity and a wide range of colours – which favoured the baritones – and low notes and great power – favouring the basses. The ideal singer of this role should have all these attributes, as well as being a compelling actor – matching, incidentally, exactly what Wagner hoped for, and got, in Franz Betz.

Today, in the early twenty-first century, this rich vein of Wagner singers, particularly in this country, seems to have diminished, or even run out. The reasons for this are several-fold. The first, and perhaps most fundamental, is the change in cultural life which magnifies the importance of popular music and, correspondently, reduces the appreciation and understanding of classical music in the general public. This has severely reduced the pool of basic material from which Wagnerian singers emerge. There are probably several nascent Wotans walking on the pavements of any city at this moment, whose voices will remain undiscovered, unheard and unrecognized by a society which remains indifferent to their existence. Between the two World Wars and twenty years after, popular music hadn’t yet achieved its present stranglehold and, in consequence, the spring of potential Wagnerians seemed to flow more freely. Another reason is lack of opportunity: in Britain, Wagner performances are few and far between, owing largely to their expense. If specialist Wagner singers do emerge in Britain, they are forced to learn the repertoire in sporadic, un-staged, amateur performances first, and then to plough their professional furrow in some foreign field, usually Germany, where their repertoire exists on a more regular basis.

So, what can be learnt in the twenty first century from the past, which could bring present performances closer to Wagner’s wishes? We know what Wagner wanted, how can his ideals be achieved? Firstly, I would suggest, the spitting of consonants should be eliminated; it accents that part of vocal performance which is antithetical to the vowel, where the beauty of a voice lies; nor does it sound natural, one of Wagner’s own fundamental criteria. His legacy is one of perfect natural diction, easily audible, and sitting firmly on a beautiful, musical legato line. For him the full range of colours and nuances of the drama were essential, from the heroic to the intimate, from anger to despair, from regret to reflection. There is no reason why modern singers cannot be persuaded to perform in this way. The best singers of the past sang a varied repertoire which necessitated a fluent and versatile emission; too many moderns seem to think that singing Wagner means big voices singing loudly. The number of Wagnerians who excel at other music, especially Italian, is very few. Wagner’s singers were closer to the bel canto tradition and the best singers since then have adhered to the same principles. Of course, Wagner’s music needs full-toned, well-developed voices as it always has, but why should singers of our time not be capable of the technical finesse of the past? Large and loud should not be exclusive of subtle nuance and vocal dexterity. How often today do we hear a perfect trill or mordent in this music? How usual is it to encounter perfect, unexaggerated diction launched on a firm legato? It should not be impossible to get near to the standards that Wagner imagined. We are lucky to live in an era when we can hear what is possible, in the singing of Jonas Kaufmann; in this kind of performance all the fine details of the composer’s scoring are made clear and the satisfaction ratio for the listener is magnified. Let us hope that we have not long to wait, to hear performances where every member of a cast sings – to quote Lilli Lehmann again – with a voice ‘noble and beautiful in all its ranges…and infallibly fresh’.

© 2015 Neil Howlett


Richard Wagner – The Last of the Titans – Joachim Köhler – Translated by Stewart Spencer

The Wagner Companion – Peter Burbidge and Richard Sutton

Wagner as Man and Artist – Ernest Newman

Wagner rehearsing the Ring – Heinrich Porges

Cosima Wagner’s Diaries – Geoffrey Skelton

The Life of Richard Wagner – Ernest Newman

My Life – Richard Wagner

The New Grove – Dictionary of Music and Musicians


The Grand Tradition – J B Steane

Voices, Singers and Critics – J B Steane

The Memoirs of Berlioz – Translated by David Cairns

The Singing of the Future – David Ffrangcon-Davies

The Record of Singing – Michael Scott

Chapters of Opera – Henry Edward Krehbiel

Osservazioni sopra il Canto Figurato – Pierfrancesco Tosi

Pensieri e Riflessioni sopra il Canto Figurato – Giambattista Mancini

Grammatica o siano Regole per Ben Cantare – Anna Maria Pellegrini Celoni

Trattato Completo dell’Arte del Canto – Manuel Garcia

Metodo Completo di Canto – Luigi Lablache

L’Arte di Canto – Francesco Lamperti

Hans Hotter – Penelope Turing

How to Sing (Meine Gesangskunst)– Lilli Lehmann – Translated by Richard Aldrich

Cosima Wagner – Oliver Hilmes