Dramatic Vocalise Database — Definition

Disembodied wordless chorus, used as an emotive signifier, regularly occurs in the soundtracks of contemporary commercials and film scores. Although this specific phenomenon has become common currency within the cultural fabric of twenty-first-century society, its emotive signification has not been adequately addressed in the scholarly literature. My dissertation traces the use of this phenomenon (which I refer to as "dramatic vocalization") from its historical antecedents in nineteenth-century opera to its occurrence in film scores of the twentieth and twenty-first century. This study, by means of representative musical examples, establishs its chronological development, compositional intent, and reception.

Dramatic vocalization must contain the following two elements: 1) noumenal wordless singing, and 2) signification of extra-musical content. The former denotes that the singer(s) are specifically hidden from the audience's view, whether offstage or off-screen. Their physical presence within the scene is not implied by the surrounding context. The onstage/onscreen characters do not perceive the music, but the audience does. Non-lexical text forms its basis, whether vowel sound or a bocca chiusa (humming). Dramatic vocalization serves as emotive signifier.

In order to study and compare such examples, to determine a meaning for such non-lexical disembodied singing, a set of criteria must be used to evaluate them. First, one should consider the dramatic context. Most often dramatic vocalization is used to heighten a supernatural situation. Offstage wordless chorus accompanies the onstage supernatural action in Weber's "Wolf's Glen" scene from Der Freischütz (1821), Berlioz's "Chasse royale et orage" from Les Troyens (1863), and Tchaikovsky's "Waltz of the Snowflakes" from The Nutcracker (1892).

Dramatic vocalization has also been used to signify the religious, or numinous. Common descriptions of early vocalization in the form of jubilation in Latin literature and Psalm Commentaries involve the song of early farm workers, who, as they were harvesting, employed a repetitive rhythmic chant presumably to facilitate their labor. Only in the works of the ninth-century scholar Amalarius of Metz (d. ca. 850) was the jubilus associated with melismatic liturgical chant. The notion of the jubilus as expressing a joy beyond speech was an exegetical commonplace in the Middle Ages. Hugh of St. Victor (d. 1142), for example, wrote, "Neumata, which take place in the alleluia and in other chants of few words, signify the jubilus, which happens when the mind is so fixed upon God . . . that it is not able to express fully what it feels." The jubilus as musical item occurs as part of the Alleluia of the Mass, where "dramatic motion" comes almost to a halt.

Chant-like melismatic singing recurs as a signifier of the numinous in such works as Vincent d'Indy's opera Fervaal (1897), and also soundtracks from Biblical films made during the 1950s in Hollywood. Coincidentally, d'Indy's pedagogical method at the Schola Cantorum focused on an appreciation of music history, from chant to the present, with a strong emphasis on singing chant. Similarly, Debussy applied the signification of the numinous with the jubilus to a secular supernatural entity in his "Sirènes" from Nocturnes (1901)—Homeric sirens luring sailors to the rocky shore with their magical song. A similar process can be seen with the transference of the church organ to the cinema, including an excessive use of the Vox Humana stop during the first decades of the twentieth century.

Dramatic vocalization has also been used to signify the exotic. Musical exoticism may be defined as the borrowing or use of musical materials that evoke distant locales or alien frames of reference. Characteristic and easily recognized musical gestures from the alien culture are assimilated into a more familiar style, giving it an exotic color and suggestiveness. This can been see in the Japanese-themed operas Iris (1898) and Madama Butterfly (1904) by Pietro Mascagni and Giacomo Puccini, respectively, and the Indian-themed opera Padmâvatî (1923) by Albert Roussel. Phrygian-tinged wordless melodies are used to symbolize exotic, "primitive" cultures, as in Florent Schmitt's ballet La Tragédie de Salomé (1907) and the film score to Salammbô (1925).

Composers have turned to dramatic vocalization at times to express lamentation, as in the third movement of Berlioz's Tristia, op. 18, "March funèbre pour la dernière scène d'Hamlet" (1844), and in the "Lamentations of Gilboa" from Honegger's Le Roi David (1922). The influence of Irish keening (caoine)—wordless lamentation typically sung by a woman—is audible in several works of Ralph Vaughan Williams, most notably the opera Riders to the Sea (1936).

Dramatic vocalization has also been used to express pastoral sentiments in symphonic works such as the Andante pastorale movement from Carl Nielsen's Symphony no. 3, "Sinfonia espansiva" (1912), and Ralph Vaughan Williams's Pastoral Symphony (1921) and Sinfonia Antartica (1952).

On occasion a few composers have used dramatic vocalization to express a sensation of suspense or horror. Swiss composer Othmar Schoeck included offstage chorus in his orchestral song cycle Lebendig begraben, op. 40 (1926) in the final moments when the protagonist expires. An additional example can be found in the soundtrack to the 1947 film noir The Lady in the Lake, immediately before the main character discovers a murder victim.

There is some crossover between the above categories such as in Vaughan Williams's Pastoral Symphony, where the title suggests one category, yet the plaintive, lamenting melody places it in another. Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé (1912) could be considered pastoral in mood with its "sylvains" and "faunes," and yet it is also a supernatural fairy tale. Even within individual categories the examples are not necessarily analogous. The portrayal of wind in Verdi's Rigoletto (1851) is vastly different from Vaughan Williams's accompaniment to images of the South Pole in Scott of the Antarctic (1948).

Some instances, however, are strikingly similar. Dramatic vocalization first appeared in nineteenth-century opera, followed by its inclusion in ballet, non-stage works, and film. Many examples share comparable score directions, vowel sounds, and orchestration, including the number and type of voices. Certain works have in common the exclusive use of women's chorus.

Supporting evidence may also be drawn from letters, memoirs, program notes, and reviews. Beginning with reviews for Weber's Der Freischütz, critical commentary has helped provide firsthand reactions to dramatic vocalization. Letters between composers and their librettists, such as Giacomo Puccini and Luigi Illica, or composers as in the case of Ravel and Vaughan Williams, provide additional opportunities to understand the intent of a particular piece. Berlioz's Memoirs provide a wonderful view of his thoughts on Weber's Der Freischütz as well as on his own works with dramatic vocalization. Finally, program notes, such as those supposedly penned by Debussy for the premiere of Nocturnes for orchestra, or included in the score as in Vaughan Williams's Sinfonia Antartica, help to provide insight into the composer's intent.