Session|séance 4.2. All About the Voice

Session|séance 4.2. All About the Voice
Room 11-463. Chair: Harald Krebs

Thursday|jeudi 24 May|mai 2018. 10:30AM - 12:30PM.


4.2.1. Billie Holiday, Vocal Style and Musical Meaning

Christina Gier, University of Alberta

This paper explores the nature of song interpretation and vocal style in a study of the reception of Billie Holiday’s music. In the media and historical discourse surrounding her, various types of ideological constructions, or “controlling images,” (Patricia Collins) have shaped the way Holiday has been understood. Her songs have been perceived and consumed in distinctly different ways by black women and white male writers over the years, as I show. Given this there is fluidity in the sense of meaning in the music as it becomes a location for contestation. In a consumer society, “desire rather than need organizes experience” (Ronald Schleifer), and I explore how desired meanings emerge. I triangulate meaning production through examination of situation (place, social context) and style, and I propose distinct interpretations. First, I discuss her early style in “I’ve Got a Right to Sing the Blues,” recorded with Commodore Classics in New York in 1939. Second, “Don’t Explain” recorded in 1945 by Decca in a highly arranged big band style that reveals different cultural signifiers and meanings. Third, “T’aint Nobody’s Business if I Do,” which arguably celebrates abuse through the poetics of exaggeration. For Collins, a black feminist paradigm of the blues shapes the meaning as primarily personal, based on likeness within a group. For critics, a performance by Holiday reproduces ideas, not of soulful rectitude, but victimhood and destitution. Others cannot separate Holiday’s biography from her music, thus reinterpreting what “personal” means. Sound production and situation complicate and enrich meaning in music.


4.2.2. Before Adele, Beyoncé, Katy, Nicki and Taylor: Handel’s Duelling Divas Cuzzoni and Faustina

Richard King, University of Maryland 

Diva rivalries and beefs are omnipresent in popular music culture today. Taylor v Katy, or Nicki v Iggy are headlines, and fans pore over the lyrics of their songs to see who dissed whom. The desired and practical effect of these rivalries is to drum up interest in the artists and their songs, and thus to increase sales. 

There is nothing new in this. Rival divas have featured on stage for centuries, and the motivation has often been the same: profit. In this paper I use the story of one of the most famous diva rivalries in the history of opera, the competition between Handel’s celebrated sopranos Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni, to frame a discussion about female competition. Cuzzoni and Faustina, who were called the “Rival Queens” from the moment they first performed together in London in 1726, were frequently portrayed and mocked in English pamplets, plays, satirical engravings and operas in the 1720s and 1730s. The first part of this paper explores these sources and shows how the term “rival queens” came to have a life of its own—code for Italian opera singers and their flaws. 

In these sources, The Rival Queens were portrayed as one of innumerable manifestations of what is popularly known as a catfight. This paper discusses ancient and modern “stagings” of such fights, providing examples in literature, music, film and art to explore the catfight as a cultural phenomenon and economic engine that continues to impact music. 


4.2.3. “My Life Has Always Been an Opera”: Homelessness and Opera as Therapy

Colleen Renihan, Queen’s University

The repositioning of opera in the context of shifting definitions of ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture can be seen in a variety of unique—often surprising—sites of operatic activity in contemporary culture. One unexamined and particularly curious phenomenon is the employment of opera—what Alexandra Wilson refers to as “the branch of music most tainted by associations of class”—in arts programs that serve homeless or formerly homeless populations (2007, 250). Opera has traditionally not been employed in therapeutic and rehabilitative contexts. Indeed, while music’s potential for healing has been a focus of ethnomusicological and anthropological study for decades, and more recently, the relationship of music and trauma has become a prominent focus in the fields of musicology and music psychology (see Carey 2006; Cizmic 2012; Fisher and Flota 2013; Stein 2007; and Sutton 2002), opera has rarely been included in these conversations.

In this paper, I interrogate the workings of opera in arts programs that engage with homeless populations in London, England, and Montreal, Canada. Through fieldwork observations and interviews with both participants and administrators, I consider ways that opera takes on new meanings in the bodies and voices of these marginalized and isolated populations. In these contexts, opera’s status as an elite art is upheld in a Bourdieusian form of symbolic violence, but its ‘highbrow’ associations are also challenged, thus broadening our understanding of its role in contemporary culture and requiring us to re-think its value for audiences—and indeed performers—that defy traditional operatic stereotypes.


4.2.4. Voicing Remembrance: Canadian Choral Settings of “In Flanders Fields”

Michelle Boyd, Acadia University

Now over a century old, Lt. John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” remains one of the most widely-known examples of Canadian poetry, due to its use at Remembrance Day ceremonies throughout the country, and more generally, its association with the act of Remembrance (Holmes 2005; Vance 2015). 

Further entrenching the words in Canadian memory are the many musical settings of “In Flanders Fields.”  Between 1918-19, at least forty-two settings were published in the United States (Ward 2014, 206).  Canadian composers likewise have been moved to set McCrae’s poetry to music, and since the 1970s there have been at least eight choral settings by Canadian composers.  

While many earlier music settings treated the poem as a call to arms and to action, more recent Canadian choral settings reify “In Flanders Fields” as an act of Remembrance.  Examining popular settings by Tilley (1986), Daley (1993), and Chatman (1998), this paper compares these modern works against settings composed during World War I.  Through analysis of the text-setting, and with specific attention to the controversial last verse, this paper demonstrates how these settings depart from earlier readings of the poem to embrace a memorialized interpretation of that poem that supports the objectives of Remembrance (Harrison 2012). Moreover, the very fact that “In Flanders Fields” has been repurposed for choirs, as opposed to its earliest settings as a solo art song, illustrates the text’s current public function as a ceremonial work that, in the words of retired Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire, “inspires collective resolve” (Dallaire 2015, 13).


Campbell, Frances. 2011. “In Flanders Fields Music.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. (accessed November 27, 2017).

Colton, Glenn.  2014.  Newfoundland Rhapsody: Frederick R. Emerson and the Musical Culture of the Island.  Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Dallaire, Roméo.  2015. “Those Who Serve.”  In In Flanders Field, 100 Years: Writing on War, Loss and Remembrance, edited by Amanda Betts, 1–14.  Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf.

Harrison, Ted.  Remembrance Today: Poppies, Grief and Heroism.  

Holmes, Nancy.  2005. “‘In Flanders Fields’ – Canada’s Official Poem: Breaking Faith.”  Studies in Canadian Literature 30 (1): 11–33. 

Vance, Jonathan.  “A Moment’s Perfection.”  In In Flanders Field, 100 Years: Writing on War, Loss and Remembrance, edited by Amanda Betts, 189– 205.  Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf.

Ward, Jennifer A. “American Musical Settings of ‘In Flanders Fields’ and the Great War.”  Journal of Musicological Research 33 (1-3): 96–129. 



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