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Sing Like You Speak: Parlando in Chant and Recitative

In many forms of secular music, there are endless debates about which is more important: the text or the music. In Orthodox liturgical music, we fortunately don't have that problem; the text takes precedence, period. There's considerable leeway, however, in how we present that text; all performance methods are not equal, and heavy, robotic text declamation is near the top of my (admittedly lengthy) list of pet peeves. Conversely, few things are more invigorating and inspiring than a sensitive, nuanced delivery that's faithful to the natural ebb and flow of the language. This is the essence of parlando, an expressive direction I insert in nearly all of my musical arrangements. It's an Italian term meaning "speechlike" or "after the manner of speech" — not with regard to diction or pitch, but in the way certain syllables are emphasized.

Let's look at It Is Truly Meet (set your internal GPS to Obikhod Tone 8):

It is truly meet to bless thee, O Theotokos:

Ever blessèd and most pure, and the Mother of our God.

More hon'rable than the cherubim,

And more glorious, beyond compare, than the seraphim.

Without corruption, thou gavest birth to God, the Word.///

True Theotokos, we magnify thee!

How many times have we heard this with every syllable punched into our ears — equal weight, equal volume, and with seemingly no poetic sensitivity whatsoever? It becomes a lifeless slog, barreled through on autopilot. Terrible.

Let's do better for the Mother of God, shall we?

Forget the music for a moment, and read through the text out loud, using normal speech. (It's important not to rush through this, either.) It's just a handful of lines, so maybe read through it several times. Notice which syllables you instinctively stress, and which you don't. Obikhod Tone 8 actually makes it easy to transfer that parlando delivery into our singing, since it's entirely syllabic, so give it a try. It's also vocally easier to do it this way, and I find anything that reduces vocal fatique to be extremely useful.

The parlando style applies not only to the chant tones, but to any recitative material. For example, consider the following straight-chant excerpt from the usual dismissal, which is so often hammered into oblivion. I've bolded this example to demonstrate parlando interpretation:

Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages

of ages. Amen. Lord, have mercy (3x). Father, bless.

I want to end with a cautionary note for singers and directors: "speech-like" and similar terms must not be taken as a direction to reduce space in the mouth or abandon the principles of correct singers' diction. The throat must remain open and the soft palate raised at all times.

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