When he listens closely, Don Wright Faculty of Music professor Robert Toft can hear the 16th century singing to him.
But it’s not a voice today’s classical musicians – ones accustomed to big venues and attuned to current recordings – would find easily recognizable. That’s because, as much as he is a musician and historian, Toft is also translator.
His mission is to strip away today’s assumptions about centuries-old musical language and place it back into its native tongue, in the time and place where it began.
Toft doesn’t only read scores – the musical notes and notations – but strives to understand the pieces’ contemporary descriptions, context, and even the setting where the pieces were intended to be performed.
Then, he teaches musicians to play and sing those pieces as the composers’ original listeners would have heard them. It is a new-old kind of ‘hip’ – one that stands for ‘historically informed performances’ – that harken back to a time when recordings didn’t exist.
“I’m trying to take these different documents and translate them to sound. We try to picture it all together and then show performers how to sing it,” he said.
“We’re figuring out things of the past – how people in the 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th centuries performed music turns out to be completely different from how it’s played today.”
For example, until the 20th century, singing performances were based on oratory, with more pauses and, for singers, more breath breaks. There were also tempo changes and frequently raised or lowered voices – as if a stylized version of a stump speech intended to move a listener to tears, laughter or deeper reflection.
There is also more ornamentation in the music, as well as more subtlety, because compositions were designed for smaller venues.
There, listeners could hear and understand a musician’s pianissimo throughout the room, for example. They could notice how their moods and heartbeats matched the performance’s internal pacing: urgent in this phrase, languorous in that line, sweetly deliberate in the next passage.
The interpretations, in live and recorded performances, have won acclaim from critics worldwide.
Toft’s work was recently highlighted during a research-creation open house at the Don Wright Faculty of Music, a showcase of the work by several faculty members whose artistry is intrinsic in how they present their research in music, nursing, media, visual arts and education.
Toft has given master classes on historical principles of interpretation at leading music schools around the globe and, as a young lutenist, began coaching singers as he realized early-music specialists could bring scores to life by rooting them in their historic origins.
Toft, who also specializes in pop music of the 1960s, is also author of five books on the history of singing, including Bel Canto: A Performer’s Guide, which has been described as a must-read for singers, conductors and vocal coaches.
But when written word doesn’t adequately describe the difference, the recordings speak for themselves.
Toft’s Talbot Records – a label where “radically hip artists connect modern audiences to the impassioned eloquence of the past” – includes two recent releases that have won high acclaim in the world of classical music.
Secret Fires of Love is an album Toft directed that features cantatas and other pieces performed by Australian tenor Daniel Thomson, Canadian lutenist/guitarist Terry McKenna and German harpsichordist Thomas Leininger. The second album features Leininger on fortepiano, performing Beethoven and Mozart sonatas.
Both were recorded in acoustic environments similar to spaces where listeners probably first heard the music, Toft said.
Toft said the reinterpreted music has found a diverse audience that includes Japanese fans of classical music and even rock musicians. “It’s different. It’s much more approachable for people who aren’t dyed-in-the-wool classical enthusiasts.”