Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


A History of Singing, Part Two

John Potter, Neil Sorrell

From chazzanut to flamenco to Chinese opera, John Potter takes us on a journey around the world in A History of Singing. In part one, he and co-author Neil Sorrell discussed their inspiration for tackling such a seemingly daunting topic; in this final installment, John highlights a few standout examples—with clips! Frances B., Blog Editor

John Potter: Enabling further exploration is very much what the book’s about, given that we’ve left most of it out…. The main sub-topics are inevitably determined by our respective expertise, but there are various points where we strayed into each other’s territory. I was particularly interested in the history of chazzanut. In this I was helped and inspired by cantor Larry Josefovitz, who’d contacted me a couple of years ago to point out (very tactfully) that in my book on tenors I hadn’t really done Jewish singing justice. I knew something of cantorial history but I’d never understood how a tradition that starts in the Middle East managed to end up producing quasi (or actual) opera singers. For reasons that are on the one hand perhaps understandable and on the other totally baffling, chazzanut is almost invisible (or rather inaudible) to most non-Jews. There’s an amazing example here:


Neil was largely responsible for the Wagner section. In fact, had he had his way it would have been even more Wagnerian in size and scope, but that would have meant I’d have had to expand the pre-Wagner material proportionately, which in turn would have changed the western-non-Western balance.

The question of balance was one that gave us considerable thought. We’d divided the workload so that we wrote roughly half each, but that would obviously mean that Western art music would form the largest single part. As a counter-balance to this it made much more sense for Neil to home in on a small number of vocal varieties, especially those that had parallels with the western tradition. That left us with the problem of accounting for the bits of the world that we hadn’t touched, and the risk of appearing to trivialize other varieties we wanted to include that were outside the grand traditions. Our solution was to take two lines of latitude (not chosen entirely by chance) and make a couple of circuits of the globe, shining a brief light on the vocal traditions we came across on the way. The northern excursion, for example, starts with flamenco and fado:

Then we work our way across Europe via folk polyphony. We include singing from:

  • Corsica
  • Sardinia
  • Bulgaria
  • and Georgia

Last but certainly not least, we go to Asia and Asia to the Pacific coast:

  • Mongolian overtone singing
  • Chinese opera

Ultimately my co-author Neil and I hope the book will encourage people to explore further. As we keep saying (and as reviewers keep repeating back to us): it’s a history – one of an infinite number of possible narratives.

Read Part One.

About The Authors

John Potter

John Potter is the author of Vocal Authority: Singing Style and Ideology (2006) and the co-editor of The Cambridge Companion to Singing (2000). He has contributed articles to many ...

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Neil Sorrell

Neil Sorrell is the co-author of A History of Singing (2012). He was a recipient of the 1999 Hafiz Ali Khan Award, an international award in recognition of contributions to Indian ...

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