Sunday, 22 August 2010

Safety in Numbers

The Gendarme Duet from Orpheus and the Underworld

Feeling much better !

I walked into the music room this morning and the first box file upon which my eyes alighted was 'General Duets 1'. I loved duet singing as a youngster, and I have found all my teaching career that it is one of the most enjoyable moments for pupils, and a much less stressed style of singing. There is definitely 'safety in numbers!' It is the synchronised swimming of the vocal world, only we don't wear the nose grippers, and boys at least try not sparkle with such gay abandon!

The other startling thing about the careful giving of a duet is that one can sometimes give a pupil, otherwise too afraid to sing a solo, the pleasure of a small moment of glory, which they would otherwise never feel. I taught a young girl for 6 or 7 years whom I could never cajole into singing a solo, she was most competent, very musical, and with much to offer. Then one day I realised that the answer lay in doubling up, and given her ability to hold complicated parts, duet singing would do the trick.

She never looked back, and together with one of my now late teen pupils and aspirant professional, they made a dream team. They entertained at concerts from Paradise Village Hall to Vienna, via festivals in York and Inverness and always did brilliantly. She had found her comfort zone, and a mighty good comfort zone it was. Really good 2nd part duet singers are like melodic gold dust.

Some of the best duettists I have had are the 'lads teams'. Little boys, big boys and men, make a fine art of 'funny'. The classic funny duets such as 'The Gendarme Duet' by Offenbach, and the 'Cock and Bull' duet from Yeoman of the Guard are the carbohydrate of the male duet diet, and it has never ceased to amaze me how in the early days of choreographed rehearsal they are full of humour, but by the time they reach the stage they have morphed into a routine worthy of Morcambe and Wise, or Blackadder. There is something so spontaneous about the way the male mind works when they have to bounce off each other. That competitive streak which normally manifests itself on the rugby field, suddenly burst forth and the audience witness moments of sheer genius, which, I have to say, always gives the pianist/teacher a small cardiac arrest !

The classic lovey dovey duets also have their moments, and the ever present old faithful 'La ci Darem la mano' from Don Giovanni can be beautiful and excruciating, and all stages in between. I have taught it a million times over, and I have heard it a million times over whilst adjudicating, and still the glorious music of Mozart manages somehow to shine through - well mostly!

My favourite duet of my musical life however, has got to be Purcell's 'Lost is my Quiet'. Once again, I have taught it a number of times, and I sang it myself as a young singer, and I find it's dissonant beauty absolutely heartrending. The parts weave so closely at moments it is difficult to tell which part is which, then they break away from each other to the outer regions of the voices only to return for the final phrase

'I'll show by a patient enduring
My love is unmov'd as her hate.

The text is by that majestically famous author 'anonymous', so sadly we have nobody to thank for the words which inspired Purcell to such heights. It is, by general vocal music standards, small yet perfectly formed, always my preferred size of song!

Purcell, the word painting genius. You're the man.


  1. I used to love duets. My grandmother was a beautiful contralto and I was a fairly decent soprano, my mother did the piano. We performed quite a bit until she got too old to do them justice. Most of our songs tended to be Victorian or Edwardian but we did tackle a few top notch ones as well after I started proper training.

    viv in nz

  2. There is nothing better than a good duet! Victorian and Edwardian songs are greatly underestimated, I teach a number of them and generally pupils enjoy them.