February 20, 2018

Writing for the Voice

Over the years, one of my greatest pleasures in composing has been writing vocal music – operas, choral works, and lieder. The reason is my deep love of the singing voice. Orchestrating these pieces is a special pleasure, but I will save that for another posting.

Certainly every instrumentalist has his or her own musical personality, but these differences between singers are even stronger. No two voices sound the same, and I have never met two singers who have approached my music in exactly the same way. That is why it is a wonderful thing when a composer receives a commission to write for a SPECIFIC singer. This has not happened for me very often, but when it has, it really makes the job easier, as I can then hear and think about a specific voice and person as I am composing. An example is a song cycle I composed for soprano ERIE MILLS called “Images and Reflections”. I knew Erie’s voice well, and also knew her to be a top notch singer, both vocally and intellectually. Therefore I wrote her a rather challenging (read “difficult”) set of songs, knowing she would do a beautiful job with them – and she did. Her tone color, agility, and accuracy were all factors I kept in mind during the writing process. Of course, I made sure to include a fair share of high notes, as she is able to produce such extraordinarily beautiful sounds in the upper range – and she did!

Another example of writing for a specific voice is the song cycle “Five Love Songs”, which I composed for my longtime dear friend MARIA SPACAGNA. I have been listening to her sing since we grew up together in Providence, RI, and truly enjoyed writing this cycle with her lovely voice in mind. The gorgeous Italianate color of her sound is unique, and I wanted to write the most lyrical and melodic material I could to take advantage of that quality. A very intelligent and musical singer, she performed these pieces and made them sound as beautiful as could be.

As I said, it is not always possible to have the opportunity to compose music for a specific person. When a composer does not know who will perform his or her vocal work, the composer must at least consider the level of difficulty, and decide whether the music is being written for a highly trained professional, an undergraduate singer, etc. A good knowledge of vocal mechanics (range, tessitura, stamina, etc.) is most necessary to do this successfully, and spending a lot of time working with vocalists really helped me to acquire that knowledge. I have been blessed to work with wonderful singers over the years (especially when working at NYC Opera), and this was probably the best training I could have received.

I am happy to say that my website now contains a new SONG page, which gives details (and many musical representations) of all of my songs.

It’s true what they say: “The voice is the only instrument invented by God.”

Henry Mollicone

About Henry Mollicone


  1. Lea Frey says:

    As a close friend (and fan) of Henry Mollicone, I found this blog by Henry today – while perusing his interesting website. I have travelled several times to performances of his operas (Central City, Co. and Kansas City, MO, etc for “FACE ON THE BARROOM FLOOR” and “COYOTE TALES”. I love all of Henry’s music, especially his operas, but I also love his song cycles, being familiar with the one he did for mutual friend, Erie Mills. It saddens me that not enough people are aware that we have one of the finest American composers of classical music living locally. (San Jose, CA)
    I wanted to comment that I had a tee shirt made some time ago with photos of 6 opera singer friends of mine and the quote above on it. The exact quote is: “A singer has the only musical instrument made by God.” It’s my all time favorite quote, but I don’t know it’s origin.
    Lea Frey, language and diction coach, Opera San Jose, Festival Opera, and West Bay Opera

  2. Dear dear Lea,
    Thank you for your kind words, and God bless you. H.

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