That there is ample evidence of the influence of vocal music among ancient peoples- whether in religious procession, bardic recital, or dramatic chorus – is abundantly shown in the historical section of the present series. There, also, it appears that during the Middle Ages vocal music continued to play its part in the life of European nations. It was kept alive largely in one of two ways-by the services of the Church, or by the minstrel who appeared under various names and by whom several more or less distinct phases were developed. Here and there a name emerges, such as that of Taillefer, whose martial chant rang forth to lead the invading host of Normans at the battle of Senlac; or Wolfram, whose poetic gifts have been celebrated by Wagner in “Tannhauser.” It is not, however, until the establishment of opera that a record of great singers begins sufficiently authentic and detailed to supply material for definite biography.
It was in 1600 at Florence that the first regular public performance of opera was given. The growth of opera on the Continent and in Great Britain was rapid, and this soon became the most elaborate and lavish of all forms of public entertainment. The impetus that it gave to the development of musical art was great, and through it most of the historic singers have risen to eminence. As Italy was the original home of opera and center of instruction in the art of song, the important vocalists were at first largely of Italian origin. In France, however, progress was rapid, and a French school of opera, with its own methods and traditions, shortly came into being. In Germany and Great Britain, also, native singers gradually arose. In London the opera soon became extremely popular, and the choicest talent was secured from abroad by means of most liberal inducements.
It has seemed best to give, in this opening chapter, a brief biographical survey of the leading early exponents of the vocal art. The selection of names has been carefully made from an extensive list, and includes those who played the most distinguished parts in that stage of musical evolution and to whom testimony and tradition have assigned a peculiar place. The arrangement is chronological.
In addition to the names that we have here treated at some length, we have also given a list of a few others in regard to whom the reader may find full information in musical encyclopedias and other works of reference. This preliminary chapter is followed by several others of which each is concerned with one of the great names identified with opera, from Catalani to jenny Lind; and the section is concluded by a chapter devoted to a few artists of more recent times whose names have already become classic in the annals of song.
Certain rather definite limits having been set to the extent of this portion of the work, many well–known singers have necessarily been omitted. Furthermore, it has been deemed impossible to accord any space to operatic favorites of the present, to whom no decisive position can as yet be assigned.