Music Study – The Bel Canto

It is true to say also that nowadays what is demanded of singers is no longer what was demanded of them then. At that time, the ideal singing was an almost instrumental virtuosity, an incredible agility, comparable to that of the flute, trills, roulades, chromatic scales, arpeggios, ornaments of every kind and gorgheggi which skilfull singers did not hesitate to introduce into the score of the composer, even in the most dramatic situations, even to the extent of disfiguring it and rendering it entirely unrecognizable, with the sole and frankly-avowed aim of setting in relief their prodigious ability and showing off their most beautiful notes. Some of them had favorite features, cadences, or finales, that they adopted invariably in all their roles. This was the reign of singing for the sake of song, and it must be acknowledged that the music was only a pretext for vocal flutterings and warblings of the utmost elegance. The composers lent themselves to this with complete indifference and were perfectly willing to accept this collaboration of the singer, provided that it indirectly attracted success and plaudits for the work. Certain operas of this epoch show this clearly. In them we can scarcely see anything but canevas destined to disappear under numberless fiorituras completely disfiguring the author’s original idea.

It is at this point that Manual Garcia, one of the last representatives of this school, cynically entitles ” Of Changes,” one of the chapters of his work, in which we may read such things as this : ” In tracing their ideas, the authors counted upon the accent and the accessories that the talent of the singer was able to add to the work. There are different kinds of pieces which, by reason of their nature, are confided to the free and learned inspiration of the executant.”

In that beautiful age of the Italian bel canto, when the singer’s mission was very different from the conception of today, to study a rôle consisted in adjusting it to one’s own measure by almost entirely remaking the vocal part so as to show off the eminent virtuosity of the interpreter.

The sentiment was only a secondary consideration : an artist was reputed to have a heart when he held a sufficiently prolonged organ-point on the last note but one of a phrase.

All that is of small importance. What is certain is that in order to attain that prodigious degree of agility, which was then the pinnacle of the singer’s art, the Italians were in possession of admirable methods, and knew how to work patiently for long years without breaking their voices and without tiring them.

The modern art has altogether different requirements. It demands infinitely less virtuosity ; and, in revenge, it exacts a respect for the note written, an artistic intelligence, a concord of sentiment between the poetic text and the musical accent, an expressive and emotional intensity which the eminent singers of the beautiful Italian period made the least of their cares. We strive to charm and to interest more than to astonish. With them it was the contrary.

There is still another thing to be considered. People do not sing in the same way in all countries, and they could not do so. The manner of singing is intimately connected with the genius of a language. Thus it is that the art of vocalization, which attains its highest point among the Italians, whose language, rich in vowels, in long and short syllable and in rhythmical accents, is already almost a music, would not have been able to develop among the Germans, who sing almost constantly upon consonants. These two languages, so opposed by their origin and by their sonority, could but engender two diametrically op-posed schools of singing, one energetic and guttural, the other supple and elegant. The French singers, of Latin race, sided more closely with their Italian brethren, whom they for a long time forced them-selves to imitate, sometimes succeeding. Thus they were easily led to believe that the Germans did not know how to sing, simply because they sang differently from themselves. This is quite as simple as if they believed that the Germans did not know how to speak because they did not speak French. A German Lied becomes as ridiculous when we sing it in the Italian style as would be a Cavatina of Donizetti’s translated into German. To every idiom, its own music and national interpretation. That is why a work when translated loses the half of its savour and poetry ; homogeneous though it was, it becomes whimsical, and the interpreter, however talented he may be, more especially if he possesses much talent and tact, finds that he has lost his bearings, and is left hesitating between the spirit of the literary text and the musical style, which do not accord.

This explains perfectly why the art of singing, which is essentially in accord with the various languages with which it is associated, cannot be taught in the same manner in all countries, which would be an offence against good taste, since the results obtainable are not the same. It is quite natural that the professors, French, English, German and Italian, should employ different procedures, having to attain dissimilar ends : this can be very readily understood. But what is strange, and what I do not undertake to explain, is the absolute lack of unity in the teaching of singing, and the prodigious diversity of methods extolled for this end, that we meet with at every step, without passing the limits of the territory of any given nationality whatsoever. Let us take France. It seems, does it not, that there is and that there can be only one single true way of singing in good French. Very well. Whilst for a very long time all the violin or piano methods, not in France alone, but in the whole world, resemble one another point by point and appear to have been minutely copied from one another, yet the most extraordinary divergencies continue to exist with regard to the fundamental principles of the study of an art which seems so simple in itself ; for in-contestably ” Song is as natural as speech to mankind.”

The most curious thing about it is that it is the same in all countries, and that, notwithstanding the most praiseworthy efforts, professors of singing have not yet come to an agreement as to the best manner of teaching singing. That ” the art of singing up to the present time does not employ technical terms of a signification that is accepted by all ; ” that ” two singers, talking, one after another, of their registers, mediums, or passages, are perhaps not speaking of the same vocal particulars,” * this alone is a regret-table matter ; but this may be only a question of language, or vocabulary. But what is still more grave and strange at the same time is to maintain complete divergences regarding the very processes of teaching and their applications. So many professors, so many methods, and frequently diametrically opposed: this is indeed incomprehensible. And most astonishing of all is the fact that there is not a single one of these teachers, I mean here the great masters, who have schools and are qualified to write methods, there is not one, I repeat, who has not produced some remarkable pupils, who, in their turn, invent new processes and obtain good results from them.

I find an amusing sally on this subject in Rubin-stein’s Aphorisms:

” The doctor and the professor of singing resemble one another in many points : the doctor can heal or kill, he may make a false diagnosis; he gladly invents new remedies, and always finds that the doctor who preceded him did not understand the case.

The professor of singing can place a voice or spoil it; he can take an alto for a soprano voice, and vice versa; he is anxious to invent new methods of teaching, and always finds also that the professor who preceded him gave the pupil faulty instructions.

The public treats these specialists both in the same way. It has confidence in charlatans. Everybody recommends with equal willingness his doctor, or his singing-master ; and, after all, it is still Nature who is the best physician and the best singing-master.”

Upon my word, this is as well conceived as it is wittily written.

Does this mean that song is such a natural thing that all methods are good, or all useless? One would almost be tempted to believe so. In fact, some professors do without them entirely, and invent exercises appropriate to the particular nature of each of their pupils, helping to develop the qualities and root out the faults in proportion as the need makes itself felt. They may very well be in the right. Moreover, after carefully reading over a couple of dozen celebrated methods that I was already thoroughly well acquainted with, I would not venture to affirm here a preference for one more than another. I would rely upon the advice of experience and good sense, and what-ever may be the method that my reader has in his hand, he will find nothing in it that can contradict me.

In the study of Singing, just as in the instrumental studies that form the subject of the preceding chap-ter, there is room for two distinct parts, one of mechanism, which here is called Vocalization, and the other of the Art of Singing, properly so-called, comprising style, phrasing and the intelligent taking of breath, etc.

It is proper to begin always with vocalization. To vocalize is to sing a, e, i, o, u, ou, and eu, that is to say, the vowels or diphthongs, without making use of consonants.

In general, people vocalize on a alone, which is wrong. We ought to exercise successively on all the vowels that belong to the language in which we sing, as well as their various modifications, which are more or less favourable to the emission of sound, some low, others high.

The study of vocalization comprises exercises of all kinds for flexibility, from simple separate sounds to the complete subjection of the voice, according to Faure’s happy expression, by going through the scales, arpeggios, chromatic figures, the traits and roulades derived from them, appogiatura, and trill. It also includes the placing and emission of the voice, its bearing, the union of the registers, passing from one to another (passing from the chest to the head register, which is often called simply the passage, is one of the greatest difficulties in the art of singing), the purity of the timbre and the certainty of intonation, etc. It is the study of the voice considered as an instrument.

For this entire part of vocal technique, it is certain that we cannot be better inspired than with the ideas and procedure, if not the methods even, which are honoured in every country, of the old Italian school, which carried this study to the extreme of perfection.

I think it will be interesting to borrow a few paragraphs from a work already cited, which, although written by a Spaniard, the son of a Spaniard,* justly stands as an authority on the question of Italian singing.

” It is not sufficient to pick up a few notions of music in haste ; artists are not improvized ; they form themselves by long preparation ; their talent must be developed early, and by a careful education and special studies.

The special education of the singer consists of the study of solfeggio, then that of an instrument, and lastly, that of singing and harmony.”

He does not say what instrument; but he could scarcely have any other in view than the piano, the harp, or the guitar,—instruments of accompaniment. Observe also that he places this study of an instrument before that of singing itself, and that he demands a knowledge of harmony. The singers of that day were relatively much better musicians than those of today, who, however, on account of the evolution of music and the style of the works that they have to interpret, should have need of much more than their predecessors had.

” The voice in its natural state is nearly always rude, uneven, uncertain, trembling even, and finally, unwieldy and limited in range. Study alone, enlightened and determined study, can fix the intonation, purify the timbre, and perfect the intensity and elasticity of tone. By study, we level the aspersities and incoherences of the registers, and, by uniting one register with another, we extend the dimensions of the voice. Study enables us to acquire agility,—a quality too greatly neglected, in general. We must submit to severe exercises not only the organs that are rebellious, but also those which, led away by a dangerous facility, can not master their own movements.” This deserves particular attention, for ” this apparent flexibility is allied itself with a lack of clearness, tenuto, correctness, assurance and breadth ; that is to say, with the absence of all the elements of accent and style.”

All this is admirably thought out and expressed ; it is a complete programme of the studies of vocalization ; there is not a word to be added to it or taken from it. This is exactly the way in which the work of vocal mechanism must be conducted in order that it may be brought to that state of suppleness that will allow it to attack difficulties of every kind, and to lend itself to the expression of every emotion.

We will not become dull over the question of the classification and nomenclature of voices, upon which all professors are not absolutely in accord, which, to tell the truth, might well be nothing but a simple affair of words ; nor over the exact delimitation of the registers in each voice, which varies with individuals, and can be determined with precision only by a skilful professor after a profound and often-renewed examination of the organ of each pupil.

All these vocalization exercises, as well as those of which we are about to speak, should never absorb more than two hours of the day, divided into halves or quarters of an hour, which may be further sub-divided with periods of rest, if fatigue makes its appearance.

When the pupil has succeeded in getting his voice into such complete subjection as to be able to overcome with ease the majority of the material difficulties of execution, another period opens in which it is a question of forming a style for himself, or to speak more correctly, of studying the different styles.

Kastner excellently says : ” To sing is not only to produce with the voice different intonations at ran-dom, or in conformity with the instinct that we have for that object, it is also to make audible, according to the rules of the art, varied sounds intended to ex-press the passions and sentiments of the heart.”

This, in fact, is the veritable aim, and the long and complicated study of vocalization has no other use than to prepare the organ for the expression of the idea, in order to be able to employ it, through its entire range and with the plenitude of its powers, as freely and easily as we make use of the speaking voice.

In this new study of a higher order, the superiority of the Italian school totally disappears, and our efforts must be concentrated especially upon what is good diction in the language in which we are singing. Clearness of articulation and pronunciation is of the greatest importance in singing. If the voice did not have that superiority over the instruments of uniting words to music, it would be surpassed by a great number of them, in compass, or agility, or even in richness of timbre. What renders it incomparable and places it above the admirable sound-mechanism invented by the ingenuity of the lute-makers is precisely that inimitable faculty of explaining and determining with words the sentiment it expresses, and expresses with an intensity which can not be attained by the spoken language alone. It places the title beneath the drawing.

Now, if the listener does not clearly catch the words, a great part of the interest is lost for him, and the voice is nothing more than an instrument like the others. ” A singer who is not understood subjects his audience to annoyance, and destroys a great part of its musical pleasure by forcing it to perpetual efforts to catch the meaning of the words.”

It is important then to resume the study of the vowels, already sketched out in the course of the work of vocalization, but now from the linguistic and declamatory point of view, and to add to it that of the consonants, which will acquire very great importance in the intense expression of violent or pathetic emotion. A few lessons in good diction, that may be taken with a good comedian or tragedian, would not be at all out of place, and would help one to grasp the ” infinite shades ” that may tinge the accentuation of every vowel as it traverses the larynx, shades by means of which the true singer knows how to ex-press in turn tenderness, fatuity, violence, indignation, indifference, love, hatred, anger, hypocrisy, frankness, kindness, joy, irony, faith, magnanimity, pardon, candour, courage, triumph, meditation, grief, —in fact the entire gamut of human passions. The function of the consonants is rather to increase the force of the sentiment ; the more energetically they are pronounced, the more impression the words produce upon the hearer. ” The consonant expresses the force of the sentiment as the vowel expresses its nature.”

Those whose syllabic articulation is lacking in firmness may try an excellent means indicated by Faure, which consists in practicing singing, or simply reading in a loud voice, keeping the teeth clenched and nevertheless forcing oneself to pronounce clearly and make every syllable distinctly heard. ” The obstacle that we meet with in doing this forces the muscles of the lips and tongue to efforts that develop their vigour and agility.”

Both professor and pupil in fact should set them-selves to combat and to vanquish, or at least to attenuate, all the vices of pronunciation or emission, at the head of which we must place the tremolo, one of the most horrible of all, which can only be excused in singers made decrepit by age. Rossini said that old singers ought to be killed. It is to be noted that this frightful tremolo, or perpetual trembling of the voice, which many male and female singers who are still young, but destitute of artistic common sense, seem to take pleasure in cultivating as a means of expression(?), is found hardly anywhere except in France, and a little in Italy, where however it was severely proscribed at the great epoch ; that we find hardly any examples among the English singers ; and that there is not the slightest trace of it among the Germans, who manage to express emotion in a more musical manner. Next conies the grassayement a fault frequent in southerners, who are easily taught to get rid of it by a few exercises of the tongue familiar to everybody. There are also the pronunciation of Z instead of J or Ch ; the stutter, as well as that disagreeable sonority that is wrongly called singing through the nose, or talking through the nose: I say wrongly, because in truth the voice, in order to be pure and beautiful in quality, should escape in part through the nostrils, and, on the contrary, it produces the defective timbre that we improperly call nasal when it does not pass through them. We can see this by pinching the nostrils while we sing or talk. We ought therefore to say that the fault lies in not singing through the nose. But this is a digression.

There still remain many more things to study : the art of properly managing respiration, and distributing it in accordance with the exigencies of the musical discourse ; that of punctuating and scanning a verse well; of shading and accenting the syllables from the purely grammatical point of view quite as much as by reason of the degree of expressive importance they bear ;—all this, and even this is not all, is what one has to learn from a professor of high style, diction and lyrical declamation, that is to say, from really a great artist.

But, in order to teach these things, this great artist has no absolute need to be himself a singer. Every man of taste, who possesses a pure and elevated esthetic sense, can give most profitable advice to a singer, who thenceforward is in full possession of his vocal powers, whose organ is in complete subjection, and who, knowing all the processes in detail, will know how to apply them for himself so as to obtain the effects that are demanded of him. Having reached this point, the singer can again find an excellent mas-ter in a composer who will make him study his works, and will be more favourably situated than anybody else to make him understand their correct interpretation and the benefit that is to be derived from them. To work thus successively under various composers of merit is perhaps even the best exercise for mastering style during this final period of attaining perfection, the one that opens the vastest horizon, and that best enables us to seize the function of the singer in art.

An erudite instrumentalist, well instructed in music and literature, eclectic, having read and studied a great deal, an experienced orchestral leader, and a cathedral organist, can also fill this same office and serve as precious guides, whereas they would have been only mediocre teachers, or at least very inefficient ones, when it was a question of placing and developing the voice.

Since we have just spoken of cathedral organists (kapellmeister) let us take advantage of it by saying that an excellent thing, so far as concerns the higher study of the art of singing, is to sing frequently in churches and temples. The sober style imposed by the dignity of the place obliges the singer to employ only simple and noble effects, that lend a breadth and firmness to his art and his individual manner in their entirety of which something advantageous to him will permanently remain.

Let us resume. The study of singing, leaving out those preliminary infantile studies, the undeniable advantages of which we have demonstrated, gains by being undertaken immediately the change is completed and the voice finds itself formed; that is to say, between seventeen and eighteen years of age in women, and eighteen and twenty in men. Earlier would be dangerous, as the lack of stability of the vocal cords would expose them to being forced or strained, especially in the low register, and this in turn would cause the loss of the high tones and the whole head-register for the women.

But we may begin later in life if the voice has not been foundered by abuse, and if it has preserved its suppleness. From thirty to thirty-five years for men, and from twenty-six to thirty for women may be considered the extreme limits.

A beginning must always be made with solfeggio; and, just as soon as one is somewhat of a musician, the voice must be disciplined by the study of vocalization. Concurrently, the use of the piano must be acquired.

Singing, properly so-called, with the adjunction of words, must not come till later.

The period of study every day should always be very short. Three or four half-hours, wisely scattered through the day, and kept far enough apart from one another to avoid all fatigue, are the best arrangement that can be made. To work more than this would be foolish. If with this small amount of work no progress is made, nothing will be gained by increasing it ; the fault must be sought elsewhere ; and if it does not consist in some defect of conformation or organization, organic deficiency or lack of musical aptitude, we can only attribute it to a bad method of work, or a bad choice of exercises.