Giacomo Lauri-Volpi: biological and psychological phonetics

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Giacomo Lauri-Volpi (1892 – 1979) was one of the greatest tenors of the twentieth century. He debuted in 1919 in I Puritani and his career took place in the most relevant stages of the world with a wide repertoire that included Gli Ugonotti, Guglielmo Tell, Turandot, Rigoletto, Il trovatore, La favorita, La bohème, Cavalleria rusticana, Manon and Tosca. He trained as a singer under the direction of maestro Antonio Cotogni and perfected under the guidance of his wife, the Valencian soprano Maria Ros, educated in the school of Manuel García. His development as an artist was marked by the conjunction of great natural conditions, a solid school and a desire for knowledge and reflection, intellectual and spiritual, generally scarce among singers. His reflections fructified in nine books published between 1937 and 1972 and he was celebrated by the Italian writer Giovanni Papini as the creator of a philosophy of singing. These books, along with musical recordings, make up the testimony of his voice. In the foreword of Mysteries of the human voice, published in 1957, Lauri-Volpi states: “From the full expression of heroism, singing is born. It is not a matter here of notes arising from a more or less gifted and orderly glottis which demonstrates his abilities to the listener, but of the only singing of one who sings in himself, conversing with his own hidden voice: the voice of consciousness.”


Stronger than his lyre was the voice of Orpheus.
Horace, “Satires” *

A way of life with a mind and values that aspires to associate the sensible and the suprasensible world to his “I” must develop, above all, as the protagonist of the cosmic drama, the mental and vocal instrument, for the intellectual knowledge and the technique of sounds, and for the formation of the notes. The raw, disorganized material is not enough. The voice must be built like a violin. Once the human violin is built, it is necessary to make it sound and for that it is necessary to practice the bow and to know the value of the arch.

The living instrument of the human voice was created to serve as an ideal model for the inventions of the wit. Many animals are also endowed with a melodious larynx, a kind of monochord capable of vibrations and modulations, chirps and trills, according to a variable scale. But in the human larynx, nature has given the prototype of all voices. For the human ear to hear, listen and, by its process of tuning, perceive intensities and nuances, nature endowed it with circular spiral revolutions.1 To form the living musical instrument it is necessary for the ear to perceive the subtlest vibrations, distinguishing them from others also simultaneous, and to perfect the exact formation of the sounds. It is the wit that sings in the man, illuminated by the spirit. In the singing animal, although perfect, it is the instinct that sings and its law is always the same and not susceptible of improvement and progress.

The song of a nightingale or a swan is the song of nature, the fleeting image of an eternal harmony. There is no trace of a finite mind. The singing of man, modulated and articulated in sounds that leave an unmistakable mark on the vibration and the word, differs from any other song precisely because it is colored with the motives of the soul.

* Translator’s note: we were unable to find this quote in The Satires by Horace.

1 Through the vibrations transmitted by the auditory system (external ear, a duct with a membrane at the bottom; middle ear, bone cavity; inner ear, or labyrinth with the snail to which the acoustic nerve is attached) the sound waves stimulate the acoustic nerve that transmits sensations to the brain, an instrument of the mind that elaborates the sensations and transforms them into ghosts, images, concepts. Thanks to the mind, the perception of sound is transmuted into an idea.

Text excerpted and translated from Misterios de la voz humana, Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, 1994.