Lilli Lehmann: the art of singing

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The eminent Lilli Lehmann published in 1902 her singing treatise Meine Gesangskunst. The success of her book led to two more editions and numerous printings. In 1914 she wrote the preface for the revised edition and seized the opportunity to draw attention to the importance of technique. Eight years later, the seventy-three-year-old teacher prefaced the third edition and described the singers as instruments that, in order to serve art, must be intimately and responsibly related to their organism, the only source of all possibilities.


The object of the first edition is attained. The book has opened the eyes of many to the nature of the art of song. All those who have anything to say or write must expect to meet misinterpretations: there are just as many ideas and modes of expressing the same thing as there are listeners and readers.

I have endeavored, in this second edition, to forestall misinterpretations and to express better what I had to say in the first. It must not be thought that I lay claim to anything new. But I do lay claim to having translated that which has often been said and likewise misunderstood, into the language of the singer who can only guide himself by tone sensations and learn therefrom.

Only a few are chosen, not all can become great artists. But every one who devotes himself earnestly to this vocation should endeavor to attain the highest efficiency. Even though the theatre has experienced an incisive reform and will again and again, I do not see why we should not hold ourselves responsible for the technique of the art of song, the beauty and the preservation of the human voice of which we shall always stand in need. Without a thorough knowledge of technique, the art is an impossibility or is insufficient. To keep our bodies supple and healthy we take gymnastic exercises. Why then should not singers also take daily gymnastic exercises with their vocal organs so as to preserve their material for their profession? Technique is inseparable from art. Only by mastering the technique of his material is the artist in a condition to mould his mental work of art and to again give it -his possession borrowed from life- to others. Even artists intellectually highly gifted remain crippled without this mastery of the technique. Surely every great artist has now and then experienced it himself.

Only because I feel myself so small and imperfect in the face of our great art of song, only because I see how much there is still left to learn do I from the bottom of my heart wish and hope that others will do it better than I to whom no one will be able to deny at least two things: seriousness and the highest respect for art and capability.

Lilli Lehmann
Scharfling, Mondsee,
January 1914.


It were well if pupils, yes and professional singers, too, were conscious of just one thing, that the singing tone is to be found in the resonance of one’s own body, in the chest and head resonances, and not in the auditorium into which the singer strives solely to project his breath to produce big tones.

Our body is simultaneously the instrument and the resonance box upon which we have to learn to play. Our muscles are the strings which we must learn to tune, tighten and loosen, one to the other, and our soul is the director of our art.

As the pipes of an organ, through their form and air pressure, give that instrument the possibility of endless variations in tone, range, and means of expression, so we, too, must create for our tones and ranges living forms with our vocal organs and resonances.

As a clock is wound to set all parts of the work in action, so we singers must put together all our cooperative organs and muscles into a well-joined instrument, set it in action, and keep it in activity.

In the shortest song, the shortest phrase, we have to remake our instrument a thousand times over and keep it going, for the slightest inattention or the slightest injury to the form -which is apt to happen in the pronunciation- is liable to mutilate the artistically set instrument or its tone coloring.

Our vocal art is a marvel just as our instrument is one, and a beautiful human voice which is so blessed as to be able to give forth that which stirs our hearts is an incomparable, glorious marvel. We singers are in duty bound to become closely acquainted with this instrument in order to serve humanity with an ideal art.

Lilli Lehmann
January 1922.

Text excerpted from How to sing, Lilli Lehmann, New York, 1916, and from How to sing, Lilli Lehmann, New York, 1952.