Laure Cinti-Damoreau: words to the students
Laure Cinti-Damoreau (1801 – 1863) was a leading operatic French soprano during the second quarter of the nineteenth century. She began working under the direction of Gioachino Rossini in 1924, when he assumed his position as director of the Théâtre Italien, and she created lead roles in his last five operas.
Singing the role of la Contessa di Folleville, she was part of the premiere of Il viaggio a Reims in 1825 at the Théâtre Italien, conducted by Rossini himself, in the company of Ester Mombelli, Giuditta Pasta, Marco Bordogni, Domenico Donzelli and Nicolas Levasseur. In 1826 she was the lead soprano in the premiere of Le siège de Corinthe, alongside Adolphe Nourrit. The next year she appeared in the role of Anaï in Moïse et Pharaon with Levasseur, Nourrit and Dabadie and in 1828 she lead the same cast in Le comte Ory in the role of The countess Adèle. In 1829 she created the role of Mathilde in Guillaume Tell, written especially for her by Rossini.
She was the leading soprano in the premiere of Meyerbeer’s Robert le diable in November 1831, with Nourrit and Levasseur. That year, in December, Frédéric Chopin wrote to a friend: “Mme Cinti-Damoreau sings as superbly as possible; I prefer her singing to Malibran’s. Malibran amazes, Cinti delights, and her chromatic scales are better than those of Toulon the famous flutist. No voice could be more highly trained; it seems to cost her so little to sing, as if she just blew it at the audience.”
In 1836, Hector Berlioz wrote at the Revue et gazette musicale de Paris: “Mme Damoreau then sang an aria by Costa with all the purity imaginable; the art of vocalisation, we sincerely believe, can be extended no further; each note of this sweet voice is a pearl, and a pearl from the most beautiful waters.”
From 1834 to 1856 she taught at the Paris Conservatoire and in 1849 she published her Méthode de Chant. She also left seven manuscript notebooks, detailing the ornamentation and cadenzas for the works in her repertory. We can read in the foreword to her method that:
“The Musical Studies Committee has examined with all the interest that the name of the Author deserves, the work of Madame Cinti-Damoreau, entitled: Méthode de Chant, composed for her Conservatoire students.
The Committee has unanimously recognized the perfect clarity of the method, the good taste and elegance of the Examples, the care which presided over all the details. The Points d’orgue written by Mme Cinti-Damoreau, drawn from different works to which she has lent the support of her talent, will be excellent models of style and execution for her Students.
The Committee recommends that the Directory adopt the work of Mme Cinti-Damoreau to serve as the text in the classes of the Conservatory.”
The members of the Committee who sign this document are, among others, Daniel Auber, Giacomo Meyerbeer, Jacques Fromental Halévy, Adolphe Adam and Ambroise Thomas.
We present to you Laure Cinti-Damoreau’s introduction to her method of singing.
To my students at the conservatory,
It is to you, my dear students, that I wanted to dedicate this method, the fruit of my studies and experience, in which I believe I have recorded the best principles and the best examples of the art of singing. Hold on firmly to these principles, strive to reproduce the examples faithfully: this is, in short, the summary of good teaching.
If I tell you about my studies it is because, even at the very peak of my career as an artist, I never stopped studying: it is only thanks to assiduous work and to the firm will to achieve new progress every day that we are able to conquer and to keep the public’s favor. In order to prove to you all that can be gained by such obstinacy in study, I had at first thought of placing my biography at the beginning of this book; but I am afraid of its length, and I shall confine myself to telling you about all that is connected with my debut in the Italian Theater, in the Opéra and in the Opéra-Comique. You are therefore warned that, while I am talking about myself, you will not cease to be in my thoughts.
I was barely thirteen years old when I was introduced to Mr Ch.-Henri Plantade, a man of wit, talent and heart, whose memory has remained dear to all those who have loved or cultivated the art of music in France over the last thirty years. M. Plantade gave me frequent lessons, with all the care of an excellent teacher and all the tenderness of a father; my voice, which promised to be flexible and which did not yet have much strength, seemed to him to be quite appropriate to the Italian genre. I therefore only studied the old repertoire with him; I began with the Psalms of Durante, and my teacher barely had me sing three or four French arias. Among them were the arias of Montano et Stéphanie and of Beniowski, true models of a genre that was simple, expressive and graceful at the same time. I am quoting them to you, my dear pupils, so as not to let you believe that one only sings well when one has learned to easily sing the difficult. It is not enough, in fact, to make notes, to execute more or less difficult passages; it is necessary to give them colour, to animate them, to accentuate them; and, for this, the artist must penetrate himself with the words, the spirit of the piece or the scene he is going to sing. Even his physiognomy must reveal, so to speak, the subject and the character to the listener. Need I add that the articulation, the pronunciation, must be beyond reproach? Listen to Ponchard, and you’ll know how much charm is gained by not letting your listeners lose even a syllable.
It is much more difficult to sing in French than in Italian; and this is easy to explain. We Frenchmen do not allow ourselves to breathe in the middle of a word, to repeat a syllable, to sing loudly when the situation indicates that we should sing piano; finally, we must not sacrifice the words to the notes, but, on the contrary, we must sacrifice the notes to the words. By working ceaselessly, by devoting oneself exclusively to one’s art, one can manage to identify one with the other, and to speak in music.
Here you have almost all my method, my dear students: I have worked always, constantly, listening, and reflecting on what I listened to.
When I had reached my fourteenth year: “My dear child,” said Mr. Plantade, “you can do without me now. Listen; you have taste: you will take what is good in some, you will drop what is bad in others.” And do not conclude from this advice that one should slavishly imitate the master or the model one adopts. It is necessary, I cannot stress this too often, to be aware of the means of success peculiar to the artist we are listening to, to distinguish by what art he obtains grace, by what secret he manages to charm. In this way we avoid the pitfall of parody, we move quickly along the road to success.
Before I was fifteen, I made my debut at the Italian theatre in the role of Lilla, in la Cosa rara, which was left vacant by the departure of Mrs. Fodor. Thanks to my extreme youth, and above all to the advice of my dear teacher, my success was real. The day when the full approval of Mr. Plantade confirmed the applause of the public was the happiest day of my life. After this happy beginning, I had many troubles and prejudices to overcome. I was French; it was almost a crime at the Italian Theatre!
I was not discouraged. In a very short time I learned about fifteen or twenty roles; I filled in (sometimes from one day to the next) for all the prime donne; in the ardour of my zeal and unceasing study, I was ready for every role. And this, my dear students, is the moment to tell you that, if you are destined for the theatre, it should not be enough for you to study the role in which you intend to appear; you must also understand that you have to penetrate all the others. In this way, you will be able to better grasp the thinking behind the work, and you will indulge in one of the most suitable exercises to shape your talent, to make it more flexible. This habit that I had acquired was one day very profitable for me.
Mrs Catalani was to give an extraordinary performance at the Opera. The dress rehearsal was already in progress when it was discovered that the great singer had not arrived. As the ritornello of her cavatina announced her entrance, Barilli, our regisseur, took me by the hand and introduced me resolutely to the orchestra, to sing in the place of our famous principal. At first I was very troubled, but then I was very happy, because the orchestra applauded me very much, and it was the first time I had ever achieved such an honour. When Mrs Catalani learned of the boldness I had allowed myself, or rather to which my devotion had led me, ever good, she thanked me with a hug.
A little later (I was sixteen at the time) Garcia gave me a charming lead role in his opera il Califo di Bagdad. Garat, who heard me then, (alas! I was too young to be able to hear him) said that I was singing insolently in tune. This, I think, is the only defect I have ever had to congratulate myself on in my life: catch it, my dear pupils; without precise intonation, there is no charm. I know this is not given, but nevertheless, by working with application all kinds of intervals, done slowly, with the help of the teacher, one can sometimes manage to sing precisely in tune, even when that precision is not a gift of nature.
When Rossini arrived in France, I received precious advice from Bordogni, now my colleague at the Conservatoire, whose good taste is attested by the charming vocalisations he has written for us.
Shortly afterwards, an extraordinary performance gave me the opportunity to appear at the Opera, in the Rossignol. As I had never before been given the opportunity to sing in French in front of the public, who already treated me so well, I was in deep anxiety. However, the very success of this attempt determined me to remain on the great stage of the Opera, for which new destinies seemed to be in preparation. But before separating myself from the Italian Theatre, which had become dear to me in many ways, I wanted to submit to a new and more serious test than that of the Rossignol. M. le vicomte de La Rochefoucauld (today M. le duc de Doudeauville), whose name all artists must remember with gratitude, was then in charge of the direction of the Beaux-Arts. I asked his permission to play Amazily, in Fernand Cortez, a delightful role, all expressiveness, and, apparently, contrary to the habits of the genre I had cultivated until then. There is not a single roulade in this role: it was only possible to succeed in it by singing it with soul and simplicity. This second audacity was even more favourable to me than the first. So I entered the Opera, proud to have won the vote of a composer as eminent as Spontini, and of a singer as dramatic as Mme Branchu, for whom he had written this admirable role twenty years earlier. Here begins the second, and not the least happy period of my theatrical career.
From that time onwards, I redoubled my studies and efforts to bring together the broad and expressive style with the genre known as bravura, with roulades, fioriture, etc. To make myself at home in all the varieties of the art of singing, I sang romances, even little songs. The latter genre is more difficult than one might think; for it requires more to be said than sung.
From then on, too, I took advice only from myself, because of the profound study I had made of all genres and styles.
My repertoire at the Opera was, in the beginning, rather limited. As I was unable to vary my roles as much as I would have liked, I imagined that I could vary my singing lines. The audience renewed constantly; a few true amateurs, however, persisted in each of my performances, and not one of the new appogiaturas I added to their favourite pieces was not noticed and warmly applauded. However, I must say here that my musical coquetries were mainly addressed to my beloved orchestra: from the orchestra came the expression of the most enlightened and precious sympathies for me; and the approving glance of M. Habeneck was even closer to my heart than the applause of the audience.
This ease in varying the lines, however fruitful it may be in the form of applause, must not be pushed too far; the ornaments must be rhythmic, appropriate to the genre and movement of the piece, and always subordinate to the words. Be wary of those flares of unintelligent, characterless, colourless notes with which mediocre singing so often tries to dazzle the audience, and remember, I repeat, that embellishments must always be subordinate to the words; after all, to denature a musical phrase and make it utterly unrecognisable is not to vary it. This part of art also opens up a vast field of study. I have, in this regard, a little story to tell you: although I still play a part in it, you will forgive me for this digression:
A great singer had just arrived in Paris. The Duke of Duras, then first nobleman of the chamber of King Charles X, and whose protection did not fail the arts or the artists, wanted to hear us sing a duet. On the morning of the day of the concert, we rehearsed at the home of the famous maëstro Paër; we agreed on the lines to be performed, which were numerous in the chosen duet, consisting almost entirely of questions and answers; it was always I who had to answer. In the evening, at the concert, a cunning thought crossed the mind of the beautiful singer, and she suddenly changed all the lines agreed upon in the morning. At first I was quite disconcerted, but I did not lose heart, and, with one of those inspirations that cannot be defined, I responded without wasting a minute, a second or a quarter of a sigh, improvising other lines which, I admit, revealed a little of the slight spite that this surprise caused me. My courage was happy, and far from losing the battle, I was able to hear unanimously that the duet had never been better sung on either side. The reconciliation was born from the success, and from then on there was as much agreement in our friendship as in our duets.
Draw a lesson from this tale, my dear pupils; had I not been accustomed to vary all the themes, to play, by dint of hard work, with all the musical phrases, I would certainly have been less happy in my inspirations; it would have been the end for me that day, and my reputation, already well established, would have been shattered through mischief, before the eyes of the kindest audience, the most used to applauding me.
Among the points d’orgue that you will find at the end of this collection, all of which I have borrowed from my triple repertoire, there are some that are not suitable for all voices and all organisations, and whose success depends as much, so to speak, on the intelligence of the performer as on the way they can be performed: one must, for example, be a very good musician and possess a great deal of accuracy of intonation in order to perform those that modulate. I am not giving them to you, moreover, so that you can perform them at any cost, despite your organisation and your nature. I am offering you a variety of formulas so that, later on, your taste will lead you, within the limits of your means, to find others of your own. In this way you will only do what you are sure to do well and successfully.
Especially in the art of singing, it is important to apply everything with tact and moderation. As a further example of this, I would like to point out the abuse of vibration, of which Mrs Malibran, the great singer, so deeply regretted, this elite organisation which may never be replaced, was nevertheless able to draw such great effects. Vibration, when properly used, gives accent and expression to the musical phrase; but as soon as it is overused or forced, not only results in monotony, but the freshest voice soon becomes a weary one.
I finally arrive at the third period of my dramatic career: that of my entry and residence at the Opéra-Comique theatre.
There I found a completely new kind of work for me; a new direction for the studies of my whole life. After having been, on the Italian stage and that of the French Grand Opera, the interpreter of Spontini, Meyerbeer, and especially Rossini, the Italian star, I was called upon to popularise the brilliant works of our famous composer Auber, the French star. In a few years I created several generally happy operas, at the forefront of which must be placed L’Ambassadrice and Le domino noir. I am also indebted to M. Halévy, who had already produced L’Eclair et la Juive, for the no less remarkable score of Le Shérif. The audience at the Opéra-Comique was to me what it had always been elsewhere, full of a kindness that supported me and even consoled me from some theatrical annoyances that I should not have expected. There too, the orchestra, composed of truly distinguished artists, received every evening with perfect benevolence the confidence of my new embellishments, whose last echoes were for the very fresh and very spiritual music of La Rose de Péronne by Adolphe Adam. My work as an artist ended there.
It has been fifteen years already, many years before my retirement from the theatre, that I began the painful but honourable career of a professor. I want to continue this career and end it one day with dignity, after having inspiring in you the love for our art.
One more word, my dear students. Today, praise has become easier and more banal than ever: don’t be taken in by its deceptive bait; judge yourselves severely before believing in the benevolence of others. There is hardly a debutante, however slight her merit may be today, that is not claimed to be a colossal talent by the feuilleton and the advertisement.
Consider that the greatest difficulty for an artist is not to acquire a certain reputation, but to sustain it; this can only be achieved by achieving new progress at all costs, even in the wake of a new success; not to advance in the arts is to retreat. Remember that notes in music are not everything in the art of singing. No doubt, if you can add to your musical ability a flexible and light voice that will enable you to perform all the difficulties contained in this volume, you will have an advantage that will enhance your talent. But first of all, it is necessary to say, to speak while singing: the accent, the expression, this is what must constantly concern you, as I have already said above, and, as you can see, I am not afraid to repeat myself.
Work then, my dear students; work for your future reputation, for the very fortune that talent can give you one day; seek above all the approval of great artists. Cherubini, the immortal author of so many serious compositions, Rossini, the great maëstro, often had the kindness to express what they thought about me in terms that, even in my retirement, still deliciously tickle today my self-esteem as an artist. I shall not repeat these terms to you again, for I want to try to be modest: a little modesty does not ruin anything, and is well worth a singing lesson. In this respect I can cite as examples Mlles Nau and Sophie Duflot, one as a singer and the other as a teacher, both of whom are my pupils and who, despite their talent, have nevertheless remained most grateful. Emulate, then, but without rivalries, and let me have the pleasure of applauding you soon.
My observations will be short because I cannot share the opinion of some people who think they can train good singers through beautiful theories. The most knowledgeable, best-written precepts will never produce an artist, any more than one will know how to sing without having learned.
It is therefore through well graded practical exercises and the care of an experienced teacher that the pupil must learn to pose and to link the sounds together and above all to take his breath in such a way as to manage it skilfully enough to reach the end of a phrase or a vocal line without any apparent tiredness.
It is not enough to learn how to nuance the sound, that is to say how to make it swell or diminish progressively, it is still necessary in some cases to know how to make it vibrate or to veil it, according to the indication of the words. The intelligent pupil, when his musical feeling is developed, can himself find vocal effects, but above all it is important that these effects are based on true principles and not on the fantasy of the performer. Singing, like the other arts, is subject to certain fundamental rules from which one must not deviate. I therefore recommend, independently of the breathing and the posing of the voice, the utmost attention in the execution of the following exercises, each note of which must be attacked frankly but without hardness.
The exercises should be sung slowly and very legato, then nuanced even on the scales that will be performed the first time forte and the second time piano. The student should also follow them mentally while singing them, so that he gets used from the beginning to having an exact idea of what he is doing. Especially in the chromatic scales, it is essential that the mind follow the voice; it is even an infallible means of overcoming all the great vocal difficulties.
- Mme Cinti-Damoreau and the Embellishment of Italian Opera in Paris, Austin Caswell, Journal of the American Musicological Society, Vol. 28, No. 3, 1975.
- Chopin’s letters, collected by Henryk Opieński, translated by E.L. Voynich, New York, 1931.
- Concert de Mlle Mazel à l’Hotel-de-Ville, Hector Berlioz, Revue et gazette musicale de Paris, 3e année, No 28, Paris, 1836.
Text excerpted and translated from Méthode de chant, Laure Cinti Damoreau, Paris, 1849.