François-Joseph Fétis: introduction to the method of methods

François-Joseph Fétis, born in Belgium in 1784, was a violinist, keyboardist, composer, teacher and academic, a pioneer in the investigation of the history and theory of music and in the recovery of works, particularly operatic repertoire, from the 16th and 17th centuries. He was a professor at the Conservatoire in Paris, where he was also conservatory librarian, chapelmaster to Leopold I of Belgium and director of the Royal Brussels Conservatory. His treatises and research work continue to be of lasting importance and he is especially remembered for his Treatise on Counterpoint and Fugue and his Biographie universelle des musiciens. In 1869 he published his book Method of methods of singing; in the introduction, which we publish here translated into English, he reviews the evolution of the art of singing from the very informed point of view of a musician and teacher who lived in the very centre of the musical scene since the end of the 18th century.


The book that I publish today was finished and even printed a long time ago; various circumstances, unnecessary to describe to the public, have caused its publication to be postponed, which has been especially opportune, because the singing schools where the pure traditions of this art had been preserved have disappeared everywhere.

A privilege, which will be envied by my readers, gives me the right to speak of the art of the great singers of the past, who have been heard and known at the beginning of this century: Crescentini, Crivelli, Tacchinardi, Nozzari, Garat, Garcia, before and after they attended the school of Aprile, Messrs. Grassini, Barilli and Branchu. Twenty-five years later, another generation of singing Virtuosi has captivated me; among them were Rubini, Ronconi, Lablache, Ponchard and others, the great Malibran, la Pisaroni, Mme. Fodor-Mainvielle and Mme. Damoreau. All these exemplary artists, each in their own style, have disappeared; and I search in vain for their successors, with very few exceptions, more outstanding for their personal qualities than for their method. There are no more models. I believe I am doing something not only useful, but necessary, bringing to present and future generations the tribute of a long experience and an in-depth study of the most appropriate texts that have been written, in all languages, about this art, which I hope can be reborn.

Brussels, 30 November 1869.


Method of methods of singing
Based on the principles of the most famous schools in Italy and France.

1. In all times, nature has created great artists whose genius triumphs in the most adverse circumstances, and in the absence of help, except for their own, they create individual resources thanks to their talent, inspiration and experience.

2. Yet the experts, in spite of their admiration for the great qualities of these artists, do not deny that they lack the wisdom, that is, the knowledge of the inherent processes of the art which would enable them to make the most of their natural faculties, as well as the habit of putting these methods into practice. They always regret to see these artists using the treasures nature has bestowed on them to hide the defects of their education, rather than developing their full potential with the help of solid instruction.

Many singers have had a beautiful vocal organ, natural ease, a lively feeling of beauty and of the wealth of imagination without reaching the set of qualities which constitute a superior talent, either because they have not been taught, or because they have not had the courage to study the mechanism of the art of singing; a difficult mechanism which cannot be obtained without good direction and persevering work, but before which the most fortunate natural conditions are defenseless.

3. If today it is rare that good singers exist, particularly in Italy, let us not believe that nature is less generous in voices and musical organizations than it was before; because nature does not have periods of lavishness and periods of moderation, but circumstances are not always favorable for the cultivation of its products. The art of singing brought to perfection in ancient Italian schools produced a multitude of admirable singers over a century. These schools, attacked on the basis of their existence about forty years ago by a series of events of war and politics, witnessed progressively the end of their decadence until they were exterminated. The models disappeared successively and things have reached such a point that a young Italian artist can only resort today to his own resources and the direction of his talent for his vocal education. From time to time nature performs a miracle again, but such efforts left only to nature are very scarce; only art can multiply them and make them lasting.

4. In the above we find the real secret of the terrifying difference that we notice in the number and quality between the Italian singers of the 18th century and the artists of the same genre of the 19th century.  When we think of the illustrious singers who graduated from the schools of Fedi in Rome, of Pistocchi and his pupil Bernacchi in Bologna, of Brivio in Milan, of Peli in Modena, of Redi in Florence, of Amadori in Rome; of Porpora, of Leo, of Feo and of Gizzi in Naples; of Paita in Genoa, of Gasparini in Venice, and later of some other schools formed under these beautiful models, it is very astonishing. This astonishment would be greater if today we could know who were the singers such as Balthasar Ferri, Siface, Mattucci, Orsini, Bortolino, the tenor Carlani, Guarducci, Pasi, Fabri, called Balino, Il Senesino, Carestini, Sandoni, Caffarelli, Conti, called Gizziello, Monticelli, Appiani, Amerevoli, Manzoli, Farinelli, Annibali, Raff, Guadagni, Millico, Rauzzini, Tenducci, Aprile, Pacchiarotti, Consorti, Rubinelli, Marchesi, Crescentini, and many others; the singers Tesi, Faustine Bordoni, Cuzzoni, Anne Peruzzi, La Visconti, Jeanne Astrua, Regina ValentinI, called La Mingotti, Catherine Gabrieli, Lucrèce Agujari, De Amicis, La Morichelli, Grassini. It should be noted that I am not referring to the individual qualities of each artist, but to the art they learned. With less genius and musical feeling, they would have still been skilled singers, and skill in art is more satisfying to connoisseurs; but it is precisely this skill that is lacking today.

There are still some happily organized artists who produce lively emotions thanks to the feeling that moves them; but the rest of the dramatic troop is hardly bearable, because there is no more Italian singing school. Not due to a defect in nature, it is the art that is sunk.

5. Unfortunately, the art of singing is a tradition passed on by example: when the school is annihilated, it seems too difficult to revive it.  Here it is necessary for me to explain what I mean by the school of singing having sunk.

In the old schools of Fedi, Leo, Porpora, Feo, the students who applied to be singers took the most careful and severe exam, and only those who possessed certain qualities, such as a good voice and a sense of just intonation, were admitted. Then began the long studies which were often completed after ten or twelve years. Solfeggio has now been abandoned to the teaching of teachers generally alien to the art of singing, who create, or even inculcate, bad habits in the voices, causing them irreparable damage. Solfeggio was, in my opinion, the basis of the teaching proposed by the teacher, who was careful to equalise all the notes, without forcing the extension of the voice, and making the vocal syllables clearly articulated in order to prepare the student for a good pronunciation. From the very beginning, some preparatory studies were begun for the messa di voce; they learned to breathe periodically and without effort; managing to increase imperceptibly the extension of the voice, monitoring the natural capacities and resources of the organ. Because of this intelligent and meticulous care, everything was admirably in place when the time came for special vocalization studies to begin. The first studies had for object the natural position of the body, of the head, the opening of the mouth, the position of the lips and the emission of the sounds of the scale on the five vowels, with the purpose of correcting the defects of guttural, dental or nasal sonority. This study, the duration of which was determined by the particular dispositions of the individuals, was then joined by the union of the registers commonly called CHEST and HEAD, and these were even longer, since this perfect union of vocal genres is one of the greatest difficulties of the art of singing and without it there can never be a perfect singer. He who possesses a certain degree of strength cannot reach either the most intense Forte or the most absolute Piano. After the union of the registers came the messa di voce, a difficult part of art, which consists in progressively increasing the force of sound on a note, from the weakest degree to the greatest force, and decreasing it in the same way, without effort, without shaking and without inequality. Then they studied the portamento and L’APPOGGIATURE; then came the studies of the articulation of the throat, the trill, the MORDENTI, the GRUPPETTI, scales and gorgheggi of all kinds, in all degrees of vocal power. To acquire in this part of the art an absolute perfection, as Bernacchi conceived it, for example, it was necessary to employ many years of study. Finally, vocal education ended with pronunciation exercises, particularly in the recitative, and on periodic breathing. As for the accent, the style, the phrase, the choice of ornaments, the teacher left to his student the creativity for all things that are the product of individual organization. It follows that after a long and systematic education, the singers I have already named had preserved their own original and unique way, and each one stood out for a particular style. 

6. Later on, things were not like this anymore, especially in private schools. The teachers who ran these schools did not receive from their students the price of the lessons they taught; rather, they made agreements where the students abandoned part of the fees they received after their debut in the theatre, and this percentage had to be debited for several years. From then on, the teachers only took care of the increase in their income due to the number of singers they brought to their debut, and the long studies gave way to a more expeditious method that substituted the reality of talent for its appearance. After a year or two, at most, refining the elements of singing, the roles are learned, the ornaments of the arias are ADJUSTED (an expression adopted since then); the phrasing is reduced to a certain number of precepts and, provided with this ephemeral instruction, the singers multiplie in the theatre.1 It is easy to understand that the results of this system of vocal education have had the effect of destroying the good traditions of fundamental art and the originality of talents; since the teachers, with their formulas all made up of ornaments and phrases, put all their students in the same mould, and gave all the talents the same physiognomy.

7. When all the great singers of the old school disappeared, only the new traditions remained, that is to say, that fast method through which only a few years of study are sufficient to form artists that, with a more or less advantageous organ, instinct, some elementary exercises, and with formulas all made up for the phrasing and ending of the arias, take risks in front of an audience that has become indulgent by the loss of the beautiful models. The latter, unable to judge the artists from the point of view of art, only considers their personal qualities. If any of these qualities is remarkable enough to attract attention, the artist soon perceives the cause of his success, clings exclusively to it, and what at the beginning should have been just a part of their talent soon becomes their whole talent. What happens to them from that moment on? Here it is: almost always a quality, developed through the exclusion of the others, is exaggerated and becomes a defect. The least harm of all is that it generates a characteristic monotony that the artist displays in a short time. Some of them will realize that there is a powerful means of expression in the opposition of the strong accent with the weak accent; nature will give them the facility to pass from one to another of these accents and the constant use they will make of this skill will be their type of individual talent and the cause of the applause that will be given to them. Others will have the natural ability to vocalize a mezza voce (which, by the way, it is much easier than a full voice) and their singing will be constantly opaque and the audience will applaud until, tired of the perpetual use of the same resources, they don’t want them anymore. Still others will astonish the audience with the powerful sound of their larynx; from then on they will devote themselves to developing this power more and more and instead of sticking to the natural emission of sound they will push it with effort. In some vigorous and slow phrases this skill will work; but soon the frequent use of this device will cause the organ to contract an invincible rigidity and the artist will be unable to sing in any other way that is not strong and slow; all soft nuances, all agility, will be impossible. However, the audience will applaud, because anything that shines prevails. Some other artists, finally, will have been endowed with a fertile imagination for the invention of singing ornaments and all their skill will consist in the frequent use of their embroideries, which will drown the melodic character. They will not stop at the correction during the execution of the lines, nor at the irreproachable tuning of the intonations; they will not know if the embellishments that they imagine are suitable to the character of the work or if they agree with the harmony and the audience will only care for them; they will multiply the cadenzas, with the risk of destroying the rhythm and the meaning of the phrases; but their execution will be brilliant and until we get tired, annoyed by their continuous pirouettes, they will pass for skilful singers, consummate teachers of the art.

8. But should we say that there is no longer a teacher who has knowledge or at least a notion of the old school of singing that formed such great artists through art, to complete the great artists of nature? Yes indeed! In the lessons there is not even talk of the union of registers, of the placement of the voice, of the positions of the mouth, of the articulation of the larynx, of the processes of breathing and of good pronunciation; but in these hasty times in which we now live, everything is hurried to reach the goal. The administrations of the theatres, often disappointed in their hopes, cry out for singers to the administrators of the schools; they in turn ask the teachers, and for their part, the students, seduced by the advantages of profiting from the situation and becoming prima donna, first tenor or first bass, are thrilled just by the desire to achieve it. Great sums, a happy and peaceful existence, acquired in a few years, even with mediocre merit, sounds so seductive, that no one tries to buy a greater merit at the price of a few more years of dedication to study. Do those who enjoy these advantages possess such perfect talents? This is what we ask ourselves, and the answer is easy to foresee. If some rare talent appears, we hasten to imitate it and we believe we have done enough for the feeling of art and for the artistic conscience; but to opt for long and painful studies, in the presence of an easier way, there is no one, neither courage nor will. What, then, could the most learned and rigorous teacher do, in the face of the situation in which those who teach in schools find themselves, but to follow approximately the same route, that is to say, to offer his students abridged notions of the various parts of the art, applying them quickly with general exercises called vocalizes, and finally, to enter as soon as possible into the repertoire of arias and roles, in order to yield results that will make him appear as a skillful and useful man?

9. In fact, the distribution of studies is essentially flawed in schools. There is no intelligent examination that prescribes the selection of individuals for singing from infancy. Often, they are not even chosen at the right age, under the pretext that the greatest number of those who are chosen before puberty do not preserve their voice after the physical crisis. Solfeggio studies are directed by a teacher who knows that he only fulfills the mission of training good readers and does not take the necessary precautions for the preservation of the voice; he pays attention to doing what is expected of him and has no concern for what is not asked of him. And then the education of the musician ends before he has acquired the slightest notion of what he should do to sing (even if he has sung for several years) and even after his voice has suffered rough treatment he is left to the care of a teacher of vocalization who, by a bizarre conception, is not yet the teacher of singing. It is in the vocalization class where the student learns, for approximately ten or twelve minutes, three times a week, that is to say around TWENTY HOURS in the course of a school year (if he receives all his lessons), the principles of the art of singing. But we must emphasize that the desire or the need to obtain prompt results directs the student to the one who has the title of PROFESSOR OF SINGING. This one makes him sing vocalizes, arias, indicates the phrasing, the ornaments and frequently objects to the application of the principles of the teacher of vocalization. But that is not all: in France there is another teacher who is called PROFESSOR OF LYRIC DECLAMATION. He makes the students sing and act at the scenes at the same time, just as he feels them, not according to the feeling of the student, who is convinced that there is an absolute way to phrase and declaim, expresses himself through his teacher, considering his method as the true art of singing and, concerned about so many things, pays less attention and devotes less time to the essentials, that is, to real art; so there is no educated organ, no consummate skill in the means of performing, no original conception.

10. This evil, this great evil, of which we see everywhere the fatal consequences; is there no remedy for this evil? We would believe it if only the feeling of beauty could be extinguished in the heart of man; but it is not so. Sometimes it falls asleep, but to revive it, it is enough to call its attention. Let a teacher, a director of a music school turn his attention to the point from which those who founded the old and beautiful schools of Italy started, eight or ten years will be enough to form a generation of great singers who will become models for future generations. And you should be aware that with will and clarity this resurrection will be even easier, since, due to the immense amount of documents that exist to rebuild a normal teaching of singing, the work will be easier than it was for the first teachers. Therefore, we must gather the documents, organize them in a systematic plan, analyze them and adhere to them: this is what I have proposed in this work and, to achieve it, I surrounded myself with all the sources I could obtain; and after entering a long path of eclecticism I sought to regulate the use of all the good things I found throughout time and systems. Time will tell if I was able to carry out all the conditions of my program and if the book I am publishing can produce the results I believe to be possible. Based on the title of the work, and what I have just said, it is clear that THE METHOD OF THE METHODS OF SINGING is the best analytical summary ever published, in all countries and in all languages: I will follow, for the writing of this summary, the same guidelines that led me during the making of the Method of Methods for Piano. 

11. I thought I should anticipate what I had to say about art itself, about the concepts of the organization of the vocal organ, about its common diseases and their treatment. It seems to me that these notions should be part of the knowledge of a singer. The loss of beautiful voices was often due to the ignorance of those who owned them.

1 Mancini shows us, in his Riflessioni pratiche sul canto figurato, that since 1770 this change in the teaching of singing had taken place and had produced regrettable results. I think I have to quote here what he says (page 43 of the 3rd edition):

“The origin of evil, in my opinion, must be found in the vile interest, which seems to dominate most of the teachers who, taking no care to apply the good rules of art, and the precepts transmitted to them, nor bringing due attention to the different talent of their students, do not think to put them in the career if not with the object of soon seeing them mount the stage, and take a profit which they stipulate on the income of the students themselves, who, being still immature, and often made proud by ephemeral applause, then give up their studies, and no longer advance in the secrets and subtleties of art. How is it possible, therefore, to hope to see a large number of good Musicians emerging from schools after such a disorder, whereby the students are sold to the miserly cupidity of teachers, who give a few years of free lessons, to greedily make long and lasting profits, taking more care over the number than over the quality of the students? May it be possible that a young man, after flying over the rules of Music, that, for that matter, one learns more through a long habit, and being barely capable of whining some aria, and some motet, becomes a good singer. Is it not, after that, almost certain the loss of the best talents, for lack of those who would correct the emerging defects, which in time become incorrigible?”

Text excerpted and translated from Méthode des méthodes de chant, Paris, 1869.