Reynaldo Hahn: on the chest voice

La voix, la voix humaine, c’est plus beau que tout!
Reynaldo Hahn

Born in Venezuela, composer, conductor, interpreter, critic and author Reynaldo Hahn (1874 – 1947) was a brilliant member of a brilliant artistic era in France. He was a classmate of Ravel, an intimate friend of Marcel Proust and Sarah Bernhardt, a beloved student of Massenet, friend of Fauré and acquaintance of many notable figures of his age, including Debussy, Stravinsky, Saint-Säens, Diaghilev and Nijinsky. He achieved recognition and fame for his mélodies, operas, operettas and concertos. He was director of the Paris Opéra and a conductor at the Salzburg Festival, where he worked with Lilli Lehmann as Donna Anna in Don Giovanni.

A well-known figure at the more distinguished European salons, where he performed his own mélodies and works by other composers, he devoted much of his creative life to the glorification of the singing voice and words; the majority of his works were songs, operas and operettas. His careful setting of poetry, the simplicity of his accompaniments and the apparent modesty of his musical materials contribute towards the creation of songs whose charms reveal themselves only to the performer who is sensitive to the text and its meaning.

During 1913 and 1914 he gave two series of lectures on singing at the University of Annales that were compiled in 1920 into a book, Du Chant, that was later reissued and translated into English under the tile On singers and singing. In this extract devoted to the chest voice, Hahn quotes the famous baritone and singing teacher Jean-Baptiste Fauré and the composer Max d’Ollone, a student of Jules Massenet.

Reynaldo Hahn
Voice and piano
Mélodies de Reynaldo Hahn
and Emmanuel Chabrier.

About the “Chest Voice”

[…] The current denigration of the chest voice is absurd —this low opinion would have made all the great singers of the past shrug their shoulders impatiently, for these tones are essential to the beauty of the voice.

One has only to read the accounts of master teachers, to recall the leading singers we have heard and their own comments on these subject, or to listen to recordings made by the great cantatrices to be convinced that, first, chest tones are absolutely necessary to obtain richness, power, warmth in any female voice; and, second, the use of chest tones has never caused harm to the upper register of the voice, as some would have us believe.

To prove this, I shall limit myself to two or three telling examples. Lilli Lehmann, who, up to the last years of her life, performed with incomparable brilliance and purity the difficult high passages in The abduction from the Seraglio, always ended the phrase “des Himmels Segen belohne dich” with a full chest-voice G in the medium register, even after the trill on the preceding A. And, although she ranged from indescribable sweetness to bravura high notes in the Act II aria “Non mi dir” from Don Giovanni, she did not hesitate —in Act I, when Donna Anna cries out for help— to scream (this is the right word): “Gente, servi!” on the A, middle range, chest voice. This is of course an exceptional case; nevertheless, it shows that this famous artist, despite the frequent use of chest tones (even some dangerous ones), left her marvelous top register intact.

Mme Emma Calvé recorded during a single session the aria of Mysoli with its hushed tones, the card scene from Carmen and the “Marseillaise,” using chest tones that take your breath away. Melba’s recordings of 1906, particularly the one including the “Air de la Folie” from the Thomas opera Hamlet, are irrefutable proof of the compatibility of a strongly supported chest voice and a brilliant, clear and agile high register.

[…] All the great singers have used the chest voice in the low register; they have done so, to be sure, with discernment and taste, with force or with tenderness as expression required. By low register I mean, for the contralto, the one that begins at E below middle C, and for the soprano, the one that extends from middle C up to F, first space. I consider these notes the pivotal points at which the voice must turn; it should be possible to produce them in either the chest or the medium register. Many artists will go higher in chest tones if necessary. […]

Nothing is weaker, more woeful, duller and more distressing than the mixed register used below F. Many teachers today say that if the mixed voice is “correctly placed,” “correctly set” and sounds good in the forehead cavities, it can replace the chest voice. Never, never, can this be a true substitute. After hearing so many thin-voiced Marguerites (though their voices were not thin because their chests lacked breadth, alas!), I remember the pleasure I had at the two thousandth performance of Faust, hearing Mlle Yvonne Gall articulate on a well-supported, distinctive timbre, those famous words, inaudible for the past few years: “Je voudrais bien savoir quel était ce jeune homme” (“I would very much like to know who that young man was”).

Following the death of M. Maton, who had been her regular accompanist, I often had the great honor of accompanying Mme Patti. By this time, she avoided the high altitudes even though she still had an admirable A, a beautiful B-flat, and even a C that she reached valiantly and quickly. But the medium range of her voice was still incredibly velvety, limpid, subtle and generous. Considering the volume and caliber of her voice, she could have reached the low notes without having recourse to the chest notes, unlike so many female singers of our time who, already out of breath when singing A and G, must descend to those depths via the chest voice. All the same, in Zerlina’s first aria from Don Giovanni and Cherubino’s second aria from The Marriage of Figaro, Mme Patti used a well-supported and extremely mellow chest voice in all the low registers, to the delight of the listening ear and to Mozart’s greater glory.

The female singers I have mentioned so far, those who do not hesitate —without thinking about it— to use the chest voice in the low register, are all sopranos singing particularly high roles. In the same category, I might add Mme Nordica, Mme Gianina Russ, Mme Kousnetzoff, Mme Ponselle, Mme Blanche Marchesi (who, at the age of seventy-five, has just made some remarkable recordings), Mme Emma Eames, Mme Alda, Mme Geraldine Farrar (who, in the third act of Manon, sang some poignant chest notes), Mme Marguerite Carré, Mlle Garden, Mme Fanny Heldy, Mme Ninon Vallin, Mme Norena, and so forth and so on. It would be appropriate to add to this long list some particularly high sopranos, some illustrious specialists in light vocalises (coloraturas as they are rather ridiculously described today in view of the fact that the word vocalise is Koloratur in German) —veritable birds, in short, such as Mmes Barrientos, Verlet, Landouzy, Hidalgo, Tetrazzini and Marcella Sembrich. To this count I must add the soprano Erna Sack, who to the best of my knowledge possesses the highest notes of any living singer, but who nonetheless, upon leaving the highest vocal ranges where she performs with such ease, fearlessly returns to the medium range by means of a few strongly emphasized notes and with no recourse to the mixed voice.

I repeat: Not one of these artists —and we have the recordings to confirm my observations— not one has been reluctant to use the chest voice, and this is as it should be. Furthermore, Fauré believes that the E (bottom line of the staff) should be sung by the soprano in the mixed voice only in the exceptional case. To this I would add that a soprano should use the chest voice above the F only on the rarest occasions.

However, as M. Max d’Ollone once told me in a letter, “there is a misunderstanding. Often, one thinks one is hearing chest notes when they are actually guttural, harsh, unpleasant sounds that are harmful to the voice.” This misunderstanding, which is spreading from day to day, has been with us for a long time. Marietta Alboni, that incomparable interpreter of Lucrezia Borgia, with the lowest contralto voice of all the contraltos, became indignant, we are told, when someone praising her low notes called them “chest” notes. The imposing lady was not amused!

And M. d’Ollone adds: “As you say, the true chest tone can be very soft. One must be able to sustain it evenly.”

Evidently. If that F, which is so important to me, can be sung in either the chest voice or the mixed voice (which would result in an evenly sustained tone), then the troublesome problem of the rough transition, the distacco, disappears. So much the better; and yet, how could we not agree with Fauré’s opinion that “the rough passage from the chest to the head voice has a most unpleasant effect; however, who could deny that, among a few exceptional singers, there is something particularly sympathetic and touching about this distacco?”

Let us go back to M. d’Ollone’s letter. “All Italian chanteuses use the chest tone. In Italy, people would hiss in disapproval if one sang Amneris or Dalila with the low register in head tones.” Well said. However, for some years now, many voice teachers have forbidden the use of the chest voice even among contraltos. If their views were to prevail, contraltos would disappear altogether. In fact, they are already scarce; to be convinced of this fact one has only to attend performances of Samson et Dalila, Hamlet, La Favorita or other works calling for a contralto. The contralto will eventually become extinct, like animal or plant species we fail to protect; so future generations will be able to learn how a real contralto sounded only by listening to the recordings of Mmes Deschamps-Jéhin, Maria Gay, Kirby-Lunn, Schumann-Heink and the amazing Clara Butt.

“No doubt,“ continues M. d’Ollone, “there are female singers who do not naturally possess chest tones and who, wishing to support low notes either for a dramatic purpose or in order to avoid being ‘swallowed’ by the orchestra, resort to unpleasant guttural sounds.”

To this very accurate observation there can be no better answer than the following paragraph by Fauré:

“The most effective way in helping sopranos in finding this register, when they need it, is imitation. No physiological definition will help them. Sopranos will most rapidly acquire it by trying to imitate the voices of young boys, the voices heard in children’s choirs or the voices of contraltos.”

Fauré’s mention of the voices of contraltos and the voices of young boys in the same breath confirms, with all due deference to Alboni, that the contralto actually does use chest tones.

[…] It is most important to eliminate that unfortunate prejudice which deprives the art of singing of one of its most beautiful means of expression. “One cannot ignore,” writes Fauré, “the profound effects that women create by using their chest register.” It is truly presumptuous to pretend to a deeper knowledge than such a master, to deny the truth of his observations or the account of great artists, great connoisseurs who have excelled in the art of singing, who have penetrated the mysteries of this art at the height of its perfection and magnificence. It is equally presumptuous to disregard the examples of the many excellent female singers who have depended upon this approach that is absurdly condemned and prohibited today.

[…] I cannot resist the temptation of noting that, among the people who have written to me, those who agree with my ideas are quite often experienced artists who have had successful careers, which goes far to prove the case that the use of chest tones is not as disastrous as many have claimed with inexplicable tenacity in the last few years. “You are a hundred times right,” Mme Emma Calvé wrote, adding: “I am convinced that I have preserved my voice thanks to well-supported low notes which I consider the foundation of the vocal apparatus.”


Lilli Lehmann, soprano
Martern aller Arten
Die Entführung aus dem Serail
W. A. Mozart

Lilli Lehmann, soprano
Ach, ich liebte
Die Entführung aus dem Serail
W. A. Mozart

Lilli Lehmann, soprano
Or sai chi l’onore
Don Giovanni
W. A. Mozart

Lilli Lehmann, soprano
Non mi dir
Don Giovanni
W. A. Mozart

Emma Calvé, soprano
Charmant oiseau
La Perle du Brésil
Félicien David

Emma Calvé, soprano
Air des cartes
Georges Bizet

Nellie Melba, soprano
A vos jeux mes amis
Ambroise Thomas

Yvonne Gall, soprano
Le roi de thulé
La Damnation de Faust
Hector Berlioz

Adelina Patti, soprano
Batti, batti o bel Masetto
Don Giovanni
W. A. Mozart

Adelina Patti, soprano
Voi che sapete
Le Nozze di Figaro
W. A. Mozart

Lillian Nordica, soprano
Nagy ég
Hunyadi Lázsló
Ferenc Erkel

Giannina Russ, soprano
O patria mia
Giuseppe Verdi

Maria Kuznetsova, soprano
Sì, mi chiamano Mimì
La Bohème
Giacomo Puccini

Frances Alda, soprano
O mio babbino caro
Gianni Schicchi
Giacomo Puccini

Mary Garden, soprano
Depuis le jour
Gustave Charpentier

Fanny Heldy, soprano
È strano! È strano!
La Traviata
Giuseppe Verdi

Eidé Norena, soprano
Sa main depuis hier
Ambroise Thomas

Maria Barrientos, soprano
A non giunge
I Puritani
Vincenzo Bellini

Alice Verlet, soprano
Air du rossignol
Les noces de Jeannette
Victor Masse

Elvira de Hidalgo, soprano
Las hijas del Zebedeo
Ruperto Chapí

Marcella Sembrich, soprano
Bel raggio lusinghier
Gioachino Rossini

Blanche Deschamps, contralto
Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix
Samson et Dalila
Camille Saint-Saëns

Maria Gay, mezzosoprano
Air de cartes
Georges Bizet

Ernestine Schumann-Heink, contralto
Weiche, Wotan, weiche
Das Rheingold
Richard Wagner

Geraldine Farrar, soprano
Enrico Caruso, tenor
Manon! On l’appelle Manon
Jules Massanet

Louise Kirkby, contralto
Emmy Destinn, soprano
Ebben, qual nuovo fremito
Giuseppe Verdi

Emma Calvé, soprano
La Marseillaise
Rouget de Lisle

Emma Calvé, soprano
L’heure exquise
Reynaldo Hahn

Nellie Melba, soprano
Georges Bizet

Yvonne Gall, soprano
D’une prison
Reynaldo Hahn

Rosa Ponselle, soprano
Maria, Marì
Eduardo di Capua

Blanche Marchesi, soprano
Amuri, Amuri!
Francesco Paolo Frontini

Emma Eames, soprano
Gretchen am spinnrade
Franz Schubert

Marguerite Carré, soprano
Chanson de l’epousee
Édouard Lalo

Ninon Vallin, soprano
Les Berceaux
Gabriel Fauré

Lise Landouzy, soprano
Souvenez-vous, Vierge Marie!
Jules Massenet

Luisa Tetrazzini, soprano
Carnevale di Venezia
Julius Benedict

Erna Sack, soprano
Johann Strauss

Clara Butt, contralto
Caro mio ben
Giuseppe Giordani

Text excerpted from On singers and singing, Reynaldo Hahn, Portland, 1990. The introduction includes extracts from the essay Reynaldo Hahn: Composer of Song, Mirror of an Era, by Lorraine Gorrell, present in the same book.