Francesco Lamperti: on the causes of the decay of singing

Francesco Lamperti (1811 – 1892) was one of the foremost singing teachers of the 19th century. He taught for more than fifty years until his death and for twenty five years he was head of the vocal department at the Royal Conservatory of Music at Milan. Among his pupils were Salvatore Patti and Caterina Barilli (the parents of Adelina Patti), Sophie Cruvelli, Gottardo Aldighieri, Désirée Artôt, David Bispham, Italo Campanini, Franz Ferenczy, Friederike Grün, Teresa Stolz, Marie van Zandt, Maria Waldmann, Emma Thursby, Julián Gayarre, Marie Van Zandt and William Shakespeare. Emma Albani, a famous Canadian soprano who had the chance to perfect her repertoire with Ambroise Thomas and Gounod, talks about her teacher in her memoir Forty Years of Song:

Let me say here that Lamperti was, in my opinion, by far the best singing master in the world at that time, both for voice production and for the true Italian method —a method which is now unfortunately becoming extinct. The maestro used to say, “Learn this method thoroughly, and you will be able to sing every kind of music.” I did learn it thoroughly, and to prove the truth of Lamperti’s words, when the great pianist von Bülow, the friend of Wagner and Liszt, heard me in “Lohengrin” at Covent Garden, he said, “If Mademoiselle Albani ever goes to Germany, she will show the Germans that Wagner can be sung!” […] Lamperti never passed over a fault —he exacted the most minute study from all his pupils, in breathing, in producing the voice, in shades of tone, in phrasing, and in all the minutiae which go to make a great singer. He was a severe critic and master, and though he thought nothing of taking any amount of care and trouble with those pupils who studied conscientiously and thoroughly, he had no patience whatever with those who lazily left half his instructions unheeded.

Lillie P. Berg, an American singer who was sent to Lamperti by Emma Albani, and who also studied with Theresa Brambilla, Julius Stockhausen, Mathilde Marchesi and Enrico Delle Sedie, wrote in 1892:

Think of studying with a man who had been the intimate friend of Rossini, Bellini, and for years the associate in the Royal Conservatory of Milan, of Lauro Rossi, Donizetti, and Mazzucato, whose critical opinion was listened to with deference way back in the days of Frezzolini, Pasta, Malibran, for whose pupils Verdi and Donizetti and a score of others Italian composers of minor fame composed opera.

In 1864, Lamperti published his Guida teorico-pratica-elementare per lo studio del canto and stated in the preface his opinions on the condition of vocal art in those days.

Milan, October 24, 1864.

Vice President of the Academic Council
Director of studies at the Royal Music Conservatory of Milan

Dearest Professor,

I have carefully read your Theoretical-practical guide for the study of singing, and with full conviction I can only pay (as I do) the most sincere compliments to your conscientious work. It is the fruit of experience, and for me that is why it has relevant merits, and among them one most essential: being based on the system of maintaining, exercising and developing the vocal organ without running the risk of ruining it by studying. Perhaps your system will not be very satisfactory to those who from the beginning of the study want to accustom themselves to the genre of loud singing, typical of energumens. Women, who will not see exercises on the extreme notes of their voices, will be astonished. Tenors, who will not be able to break their throats with the high A and B-flat, will not even deign to read it, and the same for the baritones with the F and the G, and the basses with the E and the F. But I do not hesitate to call these such (if ever there were any), from now on, unhappy, and the unhappy in art deserve compassion and nothing else.
This, esteemed professor, is my humble and individual opinion.
In any case, you can have my congratulations and my faith.

Yours devotedly,
Lauro Rossi

on the causes of the decay of singing

It is a sad but undeniable truth that singing is nowadays in a state of deplorable decay.

And this fact is all the more painful because it is not only evident to the judgment of intelligent people, but it is also the impression that the most ignorant masses get in the audition of the musical performances that are being presented in our theaters, both in the small and in the biggest ones. On the precise causes of such decay I drew my attention a little, I sought to investigate the motives and for that reason I did not think it was useless to open these elementary rudiments of mine with some reflections on the subject.

It cannot be supposed that the human voice, from the time of the greatest artistic celebrities onwards, has suffered a disadvantageous alteration; it is possible that some vocal phenomenon develops in one time more than in another, but these are extraordinary exceptions and it is not on them that we must focus. On the other hand, in the many years that have elapsed since that time until today, in view of the moral and intellectual development of the populations, it seems to me that the intelligence of each and every one of those involved in singing should have undergone a rapid increase, that the passage of time and progress have spread over all social classes. However, about forty years ago a large group of select artists could be counted, something that we cannot conscientiously do in this day; it is therefore necessary to suppose that the music of those times and the principles with which the singers started their musical career were the true reasons why it was possible for us at that time to boast so many true artistic celebrities devoted not only to success but equally well to the vows of art.

And it is on these two points that I am interested in drawing the attention of my readers.

The famous singer Pacchiarotti wrote in his memoirs «anyone who knows how to breathe and syllabify well, will know how to sing well» and that was one of the greatest truths that study and experience in art have suggested to the adroit cultivators of singing.

In fact, in the days when the Rossinian repertoire was in vogue and was performed in all the theaters, even having a beautiful voice and musical attitude, was it possible to sing that music without knowing how to breathe? It was necessary to study it radically, and each performance was a continuous and necessary progress that the singer had to make both in the development of the voice and in the pronunciation, in the way of breathing, of correcting the defects of intonation and the emission of excessive shouts, all defects that became even more intolerable given the little sonority of the instrumentation, which was limited to a simple accompaniment.

And even aside from a rudimentary study by virtue of the speciality of the music we mentioned, a singer who would have only had the gift of nature of a beautiful voice, and of a certain musical attitude, would have found in the music itself the best teacher of his art, an art which, even considering scarce economic means or insufficient study, the singer could cultivate nonetheles, not being of any harm to start the career with the secondary roles, all the more when one had as partners the greatest singers of that time, and in such a way with practice and exercise it was possible to supplement the lack of regular study.

Things have changed a lot today.

Vocal music, in order to assume a more dramatic character, has stripped itself of agility almost entirely, to the point that no matter how little it continues down this way it will be nothing more than a musical declamation in perfect contradiction with the true method of purely dramatic declamation that imposes to the real actors the exclusion of any kind of cantilena. Avoiding the question of the greater or lesser growth that music science itself can derive from such innovations, I can at least observe as an effect, since it was commonly agreed that singing is not verisimilar but delights nonetheless, that it does not seem to me to be in accordance with the natural precepts of melodrama to abandon ourselves to a method that will lead to the exclusion of singing, since it was for singing itself that the melodramatic form was created, and the admirers of declamation will always have tragedy and drama which take care of the verisimilitude and the truth, without needing the support of the orchestra in accompaniment or in a descriptive way.

It is for this reason that in the midst of this deterioration of vocal music, since the neophytes of singing do not have in the music itself the first and the best among the methods and the teachers anymore, neither they can or want to begin their career on the solid bases of one or the other, there are no more than mediocre, defective and incomplete artists. Even the lack of musicians, a type of singer incompatible with the modern civilization that, while presenting in the humanitarian aspect a just and necessary progress, leaves on the other hand an irremediable void in the true cultivators of singing, can therefore be considered as a cause of the decline of vocal music. Pacchiarotti, Crescentini, Velutti, Marchesi, etc., all of them most distinguished artists, once they had abandoned the scene they revived it in their students. Their very state of mutilation, while keeping them away from other distractions, forced them by nature to devote their affections, their soul, their thought to an art that was the sole object of their existence. Select artists of a time became masters of untold skill and experience afterwards; that is why so many good artists came out from their school, things we can only remember as a luminous past.

Another cause of the shortage of good singers are often, in my opinion, the impresarios. The new music that allows artists to venture into the scene still immature way more easily than before, theatrical speculators who hire a good voice when they hear it even when it lacks the precepts of art, engaging in the usual marketing, and the treasure of the throat, deprived of all artistic precepts, is consumed badly and in a short time with the waste of the most beautiful notes randomly emitted, with no modulation or breathing standards, attaining the continuous and rapid destruction of the vocal means, while the music of former times would have used the treasure in a longer and more difficult way, it is true, but undoubtedly more profitably and without even consuming it.

And with regard to the fatal influence of modern singing on the throat of the artists I shall quote an example which seems to me as worthy as the best of arguments. Mrs. Löwe, a past student of mine and a distinguished singer, who made her debut at La Scala in María Padilla, written especially for her by maestro Donizetti, performed a coda after her cavatina in this opera with such a wonderful mastery of agility that she aroused the most vivid acclamation. Shortly afterwards, I met my pupil again at La Fenice in Venice, where she was singing dramatic operas written in the modern style and I wanted one day for mere experiment to try to make her perform the famous coda for which she was celebrated at La Scala. It was impossible; Mrs. Löwe’s throat could not emit a single bar. To this we must add what I will call the spostamento 1 of the voices, I mean the widespread practice of considering the short 2 sopranos of former times to be mezzo-sopranos, of making the mezzo-sopranos sing the parts of the contraltos of earlier and the almost total disappearance of the true contralto parts in the modern repertoire. The same is true of the so-called serious tenors 3 of a time who now sing as baritones, the half-character tenors 4 who now tear their chests by singing the parts of serious tenors and the little use of real basses, whose repertoire often touches the most bold baritonal strings. But those who suffer the greatest damage from such spostamento are the sopranos, whose voices must be exceptional according to modern tessiture. They usually sing on the last notes of the soprano sfogato, with the support of some strong bass. But these voices, with some exceptions, are weak in the center and acquire a character of unpleasant inequality and, even worse, they become increasingly scarce day after day. What’s happening to them? True sopranos, forced to make a career by singing this type of tessiture, in a short time abandon themselves to shouting in a unbridled and tiring way that weakens their means at the moment when nature itself would give them the greatest vigor. And on such displacement the influence of the raising of the diapason 5 by half a tone has not been little, and it contributes to the lack of prime donne. Nature is prodigal with voices of soprani giusti and very miserly with those of soprano sfogato. Those who sang the Otello, the Semiramide and almost all the operas of the great master, that were written for true sopranos in that time when they were in vogue, are nowadays called mezzo-soprano voices. The same can be said of the first operas by Donizetti, Mercadante and others. Bellini was the first to write some exceptional tessiture and, what is most tiring, to make the singers syllabify on numerous melodies devoid of agility, forcing them to pronounce a syllable in each note; in this respect, his successors did nothing more than to exaggerate his style both in terms of tessitura and syllabification, and it was in such a way, together with all that we have shown, that the displacement of the keys arrived, so damaging in particular for women, for whom syllabification is extremely fatiguing on the head notes, which are almost excluded from the register in the male voices.

After all we have shown it turns out, then, that if nowadays, on the one hand, one can more easily make a mediocre career with little study, this is also the reason why, on the other hand, art is plagued by nobodies and artistic shortcomings and this is the origin of the general ruin of the voices for lack of a radical culture; it seems to me that now more than ever, both for the sake of art as for the well-being of artists, the need for a severe and determined study is evident even for those who were lavished with the gifts of nature, to ensure that, regardless of the genre of music towards which the singer is dragged by the current taste, the voice can be cultivated wisely, be made sharp and the organism can be accustomed to a long breath in each one of the emitted notes.

And here I find it opportune to point out that, since singing is a parlar lungo,6 the notes usually used for speaking are naturally animated, they can express rage, irony, grace, love, etc., and the words with the pronunciation itself come out clear; but without the necessary study, how are to be emitted the notes which are not used in speaking, how to syllabify them, how to apply to them regular breathing and, in consequence, how to animate them and express with them the passions and feelings we mentioned, despite the most exquisite feeling and the greatest musical attitude a singer can have? With all these finest requirements, but without the fundamental study, we will have the screamers but no longer the true singers; their notes, unused and not cultivated according to the rules of art, will be cold and, despite their strength and sonority, always without expression, always deprived of the true dramatic accent, always monotonous and unable to vary the expression according to the concept that the maestro and the poet created in their imaginations. Hence the artistic inexperience, even the misuse, as we have said, and the immature extinction of the natural means.

To put an end, if not entirely at least in part, to these very serious drawbacks, it comes to me the thought, in such a state of melodic anarchy and after the experience of many years of teaching, of counteracting the influence that the current music exerts to the detriment of the bel canto with some practical and fundamental rules, thanks to which, through the help of the teacher we can, as I hope, avoid the ruin of the voices and obtain happy and profitable results of those who prepare to study vocal music.

And for this purpose I have thought it convenient to dwell on the breath, recommending the students its tireless study, as that which more than anything else leads to the good support of the voice and of the long notes, the most expressive or eloquent to the heart of man, and as that which bases all the general precepts of the study and to which they all refer.

This is not a method that I am trying to impose nor an innovation I am trying to introduce in the field of teaching; it is the result of practice and of study which I suggest as an advice, in which, if wisdom is lesser, at least it may be worth the fruit of experience and my good will.

1 Translator’s note: Italian word for displacement.

2 Translator’s note: Lamperti writes soprani giusti, “just” sopranos.

3 Translator’s note: tenori serii.

4 Translator’s note: tenori di mezzo carattere.

5 Translator’s note: TN: concert pitch.

6 Translator’s note: NT: long speaking.

Text excerpted and translated from Guida teorico-pratica-elementare per lo studio del canto, Francesco Lamperti, Milan, 1864.