Vernon Lee: past and present of the art of singing I

[it is] music, which is most akin to life, because it is the art of movement and change.
Vernon Lee

Violet Paget (1856 – 1935) was one of the most original European thinkers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, who achieved literary fame from 1880 onwards for her ambitious production that included stories, novels, historical biographies, philosophy, cultural studies, travel writings and essays on ethics, aesthetics, art and music. Her aesthetic work was recognized by Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own among the significant intellectual contributions of nineteenth-century women. Born in France into an English family, she spent her childhood traveling between France, Switzerland, Germany and Italy. She was educated in an eclectic and disorderly way by her mother, an excellent pianist, and by Swiss, German, English and American governesses in liberal arts, music and piano. Together with the family of John Singer Sargent, one of the most successful painters of his generation and his first playmate, she immersed herself in European cultural and social life, exploring museums, opera and the treasures that Rome had to offer.

At the age of fifteen, she discovered the Italian music of the previous century, forgotten by the public of the time, and was captivated by the work of Paisiello, Scarlatti and Galuppi, among others, who, according to her, had carried out “the deification of the human voice.” Giovanni Ruffini, one of his mentors, the poet who wrote Don Pasquale‘s draft for Donizetti, told him to read the poet and librettist Pietro Metastasio. Thus began the fascination for what would become her first object of study, the musical and dramatic production of Italy in the eighteenth century. She explored the libraries and archives of Florence, Padua, Bologna and Rome in search of books, scores and libretti and, to further her research, she took lessons in counterpoint and singing in Rome with Gaetano Capocci, maestro direttore of the Cappella Pia of the Basilica of San Giovanni Laterano, renowned composer and master of the castratti Alessandro Moreschi and Giovanni Cesari.

Violet Paget assumed her pseudonym Vernon Lee in 1875. As she explained a few years later: “I am sure that no one reads a woman’s writing on art, history or aesthetics with anything but unmitigated contempt.” In 1880 her first book was published, a compilation of essays entitled Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy. That same year appeared in The British Quarterly Review this article that offers a look at the neglected history of the art of singing from a critical moment for its development.


The art of singing, Past and Present.
  1. Opinioni del Cantori Antichi e Modemi, o sieno Osservazioni sopra il Canto figurato di Pierfrancesco Tosi, Accademico filarmonico. Dedicate a sua Eccelenza My Lord Peterborough Generale di Sbarco dell’ Armi Reali della Gran Brettagna, per Lelio della Volpe. Bologna. 1723.
  2. Riflessioni prattiche sul Canto figurato di Giambattista Mancini, Maestro di Canto dell’ I. R, Corte di Vienna. Vienna. 1778.
  3. Vie de Rossini. Par M. de Stendhal. Paris. 1826.
  4. Voci e Cantanti, ventotto Capitoli di Considerazioni Generali sulla Voce e sull’ Arte del Canto. Par il Maestro Cav. Enrico Panofka. Firenze. 1871.

By a curious coincidence the dates of the four books at the head of this article represent not inaccurately the chronological landmarks of the history of the art of singing; while the opinions of their respective authors display very clearly the changes of which that history consists. They are the work of four eminent authorities on the subject, who wrote at an interval of about half a century from each other; so that between the writing of the first book on our list and the writing of the last is comprised the greater part of the rapid development, the long maturity, and the slow, but daily less slow, decline of singing. Thus while Tosi was already a well known performer at the end of the seventeenth century, and had learned from the earliest generation of singers belonging to a really independent art, Professor Panofka, on the other hand, is at the present moment striving to revive, by teachings and writings, the better school of singing of his own youth. Mancini and Stendhal stand midway between these two masters, the one of an art scarcely mature, the other of an art well-nigh effete: Mancini, the singing-master of Maria Theresa’s children, the pupil of Leo and Bernacchi, the friend of Gluck and Sacchini, still surrounded by an apparently vigorous artistic life; Stendhal, the crotchety novelist and amateur critic, the expounder of the aesthetic meaning of Rossini, already noticing the beginnings of artistic decay.

The four books are intensely illustrative of the respective conditions of the art at the precise moment when each was written, but they cannot show us how and why these conditions succeeded each other. The cheerful precepts of Tosi, the chattering admonitions of Mancini, the elegiac rhapsodies of Stendhal, and the critical jeremiads of Panofka, require to be connected by an historical bond; and such a bond can be found in no history of music in general, much less in any work on singing in particular. The history of the art of singing must be laboriously and intelligently deciphered among the complications of musical history, and out of comparatively few, fragmentary, and often very confusing data. As yet the work has not even been attempted. There have been technical manuals, and aesthetical disquisitions, and romantic rhapsodies, and biographical imbecilities; but there has been no history of singing. A great amount of useless detail has been ferreted out concerning the character and lives of singers, but not the most rudimentary outlines have been sketched of the character and life of the art of singing.

Is this deficiency a mere proof of the inutility of what is missing? Do we not give the subject just as much or as little attention as it deserves? Is singing really an art, and has it really a history? Most certainly if there had never existed any singing different from that of our own days, the subject would deserve no more attention than it has received; most certainly if singing had always been what it is at present it would scarcely be an art and could scarcely have a history. But singing has been an art; and it has a history, showing how gradually it has ceased to be such; and were singing to become the subject of more general and more intelligent interest, it might perhaps become a real art once more.

People always have sung and always will continue to sing; yet as an art singing is at once of very recent origin and of very proximate end. For solo singing, which alone is an independent art, is an extremely artificial product, which did not appear before music had developed to a very considerable extent, and which seems likely to prove incompatible with a musical over-development such as we must expect in the future. It is probable that solo singing preceded choral singing, but that was at a time when singing was not singing, but scarcely more than declaiming, or shouting, or screeching; and as soon as music began to enfranchise itself from dancing and declamation, singing became the work not of one but of several individuals. For the growth of music consisted, throughout the middle ages, in the gradual construction of that system of harmonic relations which was indispensable as the basis of a real art; and only the combination and balancing of several parts could conduce to his end. A single voice, pursuing its course in erratic solitude, could never have created a musical system such as was necessary even for the existence of artistic solo singing; it would have wandered about without meeting limits, and consequently without moving in a definite figure; whereas several voices meeting and mingling and clashing up against each other, immediately suggested the necessity of each voice moving in such a manner and in such given relations to the others as to render the continual movement possible: the single vocal thread could form no pattern; but the various vocal threads, unless they were crossed and recrossed in a definite manner, formed merely a hopeless tangle, to avoid which they were woven together into a compact harmonic woof. To perfect this woof of many voices, to carry each thread in such a manner as to knit it firmly with its companions, and to permit their being taken up and placed in their turn; to do this, was the slow work of the middle ages —a work finally completed by the great Flemish school of counterpoint, which, ramifying during the sixteenth century into Spain and Italy, found its latest and greatest master in Palestrina. Upon this harmonic woof succeeding generations were to embroider designs the most artistically free and capricious, but which could not have existed without the formal and almost mathematical basis created by the earlier composers. But as soon as this harmonic basis was thoroughly complete, a work of partial disintegration necessarily began: in its constant search after harmonious combinations, the school of the sixteenth century had rejected a great number of elements of musical form; in its dread of confusion and discord, it had surrounded the various parts with cramping limits, and had condemned them to move in monotonous circles. It was the work of the Italian composers of the early seventeenth century gradually to break through these restrictions, to abolish this monotony; to introduce, with those dissonances, which the older school had so dreaded, life and movement into this unruffled musical stagnation. It was, above all, their work to force the various parts, voices, and instruments from the captivity of the merely harmonic school, and to teach them to move and act separately. For as long as the object had been to establish the relations of the various voices or parts among each other, no independent action could be permitted to any of them; whereas, as soon as these relations had been thoroughly established, no progress could be made save by the development of the individual powers of each separate part. The old musical unity was broken up; instead of the homogeneous harmonic composition in several well-balanced vocal or instrumental parts, perfectly unvarying in movement, rhythm and expression, the masters of the early seventeenth century attempted different and various musical forms: partially declaimed, entirely sung, accompanied, unaccompanied, melancholy or cheerful —abortive productions for the most part, but various, characteristic, and eminently fruitful. The instruments were separated from the voices, and the various instruments from each other; the voices were freed, and each single voice permitted to seek its own development and work. This is the moment when solo singing begins, and with solo singing begins singing as an art. During the supremacy of the school of Palestrina the singer had been but part of a chord, subject to the will of another man, and as merely physical an agent as was a single key of the organ beneath the organist’s fingers; as soon as the school of Palestrina broke up, the singer became an individual and an artist, not played upon, but himself playing upon the instrument in his throat.

As long as six or eight voices of the same pitch were united to constitute one homogeneous part of a chorus, there could be no development of the physical resources of the individual voice, whose excellence and defects were equally lost in the general mass of sound; nor could there be any development of the intellectual qualities of the performer, whose every movement was required to resemble that of his companions, and to be dictated by the director of the whole performance. But as soon as the individual voice began to be heard alone, merely sustained by the instruments, its qualities were noticed, defects began to be remedied and beauties began to be cultivated; the intelligence also of the artist, his conception of the proportions of the piece he was performing, was called upon now that the rendering of the notes was left entirely to himself. To improve to the utmost the physical powers, to obtain the purest, strongest sound, the longest breath, the greatest facility of vocalization and enunciation from throat, lungs, and lips; and, on the other hand, to develop to the highest degree the musical feeling of the performers, to obtain from the mind and heart the keenest and most subtle perception of musical form, the most unerring judgment in selecting inflexions and shades of expression, the most rapid and masterly invention of extemporary embellishments —all this became the task of the singers of the seventeenth century; and in it consists the whole art of singing, an art complex and various in proportion to the numberless complexities and varieties of physical and mental endowment. This new art of solo singing progressed with the greatest rapidity, dragged along by the general musical impulse of the day, by the rapid development of theatrical music, by the daily growing importance of melody as opposed to the mere harmony of the old school. At the end of the sixteenth century music had consisted almost exclusively of complicated choral performances; it had been confined mainly to the Church; and, even when adapted to secular purposes, it had never lost its eminently religious character. There had been choirs of singers attached to great churches and to court chapels, but there had not been one man or woman specially known for vocal talent; the individual was still hidden in the choral mass. By the middle of the seventeenth century music had split into many branches. The choral pieces remained in the Church, but broken by innumerable solos, duets, and trios. On the stage the single-voiced air and the noted declamation of the recitative reigned supreme; cantatas, combinations of airs and recitatives, accompanied by one or more instruments, took in the drawing-room the place of the cumbersome madrigals of former days —complicated harmonic combinations, fragments of church music set to profane words, which had differed from the masses and psalms of the Church only by each of their parts being sung by a single voice instead of being sung in unison by half a dozen voices. By the middle of the seventeenth century there existed throughout Italy individual singers, men and women, like the Laurettos and Pasqualinos mentioned by John Evelyn, the Leonora Baroni celebrated in Milton’s Latin verses, and that Baldassare Ferri, whom the whole aristocracy of Bologna sallied forth to receive two miles outside the city gates —singers celebrated throughout the country and destined speedily to become celebrated in Germany and England. Towards the end of the seventeenth century various towns became centres of vocal schools, owing to the accidental presence of some distinguished master, like the Sicilian Pistocchi, who, after a brilliant career in Italy and Germany, turned monk at Bologna, and amused himself preparing for the stage the most brilliant singers of the early eighteenth century. At the beginning of the eighteenth century the most eminent composers, Scarlatti and Porpora at Naples, Gasparini and Lotti at Venice, were employed to teach singing to the boys and girls at the music schools; and every town of Italy possessed its school of singing —intensely local, personal, and characteristic, like the local schools of painting of the Renaissance. The whole artistic energy of the nation was con concentrated in music. The art of singing developed with extraordinary rapidity; and by the end of the first quarter of the eighteenth century, when, in the time of Handel, of Bach, of Marcello, of Lotti, and of Porpora, the old singer Tosi wrote his little treatise, it had reached complete maturity, it had attained a degree of perfection absolutely analogous to the perfection of sculpture among the Greeks, and of painting in the Renaissance —a perfection which was maintained until almost the close of the eighteenth century, when it began to decline more and more rapidly as it approached our own day.

But singing is the most ephemeral of all arts; it leaves no traces behind it; the performance which is over can be compared with the performance which is going on only by those who have heard the one and are still hearing the other; how then do we know that there ever was such a past state of vocal perfection? how can we affirm the superiority of singers who have been dead a hundred years? how can we talk of the decay of an art which most of us can remember only in its present state? Is it not in the very nature of the thing that the elder generation should always prefer the performers whom they alone have heard to those heard by their neighbours? Did not Tosi speak of the decay of the art in the days of Farinelli and Faustina; and Mancini bemoan the fate of singing in the days of Pacchierotti and of Mara? Did not Stendhal complain of the inferiority of those very singers of fifty years ago with whose excellence Panofka dolefully contrasts the worthlessness of the singers of to-day? Is not the superiority of the vocal schools of the eighteenth century, superiority admitted by every competent person, a mere groundless superstition, due to the general tendency to prefer the past to the present?

We have indeed no direct proof that the singers of the eighteenth century were any better than our own. Enthusiastic rhapsodies have been called forth by every generation of performers that has existed, and people applaud with equal vehemence the most excellent singers of their day, whatever the scale of excellence may be. The praise heaped on Madame Mara a hundred years ago is exactly the same as the praise heaped on Madame Nilsson to-day. Critical descriptions of vocal performance, on the other hand, rarely present a very clear notion to the reader; and critical descriptions the eighteenth century, which merely created and enjoyed, very rarely produced; for mere inventories of technical qualities, such as abound in Burney and Mancini, entirely fail to give any notion of a vocal style. The evidence, therefore, must be indirect; but it is more conclusive by far than could be the most direct assertion on the part of some resuscitated musician of the eighteenth century that the singers of his day were better than those of our own. This indirect evidence is double: it consists in what we know of the music which those singers were intended to sing, and in what we know of the training which they received in order to sing it.

The vocal music of the eighteenth century is infinitely more difficult than is ours. It does not require stronger lungs or more supple throats; it does not require more passionate expression; of all the qualities given directly by nature it does not require one whit more than does our own music; but it exacts infinitely more in every quality due to physical and intellectual training. It does not require better voice or more talent, it requires better singing; our best artists are scarcely sufficient to cope with the music written by Bach or Mozart for third-rate singers. The bunglers of the eighteenth century did not certainly sing better than the first-rate artists of the nineteenth; but their failure was in a style infinitely superior to that in which our contemporaries succeed. From their habit of hearing good singing, the composers wrote for bad singers music more difficult than is now written for excellent singers by composers accustomed to the daily hearing of bad singing. The difficulties are, as we have said, difficulties not of natural endowment, but of training. The music of the eighteenth century can easily be performed nowadays —the florid by supple-throated singers, the pathetic by dramatic singers— but it will be performed equally badly; the notes are there, but the delivery of them is not. The mere natural agility of the voice, or the mere natural talent of the singer, will not suffice; for the physical portion of the performance requires a precision, a perfection of mechanism, such as can be obtained only by long and most careful practice; and the intellectual side requires a skill in phrasing, a completeness of intuition into every minute shade of expression, such as can result only from the most intelligent study of models themselves of the finest style, and from the constant practice of selecting ideas and refining the taste. Nor is this all; these admirably trained physical powers must be completely under the control of the most perfect intellectual conception; and the intellectual conception must have at its service the most obedient physical powers. Mere powers of appreciation and mere powers of execution are alike insufficient when not combined. All this is needed for the proper performance of the music be it by Italian or by German composers, of the last century: nothing can replace this, for the whole style of composition is founded upon a highly perfected school of singing. For the music of the eighteenth century is music whose chief excellence lies in its mere beauty of musical form; and this beauty of form requires, in order to be fully brought out, a style of performance such as we have described. Compared with ours, the music of the eighteenth century is as undramatic as is an ancient statue by the side of a statue by Carpeaux, or a picture by Titian compared with a picture by Delaroche: it is an art which aims mainly at exquisite delicacy of form, at harmonious combinations of groups, and delicate gradations of colour; it is expressive within the limits of these requirements, but never at their expense; nay, frequently it is absolutely false to all dramatic sense, as in much of Mozart’s serious music; and even the wildest scenes of Gluck, who theoretically sacrificed beauty to expression, are wondrously quiet, harmonious, eminently musical, eminently singable, compared with the rant and rattle which a composer of our century would have considered barely expressive of the situation. Vehement expression, however dramatically correct, cannot bring out the qualities of such music, it can only obliterate them. Moreover, this music of the eighteenth century is eminently vocal; the voice is always the principal interest, and mainly, from the comparative paucity of concerted pieces, which appear only towards the end of the century, the single voice. Even in Mozart’s most richly orchestrated pieces, the voice is never hidden by the instruments; and earlier in the century in the music of Handel, of Pergolesi and Gluck, the accompaniment exists only as the most insignificant background; the voice is repeatedly left perfectly unaccompanied and is given frequent opportunities for displaying its powers and the fancy of the performer in extemporized cadences and variations. No mere physical qualities, no dramatic force, can replace in such music as this that neatness and subtleness of performance which is required by extremely delicate musical forms, easily put out of joint and easily left rough and unmeaning; while at the same time no complication of movement in the accompaniment, no effects of instrumental combination or sonority, can fill up or conceal the insufficiency of the vocal performance. When, therefore, we put together all these considerations, when we add to them that this music was performed in theatres much smaller than most of ours, and in which, therefore, perfection of detail was much more required, it becomes evident that the existence of such a school of composition as that of the eighteenth century, presupposes the existence of a school of singing infinitely superior to our own; nay, without going through any such complete argument on the subject, the mere careful examination of such pieces as Bach’s Agnus Dei, as the opening airs of Handel’s Messiah, as the airs of Paris in Gluck’s opera, as Donna Anna’s rondo in Don Giovanni — the mere conscientious attempt to interpret them with anything approaching the necessary perfection, must persuade us that they were composed for singers trained in a manner very different from the training of to-day; yet these are comparatively easy pieces, of which, by dint of uninterrupted performances, much of the traditional reading may yet be supposed to exist. If we turn to the more forgotten, to the more difficult music, to things like Porpora’s cantatas, and Cimarosa’s famous air, ‘Quelle pupille tenere,’ we feel that we are intruding into artistic regions which we have no right to enter; that no effort of ours can replace the lost art of the forgotten singers of a century ago.

Part II

Text excerpted from The art of singing, Past and Present, Vernon Lee; in The British Quarterly Review, July and October 1880, London.