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

Second part of the article dedicated to the history of the art of singing, its rise and fall, published by Vernon Lee in 1880.


The means were adapted to the end; or rather, end and means acted and reacted spontaneously upon each other; for neither were singers carefully trained because they were required to sing difficult music, nor was difficult music composed because there were carefully trained singers: the existence of music and singers depended upon the same general causes; the coexistence of the two phenomena was inevitable, and inevitable also were their action and reaction upon one another. The training of the singers was on a level with the requirements of the composers. The main characteristics of this training, characteristics in which it differs completely from that of our own days, may be summed up under a very few headings. It began very early and was continued very late —often long after successful appearance in public; it was in strict reference to the individual endowment, physical and intellectual, both of the raw pupil during the first years of tuition, and of the mature artist after years of success. The education was in its earliest stages directed solely to the improvement of the mere physical instrument; and it remained throughout entirely practical and empirical, rich in traditional methods, but wholly free from all scientific or philosophic, physiological, or psychological theories. The books of Tosi, Mancini, and Burney; the volumes of conservatorio exercises of Scarlatti, Hasse, Leo, and Perez enable us to follow the whole training of one of the great singers of the eighteenth century. The boy, ten or twelve years old, generally belonging to the peasantry or the class of small artisans, is supposed by his parents, or by the parish priest, to have a vocation for singing; perhaps he has already distinguished himself as the chorister of some church, or has, while singing at his work, attracted the attention of some musical authority; he is forthwith, if a Neapolitan, brought up to one of the four schools where music is taught gratis; or, if a Bolognese, Venetian, or Milanese, taken to the house of some famous singing-master, like Pistocchi, Gasparini, or Brivio. The master hears him and pronounces his opinion respecting the probable future of the voice, or the probability of developing a voice out of the few existing rudiments; sometimes there is as yet little or no voice, or even, which is much worse, a positively bad one; but if there are signs of real talent, the master will undertake, by dint of time and art, to turn even this wretched instrument into one fit to be played on by genius, as was the case with several of the greatest singers of the eighteenth century, such as Bernacchi and Pacchierotti, whose voices seemed at first hopelessly weak and broken. A favourable verdict having been pronounced, the boy is admitted to the Conservatorio, where he is lodged and fed; or apprenticed to the private teacher on the agreement that the latter shall obtain a share of his profits during a certain number of years.

The work of the master was infinitely difficult, as we learn from Mancini. The children were easily discouraged or frightened; their delicate, scarcely extant voices might easily be injured by over exercise or training; a mistake might be made respecting their real quality; they might be spoilt by interference while they were changing or settling into their final place; the master might, after some time, find himself without a pupil. For a long time —some authorities say for a couple of years— the pupil, who, be it remembered, might be only twelve or thirteen, was made to sing nothing but scales of sustained notes and the most simple exercises for producing the voice and holding the breath; the whole attention of the master being absorbed in the production of a pure and homogeneous sound throughout the voice. After the voice had thus been produced and placed and united throughout its registers, the pupil proceeded to practise every sort of vocal gymnastic, but above all those two great glories of eighteenth-century singing, the swell and the shake; the master inventing whatever new forms of exercise might seem most suited for the particular case. Then, after two or three years of practice had given the pupil a perfect command over his voice and breath in every species of quick and slow movement, the master wrote new and different exercises for his pupil: melodious solfeggi, like the exquisite ones by Leo, Hasse, and Aprile, in which, while he studied all the various difficulties harmoniously combined into an artistic shape, the lad for the first time found himself obliged to determine how each passage should be phrased, where accents should be placed, what swelling and diminishing should be selected, above all, where he was to take breath so as to complete the form and not mar it. It is worthy of remark that while modern singing exercises, written not for one individual, but for unknown individuals of totally different powers of voice and lungs, are almost invariably provided with indications of breathing points, the exercises of the old Italian masters, composed expressly for a definite pupil whose length of breath could be exactly measured by the master, are invariably without anything of the sort, as they are also invariably (in the original MS.) without any indications of those various degrees of force, those accentuations, those alternations of legato and staccato, and those quickenings and slackenings of pace which are indispensable for the proper rendering of even the simplest song or exercise of that day. The aim of the old school of singing was not, like that of the modern, to teach the manner in which a certain number of pieces should be sung; its aim was to form an artist able, at a first reading, to give to any song in any style the very best and most individually original interpretation. The master had meanwhile obtained, by the familiarity of years, the most intimate acquaintance with all the resources, all the defects, all the characteristics of this voice which he had himself developed out of its germ, equalized, patched up, moulded into homogeneous existence, nay, almost created; and this knowledge he gradually shared with his pupil, who got to know with the most absolute precision the whole structure and mechanism of his own voice. Of his voice and of his own voice; for the singers and singing-masters of the eighteenth century were supremely indifferent to the physiological structure of the vocal organs, as they were supremely indifferent to the qualities of the voice in the abstract, about which modern teachers know so much with so much certainty. Music masters did not study anatomy and write books, like Signer Corelli’s Cronaca di un Respiro, teaching boys and girls scarcely knowing how to open their mouths, the exact structure and functions of all the minute parts of chest and throat connected with the emission of the voice; they were satisfied with getting out a good voice, they cared not out of what interior organs. Mancini, who piqued himself upon being a learned man, never got further than the palate, the windpipe, and the lungs in his knowledge of vocal anatomy. The mechanism which was studied was not that of the throat, but of the voice; instead of looking into the sound-producing apparatus, the singing-masters of the eighteenth century listened to the sound itself; they corrected and developed the voice, but ignored the organs which produce it, persuaded of the fact (so often overlooked in our scientific generation) that as long as the action be good, the machine may be left to itself; and that if the machine, when that machine is the human throat, is out of order, no anatomical knowledge can set it right. The same empirical method, the same indifference to generalities, the same preference of a voice to the voice, and a corresponding carelessness of aesthetical rules as distinguished from artistic methods, are observable in the manner in which the eighteenth century viewed all those questions of category of voice, of character of voice, of dramatic propriety, etc., which exercise the ingenuity of modern singing-masters. Whereas the modern teachers, Professor Panofka at their head, have a complicated comparative classification of the various sorts of abstract voice, of their exact physical limits and capacities, and their exact psychological meaning, the contemporaries of Porpora, Bernacchi, and Mancini barely knew of such a distinction as a mezzo-soprano voice. They acknowledged the existence of four voices, soprano, contralto, tenor, and bass, for the convenience of choral writing, and of using clefs which should avoid unnecessary going above or below the stave; but that they ever regarded these limitations as anything fixed, or upon which to found their practice, is evident by the manner in which they speak of all manner of individual possibilities of voice, and the manner in which composers jumped from register to register in accordance with the powers of the individual singers for whom they were writing. Thus, in Hasse’s Artaxerxes, a portion of the airs of the part of Arbaces are what we should assign to a deep contralto voice, while some others belong to a soprano, and others comprise the characteristics of both sorts of voice. So far from having classified, like Panofka, all voices into five or six categories of pitch, including varieties like mezzo-contraltos, and as many aesthetical categories, such as light sopranos and light tenors, and dramatic sopranos and dramatic tenors, the masters of the eighteenth century never guessed that such nomenclature could exist, never guessed that one abstract voice could be more dramatic or undramatic than another. They knew exactly that Signora Faustina, had a greater facility for martellato passages than Signora Cuzzoni, who, on the other hand, had a better portamento; that Signor Pacchierotti sang better cantabile and less brilliant bravura than Signor Marchesi; they knew the weak points and the strong points of all their performers; but they did not know that a contralto is (as modern critics assure us) naturally more pathetic than a soprano; had they taken in that most extraordinary piece of information and acted upon it, half of the pathetic music we possess would never have existed. Nothing is more instructive than to observe how, while the writers of the last century carefully noted and consigned to paper minute details respecting this or that point of vocal execution, they rarely troubled themselves to inform their readers, or indeed to define to themselves whether the singers of whom they were speaking were sopranos or contraltos; so that of half of the greatest performers of the eighteenth century we are in ignorance on this point, and of the other half we are loosely told now that they were the one, now the other, and this by equally competent authorities, and sometimes alternately by the self-same writer; so careless was the musical world of mere abstract or scholastic distinctions and classifications. In perfect harmony with this empirical indifference to general theories about the voice was the indifference of the singers and singing-masters of the eighteenth century to general theories concerning expression and dramatic fitness. Tosi and Mancini seem perfectly unconscious of the existence of either; they say, at most, that recitatives should be delivered in accordance with the sense of the words; and once or twice let drop a few remarks about moving an audience to tears; but further they do not trouble themselves about expression or pathos, just as they limit their remarks about dramatic impersonation to recommending singers to try and look dismal if the situation be dismal and vice versa, and to observing that a performer ought, when another character is narrating anything of importance, to show by his face and gestures that be is really listening to his companion. For the study of vocal expression and vocal pathos was not a separate thing, as it is with us. When a pupil had learned the art of interpreting, not by role as in our days, but according to his own perception and fancy, the musical forms contained in the cantabile exercises and the songs written for him by his master; when he had learned to deliver in real speaking tones the notes of the recitative, to pronounce its words clearly and lightly as in conversation, to punctuate the sentences of declaimed notation even as if he were reading from a book; when he had learned merely how to render the music, he had learned all the dramatic expression which was required of him. For, whereas nowadays expression and pathos are something quite apart from the mere music, a spirit requiring to be infused into it, either boisterously convulsing and breaking the musical forms, or languidly dragging them out of all shape; expression in the days of good singing was enclosed in the music itself, it was the very ripeness of the forms themselves, the flower, the perfection of their development: let only the piece be phrased rightly, the notes swelled and diminished, the ornaments delicately marked, the whole artistically graduated, and the greatest amount of expression of which the piece was capable had been attained —pathos emanating directly from the music itself; for we must remember that, as we have before noticed, the music of the eighteenth century was eminently musical, not dramatic; it was not, like so much of our operatic composition, the unmusical cries of passion tuned down into uncouth melody.

When, therefore, the pupil had, during the six or seven years of study, first made his voice compact and strong, then taught it to move and stand still, and expand and diminish at his pleasure; when he had accustomed himself to take breath almost unperceived, and to choose the breathing places so as to make them close, and not break the musical phrase; when he had learned to phrase, to give each member of the musical sentence its place, its accent, its colouring, and to dispose and graduate the various sentences of the whole piece; skillfully to husband and distribute and reinforce and fuse his lights and shadows; when he had learned to pronounce distinctly, to punctuate and emphasize clearly the recitative; and when, by the study of solfeggio and of harmony, carried on contemporaneously with his other studies, he had acquired perfect mastery both in reading at sight the notes written by the composer and in improving the passages and variations left to his option; when the pupil had finished his vocal training, he was complete as an artist, requiring no study of dramatic declamation or of aesthetical metaphysics to fit him for his work. The education, as we have seen, was as complicated as it was long; and nothing shows more completely the utter misapprehension of the vocal school of the eighteenth century, and the ignorance of what is required to make a good singer, than the universal repetition, by musical biographers and historians, of the absurd story according to which Porpora, the greatest teacher, kept Caffariello, one of the greatest singers of the eighteenth century, confined to the study of sundry vocal gymnastics covering only one page of paper, and then when, after several years, the pupil entreated to be permitted to try some new exercise, gravely informed him that he had nothing further to learn, and that he was the greatest singer of his age; thus turning into an impossible process of stultification the patient study of mechanical difficulties which the singers of the eighteenth century carried on by the side of, but entirely subservient to, much higher and extremely varied musical studies, of which the innumerable exercises of every possible kind of style (of which, according to Mancini, the pupils of Leo received a newly composed one twice a week), and the innumerable cantatas, madrigals, and scholastic duets composed specially for their pupils by Porpora, Leo, Clari, Durante, and every other master, must convince every one who sees them, and who is not convinced by the internal evidence afforded by the nature of the music which these pupils were being educated to sing.

At the age of sixteen or seventeen the pupil was first sent on to the stage, but always under the master’s guidance; invariably in a subordinate part, but in a first-rate theatre. The beginner must remain in the background, but constantly have the best mature artists before him —a training by humility and admiration completely unknown in our days, when young singers of promise generally begin in the principal parts on inferior stages; thus accustoming themselves to be the best among the bad, and learning at once incapacity and presumption. Thus the young singer continued generally for a couple of years, learning both directly from his master and indirectly from his fellow performers, until he was publicly recognized as equal to the best and fit for the prominent parts. Even then he generally continued another year or so under his master’s care, few great singers being wholly independent till they were over twenty. And when once independent, and supposed to have reached their highest development, they continued studying 1—studying the mechanical difficulties that still remained, altering their style, adopting details here and there; often, as Mancini and others record of several of the greatest singers of the eighteenth century, among others of Farinelli, studying under or in company with men whom the world considered their inferiors and unsuccessful rivals, but in whom, perhaps, for some minute point of excellence, they recognised their superiors, and were willing to seek their teachers. “The study of our art is too long for our lives,” said Pacchierotti, the greatest singer of the end of the last century, to the young Rubini, destined to be one of the greatest singers of the beginning of this; “when we are young we have the voice, but we don’t know how to sing; later, we begin to know how to sing, but we no longer have the voice.”

The arrangements of the musical world into which the singer of the eighteenth century was launched, after his six or seven years of study, corresponded with such a development of vocal art. The music, as we have before said, was essentially for the voice and for the single voice; and it was eminently vocal, unhampered by instrumental or contrapunctic effects. Every opera was so arranged as to afford each of the chief performers, male and female, four or five airs in as many totally different styles: a light and graceful air, a spoken, that is, more dramatic air, a pathetic and a brilliant air, besides one or more duets or trios, and later in the century, the so-called rondo, a piece in three alternating parts, epitomizing the graceful, the pathetic, and the brilliant.2 Moreover, this music, thus distributed so as best to display the versatility of the performer, was invariably written expressly and to suit the qualities of a definite singer, by whom alone a given part in a given opera was usually sung. The composers of the eighteenth century never wrote an opera except on commission and for a company of singers with which they were acquainted; whereas the operas of our day are composed for purely abstract voices, and offered completely finished to this or that manager, who, if he accepts the work, has it performed by singers certainly not selected, and perhaps not even known by the composer; the music is made so as to fit any performer, and consequently fits none. In the eighteenth century, on the other hand, the peculiar vocal and intellectual endowment of the singer was a basis of reality upon which the composer could work; he was, in a way, what the live model is to the painter —he preserved the art from that academic characterless idealism which is inevitable wherever the artist works upon abstract materials. The opera airs of Handel preserve the impress of the strong vocal personality, as described by Mancini and Quantz, of his favourite singers, Senesino and Carestini; and the extreme individuality and consistency of Gluck’s Orpheus, the peculiar permeating character of the music, is in reality less referable to any abstract ideal in the composer’s mind than to the suggestions and limitations due to the talent of the singer for whom it was written, that Guadagni of whom Burney has left so clear an account, whose limited hybrid voice, without the full extent of a soprano or the full tone of a contralto, with its short breath and impossibility of swelling a note as well as diminishing it, has left as it were an immortal cast of itself, of its beauties and defects, in that exquisitely subtle music which fitted so perfectly on it. Music thus expressly composed for a special performer developed still further artistic individuality of the voice and style which alone is compatible with real artistic excellence. There was no need, as there is nowadays, of a singer forcing his voice and distorting his style in attempting to do what requires a different endowment; music was properly sung because it was sung by the right singer; and the singer sang well because he was singing the music which suited him. Thence it is that the music of the eighteenth century requires not only so general an excellence of style, but an excellence so peculiarly adapted to its every variation, from year to year, from composer to composer, from opera to opera. A singer who could sing equally well the music of Handel and the music of Mozart would sing both badly, for between the two composers there is an infinite succession of changes in vocal style, due to the intense life which permeated the whole art. Moreover —and this is one of the all-important differences between the vocal music of today and that of a century ago— this carefully trained, highly individual singer of the eighteenth century was not a mere admirably constructed machine: he was an artist, he had a free fancy, a power of invention of his own, without which he could not have had a real power of interpretation. The vocal music of the day, slightly accompanied and almost always for one voice, admitted of very great artistic licenses on the part of the performer —alterations in time and proportion, additional notes, nay, very extensive and entirely original passages of ornamentation. In the course of the usual twenty or thirty repetitions of the same opera the same pieces had to appear, as it were, in several new lights. The great singers were, in a fashion, composers. They spent hours daily inventing variations and embellishments from which to select on the spur of the moment, and according to their physical and mental condition. That a piece could be sung with real intelligence and feeling five or six times in the identical manner, was as incomprehensible to our ancestors as that a piece composed for no singer in particular could be properly rendered by any singer in particular. In this state of artistic vitality a barrel-organ singer, who could go on repeating the self-same inflexions for an indefinite number of times was as inconceivable as a piece of music composed for a purely abstract voice, and which could be performed by every concrete voice.


1 A distinguished musician, now dead, who had been intimately connected with all the Italian composers and singers of the earlier part of this century, and to whom, as one of the last possessors of the traditions of the old Neapolitan school, we owe much of the traditional information contained in this article, used to relate how, about the year 1820, the two most famous singers of the previous generation, Crescentini (for whom Cimarosa composed his beautiful ‘Orazi e Curiagi’) and Velluti, both men over fifty, were wont to meet once a week in a house in Via della Pergola at Florence, and practise Leo’s exercises together, seeing which of the two would compose better ornaments and give a more perfect reading.

2 An account of the constitution of the old Italian opera, and of how it came to be so constituted, may be found in the ‘Studies of the 18th Century in Italy’ by ‘Italy’ in which the author of the present paper has attempted to reconstruct the life and personalities of the musical world of a hundred years ago.

Part III

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