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

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


Such was the singer of the eighteenth century —a voice perfected in every detail and trained to every movement, but confined strictly within its individual powers; a mind trained to perceive at a glance every minute musical form and shade of meaning, accustomed to interpret rapidly, subtly, the works of others, but to interpret them entirely according to his own individual feeling and fancy; an artist as excellent as his original physico-intellectual endowment could possibly afford, and as his momentary condition of voice, fancy, and feeling necessitated; a talent, greater or less, as the case might be, of which the most bad been made, and which was permitted to make the most of the part assigned it in all freedom. All the singers of the eighteenth century were not great singers, but all belonged to a great school, and all the music composed for them all, good or bad, is always founded on the knowledge and habit of the existence of this school.

This condition of extraordinary perfection in the art of singing lasted throughout the greater part of the eighteenth century; but it could not last for ever. Such perfection, such a combination and balance of circumstances as produced this vocal school, was incompatible with a full development of all the powers and all the aims of music: it was due to a predominance of the voice over all instruments, and of the interest in mere musical beauty over all dramatic or psychological considerations. Every step made by the art in enlarging its means and ideals shook the edifice of vocal perfection; every instrument added to the orchestra (which, even in the time of Gluck, was mainly composed of strings), every complication of parts introduced in the scoring, diminished the independence and importance of singing. But the changes were slow and gradual, and the school was so solidly founded, the habit of vocal excellence so permeated the musical life of the day, that but little effect could at first be noticed. Yet the change in the constitution of music was inevitably taking place, and with it, though independently, a change in the art of singing itself. It had reached the very highest perfection; it began spontaneously to deteriorate, as all things deteriorate, from the over-development of its constituent elements; it became overblown, and withered of its own blooming. Everything began to be exaggerated, above all, the importance of the art itself. In the first, second, and third quarters of the eighteenth century the object had been to produce a singer in order that music might be sung; later, the object became to afford music that the singer might sing it: instead of the performer being called on to execute properly whatever difficulties he might meet, the composer was now called upon to compose difficulties that the singer might overcome them; the means had been brought to such perfection that they subordinated the aim for which they had been originally destined. The singer had formerly been required to fill up and vary the pieces he performed; the composer was now required to supply frameworks for the singer’s improvisations instead of the few notes given by the singer to the finished work of the composer, we get to the few notes given by the composer to the not yet extant work of the singer. Moreover, the means had subverted the aims in the art of singing itself. The object had at first been to patch up a voice and conceal to the best its defects, in order to obtain a perfect instrument; it was now almost to have a defective instrument in order to patch up and conceal its defects. The singers of the last years of the eighteenth and first years of the nineteenth century piqued themselves upon owing nothing to nature and all to art. To sing with an inferior and defective voice was the great test of ability.

Thus, while music in general was becoming less and less purely vocal, the art of singing was gradually, in its process of over-refinement, refining itself away into nothingness. Music was gradually pushing singing into isolation, in which the art triumphed at first, thinking that isolation was independence. The composers and singers of the eighteenth century had worked in company, each satisfied with his half of the task, the best always linked with the best; at the beginning of this century the great singers had absolutely reached the point of disliking good composers, and the great composers of dreading good singers. The great singers, like Crescentini and Velluti, would have reduced all music to an accompaniment and so many pauses and points d’orgue; they would not endure works which might not be taken to pieces and composed almost over again by themselves; they kept dangling after them a number of servile mediocrities, inane composers like Portogallo, Pavesi, and Nicolini, who furnished them with the few insignificant notes on which they improvised their wondrous variations. Composers with any pretensions to genius, as the present writer was told by a pupil of the famous Velluti, the last of these autocrats, could not be endured by singers of genius; at least, according to the notions of the year 1800, which differed very much from those of the days when Handel and Carestini, Hasse and Farinelli, Jommelli and Aprile, Gluck and Guadagni, had worked together without sacrifice of the independence or genius of either. On the other hand, the great composers, Beethoven, Cherubini, and Spontini, were tending more and more to orchestral supremacy and dramatic effect. They wanted singers who would sing in obedience with their dictates, who would scream and force if the situation required it, and would humbly submit to be drowned by trombones and kettle-drums. With singers of the old school, singers who required to be heard alone, and who intended making variations in the score, they would have nothing to do. The division between composers and singers was complete. The situation was saved by Rossini, who, while maintaining a purely vocal style and advocating the rules of the old school of singing, imperiously put a stop to all licenses in the way of altering or embellishing the music. The men and women educated in the eighteenth century were dying out; Rossini and his contemporaries found a generation of young singers, whom they trained and moulded according to their ideas. The music was performed neatly, satisfactorily; the florid embellishments written by the composer were learned carefully and conscientiously; on the whole, the compromise seemed fortunate in its results. But with its liberty, the old school of singing had lost its vitality; and Stendhal, despite his admiration for the genius of Rossini, foretold that in a very few years the singer, limited to what the composer asked him to do, would cease to be able to do that much; that the art, once prevented from freely expanding, would gradually wither. The prediction of Stendhal proved but too true, and Rossini lived long enough to lament that there were no longer singers capable of performing those ornaments and passages which it had been his grand triumph to write himself, instead of leaving to the fancy of the performer. Moreover, the further development of music in general, the greatly increased importance of dramatic effect, of instrumental complications and of concerted pieces, diminished still farther the attention given to mere vocal perfection and the consequent attempts to attain it. The singer had been deprived of the right of improvising ornamental passages; he was soon released from the necessity of executing them. The school of composers immediately succeeding Rossini lopped off, as injurious to clearness and vigour of musical action, all these vocal embellishments. They diminished still further the already much diminished number of solo airs; they increased still further the already noisy orchestra. Singers who were scarcely ever heard by themselves, and never heard without a terrific accompaniment, were not exposed to minute criticism like their predecessors of former days, and consequently did not require to perfect themselves with a view to sustaining it.

Those infinite shades of performance, that admirably neat execution, that perfect delicacy of finish which had been the lifelong aim of the artists of the eighteenth century, would not even have been noticed among the noisy concerted and orchestral pieces, the tumultuous movement of the operas of Donizetti and Meyerbeer. There was naturally no longer any one who cared to learn, nor any one who was able to teach, such troublesome and unnecessary perfection. The old manner of performance was not merely lost, it was replaced by a new manner. In proportion as the old purely musical style of singing was forgotten, there was learned a new style of declamatory singing. Singers of original talents inevitably strove to be something beyond mere mechanical performers: unable to perfect, as their predecessors had done, the music, they studied to give greater relief to the drama. The singers of the new school turned their attention to dramatic expression and action. Now the expression, as we have before remarked, belonging to the great school of singing was contained in the proper musical rendering of the phrases; and the action, though the eighteenth century boasted many first rate actors among its singers, was limited almost entirely to the recitative. The dramatic declamation of melody is inevitably destructive of its musical shape, since it implies that the accentuation required by the music is to be sacrificed to the totally different accentuation belonging to spoken passion; while complete dramatic movement and gesticulation is as incompatible with really careful and finished singing as violent dramatic declamation would be incompatible with painting or modeling, or any occupation requiring attention and delicate treatment of detail. Yet to declaim and to act while singing, to do with music what the ordinary actor can do without music, has become the ambition of the more gifted singers for the last forty years, and the final test of excellence on the part of the public, which, unaccustomed to really intelligent singing, sees that in such a performance, however ranting and screeching, and occasionally disagreeable, there is an element of intellectuality which it misses in the mechanical neatness of execution, due to mere flexibility of throat, not to artistic perception, which, exemplified in such a singer as Patti, is the only purely musical excellence known by the art in our day.

The gradual development of concerted music and of the orchestra, which have rendered all delicacy of performance first unnecessary and then impossible, while they have inevitably induced habits of mere yelling and screaming in order to be heard; the gradual subserviency of music as such to dramatic expression, which, beginning insensibly among the immediate successors of Rossini, has been recognized and formulated into an aesthetic principle by the school of Wagner, and which has made a clean sweep of all musical perfection in singing in order to replace it by emotional declamation; these two causes have naturally resulted in reducing the importance of good singing, and the consequent efforts to attain it, to a minimum. Instead of the patient and intelligent study begun in the childhood of the singer, we have nowadays a vocal education dispatched in two or three years at most —an education consisting, at the best, not of preparing the singer to perform correctly any music put before him, but merely to repeat effectively five or six conspicuous vocal parts which he or she may be expected to perform; no forming of the voice; no training of it into obedience to the will; no careful education of the artist’s powers of judgment and selection; no more study of composition, now that the singer has every appoggiatura written for him; no study of reading from the score, now that every piece is taught him by ear at the piano. Let him or her be effective; act with impetuosity, declaim with vehemence, shriek and yell passionately, if he or she have dramatic instinct; or force upper notes, or bellow lower ones, or gabble off shapeless roulades, if he or she have strong lungs or a flexible throat: any of these means will lead to distinction, and they are qualities, whether dramatic or purely vocal, which are due to mere endowment, which require little tuition and less practice; above all, which entirely dispense with the mere knowledge that such a thing as an art of singing has ever existed or can ever exist.

Meanwhile, of course, the last remains of the old school of singing are fast vanishing; for we must bear in mind, what indeed is obvious at the first glance, that as, ever since the beginning of this century, every cause has been at work which could gradually destroy good singing, and every progress of music has been distinctly hostile to it, whatever traditions and habits of good singing have remained are entirely inherited from the old school of the eighteenth century. The singers of Rossini were still trained in that school, and transmitted part of its tradition to their successors; but the compositions of Donizetti, Meyerbeer, and Verdi could not call forth any new school of singing, and they gradually destroyed what remained of the old. The mechanical methods and aesthetical rules of the art have not been increased by one little, and every day some of them have been forgotten as having ceased to be necessary. The absolute perfection of singing in the eighteenth century was such that it supplied with its remains a sort of relative perfection to the singers of the earlier part of this century, the Pastas, and Grisis, and Lablaches, and Marios; but as nothing has been added to the art in our own time, this precious inheritance has gradually dwindled to nothing, and musical authorities like Professor Panofka are beginning to prophesy that soon there will be no art left, and that Verdi and Wagner themselves will require an amount of musical perfection far beyond the singers of the future.

How things will end, and what new turn musical composition may take, perhaps enabling it to dispense with singing altogether, it is vain to surmise. Music has still powers which are not fully expanded, and aims which are not fully reached; the powers and aims of the school which may now, without any sarcasm, be called the school of the future, since the future belongs to it —powers which must expand, and aims which must be approached, and which in so doing must inevitably reduce singing to a still lower level. To expect spontaneous improvement in the art of singing in the face of Wagner’s trilogies is manifestly absurd; but in this critical, eclectic, and essentially revivalist period, opposite to the spontaneous artistic development, there is almost always the aesthetical revival of culture. This tendency is as strong as any spontaneous and original artistic movement, and is, perhaps, more really akin to the general temper of our day. We have seen it in architecture, in painting, in literature, even in the minor decorative arts; we are beginning to see it in music. The music of the eighteenth century is beginning to divide the attention of the cultured classes with the most recent music of our own day, even as the imitations of Botticelli and Mantegna share with the works of Bastien Lepage and Henri Regnault the walls of our exhibition rooms. Every day witnesses the exhumation of some piece of music from which the people of forty or fifty years ago would have turned with contempt: to them the music of the last century was still merely old-fashioned; to us it is beginning already to become antique. Sufficient time has elapsed for us to see the relative positions of various schools of art which, when yet too close at hand, seemed a mass of confusion; what our fathers threw into the lumber-room as obsolete, we are beginning to collect as classic. The masterpieces of old instrumental music are being conscientiously studied and artistically interpreted. The time must soon come when the masterpieces of vocal music, of that style which was so completely and exclusively the domain of the eighteenth century, will be studied in a similar manner. In proportion as this music becomes known, and its peculiarities become understood, the necessity will be felt for its efficient execution; at first, and while it is yet unfamiliar, it will be confounded with the music of our own day; and the performance of our day will be considered sufficient for it, as, for instance, our present musical public will be satisfied with hearing Mozart’s operas performed by the men and women who have been singing the Ballo in Maschera or Tannhauser, simply because Mozart is not sufficiently well understood for him to be completely separated from Verdi or Wagner. But when a sufficient amount of classical vocal music has been bungled through to accustom us to classical vocal composition, the need will be felt, and an ideal vaguely formed, of a style of singing suited to this music. It will be with the vocal music of the eighteenth century as it was with Gothic architecture: long derided and long neglected, but finally perceived to possess beauty, but beauty at first not sufficiently understood to make its admirers relinquish the Palladios and Wrens, the rococo and pseudo-Grecian artists of music. And just as the admirers of Gothic architecture at first boldly and cheerfully set to defacing it with bungling restorations still savouring of the Palladian and cockleshell art, so the earliest admirers of the vocal music of the eighteenth century will, in serene unconsciousness, drawl or yell pieces by Pergolesi and Cimarosa as if they were songs by Campana or opera scenes by Verdi; until at last, just as the appreciative and familiar study of Gothic art finally produced a certain number of men who would intelligibly, humbly, with complete love and diffidence, touch the old masonry and imitate its forms, so also the appreciation and study of the vocal music of the eighteenth century will finally call forth a class of singers trained specially for its performance, steeped in the old traditions, and performing the songs of the dead school with complete appreciation of their beauty and complete consciousness of their own incompetence. And then we shall have once more careful vocal training, mechanical perfection, intellectual refinement, and something like a school of singing. This revival will take place among the very smallest number; it will originate among conscientious and intelligent amateurs, who have time to study and appreciate, and who will pay a class of singers distinct from those dependent upon the public at large —singers whose small vocal or dramatic powers remove them from the temptation of the easy and brilliant career of the large theatres, and whose intelligence naturally leads them to prefer careful singing to careless shouting.

The traditions of good singing will by this time have been completely lost; not a survivor of a better generation will remain to teach what should and what should not be done: but the school will be reconstituted, the careful study of the old works will suggest a style of performance analogous to them, and the composers of the eighteenth century will, as it were, teach those who sincerely love them the secrets of the long dead school of singing. The movement will have little influence on the art and the public at large; it will be eclectic and artificial; but when the spontaneous and natural tendency is towards turning an art into a barren expanse of rank and tawdry weeds, an oasis of carefully cultured artistic flowers will be valuable just in proportion as it is rare and artificial. The revival of good vocal music and good singing will be the work of the minority even among the educated classes; it will originate in the drawing-room and culminate in the concert-hall; it will be sneered at for its exclusiveness, its amateurishness, its isolation from the artistic life at large. No matter; the great masters of the past are, perhaps, best off when alone and secure among the few by whom they were truly appreciated.

Vernon Lee.

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