January 14, 2012

The Vannuccini School: Part V


William L. Whitney (1861-1950)


William L. Whitney was an exponent of Luigi Vannuccini, one of a handful of legendary singing masters at the second half of the 19th century which included Manuel García, Pauline-Viardot-García, Francesco Lamperti and Antonio Sangiovanni. Vocal giants all, their precepts were inculcated by their students in a manner that has little credence today with the emphasis on repertoire rather than scales and exercises in order to develop technique. This was done in order to establish a grid upon which repertoire was laid.

This grid was rooted in Italian tonal values and the acquisition of "pure vowels," two words that have been supplanted by terms like "formant tuning" and "resonance strategies." While useful in regard to vocal mechanics, the latter terms don't have what pure vowels does, which is an emphasis on vowel quality. This "pointing" of the student's ear is, of course, the stuff of Empiricism, passed from teacher to student in the confines of the voice studio. After all, before you can sing a pure tone, you have to have a teacher who is its living embodiment. In short, you have to hear it before you can do it, knowledge of pure tone's physical conformation being only part of the equation. 


Whitney and his wife, Leta Fulton Whitney


William L. Whitney, a concert and oratorio singer in England, Italy, Germany and America, taught these ideals at New England Conservatory of Music, starting in 1888, his two most famous students being Louise Homer and Eleanor Steber. He also had studios in Florence and Paris, teaching for a time at the Royal Normal and Wimbledon Colleges in London, England. He remained on the faculty of the Conservatory until his death in 1950, an association of sixty years duration. His memorial service was held there January 5, 1950. 

The difficult task falls upon me of trying to express, however, inadequately, our sense of irreparable loss- deep personal loss as well as the shattering loss to the Conservatory. I might dwell at length on what his going takes from us- the characteristics so indelibly fastened in our memories; his boundless energy, his indefatigable spirit and dignity- the exacting demands he made upon himself: his intolerance of sham and the mediocre, yet endless patience with and encouragement for worthy youth; his wonderful smile which reflected a world of kindness; his pungent and penetrating criticism, always softened by a whimsical and delicious humor; the wisdom and just decisions he contributed to the Faculty Council, and finally, the vast accumulation of knowledge and experience in his art which he poured so endlessly into the minds and hearts of generations of pupils, insuring the perpetuation of this great art for years to come.  
To us teachers and students, he leaves then a rare model of maintaining complete and absolute integrity in his art and work - a perfect example of a career which, by his selfless desire to give out, regenerated perpetually his great spirit. Who of us, at the of a career, would not prize this reward above most, to have it said of him, as we can so justly say of our departed friend, — "He was a great artist, an inspired teacher, a devoted friend, and above all, a good man'? 

I wish to thank Ms. Maryalice Perrin-Mohr, Archivist, The New England Conservatory of Music, for the photographs and information on William L. Whitney contained within this post. Her generosity is greatly appreciated. 


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