November 13, 2012

A for Annie, B for Barnette

I'd like to draw your attention to a fascinating book that was featured on this blog two years ago (click here for the original post). There are several reasons for my look in the rearview mirror. The first is that I don't feel like I gave the Annie M. R. Barnette's book Talks About Singing: or how to practice (1886) its 'due'. Another reason is that doing so also gives me the chance to draw your attention to the expanded list of downloadedable historical texts in the right hand column. The nice thing for Ms. Barnette is that, by virtue of  her name being at the beginning of the alphabet, her book is currently at the top of the list. 

Barnett - a student of Luigi Vannuccini in Florence, Italy, wrote a most unusual book in that she is candid in her inclusion and discussion of teaching methods and teachers. Simply put: most of the books one reads from this period aren't so confidential in tone. Barnette, however, gives the reader a very clear sense of how students pursued their studies as well as her strong opinions. Below is an excerpt that addresses the need for teachers of voice to embody their teaching. In short: voice teachers had to be able to sing! It is an opinion that I happen to share. Speaking of which: those who admire the teaching of Francesco Lamperti may be surprised to learn that the great Maestro could sing. This contradicts most known biographical information. Lastly, Barnette places the García's at the top of the vocal pantheon. Of course, that makes this blogger smile, if only because their illustrious name is the biggest in his Cloud. 

I encourage you to study this book carefully. It is full of treasures waiting to be found. 

Luigi Vannuccini (1828-1911)


Talks About Singing: or how to practice by Annie M. R. Barnette 
The reason why, among the myriads of teachers of singing, there are so few good ones, is, simply, because men and women— the latter especially, I am sorry to say,— know little or nothing about the cultivation of the voice. The reason why they know no more is because they have not studied sufficiently. To be a good teacher of singing, it is absolutely requisite that you should be a singer, and this fact is beginning to be universally acknowledged. It is not enough to be a fine musician, although that is a most valuable adjunct, but you should have studied singing yourself; your own voice should have been cultivated to its highest capability. Theory alone, even when accompanied by long experience, is not enough, unless joined to practice. I do not say that you must be a fine singer at the present moment, but that you ought to have been able, at some period of your life, at least, to do all with your voice of which any voice is capable, allowing, of course, for natural differences of quality, compass, power, etc. This assertion has often been met by the objection that, "some of the best teachers do not sing at all, themselves," and again, "there are many teachers who could not utter a note, even were their lives to be forfeit, yet who are successful in their profession." To the first, I reply, it is a mistake. All the best teachers in the world do sing now, or have sung in the past. Pietro Romani, who died a few years ago, at a ripe age, taught, perhaps, in the course of a long life, a greater number of masters and singers than any other teacher of the nineteenth century, (except the elder Garcia and his son Manuele, of London.) He held, during his latter years, the almost nominal position of finishing professor in the Royal Conservatory of Music in Florence, Italy. Being in very feeble health, only a few of the most promising pupils were sent to him, whom, in consideration of his advanced years and eminence in his art, he was permitted to teach at his own house. There I have often heard him lift up his thin, quavering voice for his pupils' imitation in forming tones; sometimes, too, he would sing quite through a long cadenza, composed by him at the moment, or, when in the humor, would give the representation of a scene from an opera, which he had heard interpreted, in days gone past, by a celebrated Queen of Song, and into which he, not unfrequently, infused a portion of his own old fire and dignity of voice and manner. I have also heard Lamperti, now over seventy sing entirely through a florid cavatina, for a pupil who could not exactly catch the idea from his rather obscure manner of explanation given in the Milanese dialect, in which he indulges quite roughly, when not in a good humor. Rotoli, of Rome, often sings in public, and a great deal in society, with a pure method and elegant finish and style. Vannuccini, of Florence, my own master, whose lovely voice as a boy-singer in the chapel of the late Grand Duke of Tuscany, gained him the name of "Angela del coro"— Angel of the choir—possesses one of the sweetest, as well as the smallest imaginable light tenor voices, and his manner of singing is so suave, so graceful, so correct and in accordance with the true sentiment of the music and the rules of pure art that his pupils almost hold their breath, fearful of losing a single tone, when he sings a cavatina, or even a few measures of a song in illustration of a certain style, which he is endeavoring to impart. Delle-Sedie, of Paris, a disciple of the pure old school, has been, and is, even now, a fine singer. Duprez was a king of tenors; then there is Madame de la Grange, whom many must remember as one of the most finished and artistic singers, who has ever visited America. The Garcias, (Manuele and Madame Pauline Viardot) at the head of all singing teachers in the world, besides having been eminent as singers, are descended from a long line of singing and teaching ancestry; and Shakespeare, of London, a successful master, sings charmingly; and last, Madame Rudersdorf, lately deceased, was, in her day, a magnificent singer, and a clever musician.

Theory alone, even when accompanied by long experience, is not enough, unless joined to practice.

Now, as to masters, "who have been successful, yet could not utter a note to save their lives," I can only say that I doubt whether this success be anything more than a matter of ephemeral notoriety. The test of success is not the showy singing of a few girls in fashionable society, but the forming of artists and teachers, who, with voices thoroughly and intelligently—not merely mechanically— placed and developed, are able to sing with pure, easy tones, refined taste, true expression and proper style; and whose faults, if not eradicable, are still so skillfully concealed by art, as not to be evident. There are certain voices, so free in their emission, so lovely in quality, so extensive in compass and grand in power, that even an ignorant teacher,—especially if he let them pretty well alone,— can hardly fail to make something of them; but a good teacher will make a poor or an ordinary voice sing well, provided always, that its possessor has sufficient intelligence,— musical or other,— to grasp the intellectual part of the training.

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