May 6, 2013

Diction by Giulia Valda

Giulia Valda (1850-1925) 
This article on Diction follows in a natural sequence my other articles that have appeared in the Educational Section of the Musical Courier. The first one was "The Lamperti Method of Teaching Vocal Art;" this was followed by "Breath and How to Use it," and "The Instrument and How to Play Upon It."

Diction Founded on Vocal Sounds


Diction is founded on the vocal sounds. No matter what language one is singing one must always carry the word on the vowel sounds of that word. The vowel is the important part of the word that a singer must know and use- must sing on. 

The foundation of all languages is the Latin, hence the Latin or the Italian vowels are the fundamental principles upon which all other languages are constructed, therefore the essential part is the vowel. 

Quoting the Lamperti's book, "The Art of Singing," we find that he says: 

"The true perfect Italian pronunciation is the result of a judicious mixture of the Tuscan and the Roman. Joining the energy and the incisiveness of the latter to the sweetness and grace of the former, we arrive at the desired result. The old proverb, "lingua toscana in bocca romana" (Tuscan language in Roman mouth), may be adduced in confirmation of these remarks.

"It must not be supposed that the declamation of the lyric stage requires the same qualities of pronunciation as that or the ordinary theater. It will be seen at once that the difficulties in the way of the former are greater than those of the latter. The difference between the pronunciation of the language spoken and sung is this: in the spoken language the intonation is free, and the declaimer chooses the inflection of voice which best pleases him; but in the other, besides all the difficulties peculiar to the spoken language, there is added this, that the intonation is fettered, being bound to a particular note, and confined moreover within musical measure or time.

"There is also another difference, which can only be pointed out to pupils by an experienced professor of singing, and which is due to the various ways in which the voice may be emitted; a difference which can only be explained practically, depending, as it does, upon incidental requirements of acoustics.

"I will do my best to explain what should be aimed at, and what avoided, to render the pronunciation distinct and pleasant. If I am diffuse upon this subject, it is because so much of the perfection of singing depends upon the proper comprehension. I shall therefore endeavor to describe with the utmost minuteness the motions of the lips, tongue and jaws in the articulation of the various vowel and consonants which constitute words. Thus the artist, by being made aware of his defects in pronunciation, will possess a means of correcting them.

"The difficulty in giving the proper pronunciation to consonants and vowels is increased by ignorance of the mechanical movements of the tongue and the whole apparatus. It often happens that a person has an excellent pronunciation in speaking, but a very different one in singing.

"In most of the treatises on singing the whole question of pronunciation has been either omitted or only partially discussed. It is to supply this omission, and to remedy defects which have sprung therefrom, that I propose to point out the mechanical movements required in order to obtain a good pronunciation of the vowels and consonants. The task is arduous. Nevertheless I will attempt to describe as accurately as possible the movements indicated, so that the singers who wishes to pronounce well may derive material assistance from what follows."

Follows Lamperti's Requirements


I have followed the above requirements strictly just as Lamperti himself taught. 

In vowel pronunciation, the tongue must lay loose in the mouth with the tip of the tongue against the lower teeth. There are five vowel sounds in the Italian language, each vowel having only one sound: 


a pronounced as the English a in far;

e pronounced as the English e in met, fed, men;

i pronounced as the English e in see, me;

o pronounced as the English o in for, also like English a in saw;

u pronounced as the English oo in too.


The vowel sounds are carried on the different positions of the jaw. There are three positions of jaw for all vowel sounds. 

First position of the jaw. Open the mouth, lowering the jaw to the fullest extent of the two vowels a—ah and o—oh. The only difference between these two vowels is that for a the pronunciation depends entirely upon the lowering of the jaw, whereas for o, not only must the jaw be kept in the same place as for a, but the facial muscles around the mouth are brought into use, so that the lips are slightly protruding and the mouth is of an oblong shape, great pains being taken that the position of the jaw is not changed but kept at its lowest position for both vowels. 

Second position of the jaw. This is the natural position of the jaw when it is in repose, for the jaw is not used in pronouncing i and u. To pronounce these vowels, i or e, as it is in English—for the Italian i is always e—the high cheek bone muscles are brought into play by raising them as in an easy smile. For u the same natural position of the jaw is kept as for i—only the lips are protruded as in a pucker of a whistle, care being taken not to move the jaw at all, simply the lips. 

This give us four of the vowels, two on the first position—a and o—and two on the second position—i and u. 

Third position of the jaw. This position for pronouncing the Italian e is produced by lowering the jaw two-thirds and then holding it a little back with the chin muscle held firmly against the chin. In fact, for all vowels, the chin muscle must be held firm against the chin to get the full resonance of the vowel sounds. 

These three positions, together with their accompanying facial muscles, are the foundation for all vowel sounds—not only for the Italian but for all other languages. I repeat, there are only five sounds in the Italian language, but in other languages there are many combinations of vowel sounds, but they are all founded on these principles, never changing.

As I have stated before in my previous articles, most exercises are sung on the vowel a, pronounced ah, for the reason that it is the vowel that is most useful for the development of the voice and for the opening of the throat. After long practice on the vowel a it is permissible to pass on to the more difficult, always being careful to keep the throat open, never changing its position. 

This pronunciation of the vowel and the position of the jaw is an exact science, and when once a pupil understands it thoroughly and practically, a great advance has been made in the art of diction. 

If these rules are adhered to, there is no difficulty in enunciating clearly and distinctly, in any language, providing the teacher understands the vowel sounds of each language—which all teacher should understand thoroughly. 

The consonants are the same in all languages and are never sung upon. 

The three consonants b, p, and m are made by using both lips. V and f use only the under lip against the upper teeth. Q, hard g, k and x use the back of the tongue against the roof of the mouth slightly, not hard. 

All the other consonants, that is c, d, soft g, l, n, r, s, t and z, use the tip of the tongue against the roots of the upper teeth. These comprise the full alphabet of whatever language and are always the same but great care must be taken never to use the breath for the pronunciation of the consonants. 

Long practice and careful study of the mechanical means by which consonants are produced lead to their accurate pronunciation. 


Too Little Attention to Pronunciation 


Too little attention is paid by teachers and singers to this question; it is either omitted or is only partially studied. In many cases both teacher and pupil are so anxious about tone that everything else is subservient to it and no attention is given to the words of the song. It is to supply this omission and to remedy the defects that have sprung therefrom that I point out the mechanical movements required in order to obtain a good pronunciation of the vowels and consonants without interrupting the pure tone. 

The task is arduous. In order to achieve the desired result, I advise pupils to make use of a looking glass thereby they can see their jaw in the correct position for every vowel, and also that the facial muscles accompanying the vowel are used properly. In this part of the work one can never be sure unless one sees. 

The lack of proper diction and the necessity for some improvement in that direction have been brought forcibly not only to my attention, but to the attention of the entire public by the recent production of an opera in English. The critics were unanimous in their reviews of the first performance, namely, that not one of the singers had a diction that enabled the audience to distinguish a word of the libretto, and therefore the opera might have been just as well sung in a foreign language for all the benefit that an English speaking audience received. 

There is no reason for this occurring, for English can be sung as correctly, as beautifully and with a pure a tone as an Italian, if the singer and the teacher would give the proper time and study necessary for this result. 

I repeat that the task is arduous and inexhaustible. That is why the old artists used to be able to enunciate as well as sing beautifully; they gave the proper time and work to this achievement- a fact that the present generation does not seem willing to give the time, nor to have the desire for the work necessary. I state this fact from my own experience as a teacher. 

Mms. Sembrich stated quite recently in an article: 

"Pupils seem to think that after six month's lessons they should be ready to prepare for a recital including various languages." 

An utter impossibility. 

There is a gradual growth based upon the right principles to be worked upon be teacher and pupil. 

My next article will be a résumé of the whole as a finished product. 


Musical Courier,  April 12th, 1917


Note: This article is the fourth in a series of five written for the Musical Courier. You can find the other four here.

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