April 7, 2015

Leo Kofler: The Old Italian School of Singing

Leo Kofler (1837-1909) 
Leo Kofler had a long thirty-career as organist and choir director at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in lower Manhattan where he was much respected by his peers and the Press. He then moved to Morristown, NJ, where he played at the First Presbyterian Church for three years before shooting himself in the mouth with a gun while suffering from "melancholia." That Kofler's illness coincided with his forced resignation from St. Paul's after a newly installed clergyman favored a younger organist should come as no surprise, examples of his circumstance—plus or minus the suicide, being plentiful. But I digress!

Many years earlier, Kofler had renounced his calling to the Roman Catholic priesthood in Germany, and before that, had been a famous boy chorister trained in the principles of the Old Italian School. Is it any wonder that his first book on vocal pedagogy traced this school's long presence within Germany?

Kofler's historical perspective on vocal lineage is one of the main features of The Old Italian School of Singing, as are his thoughts and instructions on breathing, which were later expanded in The Art of Breathing. Students of vocal technique will note his insistence on nasal breathing and suspension of breath, which was shared by many other Old School teachers of his time, notably Pauline Viardot-García, whose instructions on nasal inhalation appear on the first page of An Hour of Study. Considered part of a pupil's first studies, Kofler laid great stress on breathing as well as the equalization of registers, messa di voce, portamento, and distinguished diction.

Kofler's beard and short-trimmed hair? You can find this look on young men walking Manhattan streets in Armani, bespoke shoes and chunky glasses. Radicals in suits, they enable us to see old things in a new way, which is what Kofler endeavored to do in the 1880's when singing teachers were besotted—as they are now, with anatomy, physiology, and the inner workings of the larynx.

There they stand in broad daylight, these two great lighthouses of the pure Italian school—Tosi at the beginning of the last, Sieber in the middle of this century as out teachers, as our guides. All that the historians of Italy, Germany and France and England tell us of the principles of this school, of the wonderfully-trained voices and artistic success of the pupils, all that the great bravura-arias claimed from the singers, all that the immense literature of solfeggios prove to us—shown up to the light of those two great works, proves to be the genuine article. And when we compare all that is good—and there is a great deal of it—in the various works which we have mentioned from our own days, with these two great vocal guides, then we come to the well-established conclusion that nothing—absolutely nothing—can be found of theoretical and practical principles as the result of careful, scientific study, by vocal teachers capable of cultivating a voice to its highest perfection,—once more, and emphatically let it be marked, nothing—absolutely nothing that is good can be found, except it has been handed down from the first great masters and their pupils as a living, and sharply-defined tradition to our own days. Note it once more, this tradition was the only practical way of preserving the great principles of this celebrated school. No doubt many of the masters—especially the most celebrated ones—were very original men. Yet they stand confidently by the flag of their mother-school—for their method belonged to that school. The originality consists simply in their practical application of these principles. An original method can only mean the ruin and spoiling of the old great one; but the original way of applying the established principles to individual voices calls forth the greatest study and originality of a teacher. That is not a new method—simply proof of qualification to be a teacher, a sign of the great talent for teaching. 
—Leo Kofler. The Old Italian School of Singing, 1833: 10 

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