November 8, 2015

Henderson's Three Words

William James Henderson (1855-1937) 
Three words must be kept in mind when thinking of breathing in the art of song: These words are "slow," "gentle," "deep." All the old masters insisted that breathing in song should be of the character described by these three terms. If the reader desires the names of some of these masters, here they are: Nicolo Porpora, Antonio Bernacchi, Antonio Pistocchi, Leonardo Leo, Domenico Gizzi Francesco Durnate, Guiseppi Amador and Francesco Brivio. The fundamentals of the method taught by these masters were the pure legato and sonorous, beautiful tone. To this they added training in vocal agility, but it must be ever borne in mind that this training was superimposed on a course of instruction in breathing and tone formation. 


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Henderson was a highly regarded music critic at the New York Times, who, along with his colleagues Henry T. Finck, Henry E. Krehbeil, James G. Huneker and Richard Aldrich (who translated Lilli Lehmann's idiosyncratic Mein Gesangskunst into English), dominated the New York musical scene—and thereby influenced national standards—from 1880 to 1920.

There is much to learn from Henderson's criticism (and his book The Art of Singing), if only because he wrote about singers and singing in a way that is not done today. Here is one except from his column at the New York Times:

Occasion has frequently been taken to comment in this place on the bad singing of opera singers. Certainly most of them ought to stay as far way from the concert platform as possible. The stormy applause audiences of the Sunday night concert audiences means nothing. The is proved every year as soon as the opera season comes to an end. Throughout the Winter, while the opera is in full blast, the Sunday night concerts at the Opera House, where the singers of Mr. Grau's company display their vocal shortcomings, are attended by great audiences. These applaud and cheer the just and the unjust alike. But the instant that the opera seasons ends and the worshipped singers depart to that mysterious region known and "the road," some venturesome manager gives Sunday night concerts at the Metropolitan and brings forward singers not known to the opera mob, or instrumental performers of the first rank and forthwith there are empty seats. 
What does this mean? Simply that the Sunday night audiences are not composed of the music lovers of New York, but of that separate and singular class to which an opera singer is a sort of divinity. To the unbiased mind there is something pitiable in this attitude of prostration before the opera singing, and to those who have opportunity to peep behind the scenes of musical life it is contemptible. We are all weak and puny mortals, but none punier than the opera singer. But I shall be told that the worship of opera singers is not personal: it is for their God-given voices, their marvelous talents, their unique accomplishments. 
Well, it is true that most of them have uncommonly good voices. It is true that a few, a smaller few, have real talent, and it is also true that two or three of them have actually not buried those talents, like the man in the parable, but have, like the other man, doubled or trebled them by their industry. These are the singers whom the thoughtful commentator on musical doing delights to praise. But it is also true that there are opera singers who have neglected to cultivate their talents, who have not mastered the art of rightly using the voice, and who have not done anything whatever toward refining their taste, deepening their perceptions, broadening their conceptions, or disciplining their emotions. These singers break almost every law of art every time they appear upon the stage, but they are applauded to the echo. 
New York Times, Sunday, March 23, 1902 

You know what? My ears tell me that Henderson's criticism, written more than a century ago, could be made today.

Henderson studied singing with the noted bel canto maestro and voice teacher Angelo Torriani, wrote a librettonovel and textbook for yacht-sailing, and took his own life at the age of 81, three days after the death of his long-time friend and colleague Richard Aldrich.

Find out more about Henderson here, as well as at Justin Petersen's blog, which you can find here.

When you are done tooling around, you might take up Henderson's teaching; go sit somewhere quietly, shut your mouth, and breath slowly, gently and deeply. 


Photo Credit: New Jersey Biographical Dictionary (2008) 

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