The Singer's Catechism and Creed by Blanche Marchesi

I pull this book down off the shelf every once in a while just to get my head into the 19th century and the teaching of a particular branch of the Garcia School. Blanche Marchesi was the daughter of Mathilde Marchesi, who was a highly successful exponent of Manuel Garcia.  And Blanche's father, Salvatore Marchesi de Castrone, also studied with Manuel Garcia as well as Francesco Lamperti. Having inculcated the precepts of the Old Italian School from an early age, you would think that Blanche Marchesi's words would be worth reading. And they are. I find her ideas fascinating. She sets the tone on the title page with these words:

Here I lay down the truth about two hundred and twenty years of teaching by one method. 

Blanche Marchesi by John Singer Sargent 

Madam Marchesi writes a great deal about sounding boards (her book was published in 1932), a concept you won't find in the writings of her musical grandfather Manuel Garcia, though he did write about the pharynx in terms of being a reflector. Garcia also said in an interview in the Musical Herald  (1894) that control of the voice is lost after breath is turned into vibration at the larynx, and that one cannot direct the column of air. These statements should be considered in light of a comment made regarding the vocal technique of the great French Bass Pol Plançon as recorded by Garcia's student Anna E. Schoen-René in her book America's Musical Inheritance (1941)Plançon had just entered Garcia's studio after two would-be students had left, disappointing the great teacher with their inability to sing with pure vowels.  

"Sing me, " he begged, "a few of your beautiful notes, so that I may be sure that correct singing still exists."  Seated at the piano, he sang scores and scales. Manuel Garcia's expression lost its discouraged sadness and became radiant, as he exclaimed, "That is singing through the mask, and not through the nose! The nose is the waste-basket of the brain but not considered for resonance." 

Is Garcia contradicting himself? Or is he talking about something else? If air doesn't go into the sinuses (and modern science tells us that it doesn't), what is he talking about? Bone conduction? A specific tonal quality? 

Mask. Sounding boards. Placement. These are old terms that are out of fashion. However, I think we should give them more thought before tossing them aside. Finding out what Madam Marchesi and Manuel Garcia meant - I believe - entails learning to listen, which is a complicated business. (Speaking of which: how many students of the voice listen to old recordings?) I think - and I've said this before on these pages - that the matter of sounding boards and the mask has everything to do with vowels and how they are used. One clue? The Old School taught that the [i] vowel was the most forward (see my post on Clifton Cooke for more information). 

Listening to vowel quality is altogether different than sending the tone somewhere.


I have just discovered your blog and I'm loving it! I totally agree that we don't listen to old recordings enough and that figuring out what the old masters meant will be eternally helpful as we wiggle through the current scientific explanations of how to sing.

Thanks for reminding us all about these important teachers!
Takoon said…
Very interesting blog. I found this post when Googling Blanche Marchesi, because my vocal pedagogy teacher assigned us historical figures to research. So thank you!