June 30, 2010

Luigi Vannuccini

Another important Old Italian School vocal pedagogue which many Americans traveled to Florence to study with is Luigi Vannuccini (1828-1911). Something of a renaissance man, Vannuccini received his diploma in violin at the Conservatory in Florence before turning his attention to the piano. He then set his sights on opera, becoming a leading operatic conductor as well as a highly respected singing master. David Bispham, one of the first Americans to appear at Bayreuth and have an international career, was one of his students. Another was Myron W. Witney. Whitney's son William also studied with Vannuccini and taught at The New England Conservatory of Music. One of his students was Eleanor Steber

Luigi Vannuccini c. 1864

Frederick W. Root, an influential pedagogue who interviewed leading European voice teachers of the period, and the subject of a recent article in The Journal of Singing, also studied with Vannuccini, and had this to say about his master's teaching:   

"Vannuccini's method was very simple and consisted mainly in keeping the pupils attention directed to the region of the eyes and nose in forming tones." 

This empirical concept (modern science considers the vocal tract the only resonator) was a key feature in Margaret Harshaw's vocal studio. Considered the doyenne of singing teachers, Harshaw insisted that singing in the 'mask' was part and parcel of correct 'voice placement' and an expression of historic Bel Canto teaching.

Vannuccini's wife, Lizzie Chapman Vannuccini, a native of Boston, is buried in the Swiss Protestant Cemetery of Florence.

June 28, 2010

Plain Words On Singing

A jewel of a book, Plain Words on Singing is the culmination of a life-time of voice teaching by William Shakespeare, a highly influential student of Francesco Lamperti. Published in 1924, Shakespeare carried the teachings of his master - the last great empiricist - well into the 20th century.

It is the Lamperti School, perhaps more than any other, which emphasized breathing. And Shakespeare's teaching on the use of the breath is clearly and elegantly stated, and certainly worth a spin around the block. 

Breath Control

The management of the breath is to the singer what the use of the bow is to the violinist.  More breath is required for singing than for ordinary talking, and the ample breaths that have to be taken, often rapidly cause the respiration of the singer to become somewhat gymnastic in character, entailing considerable fatigue.

The lungs are packed into the chest. We know the chest is airtight, for on closing the mouth and nostrils no breath can be drawn in. On freeing the nose and opening the mouth, we can expand the chest, and cause the air to rush in as it would do through the nozzle of a bellows.

We can rightly fill the chest in two ways, (1) By our will causing an expansion of the soft part of the body just under the breast bone, and (2) by causing an expansion of the sides of our body as far up as to the shoulder blades.

The first causes the air to enter and fill the lungs at their base. The second way causes the ribs to be pulled upwards by powerful muscles attached to the shoulder blades; the result being an enormous expansion of the sides and back of the body.

For the strenuous breathing of the singer, both of these modes must continue; their simultaneous action forming a method of inspiration which leaves the throat in entire freedom.

In order to send out the breath, we must oppose the two ways of drawing it in by willing (1) a contraction of the soft place under the breast bone, and (2) by drawing downwards the ribs and causing the side and back to collapse.

Experiment: By feeling with the hand the soft place, we can observe how much we expand when we draw in the breath, and how much we collapse as we press out the breath. Further, by extending the arms outward and drawing together the elbows, we can note the enormous expansion at the back during inspiration, and the descent of the ribs during expiration. Thus, by raising the ribs at the back, we draw in the air just the same as by causing the expansion of the soft place at the waist; and we send the breath out again, by pulling down the ribs just the same as by pressing in at the soft place under the breast bone.

If you have followed our observation on the balance of muscles, it will be obvious that we can prevent any waste of breath, by imagining while sending it out that we are also drawing it in; this being the opposition of the inspiratory to the expiratory muscles.

When we succeed in attaining this balance, we shall avoid the faulty method of holding up the chest or raising and fixing the shoulders. The student must beaware of this awkward mode of breathing, as the tongue and throat are certain to become constricted, and gasping should will then be heard. Moreover, by fixing  the shoulders, we prevent the important balance between the muscles which raise and those which pull down the ribs.  p 5-7

Shakespeare also gives the reader instruction on many other teaching concepts like 'open throat', as well as 'drinking the tone' - another Lampertism that still causes waves within the vocal pedagogy community. He also gives much attention to the historic writings of the 17th and 18th century, thus wittingly or no, placing himself in their canon.

A last gasp from the School of Empiricism, Plain Words on Singing isn't yet available online. To read this book you will need to search Worldcat or Abebooks.com, the latter an excellent source for obtaining a hard copy for your library.

June 27, 2010

Emma Thursby

She is hardly remembered today, but at one time Emma Thursby (1845-1931) was the most famous singer in America. Known as "The America Nightingale" in homage to Jenny Lind, "The Swedish Nightingale," who took the country by storm a generation earlier courtesy of P.T. Barnum, Thursby was a soprano sfogato with a brilliant, pure and effortless voice. Like Lind, she only appeared on the concert platform at a time when American audiences deemed the operatic stage too risqué a place for a woman of her social/religious standing. 

Thursby wearing an amulet previously worn by Tietjens & Rudersdorff - 1887

Thursby's principle studies were with Achille  Errani, a tenor who had toured with Adelina Patti, and then with the Ukranian dramatic soprano Erminia Rudersdorff, who, according to Anna E. Schoen-René in her book American Musical Inheritance, was Manuel Garcia's first representative in America (Rudersdorff's previous studies had been with Giovanni Marco Borgdoni, Rubini, Luigi Lablache and Cavaliere Micheroux). 

Anchille Errani

But before Thursby arrived at Rudersdorff's studio in Wrentham MA, Errani encouraged Thursby to study in Milan, so she journeyed to the Continent on a Grand Tour, traveling first to England, then Germany and France, finally arriving in Italy where she studied with Antonio Sangiovanni, a well-known pedagogue of the time, after first gaining entry into Francesco Lamperti's studio. Lamperti was Thursby's first choice, but the august maestro frequently failed to meet at their appointed lessons, so Thursby shifted her attention to Antonio Sangiovanni who was teaching several of her friends and had the recommendation of Errani. In the end, Thursby took a total of 8 lessons with Lamperti and 26 with Sangiovanni before a traveling companion contracted typhoid and died, which necessitated a return to America. 

I am still with Lamperti but expect to go to S. (Sangiovanni) soon. I want you to practice singing as well as your playing. How I wish I was at home to teach you. Practice the scales & exercises I left at home and take a breath you can feel clear down in your boots. I am getting so big with my new style of breathing that I don't believe I shall be able to wear any of my dresses soon.  - letter to Emma's sister Ina 1872

All this and a great deal more is recorded in Thursby's biography - The Life of Emma Thursby - which was written by Richard McCandless Gibson on behalf of the New York Historical Society in 1940. It was commissioned by Emma's younger sister Ina, with whom she lived and traveled. Both remained unmarried, and traveled widely together, from Norway to Japan. 

Thursby in Italy in 1872

The Emma Thursby archives are housed in the library on the second floor of the NYHS at 170 Central Park West. In 2007, I sourced them to write an article for the March-April edition of VOICEPrints- the Official Journal of the New York Singing Teachers Association. You can find it here.  It deals with Emma Thursby's vocal technique.

It was a very curious experience to sit and read through the Thurby archives. Thursby didn't concern herself with singing alone. She also had an avid interest in Eastern Philosophy and Spiritualism, as many did during the first decades of the 20th century. Most curious are the spirit photographs taken of a pet mynah bird, which was stuffed after death and included in the collection. Apparently, the bird was quite opinionated about Thursby's students. Unfortunately, this one item has not survived. 

Until recently, Thursby's portrait by George A. Healy was also on view in a second floor gallery. One hopes that one of America's most illustrious singers will return for a new generation to admire.  

June 18, 2010

Maureen Forrester

The world of singing has lost one of its shining stars: Maureen Forrester, the resplendent Canadian contralto who sang Mahler in an unparalleled manner, died at the age of 79 on Wednesday.  The NYTimes obit can be read here, while an excellent tribute can be read here.  

I first heard Forrester in the late 70's, and the beauty of her singing blew me away.  Her singing was womanly, rich and full-bodied, with nary a trace of the early music influence so prevalent today which  strips the tone of any real depth.   

Forrester studied voice with Bernard Diamant, who's own teacher had been Charles Panzéra.  Fortunately, Forrester's own masterclasses were recorded for Canadian television and are now on Utube.  In this snippet, Forrester explains how to use the bridge of the nose, an old school technique that has been addressed more than once on these pages.

Singers like Maureen Forrester don't grow on trees.  And remarkably, she made her operatic debut (in her 40's) after having first made her mark as a concert singer.  Could a talented singer do the same today in our 'you-must-get-into-a-young-artist-opera-program-before-you-are-32' world? 

She was the real deal, and will be - and is- much missed.   An artist with a capital A.

June 17, 2010

Lilli Lehmann's Vocal Technique

Having referred to Lilli Lehmann's book How to Sing in a previous posts, I thought it might be time to give her vocal technique some attention. If you have read her book, you know just how idiosyncratic it is. The beginning voice student—much less the seasoned professional—can have a hard time making sense of it. And since Lilli's personality on the page comes across as that of an iron-willed, even ill-tempered goddess whose withering glance can turn one to stone, it's almost better to look at her teaching as reflected in her students. But such first-hand reports can be exceedingly hard to find. Fortunately, I did locate one—Basic Principles of Artistic Singing (1938) by John Frederick Lissfelt (1886-1965), a music critic for the Pittsburgh Sun Telegraph.

Lehmann as Isolde 

After reading Lilli's book in the original German and being unable to adjust his voice to the sensations she described, Lissfelt decided to go to Germany and study with the great singer herself. His neighbor, Minna Kaufman Ruud, was a student of Lilli Lehmann, and wrote Lissfelt a letter of introduction. Lissfelt first made contact with Lilli's younger sister Marie during the summer Salzburg festival, and then interviewed the great singer herself. Plans were made for Lissfelt's return the following summer for study in Lilli's classes, but unfortunately, she died that Fall. Lissfelt did, however, return to study with Marie for two summers, while continuing studies with Ruud in Pittsburgh. What did he learn? 

Marie & Lilli in Walküre

Lehmann objected seriously to the use of the term 'method.' But her teaching was just that. She built upon fundamental ideas of pedagogy: she examined her students individually, schooled the voice for tone in respect to throat, head, and chest formation, and was proficient musically, so that when it came time to advise regarding a career, she knew well enough in what direction to lead the student for public work. Her schooling for tone production and control demands tremendous concentration, a perfect coördination of all faculties for rapid adjustment and change, and an eventual chart of habits which are reliable as a good heart beat.  p. 1

Lilli believed that the muscles of the face, neck and head—what she called the "mask form"—needed to be disciplined every day. Towards this end, she taught her students to vocalize on an [i] vowel from the very first lesson, for which she was "laughed to scorn" by other teachers—the [a] vowel being the vowel of first choice. Lehmann insisted on this vocal placement, deeming it essential for all that followed. She also insisted that American students needed to mix [a] with [o]. However, [a] was only attempted after the student had obtained [i], [e], [o] and [u]. Each vowel was exercised in a specific manner which Lissfelt includes in the text. 

I sang that first exercise on a shrill and piercing ee, making my tone upon as clear pronunciation of that vowel as possible.  If one draws a triangle, its base the line of the mouth and the apex between the eyes, in that apex one finds the point of concentration of that ee. The Italian has that position naturally from his speech, but the Anglo-Saxon, especially the American, must build that vowel in its purity, must pierce through a veil caused by our broad speech in which the ah sends the voice far back and down into the throat. The purity of that ee can not be too dearly sought, for its mixture with other vowels in forming words is the saving grace of purity of tone-placement, of pitch, and or resonance. p. 3

Lehmann's exercises range from the chromatic (for tuning) to the Great Scale, which Lilli practiced for an hour and a half a day. Each half note is sung on all 5 vowels in succession, the goal being the attainment of absolute control over a two octave range—if not more. Lissfelt includes the preparatory exercises which are graduated and carefully explained. 

Lissfelt also credited the Lehmann exercises for strengthening and improving his speaking voice.

I learned to keep my tongue and lower jaw relaxed. By singing exercises high in my range, my muscles learned to keep my natural speaking tones- F-sharp, G, and G-sharp below Middle C- in the mask. I improved my articulation and gained surplus breath capacity. And now I speak frequently speak in foggy or smoky auditoriums where the audience coughs, and I never have to clear my throat. There has never been the slightest indication of hoarseness. I cannot say that the volume of my voice has increased, but its carrying qualities are magnified, and I am heard distinctly and understood in most trying auditoriums.
The Lehmanns, I repeat, believed that the speaking voice should be in the boots; they said "Im Bauch!" p. 53-54

Basic Principles of Artistic Singing is still under copyright with Schirmer, though out of print. You can search WorldCat for the nearest copy. 

June 10, 2010

Girolamo Crescentini

One of the last great castrato mezzo-sopranos,  Girlamo Crescentini lived long enough to have influenced Rossini and Bellini.  His voice, as noted by Schopanhauer, was "beautiful in a supernatural way."   Oh to have heard his singing!  If a picture is worth a thousand words, the sound of a person's voice tells volumes.

Crescentini's student Scafati taught Dr. George C. Cathcart, who's essay on Bel Canto singing appears in the book The Singing of John Braham by John Mewburn Levien, which was the subject of my last post.  Scafati's teacher eschewed the excesses of his age, that is, coloratura for coloratura's sake.  If anything, Crescentini had taste and a sense of decorum, two very elusive yet valuable qualities. 

He wrote a book of exercises titled “Esercizi per la vocalizzazione.” (1811) Where to find it?  The search is on.


Since posting earlier today, I found three editions (with similar names) of Crescentini's instruction at the Library of Congress.  The earliest title is Raccolta de esercize per il canto all' uso del vocalizzo, con discorso preliminare c. 1800

June 9, 2010

Bel Canto Breathing

In my last post, I wrote about Lucie Manén's the Art of Singing. One interesting thing about the book is Manén's referencing of Dr. George C. Cathcart, an ear, nose and throat specialist, who studied voice in Italy "with Scafati, whose own teacher had been Crescentini, one of the last of the celebrated castrati." Cathcart gave Manén two books of exercises, one by Allessandro Busti, Studio di canto: Metodo classic del Conservatorio Reale di Napoli (1863), and the other by Gaetano Nava (the teacher of Charles Santley), Metodo Practico di Vocalizzazione (c. 1870). Cathcart explained the texts to Manén, and "the special breath-control required for producing the particular Bel Canto timbres," and it was then that she realized that "the method I had originally been taught (by Anna E. Schoen-René) was, in fact, that of Bel Canto."

Of course, this sent me looking for the two texts mentioned (I found the Nava on Abebooks) as well as information by Cathcart himself about 'bel canto breathing'. What did I find? An essay Cathcart wrote for The Singing of John Braham (1944) by John Mewburn Levien - a student of Manuel Garcia. John Braham was England's first leading tenor. He studied with Venanzio Rauzinni, who was a student of Nicola Porpora-  the main root of the Old Italian School.

Here are some of Cathcart's thoughts on breathing in the essay titled "A Scientific Justification of the Historic Method of Voice Production".

The first resonator is the chest, and it is obvious that the larger it becomes the greater will be the size of the tone which it resonates, and therefore the first essential to make it fulfil its function as a resonator is to increase the size as much as possible. The old Italian school taught that there were two kinds of breathing, of which one was carried out chiefly by the diaphragm, and was characterized by the swelling out of the front abdominal wall and lower part of the chest, and was the proper kind of breathing during sleep; the other was characterized by an increase in seize of the upper part of the chest, accompanied by a sinking in rather than a swelling out of the front abdominal wall. By the latter method the lungs are also inflated to their great extent with the least possible exertion, and are thus enabled to take in a very large quantity of air.  p. 24-25

After the chest the most important resonator is the pharynx. Upon its proper development and use depends all the richness, quality and depth of tone of a well-produced voice, and herein lies the difference between the voices of the old school and the voices of the modern school. The pharynx can be enlarged in three directions; from top to bottom, from side to side, and from back to front. It is another of the secrets of the old Italian school that it cannot be enlarged from side to side, or from back to front, until it is first enlarged from top to bottom, and it can only be so enlarged by causing the larynx to sink. Now the extent to which the larynx descends is entirely dependent upon the extent to which the lungs are inflated. The greater the inflation of the lungs the more the trachea sinks down into the chest, thereby carrying the larynx with it. It is for this reason that the old Italian school attached so much importance to thoracic breathing. The writer well remembers hearing Signor Scafati say to a bass who's voice he was trying: "Voi respire troppe basso, Signore" ("You are breathing too low"). p. 26

As far as controlling the breath is concerned, this was learned unconsciously. Signor Scafati did not trouble the pupil with any directions to hold back the breath during the elementary stage, well knowing that by the time all sense of "push" had disappeared the tone would have become balanced, and there would no longer be any waste of breath. Signor Scafati did not know how the breath was held, he only knew that it was held in the larynx, and that all efforts to control it consciously, by "consciously keeping the ribs extended and the midriff down," invariably led to the voice being stiff and throaty. p. 29
Manuel Garcia, who was John Mewburn Levien's teacher, wrote instructions that echo the thoughts above.
In order to inhale freely, hold the chest erect, the shoulders back without stiffness, and the chest free. Lower the diaphragm without jerking, raise the chest by a slow and regular movement, and set the hollow of the stomach. - A complete treatise on the art of singing, Part I, p 33, translated and edited by Donald V. Pasche, 1984.  
Others have translated the line "set the hollow of the stomach" from the original French as "draw in the abdomen."

Cathcart's essay makes for fascinating reading.  To read more, search WorldCat to find a copy near you.

June 8, 2010

Lucie Manén: The Art of Singing

One of the more curious books on singing is Lucie Manén's Bel Canto: The Teaching of the Classical Song-Schools, Its Decline and Restoration (1987) which is now in its third printing. However, Manén's first foray into publishing was The Art of Singing which was published in 1974. This earlier book was refashioned into the smaller and tightened current version. There is something to be said for the original however. For one thing, it has an accompanying record with musical examples of Manén's teaching on the Imposto, that is, the start of the tone, by well-known British singers of the period—Elizabeth Harwood, Thomas Hemsley and Peter Pears. This was unusual at the time. Now there are quite a few books on singers and singing with an accompanying CD. Another is the looser writing style which gives the reader a better sense of the writer's personality. And what a personality she must have been: Manén (1900-1991) was married to Dr. Otto John,  the "J Edgar Hoover" of West Germany.

Manén studied privately with Anna E. Schoen-René in Berlin, who also taught Margaret Harshaw in New York at The Juilliard School. Schoen-René was a student of Pauline Viardot-García and Manuel García. And it is in dealing with Manuel García's legacy that Manén, in my opinion, gets matters muddled.

The vocal quality of the Bel Canto school is not produced solely by the mechanism of the larynx and its resonator, the pharynx. An essential component of the Bel Canto technique is the exploitation of the upper respiratory tract, i.e. the nose and the naso-pharynx, by switching the start of the note, the transient, from the larynx to the nasal passages behind the level of the bridge of the nose. This mechanism is called Imposto.  —The Art of Singing, p. 27
To advance her concept of Imposto, Manén asserts that García did not teach the correct start of the tone. In fact, she claims that García's theories on vocal production—and his teaching on the coup de glotte in particular—broke with bel canto tradition. I'm not convinced that this is the case. Just because García was the first to focus on the physiology of the vocal tract—and the glottis in particular—does not mean that he did not teach the same concepts as his sister Pauline Viardot-García. Otherwise, why did Viardot-García send Schoen-René to her brother for his imprimatur? Was Manén unaware of Schoen-René's book America's Musical Inheritance (1941) which contains an interesting conversation with García about the mask? Manén is even more strident regarding Manuel García in her later book, and this is unfortunate. Instead of standing on his shoulders, she pounds on his head, writing that his research was predicated on the desire to understand his own failure as a singer. How she is able to know this "fact" is not clear.

There are better ways to make one's case. 

Still, I believe Manén has advanced an original theory that deserves more attention and research. However, for that to happen, there needs to be more light and less heat.

June 7, 2010

Tea and Tone

A cup of tea, the morning paper, and a old milk jug full of peonies has me thinking about tone, the latter bringing to mind Anna Schoen-René's recollection of an comment made by Manuel Garcia in America's Musical Inheritance: Memories and Reminiscences (1941).  Schoen-René went to Manuel Garcia in 1901 to learn how to teach men after having previously studied with the great maestro's sister Pauline Viardot-Garcia in Paris in the 1880's.   His home was in Cricklewood, a suburb of London.  

Quite unexpectedly, however, he turned to me, holding a half-opened rose in his hand.  "Here child," he said, "this is the expression of the perfect tone. Every nuance of beauty, color, fragrance, and form is in this God-given creation, not yet abused by human hands.  p. 109

The tea service is Limoges c. 1910.  Coincidentally, that's the year Viardot-Garcia died.  The milk jug is English, and from the same period.

June 6, 2010

Trill Baby Trill!

Lilli Lehmann, the imperious dramatic soprano, wrote in her idiosyncratic book How to Sing that a singer without a trill was like a horse without a tail. She also wrote that in practicing it, one had to almost scream. Scream? Lilli, for all her literary excesses, was of the 'you-must-have-more-than-you-need-so-that-you-have-what-you-need-when-you-need-it' school. After all,  she began her career as a coloratura soprano and ended up singing Isolde and Brunhilde, which must have taken a great deal of care and incessant work.  

Then there is Luisa Tetrazzini reportedly practiced for a decade in order to improve it.  

The Swedish Nightingale known as Jenny Lind wrote that Manuel Garcia made her practice the trill (shake) very slowly, which may have been intended to address her worn voice. Is this the reason why quite a few old singing manuals assert that the trill makes the voice supple and corrects defects?

The trill wasn't just for coloratura sopranos. Every voice, from soprano to bass, perfected it. Stronger voices often acquire it more easily than lighter ones. This may suggest that the action of the thyroarytenoid muscles in the vocal fold are a factor. One manual, Grammatica o siano Regole di ben cantara (c. 1817) by Anna Maria Pellegrini-Celoni (she of the axiom 'He who knows how to breath knows how to sing') even contains the admonition that both notes must "come from the chest and never with the throat." 

Jenny Lind

How to acquire it?  The old singers and teachers had a few key suggestions.

1) Practice the trill on a major third, then the minor third, major second, and finally, the minor second.  The trill must be obtained on the interval of a major third before proceeding further.

2) Practice the slow trill. What is the slow trill? It's the sound of an old Chevy station wagon trying to start up. In other words, the oscillation between the upper and lower note is done slowly, and then speed up when the distance between the notes has full integrity.

2) Hammer the top note. This is what puts the oscillation in motion, and helps keep the distance between the two notes intact- a very important point. If the distance between the two notes collapses, it's not a trill anymore, but something more akin to a gargle or a neigh.

3) Practice the trill with the mouth closed. This helps one acquire a feel for the oscillation of the larynx.  

4) Don't breath too deeply (the last two suggestions come from Pauline Viardot-Garcia's Exercise book An Hour of Study).  

5) Practice the trill on open vowels.  

June 3, 2010

Anna Moffo & Rachmaninoff's Vocalise

Listening to live classical radio can yield unexpected pleasures, and this morning's offering stopped me in my tracks. I turned the volume up with one hand, tea cup suspended mid-motion in the other, and held my breath in anticipation. The piece? Rachmaninoff's Vocalise as sung by Anna Moffo.

Anna Moffo as Violetta

I don't know what is more stunning, Rachmaninoff's composition, which came late in his life and strikes me as a 'summing up' of all things, or Moffo's singing of it. She takes the climatic ascending phrase in one breath and a beautiful piano, which is electrifying. This ability as well as her limpid trills makes for a high expression of bel canto. Interestingly, the conductor Stokowski -who conducted Moffo - was noted for his ability to bring out the best in those he worked with. He lets Moffo and the listener breath, which is more than the mechanics of taking in air. 

Time stops when listening to this piece. And isn't that what great singing is all about?

You can hear Moffo here.