July 21, 2010

Vincenzo Cirillo and the Compound Vowel

You can learn the most fascinating things by following that little voice of curiosity that says, "I really should look that up." And this is exactly what I did a few days ago after reading John Franklin Botume's book Modern Singing Methods: Their Use and Abuse (1885) via google books (you can also buy a hard copy here). Botume was a voice teacher in Boston who learned the principles of the Old Italian School from a certain Signor Vincenzo Cirillo. Happily, Botume also informs the reader that Signor Cirillo also wrote a book titled The Neapolitan School: A Lecture on the Art of Singing (1882). Of course, I had to find it.

John Franklin Botume

A search at WordCat pointed me towards the New York Public Library Research Division at Lincoln Center where I found Cirillo's book on microfiche. Yea! So I went over to have a look at it.

I was astonished to find that Cirillo (1837?-1905) was a student of Allesandro Busti at the Conservatory of Naples before coming to Boston to teach at the National Conservatory (Cirillo left that post after a short while and began his private studio). Busti! I recognized the name immediately, but had not come across any of his pupils. Lucie Manén referenced him in her book Bel Canto: The Teaching of the Classical Italian Song Schools: Its Decline and Restoration. (A Dr. Cathcart had given Manén a manual Busti had written titled Studio di canto: Methodo classici del Conservatorio Reale di Napoli. See my post on Cathcart here). And who did Busti study voice with? None other than the famous Girolamo Crescentini (1762-1846), one of the last great castrato sopranos, and teacher to Luigi Lablache, the great bass. And Crescentini? He studied with Lorenzo Gibelli (1719-1812) whose voice encompassed "the bass, baritone and alto ranges". His teacher was Martini. 

But I digress. Cirillo's book is remarkable, not only for the inclusion of vocal technique, but also for name dropping: Cirillo gives the reader the real names of many of the great Castrati, something I have not read anywhere else. That's the beauty of old books: You can learn things from them that you won't find anywhere else.

 And what about technical matters? Cirillo details the following:

In arranging modern languages categorically with reference to their adaptability for singing, I would first place the Italian, then Spanish, French, English, and German in order. The Italian language is easier to sing than the others, on account of the small number of vowel sounds in its alphabet, which are five: namely, a, e, i, o, u (ah, eh, ee, oh, oo). These vowel sounds are all formed in the mouth, none of them being in the slightest degree throaty or nasal, as are many of the vowels of other languages.

In vocalizing, we must use a compound vowel-sound made up of all the vowel-sounds of the Italian idom. This is the mystery of the voice in which many ministers of the art are confounded to such an extent that they sometimes ruin voices by compelling them to adopt an unnatural vowel for the production of tone. This vowel-tone can only be communicated to the pupil by the expert teacher through the medium of his living voice; and when the pupil has imitated the teacher to perfection in this, then he first begins to sing.

The compound tone should be formed within the back cavity of the mouth, which is located behind the uvula, and connects with the pharynx; and thence the vibrations should spread into the front cavity of the mouth, striking against the hard palate, with an inclination toward the frontal bones and the various cavities of the skull, all of which assist in giving quality to the tone. The cavity of the chest, and in fact those in the entire trunk, are of great assistance in giving fullness and roundness to the tone.

By following this system of developing the voice there disappears any necessity of discussion concerning head medium and chest registers, which many teachers cultivate and impose upon the voice; and in this way the voice will acquire a homogeneous tone and character, enabling the pupil to express the inner sentiments of the soul, which will thus be spontaneously displayed by the singer, and not produced by any artificial means, which are often more disagreeable than pleasant to the ear. 

Cirillo's Compound Vowel is a concept that calls to mind Margaret Harshaw's instruction, which is that every "perfect vowel" is a combination of [a], [i] and [u]. As well, the idea of a Compound Vowel formed behind and above the soft palate is in keeping with the teaching of Giovanni Battista Lamperti as represented in Vocal Wisdom.

The beginning of the tone (mis-called "attack") can be practiced only when vibration starts focused in the centre of the skull (sphenoid sinus) without effort or muscular impulse.

It is a "Free-ing" and not a "hitting" process. The tone seems to come out of the head, instead of the throat.

The "dark-light" tone demands this central start. It has all degrees of emphasis according to the energy of compressed breath to produce it. This cushion of breath must never be exhausted, but renewed at every opportunity.

When this beginning of vibration is inherent in the singer's head, each higher tone is drawn to its pitch, without muscular push, yet with adequate energy: each lower tone finds its pitch without relaxing energy, keeping the intensity of the higher tones.

Intense vibration only will awake this sphenoidal focus. Resonance is but the streaming of these vibrations from the focus toward lips, throat and chest- according to the registers of the voice.

After I got home, I did more hunting, and found that Cirillo's book is also online at American Libraries, an online datebase. Ha! I could have stayed home and downloaded it while having breakfast. Which is what you can do here.


  1. Fascinating! I encountered Signor Cirillo today and knew nothing of him. Thanks to you, I now do. K


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