December 9, 2010

Lamperti and his Method

Werner's Voice Magazine, September 1900: 22-23.

The names of Garcia and Lamperti stand as a connecting link between the brilliant fame of the singers of a past age, when the old Italian method reigned supreme, and the modern school of vocal art with its eclectic, quasi-scientific creed. Garcia is rather the representative of the latter school, Lamperti of the former, though it is not to be inferred that Garcia does not teach according to the principles of the "old Italian method" —what words to conjure with!

Signor Francesco Lamperti was born in Italy in 1813, and even as a child was an unusual character. Like so many other musicians, his infant years were spent amid musical surroundings, his mother being an opera singer of some repute. His real musical education was begun at an age when most children are still engrossed in picture-books and toys, and carried on under the pressure of severe poverty, a poverty that lasted far into his life. His first position was as organist at the munificent salary of $1 a month, followed by a position as director of an orchestra in the theatre yielding a little less than $4 a month. With a large and steadily increasing family—for the maestro was blessed with nineteen children—it was a hand to mouth struggle for many years. At last recognition came in the shape of an offer from the Royal Conservatory of Music at Milan to make him head of the vocal department at a salary of 1800 francs a year and in addition to educate his two sons. The offer was accepted, and for quarter of a century Lamperti's name was identified with the Milan Conservatory. From this time his reputation as a voice-teacher grew rapidly, until to be accepted as his pupil was the ambition of the singers of two continents, and it was felt that his name was almost talismanic.

The Lamperti method stands first and foremost for purity of tone. A beautiful quality of voice cannot be obtained without a correct method of tone-production. Therefore, Lamperti's oft-reiterated injunction, "Quality, quality, quality," is really the corner-stone of all true voice teaching. Breath, placement of tone, enunciation, are simply segments of the great circle of voice whose soul and life are quality.

So many have studied with Lamperti and gone forth to teach his method, and so much has been written descriptive of his personality and teachings, that it would seem as if everybody must know something of the man who was great even in his strangeness. Yet some points made by him cannot be too often repeated. Such a point is that of keeping the voice upon the breath, a phrase mystifying, perhaps, to those who demand a geometrically plain expression and demonstration of terms, but one full of meaning to the initiated. Why should the unlearned in vocal art expect to understand its "trade talk" any better than the unlearned in other professions understand their special terms? To keep the voice upon the breath means that the voice rests upon an elastic cushion that responds to the slightest tone-pressure, but with an instant resilience buoys up the tone, thus preventing rasping of the surrounding parts, squeezing of the throat, and a consequent thinness of voice. Lamperti's half-dozen words express all this and more.

Another important point in the maestro's teaching was his emphasis of the legato style. To attack a note with the greatest possible limpidity, but with perfect accuracy of intonation, was his idea of a just emission of voice. To him, correct breathing for song was diaphragmatic breathing, which, to use his own words, "is a development of natural breathing," and cannot be acquired except by months of application and practice. Everything about his method was deliberate. "Often," says one who was privileged to know much of his method through listening to his instruction, "in a pupil's whole career he studied only one aria. He would spend a year upon a single one, for Lamperti would say : "If you can sing one, you can sing all, provided that once your voice is placed in purity of tone."

Still another important point made by Lamperti was special attention to the middle register of the voice, especially in women. It is the part that gets hardest usage, the part on which the singer must be able to depend. Habitual singing on high notes weakens the compass and eventually produces a disagreeable inequality of registers.

Small tones perfectly controlled were another feature of Lamperti's teaching. Seldom were pupils allowed to sing with full voice. "As the small tone is, so will the large one be," was his theory.

In the midst of his many studies Lamperti found time to compose vocalizes, solfeggi, and other valuable vocal exercises, which are used by teachers everywhere. A work on the art of singing has been translated into English. In his early days, before the vocal art claimed his attention to the exclusion of all else, he had planned several operas and written some of the music for them. Unfortunately, none were ever completed.

At least three generations of singers owe their allegiance to the famous old Milanese teacher. It was one of his peculiarities rarely to praise a pupil's work. In this he is not alone, for with Marchesi blame lies much nearer the lips than commendation. "Stupida!" "asina!" and "diavolo!" were heard in his studio many times during the day. The rank of the pupil or the artist made little difference in the epithet applied.

Among those who have been numbered in his vocal family, the names of Albani, Thursby, Campanini, Shakespeare, Sims Reeves, Gayarre, Van Zandt, Sembrich, Scovel, Alvary, Carlotta Patti, Tiberini, Artot, Sophie Loewe, will spring to the mind of everyone. Lamperti's name can never die while vocal art is one of the factors of human enjoyment, an element in the grand sum total of esthetics that make life worth living. He died April, 1892.

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