April 27, 2011

Frederic W. Root & Manuel Garcia

Just when you think you've reached the bottom of the barrel in terms of research on any given subject, you can be surprised by new and nuanced information. Such is the case regarding a post I wrote earlier this year which featured an interview Frederic W. Root gave on the teachings of Manuel Garcia (see here). As it happens, recent research has turned up an article written nineteen years after Root's first remarks which further clarifies Garcia's teachings on the voice. Taken from Root's original notes, it makes for fascinating reading.

As in the earlier article, Root discusses various voice teachers methods, in this case, using initials to somewhat obscure their identity (the canny reader, however, will be able to identify Vannuccini, Delle Sedie and San Giovanni). However, in writing about the great maestro's teaching, he gives credit where credit is due. Here's what Root reveals from his notebook.

Signor Manuel Garcia knew Del Sarte and said that he sang with great expression. He told us this anecdote regarding him. He had sung before King Louis Phillipe and the king while complimenting him on his work expressed regret that he should sing when he had so bad a cold. It was not a cold however: the voice was habitually veiled. He was more successful with pupils than with himself; among these were Songtag, Rachel and Macready. 
As we have just alluded to Manuel Garcia we will not attempt to veil his personality with initials as we transcribe some notes concerning him. That which struck the present writer most forcibly in interviews with this ninety-year-old singing teacher who had for three-quarters of a century known intimately all the great singers of the world was this: one who really understands the voice finds that the culture of it is a very simple matter; slow it may be, but, so far as the physical organization is concerned, a matter of definite and certain procedure. 
Signor Garcia did not employ the common but utterly unscientific term "tone-placing," and had no use for the talk of sensations of tone high in the head. He explained his position by saying that all tone is made at the glottis and then comes out the mouth. Sensation of tone is an effect; he preferred to deal with causes. 
He would not allow gripping or tension for the sake of breath management except as a passage requires tense muscles to give it effect. He described the process of inhalation as a little swelling out of the abdomen, then a rounding out of the ribs and then - (as the upper chest coöperates?) - a slight drawing in of the abdomen. Economize the breath as it is used, by drawing it into the lungs. Regarding registers, he assigned to them the boundaries that are now generally accepted for chest, medium and head. He did not like those terms but said they would suffice. (His first published work gave chest up to A and medium up to F). He would never direct to raise or lower larynx or palate; when he wanted those things he asked for clear or sombre expression, or told the pupil to round the tone. Then the actions took place of themselves. Signor Garcia believed that the process of tone-production should be divested of all ideas but those pertaining solely to lungs, larynx and pharynx (and mouth - the sound-tube?). He said "study nature and avoid theories except where a lot of facts combine." 
As to whether the voice was a wind or string instrument he simply played the scale with his lips, regulating their vibration as does the cornet player, assisting the operation by holding the corners of the mouth with his fingers thus shortening the vibrating length of the lips; this to illustrate the action of the vocal cords. 
From Observations on Voice Study in Europe by Frederic Woodman Root, The Etude, June 1, 1913, p. 435.

What strikes me as most important about this article? Manuel Garcia concerned himself with the cause of sensation and not sensation itself. In other words, he didn't get the cart before the horse. Another matter is that, rather than having the student control the vocal mechanism directly, he steered the student's attention to quality of tone. In other words, he taught his students to listen.

What then, is one to make of the assertion by Garcia's student Frank Herbert Tubbs that the Garcia School (the teaching of Pauline Viardot-Garcia's students Anna E. Schoen-René and Emi de Bidoli as well as Manuel Garcia's student Herman Klein should not be forgotten here) concerned itself with 'tone-placement'? My theory? Garcia recognized that sensations of tone-placement were a result of the interplay between breath management, closure of the glottis, and the rounding of the pharynx.

April 26, 2011

The Best Teacher

It is a remarkable statement, but, nevertheless, true, that all the investigations of the modern scientists, aided by the laryngoscope, did not yield any other results than a confirmation of the correctness of the principles adopted and taught by the old Italian masters. Not knowing anything about the anatomy of the throat or the laryngoscope, which is a modern invention, they were enabled by superior intelligence, a refined sense of beauty, aided and supported by an infallible ear. Mme. Lilli Lehmann, of world-wide reputation, said to me: "The ear is the best existing teacher." And if one thinks it over for a minute, by means of what else but the ear does the teacher judge the student's faults or virtues? Therefore, let the student learn to listen to himself from the very beginning. He or she should not glue his or her eyes to the teacher's face, trying to read his thoughts, but should endeavor to hear him—or herself, and educate the ear by comparing personal impressions with those made of the teacher. 

From The Etude, January 1, 1914

April 21, 2011

Luigi Lablache: The King of Basses

He had thirteen children, excelled in dramatic and comedic roles, played the double bass, was considered a vocal giant during his lifetime, epitomized all things bel canto, loved a good prank, wrote an important book on singing, taught Queen Victoria for two decades, and had Stewart Granger as a great-great-grandson. Needless to say, I am fascinated with Luigi Lablache. Fortunately, another direct descent - Clarissa Lablache Cheer - has written the first English language biography of the great bass. Titled The Great Lablache: Nineteen Century Superstar: His Life and His Times (2009), it looks like a good read, that is, if the link is any indication. An on-demand book, I've ordered my copy from Abebooks.

Luigi Lablache

Clarissa Lablache Cheer includes a famous story of the great bass which shows his fondness for mischief. 

Once, Lablache was staying in the same apartment house in Paris, no. 16 Rue Taibout, on the first floor, as the P.T. Barnum's famous attraction General Tom Thumb. Billed as "the smallest man in the world." One of the General's fans, an Englishman, sought an audience with this curious celebrity, and made the mistake of asking Berlioz for assistance. Offended that the Briton assumed there was some sort of confraternity of musicians and freaks, Berlioz gave the man the address of Lablache's suite. When the giant Lablache opened the door, his visitor was so startled he could hardly speak. "I ... I was calling on ...Le General Tom Thumb. Monsieur Berlioz sent me here." "Yes," said Lablache calmly, "Yes, I am Tom Thumb," he replied poker faced and smiling. "But ... excuse me ... Tom Thumb is the smallest man in the world!" "Yes," agreed Lablache, "in public, of course. But, you should know Monsieur! When I'm at home, I make myself comfortable." 

The king of basses died at the age of sixty-four with nary a bad review, having learning the art of singing from Mme. Mericoffre, or as she was know in Italy,  La Cottellini.

April 17, 2011

American Bel Canto

Without public school music programs far fewer singers would end up learning the art of bel canto. And if that sounds like an exaggeration, you might consider that most singers in America find their voices, that is, get the bug for singing, in high school when they sing beautiful choral music. It's where the foundation for a career begins, where one is often first noticed as having a voice, where one learns how to learn and decides that- yes- I want singing to be my life. Maybe even operatic singing. And all because of great music and music making. Heck. I was one of those kids. And if you talk to a lot of singers they will tell you the same thing. Music education matters! So it is very disturbing to read that states like Pennsylvania are poised on making severe cuts in arts education. 

Below is a setting of James Agee's poem Sure on this shining night. The composer is Morten Lauridsen, who, in the words of one musicologist is "the only American composer in history who can be called a mystic, (whose) probing, serene work contains an elusive and indefinable ingredient which leaves the impression that all questions have been answered." Be it serene and elusive, it is also - practically speaking- the kind of work that would have inspired me to sing had it been written when I was a teenager. Instead, I had great works like Randall Thompson's Alleluia, Faure's Requiem, and Victoria's O Magnum Mysterium. No one, however, is going to singing this music if there isn't adequate funding to music education. Beautiful music, beautiful melodies wedded to beautiful poetry, and beautiful singing can't flourish in a vacuum.

James Agee

Sure on this shining night
Of star-made shadows round
Kindness must watch for me
This side the ground

The late year lies down the north,
All is healed, all is health
High summer holds the earth,
Hearts all whole

Sure on this shining night
I weep for wonder
Wandr’ing far alone
Of shadows on the stars.

James Agee (1909-1955) - “Description of Elysium”, from Permit Me Voyage, stanzas 6-8, 1934

You can hear more of Morten Lauridsen's music here, and read an excellent interview with the composer here. In the latter, Lauridsen makes his own plea for music education.

When I was younger, music was part and parcel of the education in the public schools. I was educated in the public schools in Portland, Oregon, and they had a tremendous music program there — chorus, band, orchestra. As we know, there have been major league cutbacks, and so a lot of this education has fallen to the private teacher. I think for audiences, one thing that you can do is to go back to your school boards and demand that they reinstate music education at a lower level. I really think some of the heroes of our time are those music educators in our elementary and secondary schools that are underpaid and overworked and are doing everything they can to enrich the students that they have to the beauties of music, whether through teaching music appreciation courses or conducting various kinds of ensembles. It’s a tough business for them and I publicly salute what they do. So one thing that audiences can do is after you go to a concert and feel yourself elevated, do what you can through bond issues and through your local schools, to make sure that you have a strong music program in your school. My sons all had that in schools in Los Angeles and I'm very, very thankful for that. They’re all three fine pianists, all three fine string instrument players. But, it’s a fight. You can’t be complacent on this.

To lend your voice in stopping devastating cuts to Pennsylvania's budget for education funding please go here.

Need I say it's kinda personal? I grew up just south of Pittsburgh, in a steel town called Mckeesport. And my best friend who teaches elementary music in public schools near there could lose his job.  

April 15, 2011

Breath & Brains

How did the teachers of the Old Italian method think? That's been one of my major preoccupations. If you read enough historical sources, you learn something about their assumptions. Take the following article, which appeared in Werner's Magazine in 1898. A record of an address given by Giulia Valda on Francesco Lamperti's teaching, it suggests that the great maestro taught that the diaphragm goes up on inhalation. Of course, modern science has revealed the complete opposite to be true. This tells us that Lamperti taught a sensation of the breath rather than anatomy. 

Mme. Giulia Valda's paper on the "Method of Francesco Lamperti" was received with the respect and attention due to such a master. In the main these were her words:
"Bending his ear the closest to nature's mode, to the tone-bloom from the throats of the birds, Francesco Lamperti learned his secret for successful song. Bending his ear the closest to the artless art of the king of instruments, he determined to make the voice like the violin, the instrument that is closest of blood to the bird. Lamperti's method was based on one interwoven principle: Breath and brains.
"Francesco Lamperti was the last exponent of the old Italian school. He was the confrere of Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti. Often in their hours of comradeship and communion, Lamperti dictated right imperiously to those masters of composition: 'You must get such and such intervals in, or you can not get the pure violin quality in the voice.'
For twenty-eight years Lamperti was the president of the Conservatory of Milan, which was supported by the government. Lamperti preferred to instruct the pupils of this conservatory, because, said he,' they are bound to do as I say.'
"The roll-call of the illustrious names that studied under him comprised such singers as Albani, Sembrich, Valeria, Stolz, Waldman, La Grange, Artot, Paganini, the Van Zandts (mother and daughter), Collini, Galassi, Campanini, Bispham, and many others.
"Campanini was second tenor in an insignificant position outside of Milan. A baritone pupil of Lamperti was singing with the company. He came to the maestro and said: 'There's a great voice in our company. You would make a good tenor of him.'
"'Bring him along,' answered Lamperti. The maestro taught him gratuitously; and Campanini made his debut at La Scala.
''Now, what was 'the system of teaching' and 'the true art of singing', which these great names of the lyric stage and in musical composition so enthusiastically recommended above all others? His idea was first, to follow the golden-throated little birds, in their natural tone-idea; second, to give to the human voice the tonal ladder of the violin, and, therefore, its brotherhood with the birds.
"Do you realize why the violin is called the 'king of instruments?' The violin gives the enharmonic scale,— that Greek musical scale whose intervals were quarter tones and major thirds. Our diatonic scale proceeding by tones gives only the seven tones; our chromatic scale proceeding by semitones, the twelve tones. But the enharmonic gives that Greek musical scale that gave thirty-six tones in the scale. To illustrate: On our piano we play C major. That C is also the home of D double flat and B sharp. We hear only one tone struck for these notes. The enharmonic scale, which the violin produces, gives us each of these tones separate and individual.
"This, first, is the violin-voice of the Lamperti method. It will give the whole shading or color of the old Greek enharmonic scale, which shook the soul of the antique world, agaze upon Homer's lips, or as it listened to the silver flutings of Sappho.
"Second, the violin is what is called legato singing, which means combining and uniting tone without slurring. In hearing the violin, your ear seems to pass from one note to another with no division or hiatus, as it were.
"Without the Lamperti method, the voice chops along like your downcast remembrances of the English Channel! Verily, if an inhabitant of Mars should encounter many of the present 'tone-methods,' he would sadly be persuaded that in these convulsive emissions of tone he was listening to abdominal pain and not to abdominal power.
"'Don't shout and bellow,' said Lamperti, 'but fill my rooms with tone.'
"Lamperti had a great idea of the true art of tone-production. How did he accomplish it? As Plato wrote in golden letters over the entrance to the akademeia at Athens, where he would teach the philosophy of the soul: 'He who knoweth not geometry, let him not enter here,' so Lamperti wrote over the entrance to the school where he would teach the philosophy of tone production: 'He who will not learn how to breathe, let him not enter here.'
"Lamperti applied the truth of the old Vedantic philosophy: 'The spirit is the rider, the body is the car,' by saying: 'The breath is the car on which the tone, the master, travels.' Yes, and deeper still, Lamperti said: 'It is true you must have breath, yes, breath.'
"But that is, after all, only a mechanical process. You must have brains, too,—breath and brains, the two factors which, when multiplied together, produce the given quantity and quality of tone. 
"'Voice, voice, voice alone," cry musical theorists, and their cry is a false one. Of course, there must be the God-given quality of tone, the feu sacre of temperament. But, in the human, the God-gift has to be guided, developed, unlike the birds, the untutored tribe that mate their notes with heaven. So 'Voice, voice, voice alone' will not do. Breath and brains have to supplement it. 
"Lamperti's idea was the management of the breath. Breath is the guiding-star. Not one person in a thousand knows how to breathe. Believe me, it is true. If the lungs were stretched out to their full capacity, we should have miles of breath. Do you realize it? Now, what moves the breath? The use of the diaphragm. I want to write this in capital letters upon your consciousness. It is abdominal breathing alone.' He who knows how to breathe well knows how to sing well,' said Lamperti. It is the use of the diaphragm.
"Said Rossini: 'Whoever sings in the Italian way sings all his life long."
"In truth,' said Lamperti, 'in former days people succeeded in attaining that ideal song which, as Dante says, '' touches the soul."' Of such is the kingdom of Sappho, of Sophocles, of Shakespeare; for singing is but an extension of speaking. You can not support notes that express rage, irony, hate, or love, as the masters supported them, but by the natural respiration on which Lamperti insisted. Breathe from the diaphragm.
"After placing the voice on a level by breathing from the diaphragm, then you sing on your level. The mouth, the trachea, are simply a well through which the tone comes. Raise the diaphragm, by commencing to breathe, filling the lungs; the tone departs and the tone grows. The headtones take care of themselves. I take my breath correctly, and then I sing on that platform. Begin the tones on that breath, crescendo, diminuendo, and take another breath. Be careful not to force the wrong muscles of the diaphragm. In doing that, pupils injure themselves, when, instead of inflating the lungs by drawing up the diaphragm, they inflate the lungs and push the diaphragm out. Therefore, they tire the muscles of the diaphragm. I use the natural method of breathing: As low as possible, from the abdomen. If you watch a baby, you will find one of the most natural forms of breathing. Other forms of breathing shove the glottis.
"Attach the breath to the diaphragm. You must control breath and tone."
"If you are going to sing, you must have breath and brains. You must have brains. The mind holds on to the breath. Concentrate the tone. You must think of your tone as climbing a ladder. You must think of it as descending a ladder. Your breath is the ladder. The rungs are the tones.
"Our maestro's conception from melodious Italy, from the very heart of its lily upon the Arno, is the florescence of the tone-world of the human voice."

From Werner's Magazine: a Magazine of Expression, August, 1898

April 12, 2011

Edwin Crossley-Mercer

A twenty-nine year old lyric baritone with a beautiful voice, handsome countenance and abundant stage presence, Edwin Crossley-Mercer is making his mark in Europe having already sung a 'sublime' Wintereise recital at the Museé d'Orsay, and the Harlequin in Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos with the Opéra de Paris.

Originally trained as a clarinetist, Crossley-Mercer sings long lines with 'the beauty and line of a wind player.' His technical resources? They are remarkable as evidenced in his excellent diction, beautiful mezza voce and full 'open throat,' three key things that were expected from great singers of the past. The only place where he seems to be uncomfortable is in singing forte at the very top, where, as my teacher would say, "the voice turns over." That said, he keeps the voice fully vibrating, which is what many recitalists neglect in the desire to be expressive. Their quasi-falsetto crooning is deplored by old-timers who believe that full even tone at every dynamic level is a feature of the Old Italian School.

The recital below of French Mélodie was recorded at the Academic Capella Saint Petersburg with Simjon Skigin at the piano in July 2010. My favorite piece? Les chemin de l'amour. A song that has been imprinted in the mind as that for a soprano, Crossley-Mercer makes it his own. (Note: May 11th, 2011: since the original video is now unavailable, I have replaced with one that features only one song from the recital.)

I look forward to hearing him in New York soon, both as a recitalist and on the operatic stage.

One last matter comes to mind from the historical part of my brain. Is Mr. Crossley-Mercer related to Ada Crossley, who studied with Mathilde Marchesi? Now that would be interesting.

April 11, 2011

Anna Russell's Ring

One of the first memorable voices I heard as a kid was Anna Russell singing the role of the Witch on a recording of Hansel and Gretel. Scary stuff! Her voice was big, brash and penetrating. And the dialogue was funny and terrifying- perfect for a wicked witch. Fast forward two decades to the summer of 1985, and there I was, sitting in the McCarter Theater in Princeton listening to her Farewell Concert. I laughed so hard it hurt. What had happened to the Witch on the record? She had become a beloved comedienne in the style of Victor Borge.

Anna Russell hamming it up as Brunhilde

Anna Russell studied piano and voice quite seriously as a young woman before finding her niche in hilarious send-ups of classical music and musicians. A first-rate musician herself, Russell displays considerable skill as a vocalist and pianist in her legendary explanation of Wagner's Ring below. More Can Belto than Bel Canto, she makes me smile and remember a time when being an elitist wasn't a pejorative. You had to know something to both get and make the joke.  

For those who want to create there own merriment, there is The Anna Russell Songbook, the introduction of which reveals that Russell's father frequented Adelina Patti's company by virtue of a well-heeled aunt. Gems such as "Je n'ai pas la Plume de man Tante" and "Jolly Old Sigmund Freud" beg to be performed.  

The Ring Part 1

The Ring Part 2

The Ring Part 3

April 10, 2011

Flagstad's Twitch

Have you heard it? That is, the radio address Kirsten Flagstad made in 1950 on singing Wagner? It popped up on a friend's Facebook status line this past week, and in listening to it, I found myself remembering the teaching of Margaret Harshaw who sang with the Norwegian soprano as a mezzo before ascending to dramatic soprano territory herself. The essence of their advice? The low range must be produced in the correct way before the high range is attempted, you really shouldn't be singing Wagner before your mid to late thirties, and you have to have great strength to sing vocal lines that are declamatory in nature. Acquiring this strength? The process is like that of the weight lifter who slowly adds pounds over a long period of time.

The idea of slowly adding weight reminded me of a sports physiology article on fast twitch and slow twitch muscle fibers that, as a matter of course, had me wondering if declamatory singing entailed a greater number of slow twitch fibers in the singer's body. Why slow and not fast twitch fibers? The former are associated with endurance activities, and singing Wagner, as Birgit Nilsson remarked, entails having a good pair of shoes! (I should note that while Flagstad uses weight lifting as a metaphor for heavy singing, the weight lifter is actually training fast twitch muscle fibers.) Endurance extends to the vocal tract, which is lengthened in declamatory singing (Manuel Garcia called this disposition 'voix sombre'), a conformation that can be as difficult to sustain as it is easily abused. At least the old pedagogues thought so. (They also thought only certain voices were fitted for Wagner.) Assuming this is true, do forty-five year old Wagnerian singers have more slow twitch fibers than thirty year olds? Are they born with them? And can singers acquire slow fibers like the marathon runner, who slowly adds miles to his training? (Lilli Lehmann's vocal metamorphosis comes to mind in this regard.)

All this pondering leaves me with one last question: what kind of twitch did Flagstad have? 

April 5, 2011

I Have Dreamed

Nancy LaMott was one of those singers who had to sing no matter what. And it's this very quality, this 'I-must-do-this' aspect that is the dividing line, I believe, between those who ultimately become singers and those who make a half-hearted stab at it here and there, and then wonder why the universe hasn't delivered on their dream.

Speaking of which, there is a very interesting book that is as sobering as it is inspiring regarding the attaining of one's dream of being a singer. Titled Talent is Overrated, it reveals that it takes, on average, a decade of unremitting practice to acquire self-mastery in any chosen field. This brings to mind the 18th & 19th century vocal pedagogue who maintained that it took about a decade to master one's art (succeeding generations have been in a hurry to shorten the time frame). Nancy LaMott? She paid her dues and then some. At a time when popular singing seems to be about vocal and emotional pyrotechnics, her long-nurtured art reminds us that real beauty lies in simplicity.

Listen to her dream here.

April 1, 2011

Jenny Lind's Hat Full of Pearls

Luigi Lablache

Jenny Lind reached London in April, 1847, and soon began her rehearsals at the Queen's Theatre. When her voice was first heard in that spacious edifice at a rehearsal, no one was so enchanted as Lablasche, the celebrated basso.

"Every note," he exclaimed, "is like a pearl."

She was pleased with the simile, and when they had become better acquainted, she reminded him of it in a very agreeable manner. She came up to him one morning at rehearsal, and said to him:—

"Will you do me the favor, Signor Lablasche, to lend me your hat?"

Much surprised, he nevertheless handed her his hat, which she took with a deep courtesy, and, tripping away with it to the back part of the stage, began to sing an air into it. She then brought back the hat to Lablasche, and, ordering that portly personage to kneel, she returned it to him with the remark:—

"I have made you a rich man, signor, for I have given you a hat full of pearls!"

Everything a favorite does seems graceful and pleasant. This trifling act delighted the whole company. 

—From Entertaining Anecdotes From Every Available Source, edited by James Baird McClure, 1879

The 'Lablasche' in this story is none other than Luigi Lablache, the legendary basso who's voice was as imposing as his physique.