Letters to Emi

There is a lot to be learned from letters from the past for those with ears to hear. Two such letters appear below. They were written from Pauline Viardot-Garcia to Emi de Bidoli, and are included in the latter's memoir Reminiscences of a Vocal Teacher (1946). Though undated, I believe they were written during the 1890's.

Pauline Viardot-García (1821-1910) 

The first letter is notable for what it tells the student and voice teacher regarding daily practice. Viardot-Garcia's students began with breathing exercises, then sustained notes in chest (that should make some heads spin), then high notes 'very softly' and with 'no effort' (head voice), then exercises of progressive difficulty. Simple enough, right? Now. Have you looked at Viardot-Garcia's exercise book? Not for the the faint of heart.

My dear child,
Thank you for having sent me such a nice letter. But you only tell me about your poor mother and don't mention yourself. How do you like the change of climate and life, habits, food, direction of thoughts and so many other things? Did you take up your daily practice? Has your mother heard you? What did she say? Is she satisfied with your improvements? 
When you take up your studies, start with breathing exercises, first of all. Then some sustaining notes in chest until MI, not any higher. The high notes very softly and without effort. Then take some little exercises to the 4th, 8th, and 10th. Use as much as possible my little book, "An Hour of Study," which is my best representative. I will not leave Paris before the middle of August.
Give my best regards to your dear mother. 
I embrace you very affectionately. 
Pauline Viardot

The letter below hints at something that was considered de rigueur during De Bidoli's day. And it is this: students of the Old Italian School were kept on vocal exercises to develop technique for an extended period before they were allowed to study repertoire. In most cases, this period lasted for at least a year, if not more. Can you imagine this being done at any conservatory today?

Viardot-Garcia also reveals the qualities she prizes: voices that are light and supple, clear and pure (are you remembering my previous post?).

My dear Emi, 
Come back to me as soon as you can. I'll make you work very hard. You have to prepare a nice repertoire. It would be too bad to drop your work just now when you are two steps from "trés bien." Take care of your voice, because such pure and clear qualities are becoming more and more rare. In singing so much modern music, people think it is not necessary anymore to make the voice supple and light- and how wrong they are. They don't realize that the more the voice is agile, the more it gains in volume and the better a person can sing expressively and sustained- and the less the voice becomes tired. This is true even in singing modern music, which is often very beautiful, but almost always fatal to the voice. 
Write me as soon as possible, my dear Emi, and receive my best wishes for yourself and your dear ones.
Pauline Viardot

And what was the modern music Viardot-Garcia warned about? I am betting they were composers like Faure and Debussy, and I will lay double odds on those like Mascagni. Modern composers aside, there is no doubt in my mind that Viardot-Garcia did indeed work her students very hard. After all, Emi de Bidoli was not one step from trés bien, but two.


Arachne said…
I've been using "An Hour of Study" since last December when I first discovered it. (I blogged about this book on http://bonne-chanson.blogspot.com/2010/12/hour-of-study.html). I can thoroughly recommend it as an antidote to all that Fauré and Debussy! Both of these composers in their late periods seemed to contain the voice within a fairly restricted envelope. Viardot's exercises are great for restoring range and freedom of movement. I would love to read De Bidoli's book of reminiscences, but I can't trace it.
VoiceTalk said…
You can find 'Reminiscences' at the LIbrary of Congress. Their website has directions for obtaining a copy on the photoduplication page.
Arachne said…
Ah, what a shame it has not been digitized. Maybe it will one day.
VoiceTalk said…
I understand your concern. Ordering a copy from the LOC website is how I obtained a copy of the book, in fact, MANY books for the years. It is a remarkable resource. The fee for was around $35.00 if I remember correctly.
Anonymous said…
I study with a teacher who follows this method and, yes, repertoire is only hinted at in the beginning. It's all exercises, exercises, exercises. And then more exercises to make the transition from vocalizing to singing text.

Do you know why this approach of postponing repertoire has fallen into disfavor? Is it simply impatience?
Impatience is one way to look at it. The current conservatory system which places a great deal of attention on repertoire is another.