Charles Lunn: Birds & Bel Canto

Charles Lunn: Three Views on Him: By Himself, By a Journalist, And By a Pupil

 I. By Himself

I have been asked to give a brief autobiography for Werner's Voice magazine. It is not pleasant to write of one's self, but perhaps a few statements of facts may go to explain much that otherwise may seem eccentric or bizarre in my past career; and, what is of more importance, tend to strengthen the artistic truths I have been privileged to defend.

I never remember the time that I did not try to sing—I sang before I spoke. Born Jan. 15, 1838, and possessing an exceptionally feeble constitution, my earliest years were passed in indolence and suffering, and much of my life amongst country relatives at a time when the vale of Everham teemed with the glories of ornithological display. There are cardinal l points in life which, apparently trivial at the time, are found, on a retrospect, to have been starting-points on which the superstructure of after years rests. Such a one was my mother's birthday gift to me 1849—“ was Mrs. Barbauld’s “Evenings at Home." The story "Eyes or No Eyes, or the Art of Seeing," gave me my first conscious awakening and turned me away from men and their teaching to nature and to God. By the age of 15 I had learned to know by flight, voice or feather, every ordinary bird in England, and I have now in my possession close on a hundred drawings drawn and painted by myself from the real things. I suppose my illnesses must have made me somewhat wayward and decidedly contemplative. I remember resisting all attempts to make me join a choir, as I had watched the recession of boys' voices and their trainers, so different from my wild teachers, the birds. I knew afterward that much of what is called "breaking " in a boy’s voice is the result of a struggle in nature to undo at puberty the effect of the erroneous teaching of ignorant but accomplished musicians. My own voice never broke, but went down gradually.

Fortunately, my eldest brother, the Rev. I. R. Lunn B. D., a fourth wrangler, was so clever a musician that I was never allowed to learn, not having ability enough. Thus I escaped the corrupting influence of a fabricated tempered scale. As regards literature, I read with an insatiable for everything I could get hold of.

As the age of 16 I lost my mother when I most needed her. My time then was spent in very hard and long work as a factor’s apprentice, my recreation being skinning, stuffing and dissecting birds and other animals, going to concerts and practicing in a Choral Society,  “The Amateur Harmonic.” Sim Reeves was my model and idol, and stood alone, outside and above all others, and I always heard him when I could. He had the “ars celare artea” far and a long way above all others. My boyhood instinct, then, is endorsed by my manhood’s knowledge. Reeves was the most natural of singers. As a young man I had what people were please to call “a sweet tenor voice.” In other words, a voice valueless for a public career. My father would then have willingly paid for instruction; but, although we had many “professors" in Birmingham, I always said: "How can they teach what they have never learned?" One of them was never wearied of expatiating on "the greatness of the old school, and what a pity it was that it was lost;" and he so fired my boyhood's enthusiasm and stimulated my artistic love that I said to myself: “If you want to know anything about it, why not go and learn? Find a man who knows!" In 1859 my mind was made up; and, although I knew my father would not consent to my going, I was equally sure he would not let me starve. I went to Italy, March. 1860. When I got there I found my voice of no use for a public career; but I determined to make or break it. My two first masters were valueless. I saw they had no principles on which they worked. Fortunately, after about two months, I was introduced to Cataneo, old and deaf then, but a perfect master of the truest school; taciturn, short-tempered, and ignorant of why or wherefore he was not a popular man. Many a time I have sat by his side at La Scala, and only heard, perhaps, two sentences, and "bella voce," “canta bene;" and the last never came until the slowest cantabile piece occurred such as "Ah non credeo" in “Somnambula."

I had the honor of singing in a concert at La Scala. July 9, 1862, but failed from stage fright. In 1861 a brother died consumptive, and I got inflammation of the lungs in the winter of 1862—3, which necessitated throwing up a small engagement for “Lucrezia Borgia" and "Faust." I subsequently paid for lessons of Sig. Vironi and Sig. Sangiovanni; but I do not consider I learned anything of value from them, and I know I learned some things that are false. I never recognized them as voice-trainers or good singing-masters at all, although it is but right to acknowledge that Sig. Vironi had the reputation for getting good top "closed" notes; and the late I. B. Velch did not learn the “voce chiasa" from his trainer Sig. Nava, but learned it in my presence from Mr. Frank Dalgnen (a teacher at Brighton), who had learned it of Sig. Vironi. Mr. Stanley sang tenor with the ventriloquist Mr. Fred Maccabe in a Liverpool chorus, and must have gone to Nava with the upper notes rightly set. In justice to Sig. Sangiovanni, I may say that he is a most accomplished musician and accompanist, and a very affable gentleman; and, I believe, he does not profess to train voices up to give style; but his style is not pure enough for me.

I returned to England, August 1863.

Charles Lunn.

Mr. Lunn, in addition to the foregoing autobiographical sketch, has sent us an article that appeared in the Birmingham Times, July 24, 1889. In a note accompanying it he says: “Perhaps the enclosed humorous sketch from an independent pen may serve you. Some of the sketches have been very severe and even malicious, so I consider was let off very quietly . . . . .. People have always said; ‘Mr. Lunn is independent of his profession.’ They could not understand a man being true to his conscience and his God, and just to his fellow-men, without having a balance at his banker's! I am running a race with death, and I fear my mission will not be fulfilled in time. My red face is heart disease.

The extracts from the Birmingham Time: are as follow:

By a Journalist.

"Oh, have you heard tell of the great Charley Lunn, as tall as a lamp post, as fierce as a Hun, in the musical world such a very big gun, that he ought to be living in fashionable Lon-don, the city where all the prizes are won, and men of ‘first chop' are ‘taking the bun' (sometimes it’s described as the gay Sally Lunn). For he is the teacher your glottis to stun, and make it evolve, shake, crescendo and run, till every manjack of the arrogant pun-dits are yellow with envy and ready to run, just as if they were swiftly pursued by a dun. Yes, he is the fellow for frolic and fun, with his fine upper A's and his top G‘s well done, and sweet little tremolos shy as a nun, and basso profondos as ‘full' as a tun of good Spanish liquor that basks in the sun! Our rhymes being exhausted, our story is spun—and therefore we quit Parnassus and come down to the dull, dreary level of humdrum prose.

"Mr. Charles Lunn is a well-known figure—indeed a familiar 'character' in Birmingham. You may often see him sunning himself in New street on a fine day—with his great apple-checked face glowing like a polished disc of copper, and his drab ‘ spats' calling ungenerous attention to the massiveness of his ‘understanding.’ You cannot possibly mistake him for anyone else. There is not another such a ruddy, rustic countenance to be met with, except during the 'cattle show' week, when the great comfortable squires come up from their prospering acres. His healthy face surmounts a tall, substantial body, just a little bent perhaps, but with plenty of solidity about it, and a splendid capacity for slowly ponderous not to say indolent movement.

“Mr. Lunn bears a striking resemblance to that historical gentleman who 'sat by a murmuring stream' and of whom it was touchingly remarked that ‘on the top of his head was his hair; on the top of his hair was his hat.’ Some people might demur to it being called a-hat. They would prefer to designate it a chimney-pot. Beyond doubt it is an extraordinary piece of furniture, or, to be more strictly accurate, article of attire. It is fearfully and wonderfully made. It is like nothing in the heavens above, not on the earth beneath, nor in the waters that are under the earth. Eye hath not seen its counterpart; nor probably does eye want to. At all events we don't, if 'eye' does. Its sides converge toward the crown as if they had at first intended to meet in an apex, but, thinking better of it, or being short of material, had prudently stopped on the way. What, therefore, we are presented with is two-thirds of a shiny, black sugar-loaf, furnished with a brim. It illustrates to perfection the simplest of the conic sections. The hat and the spatterdashes combined give to Mr. Lunn quite a professional air, which, taken in conjunction with that radiant bucolic face, and the squirearchical dignity of his spectacles, is somewhat puzzling and contradictory.

"Nobody in the world would guess Mr. Lunn at sight, to be the great Panjandrum of the Voice, or the Patent Double-Barreled Eclipse Voiceproducer; nor would they be anymore likely to do so if they heard him talk, for his conversational speech is thin, not to say piping in its tones, and in moments of excitement and surprise it sometimes verges on shrillness. Voice-production is, nevertheless, Mr. Lunn’s forte; that is, voice-production in other people. It is his particular business, and nobody else knows anything about it. Other musical teachers may fancy they do, but they don’t. Mr. Lunn says so, and Mr. Lunn is not the sort of man to be contradicted either with impunity or advantage. The science of voice-modulation is his monopoly. He is the sole privileged possessor of the magic secret by which sweet and powerful tenors, dulcet Sopranos, and deep, sonorous bassi are evolved out of the most unpromising materials.

“Be your voice as hoarse as a raven's or as shrill as a red Indian’s war cry, you have only to go to Mr. Lunn, and he'll transmute it into the sweetest music, and you will trip through life like another Arion, making the very paving-stones leap up and dance to your melodious warbling. [How it's done we don't profess to understand. Nevertheless, we are true, unwavering disciples. No matter how it's done, it is done.]

“Mr. Lunn knows all about the false theories of the Germans, and the fall of the Italian school, about the coup de glotte pizzicato action, crescendos, diminuendos, and 'the corrupting influence of excessive adulteration by redundant breath.’ He has delivered lectures about it, and written reams about it, and made speeches about it. In season and out of season he has been like one ‘crying in the wilderness;' for the silly world scoffed when he flung the pearl of truth before it, and the rival professors turned up their haughty noses, and shrugged their professorial shoulders. But if Mr. Lunn be mad on this question of scientific voice-production there's a good deal of method in his madness. Many people who once derided him and his theories have come round to the condition of almost fanatical belief. Great vocalists have avowed their conviction that his method is right, and that the pseudo-scientific methods of Germans and Italians are wrong.

“Mr. Lunn cannot, any more than other teachers. make a silk purse out of a sow's ear; but he claims to be able to change something that would otherwise be a grunt into a sound of such ‘divine, enchanting ravishment,’ that it might—he does not say that it would—‘create a soul under the ribs of death ' Now, all you young dukesses and duchesses, and budding little Sims Reeveses, and Signor Brocolini Curleygreeni Brusselosproutinis, if you want to earn your fifty guineas a night and sing in Italian opera in the most perfect of soft Tuscan tones, and ‘bring the house down' with your C’s in alt, and other alphabetical skyrocketings, just bear in mind that Mr. Lunn is your man. Scores of his pupils, with only very mediocre natural gifts, have been enabled by his sound and sensible methods to sing with grace, expression, and highly pleasing results; and you who possess choice and particular talents, fly on Mercury's winged feet and have them regulated and utilized before it is too late, and your glottis has grown obstinate in bad method.

“Mr. Lunn is tough and stubborn in contention. He has a logical mind, and a clear and vigorous way of expressing himself. A genial and honest man, too; simple in his tastes, perfectly candid in his likes and dislikes, a hard hitter but a genuine friend, and quite singularly unique in these days of disordered livers in his ability to drink sherry without being made bilious thereby. There may be some of the orthodox musical cult who mock at and deride him and pooh-pooh his theories; but an hour's conversation with him on subjects social, political, literary, or artistic, will convince anyone that, in spite of a little faddiness and an opinionated manner, he is a man of robust intelligence and clear views."

By a Pupil.

Mr. Lunn has an honest, kind, firm and jovial face. His manner is very abrupt and rather impetuous. When speaking of matters pertaining to his profession one would conclude that he is very conceited, as well as pedantic; but on further acquaintance what was considered conceit and pedantry, is found to be merely the free expression of his convictions,—Of the truth, and of the simplicity and reasonableness of his method of voice-training. Instead of attempting to keep his method to himself, he emphatically declares that he has no method of his own, but that he simply teaches what he himself has been taught by Cataneo.

At my first lesson Mr. Lunn proceeded to explain and demonstrate how artistic voice should be produced. He also gave examples of voiceproduction according to several "scientific" methods, clearly showing how the practice of them never could result in producing artistic tones of equal and full power. I worked upward from C, first line below staff, treble clef, to F, first space, treble clef, downward from C, third space, treble clef, to F3. first space, treble clef. The next lesson I worked in the same way, only substituting semi-tones for the full intervals. Of course, the principal object all along was to set my voice; this being all I had time for, as I wished to apply the principles of voice-production particularly to elocution. Mr. Lunn says that only by true voicing, intelligent and regular practice for several years will a voice be developed to beauty, power and compass; and then, of course, in proportion to the quality, flexibility and compass of the natural or untrained voice. My voice and the manner of producing it improved perceptibly with each lesson.

Mr. Lunn is preëmminently a teacher. In the first place, unlike many so-called professors of voice-culture, he has something to teach, and has the faculty of imparting his knowledge to others. This he accomplishes in various ways; as, for instance, by practical demonstrations of the right way and of the wrong way of doing a thing. Then, again, he uses a number of simple examples; for instance: “The beauty of tone depends upon imprisoned air." In making this clear he said: “The wind that cannot get through the canvas of the sail is what propels the ship. The steam that cannot get out of the locomotive is what propels it. If you put a number of weights in a row and lift one after another, and finally come to one which, to all appearances, is the same as the rest, but is made of paper—well, you simply fall over on lifting it.

In teaching, Mr. Lunn uses no technical terms. Instead of saying as most teachers would, “elevate the uvula, relax the pharynx, etc.," he tells his pupils to “sweep the decks." That means, of course, as much room in the throat as possible for the free emission of the voice against the hard-palate. His aim is to place the will of the pupil on his tone, the pupil doing that which he willed and that only. Mr. Lunn does not think it best, as a rule, for singers to be familiar with the mechanism of their voices, as it frequently causes them to be stilted and nervous in their execution. On the other hand, he says a trainer and guardian of the voice should be familiar with statics, dynamics, hydrostatics, hydrodynamics, acoustics, physiology and metaphysics; and this, not to enable him to teach singing, but to withstand the attacks of unscientific as well as non-artistic teachers of the voice, and to uphold his own principles. Mr. Lunn has studied all or nearly all the sciences and is familiar with all the different methods of voice-training. He says;

1. Voice is a combinational resultant of tension of cords and breath-pressure.
2. Vowels vary this combination in tones of identical pitch.
3. Science takes the greatest difference of combination, while vocal art requires the least physical change, i. e., least difference of combination.
4. Acoustically, science produces greatest inequality of tone. Art requires least inequality.
5. Physically, the scientific e should be capable of longer duration in time than the artistic e; and the scientific u should be shorter than the artistic u; but, practically, no scientific vowel can be held as long as an artistic one (breath-power being equal), because the voice production of scientists is wrong artistically, to start with.
6. Physiologicaliy, for e there is added tension and for u added blast, so that with either right or wrong production, at equal pressure and a similar pitch, e can be sustained longer than u.

The moral of Mr. Lunn's teaching is this: Never trust science unless you are sure that its first premises are right. To draw conclusions from ill-produced voice is absurd.

Eleanor M. Burkhard, Brooklyn, N. Y.

Werner’s Voice Magazine, February, 1890, 30-31


Charles Lunn had two loves in his life: birds and bel canto. He also wrote quite a few books on singing, perhaps the most well-known being The Philosophy of Voice (1875), which must have been very popular since it was reprinted many times. Lunn was also a friend of Manuel García, and thought himself as furthering García's work with theories about the false vocal folds, which were later proven to be untrue. However, there is much to be gleaned from his books, which are that of an ardent follower of the Old Italian School. Do click on his label below to find out more about him. He seemed to have been quite the character. One reason I am fond of him? I agree with the moral of his teaching.