The Legitimate School of Singing by Francis Charles Maria de Rialp

Therése Tietjens (1831-1877) 
Now, what were the law of the ancients, and of those who, in later times, may have inherited their traditions, we have no means of knowing, since there is no written record of them. What we do know, however, of all successful teaching of singing, is that it has always, in all times, been built, consciously or not, upon the foundation of correct speech. Song, progressed and enlarged, that is, carried through a wider and more versatile range, does not thereby outgrow the power of the last which originally governed it,—the laws of smooth, undulating, carrying, well-placed speech.

The law of Pitch, which is peculiar to this School, embodying, in itself, everything necessary for the perfect placement of speech, comprehends the best of all that could ever have been taught of singing since the earliest times, so far as mere truing of the voice is concerned. While I distinctly claim it as original with my School, there is no proof that it was unknown at an early date, under whatever name. As long ago a as 1673, Sebastian de Covarruvias, in his "Testoro de la Lengua Castellana," says: "Salir de tono, no continuar el modo y orden con que uno empieça, ô a cantar ô a razor." "To depart from the tone, is to discontinue the mode and order in which one begins either to sing or to reason." It is evident that he refers here to something other than mere musical mode or tonality, else he would never have included in his definition reasoning, which is necessarily confined to speech.

It becomes needful to explain what Pitch is, since, in our day, it is theoretical unknown; and in this country, whose language is naturally so unfavorable to its use, but little practiced.

To the word Pitch, in its relations to correct speech, I attach a meaning different from its musical one. By pitch, is not to be understood the relative position of the notes of the gamut, of the musical elevation or depression of a sound. Pitch may be defined as: the height and circumference, chosen for their acoustical value, at which every sound that we utter must, in its artistic capacity, originate, and within which it must be contained. 

Let us simplify this definition.

Pitch is indicated by a first sound, placed to the best acoustical advantage. Upon this placement, so to say, we speak every sound that may follow, allowing none of them to fall below this height. It will be impossible to exceed it, because the true pitch is already the highest. The first sound then, properly placed, indicates the pitch for all that may follow. Let us regard this sound as the mother of all the rest, from which they are all derived, and from which they all draw, in equal measure, power, purity and sonority. Each succeeding sound passes in the room of the first. It is impossible that a single one of the sounds, thus generated, should exceed, in height of depth, volume or beauty, any one of its sister-sounds. They will be, one and all, of one size and one quality, being based upon and controlled by the first sound. The first sound acts as a kind of pedal throughout the whole range of the voice. The first sound is the veritable generator, sustainer, and preserver of all our sounds. I call it the BASAL-SOUND. If we understand well its action we have mastered the theory of Pitch. We comprehend, then that we may run through the whole gamut of sounds, to the full height and depth of the human voice, and though, musically speaking, one sound may be higher or lower than another, yet, according to the law of the basal-sound, no sound can be higher or lower than the first, which established the pitch.

Thus the law of Pitch destroys, at one blow, the theory of registers. It proves, conclusively, that such a thing as a break in the human voice does not exist,  or has only been created by teachers ignorant of the etymology of sounds. Do we find a break in the voice in speaking? And have we not suggested proof enough that singing is nothing more than speaking?

We recognize that, according to the laws of acoustics for the full transmission of sound, there must be a directing and a receiving focus. The sounding board above the head of the orator, reflecting his utterances to the opposite wall. This, in turn, acts as a second sounding-baord, especially if it be concave so as to embrace the sounds as they arrive. The same principle is applied in our theaters and opera-houses. The proscenium itself is an enclosed space, a kind of arched box (forming the directing-focus), and the theatre is built in concave shape (forming the receiving-focus), in which the sound, issuing from the focus of the proscenium, are surrounding and reflected.

We see, therefore, that a sound to attain its full acoustical value must be enclosed at its point of emission, as well as at its point of reception. We all know that a sound stuck on the inside of an empty barrel, will reach the ear more resonant than the same sound stuck on the outside of a barrel; and that the sound of a violin-string could not be heard in a hall, were it not for the re-enforcelemnt which it receives from its sounding-box. But we are apt to forget this principle in its immediate application to the transmission of the voice.

Common sense should tell us that, in order for the voice to be conveyed to its outer directing-focus (which serves in the first instance as a receiving-focus) it must be placed, first of all, in the cavities which will give it the necessary carrying-power.

All the sounds must be enclosed, before their emission, in order to reach their full acoustical value. 

Wherever we may be, we must speak. Consequently, nature has provided for us a primary directing-focus, which we carry always with us.

A sound, to be perfectly placed and perfectly rendered, must travel and form in all the cavities of the head, and nowhere else.

If the reader will admit that where there is bone there is sound to be obtained, he will enter at once, into our theory of the enclosing of sounds, and will become quickly disabused of the idea that sounds may be obtained from the fleshly parts of the body. In the throat is the utterance of sound; but that does not say that in the throat is sound itself. That utterance, for its formation, must be raised as high as the mask, or that part of the head bounded by; the upper gum (lowest); drum of the ear (side); and frontal-bone (highest part). We cannot form sounds for singing in the chest; for we find there only the cavities of the lungs, containing the quantity of breath required for sustaining the sounds. Some teachers entertain the idea that there is a chest-voice, from the fact that the chest vibrates during the emission of sound. We cannot countenance such an idea, as, at that rate, we should be obliged to admit that there is a foot-voice (!), as every part of the body vibrates, more or less, in sympathy with our every act. If it were not so, the natural consequence would be that, while on part of the body were in activity, the other parts would be inert, or paralyzed. The passage of the breath through the lungs, with a certain velocity, is sufficient to account for their vibration. A gust of wind through a tube, may cause the tube to vibrate; but sustaining and formed sound is produced only when the wind meets an acoustical focus at its issue.

Therefore, let us treat the theory of registers as we treat the theory of ghosts. We speak of them; but they do not exist for us.

Before leaving the subject of acoustics, I would like to remark that what is physically accomplished by the material receiving-focus (namely, the embracing and reflecting of the sounds sent to it), is, in part, psychically reversed in a mental receiving-focus. When a human voice, placed in its true acoustical focus directs its sound to the listener, whose acoustical faculties are elevated to the same level as those of the singer, the mind of the listener accepts these sounds and retains them, concurring in them. And when, in judging a singer, we accuse him as the possessor of a muffled voice, it is because our mind is fixed at an acoustical level above that of the singer, and the singer fails to reach it. His acoustical focus is not chained with ours.

The Legitimate School of Singing by Francis Charles Maria De Rialp, 1894, 12-18.


I came upon The Legitimate School of Singing early in my research at the New York Public Library, then returned to it after I went to the Listening Centre in Toronto in 1999, having had the realization that De Rialp was talking about the active audition of bone conduction. In fact, the more I read De Rialp's book, the more I thought he must have been familiar with the teaching of Francesco Lamperti, if only because his expression of ideas had much in keeping with what could be found in Giovanni Battista Lamperti's maxims as recorded by William Earl Brown in Vocal Wisdom—which I also perceived as referring to the audition of bone conduction. Florenza D'Arona, a student of the Milanese maestro (and subject of a recent post), furthered this impression when she wrote: 

The fundamental truths of the art of singing are based upon the European standard of the old masters, and the truths so much discussed as new discoveries were taught many, many years before present day discoverers were born. That these later day theorists are not indebted to the old masters for their knowledge may also be true, for study and experience are great teachers, as is proved by De Rialp's book. The points in said book of "mother tone, "pitch," &c., are solid truths, which by the clothing of expression confuses many. This gentleman is wise in offering no further explanation of his terms, since only those who have had these points viva voce illustrated and themselves put them into practice by the side of a keenly observant teacher can fully comprehend their meaning. —Florenza D'Arona, The Music Courier,  November, 1894. 

Oh, she's right about that. You really do have to have viva voce demonstration, which De Rialp would have been privy to having worked closely with many singers trained in the Old Italian School. He was an interesting fellow, as I found from his obituary in Musical America, which is about the only information I have been able to find regarding his life and work. 

Francis Charles Maria De Rialp; formerly a noted singer and teacher, died recently at his home near Milford, Pa. He was born near Barcelona, Spain, in 1840, and studied piano under a pupil of Berlioz and theory under Balart, most of his student days being spent in Paris. Subsequently, he served in the Spanish army in the war against Morocco. Tietjens, the celebrated singer, brought him to the notice of Col. James Henry Mapleson, and he was engaged shortly thereafter as accompanist to the prima donna. Then he went to London where he remained in Mapleson's service for sixteen years, filling many important functions in connection with the opera company and being associated with the most famous stars of the day. 
When Mapleson came to America and took up the management of the Academy of Music in New York, De Rialp remained his invaluable helper. Later, he was associated with Abby and Grau, of the Metropolitan, but eventually he retired and spent the rest of his life teaching. It was De Rialp who restored Campanini's voice when the tenor once injured it, and who informed Jean de Reszke that he was a tenor when the Polish artist was singing baritone parts. Musical America, September 2, 1911. 

So the guy was immersed in opera and opera singers for a long time, and expressed a unique understanding of the voice. That much is clear. If his words sound strange to us, well, I chalk that up to our collective preoccupation with facts concerning anatomy, physiology and acoustics, rather than the singer's perception of sound, for which we have a paucity of facts.

Could it be circular thinking at work? Could the fact that the vocal tract is the only resonator keep voice scientists from being interested in the perception of voice placement—that persona non grata word, especially when those same voice scientists have expressed that the singer's audition is a subjective rather than an objective matter? I think so. Why look for what you believe can't exist?

Back to De Rialp's book. I've not forgotten something my own teacher said which speaks to what he wrote in the passage above.

"It's a nasty vowel in a closed position!"

These words became crystal clear after I spent time at the Listening Center with headphones on my head, which stimulated the two muscles in each ear with highly filtered bone and aired conducted sound. What I felt and heard in my head was the essence of her description: scratchy, nasty and buzzy, bone itself being the "closed position." (Truth to tell: closed vowels have something to do with it too.)

She also told me: "It's the buzzy business that never turns off!"

I suggest you now go back and read De Rialp's description of "basal-sound," and believe my teacher and he would agree. That her musical grandfather wrote Hints on Singing the same year as The legitimate School of Singing appeared is also food for thought. But oh, that is a mind bender.

Photo Credit: New York Public Library Digital Gallery.