June 20, 2014

The Old Italian Method by Mme. Clara Brinkerhoff

Clara Brinkerhoff c. 1865
There is nothing like the old Italian Method. What is it? It is, first of all, a thorough knowledge of articulation and natural breathing,—profound for the grand voice, for grand subject; the lateral, less deep, less quantity of breath for light voice, for light subjects. Just here I would say that I have never yet had a pupil in vocal music whom I was not obliged to teach the alphabet of articulation—vowels and consonants,—in order that she might comprehend breathing and articulation for singing with pure enunciation. The names of the letters are nothing.

In replying to the paper read by Mr. F. W. Root at the recent meeting of the M. T. N. A., in New York, under the head of "The Italian and German Schools of Voice-Culture," I would say that therein he referred to my remarks made at Cleveland, last year (without, however, mentioning my name), during the discussion of the essays of Mme. Luisa Cappiani and Mr. Charles R. Adams, both distinguished teachers of their speciality and in their respective cities. Mme. Cappiani's nationality I do not know, but she professes to teach the Italian Method. Mr. Adams, I am informed, is an American, claimed by Boston, but whose best days have been devoted to singing in German opera, and he very naturally has formed and teaches the German School. 

I put in a claim for a distinctive school of the old Italian against the modern Italian or any other school, claiming it is the only truly catholic method. As a vocalist as well as a teacher who has been trained, so to speak, in all the famed methods—(1) old Italian, (2) German, (3) French, (4) English song and oratorio, (5) modern Italian, (6) Spanish,— I feel competent to speak or write on this term "custom," in place of a written work. Vocal exercises really have no relation to the customary way people sing in certain countries. I say that the old Italian method is catholic, as its ground-work covers all nationalities and all schools. Just here comes in Mr. Root who, in his essay already mentioned, says that there is no such thing as an old Italian method, because he finds no written work on the voice, by Porpora or others who produced great pupils in singing; and, therefore, there was not any special old Italian method, except the climate and the language. In that case why not do the climate and the language produce such singers now? If it be really true that there is no traditional method or old Italian school, I make my claim right here, that if there is no Italian method, then there is a CLARA BRINKERHOFF METHOD; by which she forms the voice and ear, cultivates the affections, enlarges the imagination, develops both mind and body agreeably to the laws that should govern them, whenever any of these requisites are found lacking in the pupil. But to make these ideas understood, oral and vocal examples are necessary. One might be a very pleasing singer in comic opera, or in concert, church or parlor, and still have no right to expect success on the operatic stage in what is known as grand opera, and the pupil should be so informed. 

Apropos, Blanche Tucker, now known as Blanche Roosevelt, was living in Chicago, in 1872. I was in the city at that time on a professional visit. Mr. Billings called on me and asked me, as a great favor, to give my judgment on the voice and capacity of a young lady by the name of Blanche Tucker who, he said, desired to become a grand opera singer. Her friends proposed to send her to Europe and pay all her expense. I saw the young lady, looked at her, heard a very thin voice of sweet quality, saw she was pretty as thousands of other girls of 18 years are, very sweet-tempered, no physique to make a singer of, no stamina to fight the terrible temptations of life for a young girl alone in a foreign land. I thought I noticed a lack of appreciation of the great undertaking of what was before her as a priestess in art—its abnegation, its necessity of mental strength and control, —and only a weak desire to be admired for personal beauty or voice. I decided that this was a case of knocking at a door she could not really enter in—she might stretch and clutch that door with her delicate fingers, but would only get them badly pinched. A flirty girl lacks the absolute honesty of purpose that is a first requisite for a great singer, and which may be called stamina, mental and physical—mental poise. It is not necessary to say more than that her musical career bore out the fact of how correct my judgment was. She was not suited for grand opera. Could any method possibly have done more for her? She missed it for nonsense! She had one salvation—near her at Milan was old Lamperti. But he has the reputation of being severe, and Blanche did not want to hear severe things, and so did not visit him. 

I sent one pupil to Europe, D'Arona, with a magnificent voice, method and youth, in order to study action and with more zeal and less self-consciousness that she had exhibited. She wandered about, taking lessons there in the modern screaming Italian school, from teacher to teacher; she tore her throat to pieces, had her tonsils cut, and had hemorrhage of the throat for some time. At last, when she got better, she was persuaded to go to Milan and consult old Lamperti. To her great astonishment she found she had to turn back, forget the screaming, and sing as she had been taught by me. Florenza D'Arona said she sprang to her feet in anger and exclaimed, "Have I spent four years in Europe to come to you to be put back to singing just as Mme. Brinkerhoff taught me?" He replied that he did not know me, but that if I had taught her to sing as he was then directing her, I taught the old Italian method. So it seems as if there really is one! The lady has sung in opera since very successfully, but her voice shows a slight hollowness which I have always perceived in persons who have been so unwise as to have their tonsils operated upon. It is wrong and wicked even for quinsy sore throats; there are medicines which open them like a sponge and heal them up again. The tonsils are necessary, and so is the uvula—never allow them to be cut. The system is out of order in these cases; rectify that, and all will be well. 

Jenny Lind, whose wonderful voice charmed everyone who heard her, was still faulty, if judged by the Italian code. Her vocal organs were very fine, resonant; but the clavicular or shoulder-movement and flat-chested singing made her often at fault, when deep breathing would have given her greater ease. But she could or would not understand. She received only the comprimaria diploma for singing, not prima donna. Notwithstanding this, her grand conception in sacred music, her absolute perfection of attack in pitching her voice, and her lovely ballad-singing will keep her ever foremost as the beloved singer, in this country, although she was a Swede of humble birth. Her irritable disposition gave one the impression that she was a woman of great intensity in her nature, and she would have been very great in opera if she had not been balky in temper. J. Wrey Mould saw her in opera many times in England, and says that she filled her rôles well. My own opinion, from what I remember of her, is that she was lacking in phrasing and could not shade the voice in the way it is necessary to do where the breath required in "Norma" beginning Casta Diva, in 12-8 time. She was always compelled to "break the phrase, just as Germans singers do when they feel inclined, as they rarely use deep breathing. The French invariably sing timbre claire, which, being narrow, does not require one-half the breath necessary for using the voice more sombre, the point of vibration being entirely different. 

Nilsson was a pupil of Wartel, of French school. When first here she sang nasally and with the extremely narrow stream of sound which belongs to that school. We all know how he annihilated Emma Abbot's grand voice, and what he gave in return for it. In concerts this might have been passed over, but it would not do for Italian opera in which Nilsson desired to appear. Therefore, Nilsson's manager placed her under the charge of Bonsoni, who, if I remember rightly, was here at that time; and he endeavored to broaden the sounds, partially succeeding, but not sufficiently for very grand music. Her acting is exceptionally fine, although artificial, not coming from the internal sense of fitness. 

We have a right to make critiques, for the young singers have no guide but the public singers; as a usual thing, it is their faults the amateur copies and not their virtues. Mme. Schröder-Devrient had the credit of being very great upon the lyric stage, and to have had a thorough mastery of the old Italian school, of breathing and phrasing, for they necessarily go together, and are always accompanied by expression and perfect coloring, because the vital contact is made, as I have heretofore explained, at the great ganglion of nerves, acting upon the diaphragmatic breathing in contradiction to the light suspiro which is constantly passing our lips; while deep breathing is always inhaled through the nostrils, although the lips be parted to be ready for articulation and utterance. Say we take breath for the words sung on do, do, do, in "Non e Ver;" we have taken breath and now raise the tip of the tongue to the front of the roof of the mouth for n, not for from the teeth, at the same moment that the lips prepare the shape of the vowel (which also corresponds to the opening of the glottis, if the breathing be deep); as soon as the vowel is uttered, the tongue leaves the roof of the mouth, and then at the expiration of the time for the sound on o, the tongue goes back to the roof and makes the final n.  The tongue, leaving the n, is ready, without movement except at the middle of the tongue touching the teeth, to give the Italian e. Then the lips and the teeth form the v, followed by the same process as in the first e,  and the tip of the tongue rolled for the final r—ver. In the old Italian method there is no pressure around or about the throat; the breath in sound flows out, and the remainder, not converted to sound, acts as an impelling force, controlled by the diaphragm as to intensity and quality.

Whoever denies that this word method or methods, as used by vocalists, does not mean, in its truest sense, an habitual way, instead of a book of vocal exercises, has yet to learn the very first technical terms peculiar to vocal nomenclature; the Italian way or school, the German way or the English way; for we cannot deny that the Enlish school of method did have a very peculiar way of delivery in songs of the Handel type, and that we have had exponents of the habitual way or method (used even by Sims Reeves) very frequently in our concert-rooms, oratorios and operas. The "waw-waw" utterance describes it near enough for all intents and purpose, and has been used by very excellent artists—considered apart from this singular method of delivery. Edward Shepard was one of the most noted that I now recall. Ernest Perring could call to mind a great many more. I dare say. Santley is an Englishman who, where here, delivered his voice according to the old Italian method in singing; that is to say, his breathing, instead of following the modern Garcia-Italian method which draws in the abdomen, was just the opposite, bearing gently toward to belt as a baby or an Indian breaths. Garcia probably learned from his pupils that they preferred the other way, and he succumbed to the money interest. Panseron taught the same; women, who were corseted tightly, could not breath any other way; and, as one of our famous teachers, who could afford to keep his carriage and ride to his lessons, told me; "Madame, you are right, but chat vill ze ladee day, if I say, "Mees, you are too tight, I vill make undone your corset, as you, madame, can do?" She vill say, "Sare! leave dis house, vaten; get out quick, you insult!" So, I say nothing, and takes papa's monee." Which goes to prove that lady pupils should be taught by a lady teacher and not by a man; at any rate, while voice-forming and correct phrasing is being imparted to the pupil, as handling is absolutely necessary where what should be involuntary action, to be felt off as soon as involuntary habit of breathing is formed for the pupil by the teacher's aid. Women who select the stage for their career, need not be squeamish about this, as it is nothing to what will follow when they learn stage-action—honi soit qui mal y pense in this profession; but it is not best to try experimentally with young society-girls, or thoughtless girls, who do not know that to the men they come in contact with, the slightest glance of the eye, toss of the head, move or touch of the hand,—all mean something that ignorant, if not innocent, persons never heard of, but, at the same time, lead men on, especially in foreign cities where girls often go to study music. But we cannot treat of this matter without very careful touch. Blanche Roosevelt has done something to open the eyes of the blind, in her book; and I will only say here, keep your children at home, you parents who contemplate sending them abroad. In every part of this country there are excellent teachers. I have a knowledge of what I say, having sung in 18 or 20 states, in various cities, and I know that America is full of talent, and that no one need go away to study. The foreign schools were open to me as auditor, in 1861, and that was my decision then as now, after passing through them.

The musical atmosphere is the point most necessary to be obtained here. Every effort should be made to gain this in every town through this country—more social music, less money and piano-house intermeddling; more interest in its growth, shown by suitable concert-rooms for resident talent. Break down with fire and sword all opposition to music per se; create not a revival, for it has not greatly existed, but an absolute craze for song; keep the freedom of artist from trade-pressure. Then we shall not need to go to Italy and herd like animals and live like Bohemians in disorder, in order, as they say, to sing with solid and expression, for the find dramatic feeling lies within ourselves, and so do health and strength, not in Italian air. Of course, all pure lines of blood hold their own characteristics obstinately. Germans pure, who do not know other nations by their language or contact, will never shine as singers in the Italian method of the Porpora school. Neither can they thoroughly understand Delsarte who was vocally taught by a disciple of Porpora, and through this teaching and unfortunate loss of voice following youthful carelessness, at length decided to become a teacher of the voice and a dramatic educator; but he was not at any time a writer to any extent on the theories he taught his pupils. He gave them practically as the ideas came to him, while teaching and feeling the need of these methods for various pupils. These theories now come to us by this medium. The pupils tell us what Delsarte told them, and one and all of them desire to make his philosophy clear to the minds of those who desire to know it. Just so Porpora who, though well known as a composer of instrumental and vocal compositions, evolved out out his own consciousness wherein the singers were at fault, and condensed all vocal exercises to what was purely needed for showing the capacity of the vocal instrument and its power over the emotional, inner life.

What necessity for years of singing-exercises when the pupil understands that it is the elasticity of the material voice that is fluent and not the muscles of the throat, that control of the breath makes the swell, and that control of the breath makes the portamento with the additional care of carrying all sounds on the vowel purely and touching the other note before the consonants are enunciated; they always, according to their nature, closing and finishing the sound at once. If there is a diphthongal sound, the second one is not made until it reaches the adjoining sound-tone, because it splashes or forces overtones. This is the old Italian method. The principle can be carried out in singing, in very language, and at once relives it of hissing, nasal, and guttural sound and all other imperfections. The German words, Du bist mein Leibe, Du bist mein Wonn, are as beautiful words to sing, if sung with old Italian method of articulation, as any other words (witness Tietjens's singing it); if we accept that peculiar something in every language that we call countenance in the individual, and which comes from character and birth-prejudice. The children of mixed marriages undoubtedly form a different quality of voice and manner of singing. A Presbyterian face, in an American girl, may show to the close observer French and Spanish blood in the veins, but the little town has had its influence arising a little from climate, also from school, Sunday school and church-surroundings. To make this pupil sing with expression, as she can and ought, this mask of countenance and mental impressions must be broken up, and the real woman, so long being a prisoner, will shine through. This is what music does for the individual; wakes up the whole being, thrust aside prejudices of toilet and food, and brings a unity of purpose, thought and action into the singer, shows up littleness, broadens the character and teaches how to love God and be thankful for his great gift—song.

Mr. Root says: "The old Italian is not and never has been a scientific system of voice-culture." Dear Mr. Root, let me call your attention to a religious fact: to bath in the river Jordan was too simple a way to receive religion. "Scientific system" only means to know the way to do it; and, as you observe, is very commonplace, because human nature is commonplace. Wherein do we differ from one another? Therefore, the great master Porpora, master of Porporina, who took his name to honor it, looked wholly to nature for proper means to bring out the true singer. Nature did not conceal the vocal process, even if there be no method in her workings. Is is as clear in its science as mathematics; a good billiard-player knows just where to strike, in order to carom. Mario was as certain in his delivery of sounds as the greatest billiard-player; he was a true exponent of the old Italian school. If you desire to know if any singer has the old Italian method, look well at the mouth in profile; if you see much movement of the mouth or jaws, he who does so has not yet learned how to sing it, because this modern method of breathing disjoints the vocal instrument, humping the shoulder blades, and disfigures the back. The old Italian method requires but very little movement of jaw. The modern method causes tremolo, also keeps the jaw in constant motion while forming sound. In the old Italian method the lower jaw falls gently, opening the mouth, when taking breath through the nostrils, and this act places the vocal apparatus in condition for song, and the lips, tongue and teeth for articulation.

The insensible or half breathing does not require a change of position, and the chest-bone should reman arched while singing. Del Puente, a Spaniard, is a singer of this school; all his tones are equally good and melodious; so were Mario's; enunciation, phrasing and delivery being perfect in both cases just quoted. The muscles under the lower lip assist in sustaining the sounds, as they are not really finished till passing the lips which give the last polish. The old Italian method has one peculiarity. The very first exercises are taught comprehensively; in some cases a violin is used. Say we begin on C (do) sharp. Next comes D (re) natural, then follows D sharp; next we sing E (mi) natural. But where is E sharp? Here occurs the first real knowledge of the structure of the musical scale or gamut the pupil learns. The European accepted scale is then formed of C natural, C sharp, D natural, D sharp, E natural, F natural—showing where half tone occurs—then F sharp, making a whole tone, G natural, G sharp, A natural, A sharp, B natural, C natural. The second semi-tone occurs, as we see, at seventh, there being no B sharp proper. When this form of structure is understood by the pupil to remain intact although advanced, say by placing the tonic or rather starting-point at the C-sharp semi-tone, the pupil will then form groups of two notes and semi-tones followed by three tones and semi-tones in such a comprehensive way that he will have an interior or brain-keys not possible to those who learn by beginning the diatonic scale instead of the chromatic, and look upon a chromatic scale as great difficulty, and it really is so to those who do not begin properly. But the pupil, who has the voice so formed, learns what singing is,— that it represents feelings, even at the earliest stages, and he does not overtax the throat; he learns that no motion of the jaw is required to reach even the octave of any note he can sing; he directs the will to lengthen or broaden the aperture of the glottis; all the rest occurs naturally. A wide open mouth is always a weakness in singing and belongs to psalm-smiters' time, when the majority thought great noise was singing, as the salvation army do to-day. Although they mean well, the result is pandemonium.

219 East 18th Street., New York City

Werner's Magazine, September, 1885


Clara Brinkerhoff (1828-1901) has a rather curious history in regard to the Old Italian School of singing, her mother having studied with Domenico Corri, himself a student of Nicola Porpora. Like Pauline Viardot-García, who's father died when she was eleven, Brinkerhoff's mother died when her daughter was twelve, whereupon the young girl studied voice with Madam Arnault, a student of Marco Bordogni (who's book of scales can still be found, the latter having also taught Madam Rudersdorff, the teacher of Emma Thursday). 

Readers of VoiceTalk will be familiar with Frederic W. Root, who made an address to which Madam Brinkerhoff responds with great style, and in doing so, gives the reader something of the methods of the Old Italian School. Madam Brinkerhoff shoots from the hip, not holding back anything, for which the modern reader can be grateful, since she tackles everything from Jenny Lind, Manuel García, breathing, opening of the glottis and mouth, chromatic studies (rarely done in the studio today), the manner in which diphthongs should be executed, and a great deal more. Hers was a practical science which depended on forthrightness. 

Find more about Clara Brinkerhoff here.

Photo credit: Library of Congress

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