June 24, 2014

Trivulsi: Interesting Facts About the Great Master of the Old Italian School of Singing

Blanche Roosevelt (1853-1898)
I had read the name Trivulsi (also spelled Trivulzi) in passing a handful of times in reference to Francesco Lamperti, yet could find nothing about him. The little that I knew revealed him to be a vocal genius and invalid. What caused the latter? I had no idea. It was only after delving into early issues of Werner's Magazine that I obtained more information in the form of "narration of truth in the form of fiction" from Blanche Roosevelt (who appears in my recent post on the teaching of Mme. Clara Blinkerhoff), and found my way to Stage-Struck, or, She Would be an Opera Singer (1884). It seems Roosevelt made a tour of European voice teachers, first studying with Pauline Viardot-García in Paris, then Trivulsi in Milan after not taking a liking to Lamperti. Trivulsi having provided the basis for an operatic career, Roosevelt appeared for a number of years in London, Paris, and New York, before turning her attention to literary pursuits, crafting her experience into a tale, one rich in detail both personal and pedagogic. Her life ended at forty-five years of age, a year after a carriage accident in Monte-Carlo killed her driver and caused injuries from which she never recovered.


Trivulsi belongs to a class of music-teachers of the past century, or perhaps farther back even than that, when Hasse taught the beautiful Faustina, and Nicolo Porpora brought out Mingotti, a rival songstress, whose beauty and talent were afterward renowned throughout Europe. The early part of the nineteenth century was very prolific in great masters. There was Rassini, in Naples, and Nozzari, the clever man who taught the great Rubini after his father's preliminary lessons; the old Garcia, in Paris; Romani, in Florence; and Vannuccini, who instructed the contemporaries of Pasta and Grisi. Still later come Pauline Viardot and Manuel Garcia, Mme. Leonard, Mme. de la Grange, Mme. Marchesi, and Mrs. Kenneth. 

Of the later teachers of the old school was Trivulsi. He came of a musical family. His father was one of the finest amateurs of the day; his aunt was Garssini, the first female contralto to sing on the stage; and Giula Grisi was his cousin. Trivulsi was a little younger than his friend Rubini, and his voice was a beautiful tenor, although not, like Rubini's a phenomenal one. They studied with the same masters; but Trivulsi learned most with his friend, from whom he was inseparable.

When quite a young man, he was court singer to the Austrian emperor. His sensitiveness, extreme intelligence, gentlemanly manners, and sympathetic person were no mean accompaniment to his vocal talent. One day he felt indisposed, and had a sore throat, which grew so alarming in it symptoms that a court-doctor was called in. The doctor immediately performed an experimental operation, with the deplorable result that the cords in the throat contracted, paralysis set in, and the young artist became in incurable invalid. 

Poor Trivulsi, after a terrible illness, retired with his wife to an obscure provincial town, where he lived for more than thirty years, unknown and forgotten. His sad story had passed from the minds of all his contemporaries. He heard of their brilliant careers, but nothing came in interrupt the monotony of his existence; and he spent his time studying with unwearied diligence. At length he could stand it no longer, and returned to Milan. He began to give lessons; as so good-hearted was he that poor students profited by his instructions, without taking any remuneration from them. The old cripple outside of Porta Garibaldi was soon recognized as one of the first masters of Italian singing in the world. Many had thought him dead; and when it burst upon Milan that Rubini's old friend was still alive and willing to teach, his rooms were thronged from far and wide. 

He had never been able to walk or even sit up; and he was a strange picture as he lay upon his little iron bed. His head was unnaturally large, and being very bald made it seem still larger. His face was a vast area of pallid flesh, with a hundred lines like cobwebs running diagonally across it. His eyes were large, luminous, and sad; and his mouth of a peculiar shape, with a curve in the middle, whilst the inferior kip stretched away and dropped at the corners. His features were quite flat, as they they had been distorted by illness. His head was one-sided, and his neck scarcely noticeable. He wore a blouse of dark twill, spotlessly neat, and hanging like a sack form a yoked or gathered throat-barn. It was like an old-fashioned prison-garment, such as Marguerite wears in "Faust;" and the sleeves, very wide and short, fell away from a shapely arm, which was strangely muscular, white and blue-veined, like that of a young Hercules. His wrists were tiny, and his hands long and slender. They were kept with perfect care, and he looked fifty years younger than his face. He was never without a snuff-box, the gift of his royal protector. For years he had not used it; but now that is no longer brought back his youth with too terrible vividness, it was his constant companion. His pillow was dark; his bed dark; and there were yellowish sheets on week-days, and white ones on Sundays. Fifty little birds passarelle, hopped and chirped around him; and although their real home was in the corner, they spent most of their time perched on his bed. They were on the best of terms with a huge black cat which sat on his pillow and looked like a familiar spirit. Above his head, on the wall, hung a portrait of one of his ancestors, Cardinal Trivulsi—a chef-d'oeuvre.

The maestro was susceptible to atmosphere influences; and when the wind blew strong and cold from the Alpine range, he shivered and trembled so that the whole bed shook, and the birds flew screaming into the corner.  Anyone entering at that moment would have found it hard not to believe himself in some magician's cave, with a wizard exorcising the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air. The hand holding the snuff-box went ceaselessly up and down on the cover lid, whilst the other vainly endeavored to hold on to the side of the iron bed; his teeth chattered, his lips quivered, his eyeballs protruded from their sockets, his head went backward and forward like a pendulum and his whole body shook convulsively. So nervous was he, that the sight of strangers produced the same effect; and yet the impression produced by this quaint being after the first shock of surprise was over, was almost a pleasing one. There was something so kind and so sympathetic in his glance, that there was a positive magnetism in it. The soul within him lit up the weird form, until it inspired confidence and invited affection. Although his voice was weak and quavering, he talked with wonderful charm. He had a memory which went back to Rubini's debut, and the scoldings his father gave him because at ten he was not an accomplished tenor.

Trivulsi thus found himself, at eighty, loved by all, and adored in his home. His charities were boundless, and many a panatone at Christmas-time found its way with beef and wine to a poorer neighbor. 


Frederico stuck a few chords. Annabel started, and begged the tenor to continue his lesson, if she did not disturb him by being there. McBuffin assured her of the contrary. In fact, the maestro like his pupils to acquire the habit of singing before strangers. 

The lesson went on; the young man attempted a high note, then stopped, or rather the note stopped. 

"How strange!" he faltered, "I can never get that tone." 

"Poor young man! How can you expect to get it, taking it in that fashion? You all want to sing Rubini's phenomenal notes—not as he did, but as it would please to to do. A tenor nowadays must have four kinds of voice to be satisfied with himself. Rubini's notes were all head." 

"Don't tell me that!" amazedly. 

"Yes, caro Buffino. His was a head-voice, after the middle C. It is a gross error to think that he always sang chest-notes; on the contrary, he rarely sang a chest-note higher than A flat, and then they were so blended with the head-voice that only consummate musicians could tell the difference." 

"Well, I take a head-note." 

He commenced. "Vaw—p—" with a full yell was the result. 

The maestro trembled. 

"Buffino mio, thy intention was good, but thy note was bad. A falsetto is not a head-note. Rubini was incapable of perpetrating a falsetto. You young tenors all make the same mistake. Sing—ah— Patience. Open thy mouth, and sing it so." 

The master dropped his surf-box. His eyes shone with a faint light; he opened his mouth, and sang the note as it should have been. The voice, though worn, was still true, and of the exact quality of tone that McBuffin had tried to produce. It was a sweet, even sound, like a feeble note from a lute; perfect, but fleeting.

McBuffin tried.

"Again," said the maestro; "again. Ah! that is more like it. Again. No. Well, we will rest of today. Tomorrow we will take up the same thing, and you must be patient. The same thing until it is perfect."

"Tomorrow, maestro? Humph! How many times have you said, "'We will take it up tomorrow?'"

"Ah! many times. I have said it to myself for sixty years. But to you not long, have I?"

"Yes. Not long to you, perhaps; but to seems long to me. You must think me an ass."

"Oh! Buffino mio."

The maestro's eyes twinkled diabolically, and he daintily tapped the cover of his snuff-box.

"Yes, an ass! or nearly one. I will tell you what it is. I begin to think that it is all right; the fault is not in me, but in my organ. I am not less ambitious, but I think that to sing those notes as Rubini did, one needs but one simple thing—Rubini's voice."

"Caro mio Buffini, thou are nearly right; but, like all young singers, until thou hast a decided way of thine own, it will alway be better to follow in the steps of the great masters. Only know how Rubini took his notes, and try to take them the same way. He was my friend; he taught me. I was not Rubini, and yet I often sang exactly as he did."

"I wish I could have heard him. It would not take long to imitate him."

"Ah! imitate him. A useful thing to know how to do, but not always to depend upon it." 


The maestro heard Annabel's voice, and, to her amazement, he made her sing the same exercise that she had learned with Garcia. She expressed her surprise. 

"Dear child, it is not strange. The Italian school is the Italian school the world over. We have all been taught in the same way. You have been started right. It is a grand beginning for a young artist. 


Annabel spent much time at the maestro's. She sang without heart, and she studied but listlessly. 

One day she burst into tears, and declared that she would give it up. "Everything goes wrong, dear maestro." she said. "I seem to sing worse every day; and I know I shall never be a great singer." 

Trivulsi looked affectionately at her: then spoke. 

"Come and sit beside me, dear Annabellina, and we will have an oral lesson. First of all, let us be very frank with each other. Dost thou think thyself that thou has any talent? And canst thou define the difference in singers, in studying, between a career and a pastime? For an amateur, any one would consider thee a marvel. As a professional, thou wouldst hardly pass for one." 

She flushed. "Dear maestro, I know I seem very impatient; but will you tell me what I must do to become a singer; and the difference between a professional and an amateur? I should think that good singing would be good singing the world over, whether by one or the other. What is the difference?

"First let me speak of thyself. I tell what what to do when thou art here; but there are many hours of the day when thou must study by thyself and try to apply my teaching. The mischief is done when the pupil studies alone. Before beginning to learn operas, there is the mechanical training required for the voice. The student should sing exercises for an hour each day—half an hour in the morning and half an hour in the afternoon. Sing first a slow scale of with notes, then one of nine. Agility in the voice can only be acquired in one way. It all must be in exact time and measure. For example, we will say that the pupil cannot sing the scale of F perfectly. In a certain tempo it may go all right. A real artist should never say, I can sing this scale and not that. If he possess the mechanical power to do one, he must be able, should his throat have been well trained, to do the other; for the note is born is his head before he gives mechanical expression to the sound by his voice. In fact, the throat is to the singer what the violin is to the violinist, the flute to the flutist, and the piano to the pianist. Usually, the moment that a singer attempts to vary the time, the execution falls to pieces. This is wrong. Excellence should not be remarked in one way more than in another. The throat has no right to do one thing better or worse than another, only as it has been taught, it being a perfectly mechanical organ. To acquire vocal agility (to use the technical term) a pupil must sing a scale very slowly in the same tempo for a week, and on no account go faster the last day than the first. During the second week it must be a little faster; then during the third a title faster—this also for a week; then during a fourth week still faster. At the end of the month the pupil finds that he is able to sing four times as fast as he did in the first week. This is the way to begin study; but smoothness of execution and perfection are only attained by singing scales and exercises in the different tempos for weeks, and months, and years. No cadenza or exercise should be sung without putting it in specified time, accenting it, beating the measure with the exactitude of a metronome; nothing should be left to change or inspiration. A person may be more disposed some days than others; but the throat, if in proper condition, should be trained so that it cannot go wrong on any day.' 

"But, dear maestro, some sing exquisitely although they have studied little; though, in fact, they have never been regularly taught. How is this?" 

"I never knew any great singer who did not slave for years in the beginning, and who did not keep up the most rigorous training of exercises, after even the greatest success. Chance may bring one artist to the front by his success in one particular rôle, and he may subsequently fail in all others. He may be bad in every succeeding thing as he had been in every previous one; but if he be a trained singer, he will show his training in every part he sings, whether he win applause or not. This is to be an artist; his throat knows no difference, but will go as it has been taught. Is is always ready. He takes his part, he portions out each phrase, each measure, and commences to study. If an air comes to him by ear, he rejects it and does not pay attention until he learns it in its place, with its proper time and sentiment. Everything is by rule and in order with the professional singer. An amateur may have a better natural voice than a professional; but as he has not by hard study and long practice mechanically reconstructed his throat and converted it into a musical instrument, he will never be able to equal the professional. His throat will never be subservient to his talent. 

"Cara Annabellina, amateurs rarely sing very well. They pay not attention to detail; their voices are so uncultured; that they often fail in expressing what they wish, owing to their throats being unable to respond to the calls that are made upon them. They have little idea of time, and no knowledge of phrasing. They say, 'Oh, I only sing for pleasure;' and they forget that one either sings well or badly. Nothing is no annoying as a mediocrity; and I sometimes think that is the real definition of the word dilettanti. In the first place, the reason is that they cannot, or will not, devote enough time to necessary study; a little hard work goes a great way, but it must be serious. An amateur sits down at the piano, and says, 'Now I will have a good practice.' One scale is taken up and down, perhaps twice, without an idea of whether it is in one tempo or another; or whether one not is exactly like another; or whether it can be of use after a cadenza. A few arpeggios are then rushed through. After this comes a song without words, followed by some grand aria, in which the mistakes of one day are conscientiously related the next. Tired out after the hour's bad study, they never look at their piano until the next day; when the same thing is again gone through. Of course, when I compare artists and amateurs I mean real artists."  

"But the other class you named, maestro?" 

"Not the besotted vain aspirants who give themselves two years in which to become singers, who learn a number of operas, who never hear a new aria but they decide it was written for their voice, and buy it at once; who mistake obstinacy for assiduity, memory for talent, and perseverance for true application; who have learned a quantity of rôles, but count still more success on their assurance. 


Trivulsi was a great master when Lamperti was still a young man. Lamperti swept the aisles of the college; and when lessons were over, he used to say to Trivulsi," How may I also teach people to sing?" Then the master gave him lessons, and in a short while he heard that his sweeper and accompanist (he had gradually got to be this) was a professor in vocal music. Just think of it! Trivulsi was delighted, and always said, "He was a good sweeper; he may also be a good teacher. But one thing is certain; he is a very clever man." 


Trivulsi, like all great teachers, never neglected the classic masters. According to him, they alone knew how to write for the voice. In this day and age of general emancipation, piano-players compose operas and teach singing; but the so-called modern music, which is but the mechanism of perfectly constructed scores, has little to attract or sustain the voice. An artist nowadays must oust a hundred instruments. She accompanies the band; it is no longer a question of the band accompanying her. She must shriek, scream—anything to make herself heard. Verdi commenced the sensational school; but things have gone far beyond him that his worst is now good in comparison. A modern opera means one strain of melody, began at the sixth, finished before the third-second. This one theme is dragged through five long acts, each act serving more completely to disguise and confuse it. One spends an evening listening, perspiring, laboring, struggling, trying to catch and retain one complete phrase; then, when the opera is ended, the listener feels a neuralgic pain in his temples, and as though his teeth were falling out of his head. When he complains, on coming out of the opera, that he cannot carry away one single air, and that there is not one glimmer of inspiration, he is told airs are vulgar, inspiration a mistake of the past; that this harmony is correct, and that perfection in music consists nowadays in disobeying no rule of composition, and in having perfectly orchestrated scores.

Blanche Roosevelt in her book, "Stage-Struck: or, She Would be an Opera Singer."

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