February 26, 2015

Mrs. Robinson-Duff comes out swinging

Sarah Robinson Duff (d. 1934)
To the Editor of the Musical Courier: 
My attention has just been called to a letter from Vittorio Trevisan, vocal teacher of Chicago, which appears in the Musical Courier of July 27, I922, in which he makes some disparaging statements regarding my claim, being a teacher of Mary McCormic. At the time the Chicago Opera Company engaged Mary McCormic, Mary Garden, who was then the general director of the company, sent Miss McCormic to me and asked me to prepare her in the aria of Micaela from "Carmen," and Musetta in"Bohéme." She also asked me to teach her the air of “Le Roi de Thule" and the waltz from “Faust,” as well as the bird song from “Pagliacci.” I consented and Miss McCormic studied with me from that time until May, 1921.

When I began to work with Miss McCormic I found that in order to have her do this work in a satisfactory manner I should be compelled to replace her voice. Miss McCormic had never been taught breathing and her voice was uneven. During this time Miss McCormic took a singing lesson with me every day and at the same time had a daily lesson in diaphragmatic breathing with my daughter, Francis Robinson-Duff. The remarkable result of her work while under my teaching can be testified to by a number of prominent people who heard her at that time.

An appreciation of Miss Robinson-Duff's instruction can be found in an article written and illustrated by Miss McCormic in the Physical Culture Magazine of August, 1922.

Mary McCorinic's second period of study with me was during the season of the Chicago Opera Association in New York in 1922, when daily lessons were taken from both my daughter and me.

I have never claimed to be the only teacher of Miss McCormic. But I do claim to have given her the proper diaphragmatic breathing and to have placed her voice on this breath.

In conversation with me, Miss McCormic has always spoken of Mr. Trevisan with great appreciation and gratitude for all he has done for her in her art.

Thanking you for giving this letter attention in the columns of the Musical Courier. I beg to remain

Yours faithfully, (SIGNED) Sarah Robinson-Duff

Musical Courier, September 12th, 1922.


Replaced her voice? Now, that's a turn of phrase you don't hear anymore! What Robinson-Duff means, of course, is that she taught her student correct voice placement. Linguistically speaking, this terminology echoes the teachings of the old Italian school of singing as expressed by students of Francesco Lamperti and Manuel García during the early part of the 20th century, terminology which sounds increasingly foreign to our ears.

Dive into Robinson-Duff's Simple Truths Used by Great Singers (1919) and you will find references to more arcane vocal terminology, perhaps the most unusual being the exercising of the fausse nasal which appears throughout the text. What is Robinson-Duff talking about? The muscles of the nose, which Madam Calvé is reported to have exercised for two hours a day. Hello! Do voice students today know what this means? I think not. (Hint: speak and sing a clear, deep and resonant /ü/ that seems to fill the upper chest, throat, head and surrounding space with tone.)

Breath and brains are the qualifications most necessary for a singer. —Sarah Robinson-Duff, Obituary, New York Times, May 12, 1934. 

Robinson-Duff's obituary tells readers of her birth in Bangor, Maine, having descended from John Robinson—a Pilgrim minister, but curiously omits the year of her birth. Whether this is the result of vanity or reporter oversight is not known. Whatever the case, Robinson-Duff kept the Robinson family name after marrying Colonel Charles Duff at the age of eighteen.

Robinson-Duff studied voice with Mathilde Marchesi in Paris, and made her mark as a teacher of singing; first in Chicago—where she encountered fourteen-year old Mary Garden—her first pupil; then in Paris, where she taught for more than two decades before fleeing the City of Lights for New York in the wake of the first World War.

Her many students included the aforementioned Mary McCormicAlice Nielsen, Jessie Bartlett Davis, Fanchon Thompson, Nora BayesOlive FremstadFrieda Hempel, and Florence Page Kimball, the teacher of Leontyne Price. Robinson-Duff's daughter Frances (1877-1951) kept the family name and taught her mother's vocal method to many actors, including Kathryn Hepburn, Henry Miller, Helen Hayes, Dorothy Gish (sister to Lillian), and Norma Shearer.

Those curious about the Robinson-Duff-Marchesi method can find relevant material at the New York Public Library of the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. 

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