Tubbs & Sangiovanni

Frank Herbert Tubbs, who recently appeared on these pages in connection with the father of voice science, now gives the reader an account of  his studies with Antonio Sangivoanni, considered one the great vocal maestros of the late 19th century.

There weren't many you understand, unlike today, where you can't turn around without bumping into someone who gives "masterclasses" and considers him or herself the be-all-and-end-all of vocal wisdom by virtue of a neatly acquired doctorate and time spent in the voice lab. No. Back in Tubbs' day, a voice teacher's reputation was acquired through the success or failure of one's students, which Pauline Viardot-García—another great teacher of the period—adroitly summed up as Students make the teacher!

Close examination of Tubbs' account reveals three things: 1) Sangiovanni was more a of producer than he was a vocal technician (he had his own theatre, which Tubbs neglects to mention); 2) modified the vocal writing of great works to suit the singer—an unthinkable proposition today; and 3) taught self-mastery through agility, which separated the wheat from the chaff.

Not for the faint of heart: there was no getting ready to be ready with Sangiovanni. You either had the vocals goods or you did not.


It is a long journey from London, the home of García and Shakespeare, to sunny Italy, where may be found Signor Antonio Sangiovanni. To an Englishman it is the acme of foreign travel to go to Italy. It is to him what is is to an American to go to Europse,—the dream of a life time—how often never realized! But we who are accustomed to long distances think little of the trip as a journey. It is not as far as from New York to the Mississippi, a journey undertaken at a moment's notice by our merchants, and that very frequently. 

To students in Europe, the trip is of little trouble, for on the way, by whichever route one goes, there are cities noted for culture, and excellent music may be heard at each. Since we are in Europe for musical education, we may and must take advantage of study in all ways and forms. So a stop of a few days or even weeks in any of the musical centers will be repaid. The work of the teacher is in one form and direction; it may be not more important than that education obtained at the opera, the concert and the theatre. 

Probably most of us, in going from London to Italy, would cross the channel and go to Paris. One must visit the Grand Opera house or his European education is incomplete. The opportunities for vocal study at public performances, at Paris are very many, but the Grand Opera receives the most thought. This may be because the building itself is so noted and from the fact that the Grand Opera has government support. The operatic presentations are open to every serious, adverse criticism. The Opera Comique furnishes better food for artistic appetites. 

Should one go to Italy by the German route—by the Rhine,—he would learn something of the study of oratorio in the German manner in the Rhine Province, as he would travel through Düsseldorf, Cologne and Mayence; while he would also be within reach of the musical centers, Frankfort-on-the-Main and Stuttgart. One can hardy make a journey on the continent of Europe and be far away from cities renowned for fostering the art of music. 

Italy once reached, it is found that in every city men, whose names have been familiar since one's musical study began, are located. Milan is to be sure, the grand "Mecca" of vocalists. Here they centre for engagements, and most artists improve the days, and it may be weeks of waiting by "passing" a few of their operas. The demand (in the way of teachers) regulates the supply, in kind as well as in amount. So-called singing-teachers locate there, and offer their services at ridiculously low prices. Their attempts, as a rule, are to teach the arias of the opera, and they very seldom try to improve to any degree the voice itself. They are content to teach the artistic rendering of the operas; and if the singer "gets his notes" the teacher is satisfied. How he gets them is a matter receiving little attention. If sung badly, the singer has a bad voice, or course. If well, "una bella voce!" The fact that a voice can be immeasurably improved by judicious practice, is considered by only a few teachers. The reason is at hand: the Italian language is so musical in itself, it has so few impediments to a good flow of tone, that the Italians have very little trouble to sing. We Americans, laboring under the unfortunate complications of consonantal speech, do not so naturally adjust the voice-producing portions as do the Italians, and therefore require more and more careful drill. The few teachers in Italy who recognize the situation and regulate their teaching accordingly, command attention and became very soon known, not only in Italy but in England and America. They can be counted upon one's fingers. To the fact that Italian teachers, living at home in Italy, do not understand cultivation of the voice, is due the great number of failures of persons who go from America with bright prospects and full of hope. Hours of practice every day on the most florid and difficult music written, unless done very carefully, will destroy nearly every voice. 

Signor Antonio Sangiovanni certainly has his full share of Americans. It will be remembered that he made two or more tours through the United Sates some years ago. He learned something of the necessitates of the American vocalist, and while attempting to develop the voice while studying arias, he does not ignore exercise practice. He says very little about method. One would think, perhaps, that he disregarded it entirely. Not so, however. Surely, he tries to cultivate the voice sufficiently for singing Italian opera, and recognizes the need of great flexibility, power to sustain tone long and smoothly, and the control of one's self sufficiently to give expression to the words. He also attempts to extend the compass of the voice. 

The increased agility is sought by rapid singing. Runs up and down the scale, exercises in arpeggios, rapid skips and the like, are written by Signor Sangiovanni in almost endless variety. The way in which they are sung enters little into the plan, so long as they are quickly sounded. That is, quality and power are not regarded in practicing these exercises. Faster and faster they must go. After rapidity has been attained, exercises with the many embellishments peculiar to Italian music are introduced. 

Sustaining power is to be gained under the method of Signor Sangiovanni, by singing the lengthy runs of the arias. He does not permit many breaks for breathing. "They whole should be sung together, and you can do it if you take a big breath and save it." So, over and over, those runs must be sung until they can be given without a stop for breath. In this particular, there is a great difference between the methods of the two teachers, García and Shakespeare, already described, and that of Sangiovanni. The former by careful exercise practice, each in his peculiar way, prepare the respiratory apparatus for aria singing upon the preliminary exercise drill; the latter obtains this exercise while studying the arias themselves. 

It is to his ability to stimulate into growth the artistic sentiment of the pupil, and to his great knowledge of the Italian opera that Sangiovanni owes his greatness. He is a man of refinement, of musical feeling, with musical judgment as well He fearlessly changes the music which he teaches, adding a cadenza here, introducing an embellishment there and sometimes making a portion of an area hardly recognizable. Since he has such knowledge of the opera and such excellent taste, he changes are very welcome, for they are thoroughly in keeping with the style and spirit of the composition. Oftentimes he will adapt a small portion of an aria, which, as originally written, would be out of his power. Modern music is no so used, but a copy of "Ah! non giunge" from "Sonnambula," now before me, has only eleven measures left intact; the aria, "Tu che adoro," marked for Mr. Scovel is greatly changed, and a page of "Ecco ridente in cielo" from "Il Barbiere," which was scored for the writer of this article, looks like manuscript music written over an old page of musical print. Such a course would be utterly impossible to a teacher of limited acquaintance with artists of the Italian school of music. But Sangiovanni has had long familiarity with his work and an acquaintance not only with the artists, but with the composers themselves, and classed among his intimate friends such gifted men as Rossini, Auber and Ponchielli.

In all the large Italian cities similar teachers are to be found. Yet the student should go well advises where to locate. There are so many, many poor teachers, and one finds himself, although as he supposes, well-advised, falling into the hands of a good-for-nothing, or what is worse, a charlatan. For instance, the writer was to stop at Florence to study the art treasures of the Florentine museums for about five weeks. Of course, he was anxious to "pick up ideas" wherever and whenever he could. Vannuccini, who is highly praised by all his pupils, and who, the writer believes, is a good teacher, was about to leave for London. It was of no use to begin with him. Three musicians were asked to name a teacher. Two named the same one, and, as he was praised in other quarters, he was sought, and lessons with him were begun. But in a few days it was apparent that he knew comparatively little about music, and still less about the development of the human voice. In spite of the effort to retain the pupil, the lessons were stopped. Had all students the advantage of previous knowledge of the voice obtained from good masters, such teachers would loose their clientage very quickly. Judging from the little item of experience about noted, it would not be best to try Florence for vocal study while Vannuccini is away.

It is not the purpose of these articles to refer to the methods upon hearsay; yet, since some might ask, "Are there no teachers in all Italy save Sangiovanni and Vannuccinni?" it is well to call attention to the remark before made, that "in every city men, whose names have been familiar since one's musical study began, are located." Italy is home of Lamperti, Ronzi, of others who may safely be selected. The list is not large. To repeat words used before: "Can you tell the best course and who teaches it? If so, go to that master."

The Voice: Devoted to the Human Voice in All Its Phases, April, 1886: 54-55