The Simple Method of Francesco Cortesi

My main difficulty in "placing" has been in getting a sufficiently bright tone—all my middle and upper voice being deficient in frankness. Doubtless you remember how I had been taught to sing "open" tones up to (middle C) and thence upward to make "covered" ones. The quoted words are, perhaps as good terms to apply as any, but the trouble is that I had not learned how to direct my voice so as to keep any definite texture in it, and the result was that all the tones below in C were veiled, uncertain on intonation, and wholly lacking in character of timbre, whole those above were forced into such pose as they had, and were quite incapable of modulation. In brief, there was almost nothing spontaneous and sure in my entire range. 

At first, with habit and wrong ideas so strongly fixed, it was most difficult to get any tone freely and frankly delivered, but the maestro's patience conquered gradually. For several lessons that dreaded tone (middle C) would come in the old way—dead in sound, devoid of resonance. One Friday he said to me: "Now we can get no further until that tone is given freely and clearly." That was enough for me to know. Taking a full breath I tore out the tone, doing something with it that convinced me that at least it was not impossible to get out of the old groove. The treatment was heroic, perhaps even perilous, but it was radical and proved the maestro's point—that the old ways could be broken and changed. I did not sing again until the following Monday, but was then able to go on with less mental obstruction. No singer can tell until he has been tried, the paralyzing power of false theories, and especially those which are base upon what little we can know of the muscular operations in the singing throat. 

The struggle with the middle C was not, let me explain, for the sake of getting an "open" tone thereon, but to wrench myself away from old mannerisms of production—things learned from so-called "scientific" teachers. The particular trouble in this matter was that I had been taught to press the larynx down as far as possible. The result was the dull, veiled middle tones, and no mental sense of directing the voice so as to produce anything firmer and brighter. Pressing down the larynx, forsooth! One might as well attempt to cool this July weather by pushing down the mercury in the thermometer. Larynx, tongue uvula—all are perhaps in some measure indicators of what is going on, but it is folly to work directly with or upon them in order to place a voice. None of the teachers who muddle over anatomical matter in detail, and thereby create a distressing and hampering consciousness of muscular arrangement, ever turn out an artist—one who makes a really legitimate and successful career. 

—Francis Walker, Letters of a Baritone (1895): 106-109. Walker was a student of Francesco Cortesi.


Francis Walker, the well-known baritone, teacher and lecturer, opens the seventh annual session of his summer school of singing in Florence, Italy, on June 27, and with every prospect of a large measure of success. His own personally conducted party will consist of twenty-five people, who will sail with him on June 3, in the Palatia, of the Hamburg-American Line, and will go to Naples, there spending four days to visit Capri, the Blue Grotto, Sorrento, and Pompeii. Thence the party will go to Rome for five days before proceeding to Florence. In the Tuscan capital the school will be housed in a hotel to make which, some forty years ago, three medieval palaces situated on the Arno were put together. A year ago it was renovated and prepared especially for the school. so that now it possesses all its old time charm of quaintness, and yet is modernized and made convenient in every detail.

Mr. Walker’s list will soon be closed as far as the company sailing June 3 is concerned, but with a house of one hundred rooms he is prepared to accommodate a large number of students. Most of them will go to profit by study with the Italian maestro di canto, Signor Francesco Cortesi. There will also be a special class of students of drawing and painting taught by Alfred Houghton Clark, of New York, and the school will include a limited number who go for a summer rest rather than exacting study, and will undertake only a language or a course of art lectures. With a long list of competent instructors the curriculum is so varied and attractive as to suit students in many lines of work.

Mr. Walker’s school is the only one of its kind in Europe. It has passed through all the preparatory stages and vicissitudes natural to such an enterprise and is now on a solid basis and has demonstrated its worth. Florence is its home by every right and for every reason. The climate is lovely, the heat far front excessive, and, indeed, in no part of Italy is there such torrid heat to be found as here on our Atlantic seaboard. Then Florence contains all that students of any art need to stimulate the imagination and open all temperamental avenues of expression. Finally, the conditions found there enable Mr. Walker to offer all the advantages of his school at an almost incredibly low rate, at the same time giving thorough daily instruction in most branches.

Francis Walker, after several years of arduous and scholarly work under the management of a lecture bureau, has now been settled one season in New York, as a teacher of singing and has already shown his worth as a trainer of voices and gained a position strong and unique. With Signor Cortesi he shares the work of superintending the vocal teaching during the term in Florence, and supplements the maestro’s experience and his acquaintance with the best traditions with a knowledge of the peculiar needs of American singers. and a keen appreciation of their difficulties with the Italian and English languages. Ten weeks may seem a brief time in which to afford students much aid, but it must be remembered that individual difficulties are taken in hand at once and eradicated or lessened by reasonable teaching, and that daily private lessons for ten weeks mean the formation of good habits of tone'production in place of wrong ones, so that the benefit is continuous and far reaching. No one better than Mr. Walker understands that the process of training a voice is not one of imparting either facts or theories to the intelligence of the student, but most distinctly that of giving him, by constant repetition of right results, the power to reproduce those results at will.

New York has no more attractive studio than the spacious one in the van Dyck, built for Mr. Walker last autumn, and it has been the scene of many musicales in which the celebrated baritone, and his friends and pupils have taken part in the presence of crowds of the city's music lovers. Special receptions have also been given to artists visiting New York, as in the recent case of Mme. Eleanor Cleaver and Ingo Simon. These singers, by the way, have been for three years studying with Delle Sedie, in Paris, and learning that he and Signor Cortesi were old friends and advocates of the best Italian traditions and methods, they were not long in deciding to join Mr. Walker's school on the close of the present London season, and profit by a summer with the Florentine master.

The Musical Courier, April 30, 1902: 35. 


On Wednesday morning, May 5, Francis Walker died at his home in San Diego, Cal., having been a sufferer from heart trouble for several years although not actually incapacitated until two months ago. Funeral services were conducted Friday morning, May 7, cremation following. Mr. Walker was unmarried, but leaves three brothers, C. P. Walker and J. M. Walker of Winnipeg. Canada, and F. P. Walker of Fargo, N. D.; a sister, Mrs. W. B. Ruggles, of Scotia, N. Y., and a number of nephews and nieces.

Before his retirement from public life in 1903, Mr. Walker was one of the best known and most admired baritones on the American concert stage. He determined to become a singer while still a mere lad, and studied as best he could in the small western town where he lived. Later he went to Chicago where he studied with Dr. George F. Root, followed by years of concert work and appearances in light opera, a field in which he was particularly successful. But he was not satisfied with the progress he was making in music, and accordingly went to Italy. Late in December of 1882, he reached Florence, where he spent five years of study under the guidance of Cavaliers Francesco Cortesi. 

The Musical Courier, May 20, 1920: 41. 


One can scarcely pick up a musical journal in these days without finding some remarks about how to sing or how not to sing, some going into the matter very thoroughly from a physiological standpoint, etc., etc., and then one constantly hears of some one who has discovered just how the art of singing is accomplished and has an infallible guide for all who would wish to learn. 

Most of the stuff that one reads on the subject of the “only method,” etc., is pure buncombe, and those who want to learn should deliberately forget about all that they read on the subject. 

I have in mind now a man who was here this season for study, who was so full of theories that no one could teach him anything. He had books without end, and was continually quoting what this one or that one said, and, in fact, I am afraid that he paid more attention to the “method” as he had tried to learn it from books than to what his master had to say. 

Then there are those who have found various “helps" for placing the tone, position and the like. 

I never had any singing lessons in my life before I came to Italy, but I had sung a great deal Semi-professionally in church and in concerts, and have had teachers tell me to do thus and so to improve the quality of tone. Once upon a time when I was working up something for a concert the conductor, who claimed to be an authority on voice building, gave me this sort of an exercise. Said he, “bend over until your hands nearly touch the floor, but let the body be perfectly limp and free, and then sing "la, loo, la, loo,” this to get the tone “out” he said. 

I was listening to a teacher once, a man who sings very well and ought to know how he does it, but his directions to a scholar while practicing a song were, “Now raise the larynx or now lower the larynx'' I asked this man once with whom he studied Oh! I studied vowels with Professor ——, and consonants with Professor ——, he said. 

Another man whom I know has his scholars use a different vowel sound for each note of the scale, and so on. 

I once read a book on the voice and how it is produced, written by men who are undoubtedly experts so far as the physiological part goes, and later I bought a book of vocal exercises written by them on the physiological basis, and I practiced faithfully the vocalises as set forth, but did not see that they did me any good whatever. 

A writer of prominence, one of whose articles I was reading a few days ago, speaking of the method as taught by the old Italian masters, said that “they understood the art of teaching people to sing, but did not know anything about the principles of voice production.” Well, Va bene, say I, for the old masters; give me first the man who will teach me how to sing, and if I never learn why I sing well, it will not make a great deal of difference. 

As I said before I have sung a great deal all of my life, and thought that I sang fairly well, although I was concious that there was something lacking in the quality of tone that I produced, and some trying things in the baritone repertoire I could not sing at all, because my voice would not last long enough. When I decided to come to Italy to study, I made up my mind first that I would proceed as if I knew nothing and had no idea on the subject of singing, but would £nd entirely on the masters and do just as I was told. 

And then, as to the maestro, I came over here to study with Sig. Francesco Cortesi, as I was confident that he was thoroughly competent, having known of several who, when they went to him, were poor singers and when they finished were artists. 

Sig. Cortesi is a veritable master of the old school, having graduated from the conservatory at Bologna when Rossini was its president, and in those days a musical education embraced all branches, and especially the art of singing. 

Think of the teachers in our fair land and how few of them ever made a study of singing before they began teaching. One young man I know of, who never, to any one's knowledge, studied singing at all tho' an amateur organist of some ability is now teaching successfully, from a business standpoint. Another I heard of last summer, who for many years was a leading violinist in New York, and another was a piano teacher of prominence, but now they are giving vocal lessons at, of course, $5 or $6 per lesson. 

When I commenced the lessons, I was told first to go every day for one-half hour, and all that the master said about my voice was that it was too open and the tone should be “covered” or gotten “forward” more. These terms I had heard many times, but never understood the significance of them until I was given exercises to sing which compelled me to ‘‘cover.’’ 

What struck me at first was the absolute simplicity of the method; nothing mysterious about it, no suggestions as to “bending double,” pinching the nose shut or any directions except to stand erect, hands folded behind the back and sing ah “naturale.” 

The first exercise consisted of octave skips, commencing at A below middle C, sung to the syllable la staccato, and sung three times until E above middle C was reached. After that came an exercise consisting of an octave skip as above, to the syllable ah, and from the top of the scale rapidly down and then up again; and then scales in various modes to limber up the voice, get a good breathing method, etc. At every lesson the scales would occupy ten or fifteen minutes. The next step were solfeggi, which were sung first to the syllable la, and afterward to the do, re, mi, etc., this to get elasticity of the mouth. 

The do, re, mi exercises bothered me greatly for awhile, as in Italy C, C# or Cflat is always sung as do, but I finally managed so that I could rattle off the syllables pretty well. 

At first it seemed pretty hard to “cover" so much, and it seemed as if my voice sounded very nasal, and it was also very difficult to get through a half-hour lesson with comfort, and I was not allowed to practice anything at home except a few scales, for say ten minutes before I went to my lessons. 

Some teachers, whom I know and have heard of, get their pupils started on something to sing. “A little song” right away, but not so with the maestro, for two weeks or more I did nothing but sing scales and solfeggi, and then I was given two little short things, one by Rossini, from the Cenerentola, and the other by Mercadante. Then I got nothing new for two or three weeks more but by this time I was told to buy a simple aria, by Donizetti, and later took up a very florid aria, by Mercadante. By and by the old Italian method began to show its effect. I began to feel and hear more color in my voice, and it began to “come’’ much easier, and after four or five months of work I found that I could sing without fatigue, music that before I came here seemed to me to be cruelly difficult and well-nigh impossible for a baritone. 

But enough about myself, else I will be accused of bragging. 

And how is it all done? Well, I say simplicity personified no mystery whatever; no model of a larynx to show how one's throat should work; in fact, all thought of the throat would seem to be eliminated, and all effort concentrated on putting the tone forward or in the head, by simply wanting it to go there assisted, of course, by vocalises that help to accomplish the desired result. 

But there is another branch of the old Italian method which is almost unknown in the United States, and that is the “lingua Italiana,” and it is certainly a great help in voice placing, and the pronunciation must be good to get the best results. We Americans and, in fact, all English speaking people are apt to articulate either in a throaty or nasal way, but in speaking Italian as “she should be spoke,” clear and distinct enunciation must be secured, and the quicker that is accomplished the easier will it be to sing freely. 

Now a word to those who would come here to study, if any there be who read these few lines of mine. 

Get a room for the winter with plenty of sunshine, as Italian stoves are none to good and it is hard to make an Italian servant understand that we Americans want a warm room. Don't go to a fashionable hotel or pension, as there will be too much going on in the society line. Don't go out every night in the week expecting to be strong and fresh all of the time for the musical work. The body must be fresh if the throat would be. 

Do not practice, in any manner, except as prescribed by the master. I know of a young man who was so enamoured of a fine tenor whom he heard sing very often, that he continually kept at work reaching for high tenor notes until he had a sore and strained throat, and then he had to stop entirely for a month or more. 

Do not be in a hurry to get your voice placed. Have patience and follow implicitly the instructions of the master; eventually complete satisfaction will follow. Last of all, do not go to a poor teacher; there are as many of that class here as in any city of the same size in America, I think.

Florence, Italy. 

—Thomas Pennell, "The Old Italian Method as Taught by a Master of the Old School," The Musician, November, 1897: 301. 


A school desiring the services of a faithful, conscientious teacher of singing, according to the best traditions of the old Italian meihod, would do well to correspond with Mr. Thomas J. Pennell, 20 Cliff street, New Rochelle, N.Y. Mr. Pennell will be glad to arrange for private lessons at his studio in New York City during the coming season. Appointments for personal interview may be made by addressing him at his residence as above. Mr. Pennell is a pupil of Cavaliere Francesco Cortesi, of Florence, Italy.  

Christian Work: Illustrated Family Newspaper, September 14, 1899: 435. 


Francesco Cortesi, insegnante di canto nel R. Istituto Musicale di Firenze, morì il 3 gennaio scorso. Era nato nel 1826. Apparteneva ad una famiglia di artisti. Suo padre fu un celebre coreografo; sua sorella, Adele, fu una tra le più reputate cantanti del suo tempo e si ritirava dalla scena per unirsi in matrimonio col banchiere Servadio.

Francesco Cortesi e il senese Pinsuti avevano udito a Bologna le lezioni di composizione, date da Gioachino Rossini, direttore e insegnante in quel Liceo.

Il Cortesi scrisse varie opere, tra le altre La colpa del cuore, eseguita al Regio di Torino nel 1872 e anche al Pagliano di Firenze, in quest'opera, ch’ebbe lieto successo, i critici riscontrarono molti pregi. La Casa Editrice Ricordi ha pubblicato varie pregevoli composizioni dell'esimio maestro. Per un lungo periodo di anni, il Cortesi fu maestro concertatore in alcuni dei principali teatri d'Italia. Era ormai fra i decani dei l'insegnamento musicale. Fece ottimi alunni. Come estetico, professò principi larghissimi.

Ars et labor: musica e musicisti, 1904: 121.