Piano and Song



(A Letter to a Young Lady Singer.)

My dear Miss ——, —You are endowed with an admirable gift for singing, and your agreeable though not naturally powerful voice has vivacity and youthful charm, as well as a fine tone: you also possess much talent in execution; yet you nevertheless share the lot of almost all your sisters in art, who, whether in Vienna, Paris, or Italy, find only teachers who are rapidly helping to annihilate the opera throughout Europe, and are ruling out of court the simple, noble, refined, and true art of singing. This modern, unnatural style of art, which merely aspires to superficial effects, and consists only in mannerisms, and which must ruin the voice in a short time, before it reaches its highest perfection, has already laid claim to you. It is scarcely possible to rescue your talent, unless, convinced that you have been falsely guided, you stop entirely for a time, and allow your voice to rest during several months, and then, [86]by correct artistic studies, and with a voice never forced or strong, often indeed weak, you improve your method of attack by the use of much less and never audible breathing, and acquire a correct, quiet guidance of the tones. You must also make use of the voice in the middle register, and strengthen the good head-tones by skilfully lowering them; you must equalize the registers of the voice by a correct and varied use of the head-tones, and by diligent practice of solfeggio. You must restore the unnaturally extended registers to their proper limits; and you have still other points to reform. Are you not aware that this frequent tremulousness of the voice, this immoderate forcing of its compass, by which the chest-register is made to interfere with the head-tones, this coquetting with the deep chest-tones, this affected, offensive, and almost inaudible nasal pianissimo, the aimless jerking out of single tones, and, in general, this whole false mode of vocal execution, must continually shock the natural sentiment of a cultivated, unprejudiced hearer, as well as of the composer and singing-teacher? What must be the effect on a voice in the middle register, when its extreme limits are forced in such a reckless manner, and when you expend as [87]much breath for a few lines of a song as a correctly educated singer would require for a whole aria? How long will it be before your voice, already weakened, and almost always forced beyond the limits of beauty, shall degenerate into a hollow, dull, guttural tone, and even into that explosive or tremulous sound, which proclaims irremediable injury? Is your beautiful voice and your talent to disappear like a meteor, as others have done? or do you hope that the soft air of Italy will in time restore a voice once ruined? I fall into a rage when I think of the many beautiful voices which have been spoiled, and have dwindled away without leaving a trace during the last forty years; and I vent my overflowing heart in a brief notice of the many singing-teachers, whose rise and influence I have watched for twenty years past.

The so-called singing-teachers whom we usually find, even in large cities and in musical institutions, I exempt from any special criticism, for they would not be able to understand my views. They permit soprano voices to sing scales in all the five vowels at once; begin with c instead of f; allow a long holding of the notes, "in order to bring out the voice," until the poor victim rolls her eyes [88]and grows dizzy. They talk only of the fine chest-tones which must be elicited, will have nothing to do with the head-tones, will not even listen to them, recognize them, or learn to distinguish them. Their highest principle is: "Fudge! we don't want any rubbish of Teschner, Miksch, and Wieck. Sing in your own plain way: what is the use of this murmuring without taking breath? For what do you have lungs if you are not to use them? Come, try this aria: 'Grâce,' 'grâce!' Produce an effect! Down on your knees!"

There are again others who allow screaming,—"the more the better,"—in order to produce power and expression in the voice, and to make it serviceable for public performances. They may, indeed, require the singing of solfeggio, and prattle about the requisite equality of the tones; and they consequently make the pupil practise diligently and strongly on the two-lined a, b flat, b, where kind Nature does not at first place the voice, because she has reserved for herself the slow and careful development of it. As for the unfortunate gasping medium voices, which are still less docile, and which sigh in the throat, and after all can only speak, such teachers postpone the cultivation of these to the future, or else they exclaim in a satisfied [89]way, "Now we will sing at sight! Hit the notes! Let us have classical music!" Of these, also, I forbear to speak.

And as for the singing-teachers, whose business it is to educate the voice for "the opera of the future," I am really unable to write about them. In the first place, I know nothing about "the future," the unborn; and, in the second place, I have more than enough to do with the present.

And now I come to those who honestly wish to teach better, and who in a measure do so. But even they are too pedantic: with prejudiced views, they pursue one-sided aims. Without looking around to the right or to the left or forwards, and without daily learning, reflecting, and striving, they run in a groove, always ride their particular hobby, cut every thing after one pattern, and use up the time in secondary matters, in incredible trifles. For the formation of a fine tone, not a minute should be lost, particularly with lady singers, who are not strong, and usually cannot or ought not to sing more than twenty days in a month, and who surely ought to be allowed to use their time in a reasonable manner. Moreover, these are the teachers whom it is most difficult to comprehend. Though they use only seven tones, they are [90]plunged in impenetrable mysteries, in incomprehensible knowledge and a multitude of so-called secrets, out of which, indeed, nothing can ever be brought to light. For this, however, they do not consider themselves to blame, not even their hobby-horses; but, as they say, "the higher powers." We will, for once, suppose that three-fourths of the measures which they are accustomed to employ in their treatment of the voice and of the individual are good and correct (the same is true of many piano-teachers); but the remaining fourth is sufficient to ruin the voice, or to prevent its proper development, and therefore nothing correct is to be gained. There are other teachers who never can get beyond the formation of the tone, and are lost in the pursuit of perfection,—that "terrestrial valley of tears." Truly a beautiful country, but which is only to be found in Paradise!

Others, instead of thinking, "I will try for the present to do better than others have done," so harass and torment the poor mortal voices with their aim at perfect equality and perfect beauty of tone, the result often is that every thing becomes unequal and far from beautiful. Some teachers make their pupils so anxious and troubled that, [91]owing to their close attention to the tone, and the breath, and the pronunciation, they sing their songs in an utterly wooden manner, and so in fact they, too, are lost in optimism and in tears; whereas, for singing, a happy confidence in the ability to succeed is essential. Others pursue an opposite course, and are guilty of worse faults, as you will see if you look around. Some of them have no standard of perfection, but use up the time in an exchange of ideas with their pupils, with mysterious and conceited "ifs" and "buts." They are very positive, but only within the narrow circle of their own ideas. They make no advance in a correct medium path. Some allow pupils to practise only staccato, and others only legato, aiming thereby at nobody knows what. Some allow them to sing too loud, others too feebly; some philosophize earnestly about beauty in the voice, and others grumble about unpleasantness in the same; some are enthusiastic about extraordinary talents, others fret about the want of talent; some have a passion for making all the sopranos sing alto, others do just the reverse; some prefer a shadowy, others a clear voice. They all rest their opinions upon the authority of some famous screaming-master who has written a singing-system. Upon [92]like authority, some cultivate chiefly the deep tones, because it is very fine, and "creates an effect," for soprano voices to be able suddenly to sing like men, or rather to growl, and because it is the fashion in Paris. Others, on the contrary, pride themselves upon the head-tones; but they are none of them willing to pay much attention to the medium voices: that is too critical and too delicate a matter, and requires too much trouble, for the modern art of singing. As a last resort, they bethink themselves of kind Nature, and lay the blame upon her.

Well, I will say no more upon this point, but will proceed. Have I not already, in my piano instructions, insisted on the importance of a gradual and careful use of every proper expedient to extend, strengthen, beautify, and preserve the voice? I am thought, however, to infringe upon the office of the singing-masters, who hold their position to be much more exalted than that of the poor piano-teacher. Still, I must be allowed to repeat that voices are much more easily injured than fingers; and that broken, rigid voices are much worse than stiff, unmanageable fingers, unless, after all, they amount to the same thing. I demand of singing-teachers that they show themselves [93]worthy of their position, and allow no more voices to go to destruction, and that they give us some satisfactory results. I believe in fact, in my homely simplicity, that the whole thing may be accomplished without any mystery, without trading in secrets or charlatanry; without the aid of modern anatomical improvement, or rather destruction, of the worn-out throat, through shortening or increasing the flexibility of the palate, through the removal of the unnecessary glands or by attempts to lengthen the vocal passage, or by remedying a great many other things in which Nature has made a mistake, and on which special doctors for the voice, in Paris and London, are now employed.

We supply the want of all these by the following little rule:—

Three trifles are essential for a good piano or singing-teacher,—

The finest taste,
The deepest feeling,
The most delicate ear,

and, in addition, the requisite knowledge, energy, and some practice. Voilà tout! I cannot devote myself to the treatment of the throat, for which I have neither time not fitness; and my lady singers [94]are so busy with the formation of true tone, and in attention to the care and preservation of their voices, that they only wish to open their mouths for that object, and not for anatomical purposes. In piano-playing also, I require no cutting of the interdigital fold, no mechanical hand-support, no accelerator for the fingers or stretching machine; and not even the "finger-rack" invented and used, without my knowledge, by a famous pupil[A] of mine, for the proper raising of the third and fourth fingers.

My dear young lady, if the Creator has made the throat badly for singing, he alone is responsible. I cannot come to his assistance by destroying the throat with lunar caustic, and then reconstructing it. If the throat is really worn out, may it not perhaps be owing to the teacher, and to his mistaken management?

Nature does many things well, and before the introduction of this modern fashion of singing produced many beautiful voices: has she all at once become incapable of doing any thing right?

[95]We will, then, simply return to the three trifles above-mentioned; and in these we will live and work "with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our mind."


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