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Piano and Song

CHAPTER IX.

THOUGHTS ON SINGING.

Our vocal composers, followed by many singing-teachers and singing institutions, have almost banished from music the true art of singing; or, at least, have introduced an unnatural, faulty, and always disagreeable mode of delivery, by which the voice has been destroyed, even before it has attained its full development. The consideration of this fact induces me to communicate some portions from my journal, and to unite with them a few opinions of the noted singing-master, Teschner, of Berlin.


Must we again and again explain to German composers that, though we do not require them to compose in Italian, they ought, at least, to learn to write in German in a manner suited for singing? otherwise, in their amazing ignorance and infatuation, they will wear out the powers of opera singers, and torture the public, apparently without a suspicion [97]that it is possible to write both grand and light operas with true, characteristic German thoroughness. Even German opera requires a constant attention to the right use of the voice, and a methodical, effective mode of singing. It tolerates no murderous attacks on single male and female voices, or on the full opera company; it is opposed to that eager searching after superficial effect, which every sincere friend of the opera must lament.

Is it, then, so difficult to obtain the requisite knowledge of the human voice, and to study the scores of Gluck, Haydn, Mozart, Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti with a special regard to this? Do our vocal composers make too great a sacrifice to their creative genius in making a study of those things which are essential? You consider it mortifying to inquire of those who understand singing, and you are sensitive about any disturbance of your vain over-estimate of your own powers; but you are not ashamed to cause the destruction of man's noblest gift,—the human voice! If taste, feeling, and a fine ear are, and always must be, the chief requirements in composing for the great public, I ask you how you can lay claim to these three trifles, when you constantly violate them?

[98]Composer. If Mrs. N. had executed my aria to-day in as earnest and masterly a style, and with as agreeable a voice, as she did that of Rossini yesterday, she would have given as much satisfaction; for it is much more interesting and expressive both musically and harmonically, and written with more dramatic effect.

Singer. You make a mistake, and you always will do so, as long as you consider the study of the voice as of secondary importance, or, in fact, pay no attention whatever to it. The latter aria, which is composed with a regard to the voice, and to the employment of its most agreeable tones, puts me into a comfortable mood, and gives me a feeling of success; yours, on the contrary, into one of dissatisfaction and anticipation of failure. Of what importance is the musical value of a composition, if it can only be sung with doubtful success, and if the voice is obliged to struggle with it, instead of having it under control? You attach less importance to the free, agreeable exercise of the voice than does the unanimous public. I do not wish to excite compassion, but to give pleasure by a beautifully developed style of singing. You pay some attention to adaptability to the piano or the violin: why are you usually regardless of fitness for the voice?

[99]Critics have often asked, Why does Jenny Lind sing so coolly? why does she not sing grand, passionate parts? why does she not select for her performances some of the later German or even Italian operas? why does she always sing Amina, Lucia, Norma, Susanna, &c.? In reply to these and similar questions, I will ask, Why does she wish always to remain Jenny Lind? why does she endeavor to preserve her voice as long as possible? why does she select operas in which she may use her pure, artistic, refined mode of singing, which permits no mannerism, no hypocritical sentiment, and which possesses an ideal beauty? why does she choose operas in which she can give the most perfect possible image of her own personality? why operas in which she may allow the marvellous union of her powers of song to shine conspicuously, without doing violence to her voice and forcing its tones, or casting doubt upon her lofty, noble, and beautiful art? why does she first regard the singing, and only afterwards the music, or both united? This is the answer to the same questions which are likewise asked about Henrietta Sontag and all great singers. Even the passionate Schröder-Devrient seldom made an exception to this rule, although she was not independent of the theatres.

[100]These questions should be an urgent warning to our young female singers not to sacrifice themselves to any of the modern screaming operas, unsuited for singing; but to preserve and watch over their voices, and to guard them from immoderate, continued, and often inartistic exertion; in fact, to sing always in the voice-register with which nature has endowed them, and never to shriek; to renounce the present, fashionable, so-called "singing effects," and the modern scene-screaming, as Jenny Lind and Henrietta Sontag have always done. Then their voices would remain useful for the opera, as was formerly the case, from ten to twenty years; and they would not have to mourn, as is too common, after a very short time, a feeble, broken voice and departed health.

Let Jenny Lind and Henrietta Sontag be placed as the finest models before our young, gifted, ambitious singers. They are to be regarded as miraculous phenomena; especially in our times, when the modern style of singing has, for reasons difficult to justify, so widely deviated from the old school which was so fruitful in brilliant results,—that of Pistocchi, Porpora, and Bernacchi. What could show more clearly the destructiveness of our present opera style than the sublime beauty of their [101]singing, combined with their noble, refined, sound voices, such as may perhaps still be found among you?


The managers of our theatres are in want of tenor singers who can act. They should consider that tenors who have any voices left have never learned to act, and tenors who are able to act no longer have any voices; because, as a rule, they either have studied too little, or have studied erroneously. Unless the voice has received a correct and fine culture, the German comic operas lead immediately to destruction of the voice, especially of the sensitive, easily injured German tenor voice.

Here I take occasion to remark upon the universal prejudice, that "a tenor ought to develop the chest-tones as far as possible, that they are the finest." In tenors, with very few exceptions, this mistaken treatment has been speedily followed by the loss both of voice and health. Nicely shaded singing, from piano onwards, is thereby rendered impossible; and tones which are always forced must remain unpleasant, even although powers thus laboriously gained may sometimes have a fine effect in the opera. A tenor who wishes to preserve his voice and not to scream in the upper [102]tones, who desires always to have a piano at command and to possess the necessary shading and lightness as well as elegance and flexibility, should cultivate the falsetto, and endeavor to bring it down as far as possible into the chest-register. This is as indispensable as is the use of the head-tones for the soprano. When the falsetto has too striking a resemblance to the chest-voice, and is even inferior to it in power, it is the result of want of perseverance and prudence in its cultivation. It ought to be almost imperceptibly connected with the chest-register by the introduction of the mixed tones.


We shall probably soon be called upon to read an "Address of Young Female Singers to the Composers of Germany," as follows: "Freedom of thought! freedom in composition! freedom in the opera! but no annihilation of the throat! You are hereby notified that we protest against all operas which are repugnant to the true art of singing; for it is not in your power to compensate us for the loss of our voices, although it may be possible for you, after using up our talent as quickly as possible, to look around for others, with whom you can do the same. First learn to understand [103]singing, or, rather, first learn to sing, as your predecessors have done, and as Italian composers still do, and then we will talk with you again."


"What a pedantic outcry about German want of adaptability for singing! Pray where is there the most singing?" It is, I agree, in Germany. "Is not singing taught in the public schools? And consider, too, the innumerable singing clubs, singing societies, and singing institutions!"

That is just the misfortune which requires a thorough investigation. How many promising voices do these institutions annually follow to the grave? Who is it who sing in the schools? Boys and girls from thirteen to fifteen years old. But boys ought not to be allowed to sing while the voice is changing; and girls, also from physical reasons, ought not to sing at all at that age. And what kind of instructors teach singing here? Our epistolary and over-wise age overwhelms our superintendents and corporations with innumerable petitions and proposals; but no true friend of humanity, of music, and of singing, has yet been found to enlighten these authorities, and to prove to them that the most beautiful voices and finest talents are killed in the germ by these unsuitable so-called [104]singing-lessons, especially in the public schools. Girls' voices may be carefully awakened, and skilfully practised, and made flexible and musical; but they should be used only in mezzo-voce, and only until the period of their development, or up to the thirteenth year, or a few months sooner or later. This ought also to be done with great experience, delicacy, practical knowledge and circumspection. But where are we to find suitable singing-professors, and who is to pay them a sufficient salary? Therefore, away with this erroneous instruction of children in singing! away with this abortion of philanthropy and the musical folly of this extravagant age! Can such a premature, unrefined, faulty screaming of children, or croaking in their throats, without artistic cultivation and guidance, compensate for the later inevitable hoarseness and loss of voice, and for the destruction of the organs of singing?

The tenors who belong to these singing societies and institutions force out and sacrifice their uncultured voices, and scream with throat, palate, and nasal tones, in the execution of four-part songs by this or that famous composer, which are far from beautiful, and which serve only to ruin the voice. Who was the lady who sang the solo in [105]yonder singing academy? That girl, a year ago, had a fresh, beautiful, sonorous voice; but, although she is only twenty years old, it already begins to fail her, and she screws and forces it, by the help of the chest-tones, up to the two-lined a, without any thing having ever been done for the adjustment of the voice-registers and for the use of the head-tones, and without proper direction from a competent superintendent. Instead of this, he was continually exclaiming: "Loud! forcibly! con espressione!"

While even the street boys in Italy sing clearly, and often with great ability, their national songs, so well suited to the voice, and in their most beautiful language, our northern voices, which are obliged to contend with the great difficulties of the German language, are sacrificed in the most cold-blooded and self-satisfied manner in the schools and singing societies, while all artistic preparation, by which alone the voice may be preserved and cultivated, is neglected.

Who are at the head of these institutions and societies? Musicians it is true; but they are strangers to any special education in singing, or are not skilful singing-teachers, who understand how to combine methodical cultivation of the voice [106]with practical execution. Their entire instruction consists, at most, in hitting the notes and keeping time. These musicians say: "Whoever joins my society must know how to sing!" What does that mean? Where are they to learn it? And, even when you have succeeded in obtaining for your academy a few imprudent but well-taught singers, does not the preservation of their voices then require the greatest care and watchfulness? Is that in your power? Have you the requisite knowledge for it? Are not these few well-educated voices obliged to sing by the side of singers who have been taught in a wrong manner, and who have no pure, correct intonation? Then what do these societies amount to? Do they improve or destroy the voice? They make the members musical. A fine consolation for the loss of the voice! They teach them to hit the notes and to keep time. A great comfort after the voice has been destroyed by false culture!


A singing-teacher who has no firm, decided principle, who is constantly wavering backwards and forwards, and who frequently leads others into error by his untenable opinions; who cannot quickly discern the special talent and capacity of his pupils, [107]or discover the proper means to get rid of what is false or wrong, and adopt the speediest road to success, without any one-sided theories of perfection; who mistrusts and blames, worries, offends, and depresses, instead of encouraging; who is always dissatisfied instead of cordially acknowledging what is good in the pupil; who at one time rides a high horse instead of kindly offering a helping hand, and at another time praises as extravagantly as he before has blamed, and kills time in such ways as these,—he may be an encyclopædia of knowledge, but his success will always fall short of his hopes. Firmness, decision, energy, and a delicate, quick perception; the art not to say too much or too little, and to be quite clear in his own mind, and with constant considerate kindness to increase the courage and confidence of his pupils,—these are requisite above all things for a singing-master as well as for a piano-teacher.


"My singers are to be educated for the public, for the stage, and must therefore sing loud, study hard, force their execution, and make use of a great deal of breath. How else will they be able to produce an effect?"

Answer. What, then, is the effect of your culture? [108]I know of none, except that they at first are applauded, because they are young and pretty, and are novelties; because they have good voices, and the benevolent public wishes to encourage them; and then they disappear in a year or two without leaving any trace.

"The singing-teacher can succeed in cultivating not more than one good voice in twenty, with any noteworthy result. Hence the decadence of the art of singing."

Answer. Unless some unusual disturbance or sickness occur, all voices improve till the twenty-fourth year. When this is not the case, it is to be attributed only to the singing-teacher.

"Many voices acquire a sharp tone, which is the precursor of decay."

Answer. All voices are, and will remain, more or less tender, if their culture is correct.

"Only Jenny Lind and Henrietta Sontag were allowed by the public to give out their voices naturally and lightly without straining them, and to sing piano and pianissimo, and their celebrity is a justification of this privilege."

Answer. But how would they have obtained their celebrity, if this were not the true, correct, and pure mode of singing?

[109]"Our singers also try the piano and pianissimo; but they can produce no effect on their audiences by it, as you may see every day."

Answer. Good heavens! I should think so! With such a piano, with strained voices, faulty attack, and the use of too much breath,—a piano which only gurgles in the throat, or deeper! That I do not mean: I must refer you again to the three trifles mentioned in my eighth chapter.

"But some voices have no piano, and many singers do not take the right course to acquire it."

Answer. What a wide-spread, groundless excuse! Here we may see the error of our times. People look for the fault outside of themselves, and not in themselves. The inventive power of the age is here truly astonishing! When, owing to false management, the voice soon degenerates instead of improving with time, it is the consequence of a faulty formation of the throat, and of the neglect of London throat brushes! If such badly educated voices can no longer produce a piano, it is owing to the unskilfulness of nature, and to the false construction of the necessary organs! If the piano is only a wheeze, the reason is found in the deficiency of palate, and excess of [110]muscles! If several times in the month, the worn out, weary voice can only groan and sigh, or cannot emit a sound, it is the result of a change in the weather, or other meteorological conditions! If we complain of unpleasant, shrieking tones, occasioned by the mouth being too widely stretched, then "the rays of sound take an oblique, instead of a direct course"! If the poor, strained medium voice, even with the help of a great deal of breath, can only produce dull, hollow, veiled, and unpleasant tones, that is said to be a necessary crisis, of which cruel Nature requires a great many in the course of her development of the voice! Finally, if from long and forced holding of the chest-tones, they are changed into noises like the bellowing of calves and the quacking of ducks, and the instructor finally perceives it, then again we have a crisis! And, alas! no one thinks of "the three trifles."


What occasions the want of success of our singing-teachers, many of whom are musical, possess a delicate ear, fine culture and feeling, have studied systems of singing, and exert themselves zealously to teach rightly?

They fail in the culture of the tone, which is not to be learned from books or by one's self, but only [111]from verbal communication. To learn to produce a clear tone, with a light, free, natural attack; to understand how to draw forth the sound with the use of no unnecessary breath, and to cause the sound to strike against the roof of the mouth above the upper row of teeth; to improve the pronunciation; to adjust the registers,—these, with many other things, may seem very easy; but to teach them all in the shortest time, without wearing out the voice and without falling into errors; to persevere in teaching to the end, even if the pupil already sings correctly; to know what is still wanting and how it is to be attained,—all these one must acquire by long and constant experience.

When Schröder-Devrient came from Vienna to Dresden, a young but already celebrated singer, though at that time wanting in the proper foundation for singing, she was not a little surprised when Miksch called her attention to this deficiency. She devoted herself thoroughly to the primary formation of the tone under the instruction of Miksch, and must still remember the old master, and his extraordinary practice in this particular. Miksch learned it from Caselli, a pupil of Bernacchi. He had just sung as a young tenor, with great applause, in a concert, and introduced himself to [112]Caselli, who was present, expecting to receive his approbation; but the latter, instead of commending, assured him frankly that his mode of singing was false, and that with such misuse his voice would succumb within a year, unless he adopted a correct culture of tone. After much hard struggle, the young Miksch renounced all further public applause, and studied the formation of tone assiduously and perseveringly with Caselli, after having previously allowed his over-strained voice a time for rest.

If a singing-teacher has, by chance, met with a docile pupil, possessed of a voice of unusual beauty, it frequently happens that the studies are not pursued with sufficient perseverance; and, perhaps, are continued only for a few weeks or months, instead of allowing a year or more, according to circumstances. Richard Wagner agrees with me, when he says, "Why, then, write operas to be sung, when we no longer have either male or female singers?"


Since modern progress has come to regard "the three trifles" as belonging entirely to the past, and in their place has proclaimed, "Boldness, Spirit, Power," two evil spirits have had rule: they go [113]hand in hand, ruin the voice, wound the cultivated ear, and provide for us—only empty opera houses. One of these evils has been frequently alluded to by me. It is "the expenditure of a great deal too much breath." The finest voices are obliged to practise with full breath until they shriek, and the result is mere sobbing, and the heavy drawing of the breath, just at the time when the tone should still be heard. Even if every thing else could be right, in such a culture of the tone, which must very shortly relax the muscles of the voice, that one thing, in itself, would be sufficient to destroy all promise of success.

The second evil endangers even the male voice, which is able to endure much ill-treatment; while the female voice is quickly forced by it into a piercing shrillness, or is driven back into the throat, soon to be entirely exhausted, or is, at least, prevented from attaining a natural, fine development. This second evil is the reckless and destructive straining of single tones to their extreme limits, even to perfect exhaustion. The poor singer urges and squeezes out the voice, and quivers to the innermost marrow, in order that the two requirements of "Boldness" and "Power" may be satisfied. But the "Spirit" is still wanting, which should [114]be shown in a light and well-shaded delivery. The effect of extreme shading, however, is accomplished in a single "romanza." The unfortunate, misdirected singer, who must aim at effect, lays out so much force on single tones, or even on whole lines, and that, too, in the best register of his voice (the other registers do not permit this), that the succeeding tones are forced to retire powerless into the throat; and the beautiful, fresh, youthful tenor or bass voice concludes with exhausted groaning and mere speaking tones. The "romanza" is now at an end, and certainly "Boldness, Spirit, and Power" have worked in union. The task is executed the better, because a rude accompaniment has probably sustained the singer in a most striking manner, and has completed the total effect.

By such management, to which I must emphatically add the continual holding of the tones, even in the forte, voices are expected "to come out," to be developed, inspired, and made beautiful. What healthy ear can endure such enormities in tone formation, such tortures in singing? These, then, are the modern contributions for the embellishment of art! A curse on these evil spirits! If my feeble pen shall assist in bringing such singing-teachers to their senses, and shall help to save only [115]a few of our fine voices, I shall consider my mission fulfilled, and the aim of this book, so far as it concerns singing, accomplished.


I have heretofore combated many prejudices, both in earnest and in sport, successfully and unsuccessfully; but one I find very obstinate,—it has pursued me incessantly for years. A piano-player, with a rigid, strained, and vicious touch, proceeding from the arm, may play a great deal, but his playing is thoroughly vulgar and without beauty. He feels this himself, and the playing of my pupils pleases him better. He wishes me to change his style to their better manner; but he still continues to pound, to bang, to exaggerate, and to play in his own way, and only wishes his style to be improved, and his power of execution to be increased. If a performer of this sort is not much more than twenty years of age, something may yet be done for the improvement of his touch, and consequently of his style of playing; but this is only possible by laying aside all his accustomed pieces of music, and by diligently practising, daily, small easy exercises, which must be played delicately, with loose fingers, and without allowing the arm to give the slightest assistance; otherwise, all [116]labor will be thrown away upon him. How else can you begin, except by laying a proper foundation for a better style? I have frequently urged this principle both by speech and in writing; but the difficulty always returns, and especially in the cultivation of female singers.

A girl of eighteen comes to me: she has heard of the excellent cultivation of my lady singers, and wishes to obtain the same for herself. In order that I may hear her voice, she selects the "Erlkönig," by Schubert, that perilous piece, which is apt to lead even highly cultivated singers into frightful atrocities. Heavens! what must I hear? With the remains of a fine, youthful voice, whose registers are already broken up and disconnected, she shrieks out the "Erlkönig," between sobs and groans, with screwed-up chest-tones, and many modern improprieties, but nevertheless with dramatic talent. The piercing voice, forced to its utmost, fills me with horror; but also with pity for such a glorious endowment, and such an unnatural development. At the conclusion, her voice succumbed to the effort, and she could only groan hoarsely, and wheeze without emitting a sound. She has, however, frequently produced great effect in society, and drawn tears with this performance: [117]it is her favorite piece. Let us abandon this singing for parties, this melancholy dilettantismus, everywhere so obtrusive! The girl is only eighteen years old: is she beyond salvation? I endeavor to build her voice up again, gradually, by gentle practice. She succeeds very well in it, and after six lessons her natural docility arouses hope. The head-tones again make their appearance, and the practice of solfeggio brings out once more the stifled voice which had been forced back into the throat by senseless exertions; a better attack begins to be developed, and the chest-register returns to its natural limits. She now declared, with her mother's approval, that she really would continue to study in this way, but she could not give up the performance of her effective and spirited conception of the "Erlkönig." She came a few times more: I could perceive that the good structure was tottering. After a few months, she had entirely sacrificed her voice to this single "Erlkönig." In such tender years, one such idol is sufficient. What a price for an "Erlkönig"! The old, experienced singing-teacher, Miksch, of Dresden (with the exception of Rossini, the last famous champion of the old school), has often warned me that radical amendment is seldom possible with such over-strained and broken [118]voices, which already are obliged to struggle with enfeebled muscles, even although youth may excite great and decided hopes. There is also another difficulty: that one of these strong, over-strained voices must hereafter be used with much less strength, if we wish to cultivate a correct tone; and it is impossible to tell whether the chest-tones, when they are restored to their true limit, will ever come out again as powerful and at the same time as beautiful. Let no musician, however talented and cultivated he may be, ever adopt the teaching of singing, unless he can combine with firmness of character great patience, perseverance, and disinterestedness; otherwise, he will experience very little pleasure and very little gratitude. Even if the "Erlkönig" does not stand in the way, every voice presents new and peculiar difficulties.

A Few Words addressed to Singing-Teachers on the Accompaniment of Etudes, Exercises, Scales, &c.

It is common for teachers to play their accompaniments as furiously as if they had to enter into a struggle for life and death with their singers. At the beginning of the lesson, the lady singer ought to commence quite piano, at f in the one-lined octave, and to sing up and down from there through [119]five or six notes, without any expenditure of breath, and should guide and bring out her voice by a gentle practice of solfeggio; and yet you bang, and pound on the keys, as if you had to accompany drums and trumpets. Do you not perceive that in this way you induce your pupils to strain and force their voices, and that you mislead them into a false method? In such a noise, and while you are making such a monstrous expenditure of strength, to which you add a sharp, uneasy touch, and a frequent spreading of the chords, how can you watch the delicate movements of the singer's throat? Is it necessary for me to explain how such a rude accompaniment must interfere with the effort to sing firmly and delicately? Are you not aware that a light and agreeable, but at the same time firm and decided, accompaniment encourages and sustains the singer, and also assists and inspires her? You ought, in every way, to seek to cultivate in your pupil the feeling for the right, the true, and the beautiful; but what is the girl of eighteen to think of your culture and your sentiment, if you pound the keys as if you were one of the "piano-furies"?

While this is your mode of accompanying the études, how then do you accompany the aria, the song? If, for instance, the pupil is singing tenderly, [120]and wishes to bring out an artistic, delicate shading, you take advantage of that occasion to make yourself heard, and to annoy the singer and the audience with your rough shading. A singing-teacher who does not take pains to acquire a good, delicate touch, and who neglects to pay constant attention to it, is wanting in the first requirement; and this is closely connected with the want of "the three trifles."


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