A Warning Note


AMERICA, next to Italy, is now acknowledged to possess the most favorable atmosphere for the production of good voices, and American singers are beginning to take precedence of all others in the great musical centres of the world. As yet, moost of these successful songsters receive their training in Europe ; but it will not be long before every facility for the acquirement of the art of singing will be attainable at home. Even now there are scores of well-established Conservatories within our borders, and hundreds of vocal teachers are scattered over the length and breadth of our great country. Most of these teachers either have been educated abroad, or have studied with the pupils of celebrated foreign masters, so that the merits and faults of European vocal culture may be considered as fairly represented in the systems pursued in schools and private lessons in America.

It is not too much to say that these systems are for the most part false and hurtful. Jenny Lind was accustomed to declare, “ There are no singers, nowadays : ” and this sweeping criticism was not inspired by professional jealousy ; it was the condensed expression of her sorrowful conviction that the art of singing has become almost a lost art. Adelina Patti and a few other examples of the old school of training still remain, and there is now and then a teacher, not necessarily well appreciated or widely known, who is faithful to the traditions of the Old Italian method, which was, and is, and ever must be the only good method for the cultivation of the voice ; but the vast majority of the persons who dare to attempt the development of the very delicate vocal organ are incompetent for the task, and the result of their instruction is not merely negative failure, but positive disaster.

Almost every teacher of singing professes to use the Italian method, though some are honest enough to admit that the old system is in their case qualified by or supplemented with the supposed improvements of the Franco-German school; the truth being that very few teachers understand the main principles of the Old Italian method, and break its most important rules at every step of their progress. The trouble is that the earliest masters of the perfected art did not write down and publish their manner of teaching, which was therefore only handed down by tradition, and exemplified in the glorious career of exceptionally gifted pupils. With the progress of time, the successors of these great teachers have become fewer and fewer, while the majority of the famous singers of each generation have yielded to surrounding influences, and departed more or less from the good old way.

The Wagner school of music has proved itself the arch enemy of the human voice, and of all rational modes for its development. The unnatural demands made upon the vocal organs through Wagner’s total ignorance of the art of singing, and the abnormal development of the orchestra through the impatient yearnings of his unquiet soul, have banished for the time all chance of melody in music; and as Wagner’s utterances are the outcome of an age of noise and hurry, of ruined faiths and tragedies of passion, his genius must have its day, and work its full measure of harm upon the voices chosen for the inhuman task of personating his superhuman creations.

But the time will come when the present mad havoc with the lungs and throats of singers shall cease. Just as men begin to see that war must be abolished, because the weapons of war have reached too high a power of destructiveness, so the thunders of drum and trumpet in the modern orchestra must subside, if that sweetest music, the tones of the human voice, is to be preserved to the race. The reaction must come. When the orchestration is made so magnificent and so suggestive that the voice is an unwelcome interruption, and when the instruments are so noisy that nothing of the voice can be heard beyond a screech or a howl, it is time for the two departments of expression to be separated ; the orchestra should be left to itself, and recitatives should be delivered over to the spoken drama. There is no denying the genius of Wagner. His power of converting musical instruments into echoes of human passion has never been equaled, and will probably never be surpassed ; Lohengrin, Tannhäuser, and Der Fliegende Holländer will live forever in poetry and in song ; but all the same, Wagner is to be feared and shunned by singers as the Great Destroyer of the human voice.

There is no better proof that his demands upon the vocal organs are unnatural and injurious than the fact that with his music has arisen a special school of teaching, supposed to be able to create the volume of tone and strength of chest required for the execution of his operas. It is needless to say that all the faults and vices of the modern methods are intensified and exaggerated in this forcing school of screaming and shouting. No more soft sounding of the tones until the whole voice is equalized; no more slow practice of the scale until the tones are separately rounded ; no more patient study of single notes and grouped notes until the voice can run up and down, and hither and yon, at will; no more careful use of crescendo and diminuendo until the voice can hold a tone strong and pure and steady to the full limit of the breath ; no more uniform poising of the voice, so that in its whole compass there is no change of register, and, consequently, no change of quality in the tone. Nothing of this ; but instead of it the hurried acquirement of loud tones, by means of pressing the voice to the utmost through its whole compass, and especially in the lower tones.

Here we touch the great secret of past success and of present failure, the principal point of separation between the ancient and the modern school, the chief ground of dissension between the few existing teachers of the Old Italian method and the many rising teachers of the recent mixed methods.

The Old Italian method treats the voice as though it consisted of only one register ; that is, it does not allow of any change in the position of the throat, nor of any difference in the quality of the tone, from the highest note to the lowest. Instead of allowing the voice to sink into guttural tones in the middle range, and to press down more and more the farther it descends, it requires that the voice be held higher and higher the deeper the tones go down, so that less force and less breath will be expended upon the notes below the staff than upon those above it, while at the same time those lightly uttered, softly breathed deep tones will possess resonance and firmness, and “ carry ” farther than a forced guttural will ever do. A voice trained in this way has no break in the registers, to be bridged over with more or less skill, and consequently there is no danger of the voice cracking, as is invariably the case with singers taught after the new method. One of the greatest charms of Jenny Lind’s singing was the perfect evenness of her tones. An intelligent lover of music, though not a musically educated man, recently said of her, “ What pleased me most was that her voice was the same voice all through. No one tone seemed better than another, but all seemed perfect.”

When Mierzwinski awakens his crowded audiences to wild enthusiasm, musical critics are wont to say, “It is astonishing to hear him take his highest tones with the chest voice! ” Such a criticism is a lamentable proof of the ignorance which prevails to - day concerning the human voice and what is required for its proper training. Mierzwinski never uses what is called the chest voice. His tones all come from his chest, as indeed they must do, and he lightens his voice when he goes down, and pours it out in full measure when he goes up, and softens it for the extremely high notes just as he does for extremely low notes, and thus preserves unbroken unity in the quality of his whole range.

It is the easiest thing in the world to sing in the right way when one knows how, and Mierzwinski is a bright and shining example of the pleasure which a true artist can experience himself, as well as bestow upon his hearers, through the exercise of his delightful gift. In listening to him, one feels that even his greatest effects are achieved without painful exertion, — the work seems like play : and this is not because the singer is a large, strong man; it is simply because he holds his voice in the right way. Adelina Patti is the greatest living example of the true method as applied to a soprano voice, and as long as she can sing at all she will continue to sing in the same full, sweet tones which have so long entranced the world.

The objections to the modern way of holding the voice are many and rational. In the first place, it is an unnatural way, and therefore it must be wrong. Only a perverted taste can really admire the sudden change of register which grates upon the ear so often nowadays. People cry out, “ How grand! how magnificent! how splendidly she goes down ! ” when the tones are really so horrible that the audience ought to hiss the misguided performer off the stage. The pernicious habit of changing the register in the lower tones is said to have been introduced by Malibran; and certain it is that the oldest and best books of instruction upon the cultivation of the voice contain very strict warnings against allowing any such tendency to develop into use. Malibran possessed an exceptionally deep and powerful voice, and it is possible that her manner of producing heavy tones was not so flagrant a violation of the principles of the Old Italian school as a vain attempt to imitate her has induced in her less gifted followers.

But this false taste is only a transient fashion. It must pass ; indeed, the signs of a wholesome reaction are already multiplying, in spite of the increasing popularity of Wagner’s music, perhaps in consequence of a wider perception of the mischief which that music is sure to work.