Popular Science Monthly/Volume 36/December 1889/Speech and Song II


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HAVING dealt in a previous article (see "Popular Science Monthly" for November, 1889) with the voice in its every-day garb of speech, it now remains for me to speak of it as it is when transfigured in song. The organ is the same in both cases, but in song it is used strictly as a musical instrument—one, too, of far more complex structure than any fashioned by the hand of man. The mechanism of voice has already been described, but, for the sake of clearness, it may be well to recall the three essential elements in its production: 1, the air-blast, or motive power; 2, the vibrating reed, or tone-producing apparatus; 3, the sounding-board, or re-enforcing cavities. These, to parody a well-worn physiological metaphor, are the three legs of the tripod of voice; defect in, or mismanagement of, any one of them is fatal to the musical efficiency of the vocal instrument. The air supplied by the lungs is molded into sound by the innumerable nimble little fingers of the muscles which move the vocal cords. These fingers (which prosaic anatomists call fibers), besides being almost countless in number, are arranged in so intricate a manner that every one who dissects them finds out something new, which, it is needless to say, is forthwith given to the world as an important discovery. It is probable that no amount of macerating or teasing out with pincers will ever bring us to "finality" in this matter; nor do I think it would profit us much as regards our knowledge of the physiology of the voice if the last tiny fibrilla of muscle were run to earth. The mind can form no clearer notions of the infinitely little than of the infinitely great, and the microscopic movements of these tiny strips of contractile tissue would be no more real to us than the figures which express the rapidity of light and the vast stretches of astronomical time and distance. Moreover, no two persons have their laryngeal muscles arranged in precisely the same manner, a circumstance which of itself goes a considerable way toward explaining the almost infinite variety of human voices. The wonderful diversity of expression in faces which structurally, as we may say, are almost identical, is due to minute differences in the arrangement of the little muscles which move the skin. The same thing holds good of the larynx. In addition to this there are more appreciable differences, such as we see in the other parts of the body. The larynx itself is as various in size and shape as the nose; and this is still more the case with the other parts concerned in the production of the voice. The most laborious anatomical Gradgrind would shrink appalled from the attempt to measure the capacity and trace the shape of the various resonance chambers—chest, throat, mouth, and nose, with the many intricate little passages and cave-like spaces communicating with the latter—yet the slightest difference in the form, size, or material structure of any of these parts must have its effect in modifying the voice to some extent.

It is a curious fact that singers, who are often rather unwilling to believe that the voice is formed solely in the larynx, are yet generally surprised to be told that the true nature of the voice can not be certainly determined by examination of that organ. From what has been said as to the extraordinary number of the component parts of the vocal machine, it will be evident that it would be almost as rash to pronounce on the nature of the voice from the appearance of the larynx as it would be to take the shape of the nose as an index of moral character. It can only be said in a general way that, other things (notably, the resonance chambers) being equal, one expects a large, roomy larynx, with thick, powerful cords, to yield a deep, massive voice, and a small organ, with slender cords, to send forth a shrill, high-pitched voice. These two types represent the male and female voice respectively; that of the child belongs to the latter category. It must be understood that the difference in size between the largest larynx and the smallest is, after all, very trifling in itself. For instance, the vocal cords in women are but a fraction of an inch shorter than in men, and the other dimensions vary in much the same proportion. A like difference prevails throughout the resonant apparatus, the re-enforcing chambers being larger in men, and their walls (which are built up of bone, gristle, and muscle) denser and more solid.

The voice varies in compass no less than in quality. A priori long vocal cords should indicate great range of tone, but so much depends on the management of these vibrating reeds that comparatively little significance can be attached to mere length. The average compass of the singing voice is from two to three octaves, the latter limit being seldom exceeded. The artistic effect produced with this small stock of available notes is as wonderful in its way as the marvelous results that can be got out of the twenty-six letters of the alphabet. In singing up the scale, the vocalist feels that at a certain point he has to alter his method of production in order to reach the higher notes. This point marks the breaks between the so-called "chest" and "head" registers, or what I may call the lower and upper stories of the voice.

The subject of the registers has been much debated by the learned, and still more perhaps by the unlearned; it is the "Eastern question" of vocal physiology. Quite a considerable literature has gathered round it; philosophers have lost their tempers and musicians have shown a plentiful lack of harmony in discussing it. The inherent difficulties of the subject have been increased by the fantastic terminology which has come down to us from a pre-scientific age, and by the erroneous observations of incompetent persons. I can touch only very lightly on the subject here, but those who wish for a full exposition of my views on the matter may be referred to a little work which I published some years ago, and which has been translated into eight languages.[1] It may be asked, What is a register? The best definition I can offer is that it is a series of tones of like quality produced by a particular adjustment of the vocal cords to receive the air-blast from the lungs. The question is what the "particular adjustment" is in each case. The first step toward clearing up the subject is to discard the terms "chest" and "head" voice, which are meaningless and often misleading. Whatever number of registers there may be, and however they may be produced, it is certain that the change of mechanism takes place only in the larynx. I have suggested that the terms "long reed" and "short reed" register should be used to designate the two fundamental divisions of the human voice. In the former, usually called "chest voice," the vocal cords vibrate in their whole length, and the sounds are re-enforced largely by the cavity of the chest, the walls of which can be felt to vibrate strongly when this register is used. In the latter, "head voice," or falsetto, only a part of the cord vibrates, and the sound is re-enforced by the upper resonators, mouth, bony cavities of the skull, etc. It is this which has given rise to the absurd statements of singers that they could feel their head notes coming from the back of the nose, the forehead, etc. In the "long reed" register the pitch is raised by increasing tension of the vibrating element; in the "short reed" register by gradual shortening of it. This is effected by a curious process, which can be distinctly seen in the living throat with the laryngoscope. The two cords are forced against each other at their hinder part with such force as to stop each other's movement. While the notes of the chest register issue from the natural aperture of the larynx, the head notes come through an artificially diminished orifice, the chink becoming gradually smaller till there is nothing left to vibrate, when the limit of the voice is reached. The two registers generally overlap for a greater or less extent, a few notes about the middle of the voice being capable of being sung in either. Some voices have no break in their entire compass, the same mechanism being used throughout, but this is very rare. It was the constant aim of the famous old Italian singing-masters to unite the two natural registers so perfectly that no break should be perceptible.

Till a comparatively recent date the generally received explanation of the registers was that, while in the delivery of chest notes the whole substance of the vocal cord vibrated, in the "head" voice only its thin inner margin did so; in both cases the entire length of the cord was supposed to vibrate. The shortening of the vibrating reed, however, by the mutual "stopping" process mentioned above, is not a theory, but a fact which can be seen. I am inclined to believe, however, that under certain circumstances the two processes of shortening and marginal vibration may be combined. This may possibly be the true mechanism of the falsetto voice, as to which there has been so much dispute. It is clear that the term has been used by different persons in different senses, and much of the confusion which exists on the subject is, in my opinion, due to this cause. By most of the old Italian writers, the term falsetto is used as synonymous with head voice; by others it is employed to denote that kind of voice "whereby a man going beyond the upper limit of his natural voice counterfeits that of a woman" (Rousseau, "Dictionnaire de Musique"). A similar difference of opinion exists as to the beauty of falsetto, some speaking rapturously of its flute-like softness, others reviling it as "the most disagreeable of all timbres of the human voice" (Rousseau, ibid.). I venture with all humility to submit that "falsetto" and "head voice" should not be used interchangeably. The "long reed" and "short reed" registers are used alike by the two sexes, the greater part of the male voice, however, belonging to the former, and the greater part of the female to the latter. The term "falsetto" should be reserved for the artificial method of delivery, by which the limited "short reed" register in men is forced upward beyond its natural compass. In this mode of production the air is blown up from the lungs so gently that it has not sufficient power to throw the whole thickness of the vocal cord into vibration. This accounts for the soft, "flute-like" tones which are characteristic of the falsetto voice.

To sum up the mechanism of the registers, there is first the "long reed" or "chest" register, in which the cords vibrate in their whole length and thickness; then the "short reed" or "head" register, in which the vibrating reed is gradually shortened; lastly, the falsetto, which belongs to men alone, and is formed by the vibration of the margins only of the shortened reeds. Pitch rises in the long reed register owing to increasing tension of the cords, accompanied by increasing rapidity of vibration; when the cord can not be made more tense, the device of shortening the reed is brought into play. In the upper register not only is the aperture between the cords ("glottis") diminished to the smallest possible size, but the whole upper orifice of the larynx is compressed from side to side, so as to leave only a very narrow chink for the voice to pass through. In the lower register, on the other hand, the larynx is wide open, and the vibrating air rushes forth in a full, broad stream of sound.

Many singing-masters, not content with the great natural divisions of the voice which have just been indicated, insist that there are five different registers, each with a distinct mechanism of its own. I am not a maestro, and therefore I am willing to admit that, artistically speaking, there ought to be five registers, or, in fact, any number of them that may be thought desirable. But if that is a necessity of art, it is not a necessity of Nature, which does all that is required by the simple process which has been described. The differences of mechanism on which the singingmasters profess to base their division are mostly of so subtle a nature as to be almost invisible to the eye, and sometimes even hardly appreciable by the ordinary intellect. I think, however, there is a way of reconciling their views with mine, diametrically opposed as they at first sight seem to be. As a physiologist, I speak solely of the tone of a note, that is to say, of its place in the musical scale, and I say, That note is delivered by the long reed or short reed adjustment, as the case may be; as musicians, on the other hand, the maestri, speaking of the quality as well as the tone, say, That note ought to be delivered in such and such a way to make it artistically beautiful. In the one case, in short, the voice is considered purely as it is produced in the larynx; in the other, as it is delivered by a well-trained singer managing his resonance apparatus to the best advantage. Now, for this result many things are needed besides the correct adjustment of the vocal cords. The supply of breath must be regulated to a nicety, and the position of the tongue, soft palate, cheeks, and lips must be precisely that which is best for the utterance of each particular note. There are rules founded on experience which govern all these things; these rules are expressed in terms of subjective sensations, which are scientifically absurd, but, at the same time, may be practically useful, as indicating the feelings that should accompany the right performance of the manœuvre required. It is on all this complicated mechanism that the five registers of the singing-masters are based; the more or less fanciful changes in the larynx, to which they attribute the slight, but artistically vital, differences in production which their trained ear enables them to appreciate, have in reality but little share in the result. The difference between artistic and inartistic production of the voice depends far more on the management of the resonators than on the adjustment of the vocal cords.

This point will be better understood if it is borne in mind that, as Helmholtz has shown, every musical sound is "compounded of many simples"; that is to say, the fundamental tone is re-enforced by a number of secondary sounds or "harmonics" which accompany, and as it were echo, it in a higher key, the whole being blended into one sensation to the ear. Then, again, it is well known that every resonance cavity has what may be called an "elective affinity" for one particular note, to the vibrations of which it responds sympathetically, like a lover's heart answering that of his beloved. As the crude note issues from the larynx, the mouth, tongue, and soft palate mold themselves by the most delicately adapted movements into every conceivable variety of shape, clothing the raw bones of sound with body and living richness of tone. Each of the various resonance chambers re-echoes its corresponding tone, so that a single well-delivered note is in reality a full choir of harmonious sounds.

It has further been proved that each vowel has its own special pitch, and hence it can not be sounded in perfection on any other. The different vowels, in fact, are produced by modifications in the length and shape of the cavity of the mouth, and the note of each one of them is that to which such a resonance chamber naturally responds. It follows from this that, in order to get the best effect from the vocal instrument, there should be the most perfect possible adaptation of the various vowels to the notes on which they are to be sung. Sounds like o and ou (oo) are best rendered in the lower notes of the voice; a and i (ee) in the upper. It is difficult, indeed almost impossible, to sing the latter vowels on deep notes. The marriage of music to immortal verse can not be perfect unless the various affinities of the vowel sounds are carefully respected by the composer.

From what has been said it will, I think, be evident that no one, however happily gifted in point of voice, can use his endowment to the best advantage without careful training. Every note requires for its artistic production, not only a particular adjustment of the larynx, but a special arrangement of the resonators and suitable management of the breath, all the complicated movements involved in these various proceedings having to be performed automatically and with the most exact precision, and the whole being combined into one instantaneous act. M. Jourdain's master was not such a fool as he is made to appear, when he insisted on the mechanism of utterance being clearly understood. When this has been acquired, the singer is still only like a child that has learned to stand; walking, running, and dancing, in other words the junction of the separate notes into the "linked sweetness" of an air, the graces and ornaments of vocalization, and the secret of sympathetic expression have yet to be acquired. There is an unfortunate tendency at the present day to be satisfied with a very inadequate amount of training, and I can not help thinking that this is partly due to an imperfect appreciation of its necessity. Years are ungrudgingly given to acquiring a mastery of the piano or violin, and it is recognized that to excel with either of these instruments seven or eight hours of laborious practice every day are necessary. Yet many seem to fancy that the voice can be trained in a few months. How preposterous such a notion is must be evident to any one who takes the trouble to think about the matter. In the case of the violin or piano the instrument is perfect from the outset, and the student has only to learn to play it; the singer, on the other hand, has to develop in some cases almost to create his instrument, and then to master the technique of it. The human larynx is, as already said, a musical instrument of the most complicated kind, for its two reeds are susceptible of almost infinite modification in size, shape, manner of vibration, etc. A distinguished surgeon not long ago edified the public by a calculation of the number of muscular movements executed by a young lady while performing a simple piece on the piano; it would be hopelessly impossible to count the movements of the muscles which work the vocal cords.

The details of vocal training I must leave to the singing-masters; I can only touch on one or two points which lie more or less within my own province. In the first place, the vocal organs must be strengthened and developed by exercise. The excellent maxim, Memoria excolendo augetur, which we learned from the Latin grammar, is equally true of muscle, and a singer's thyro-arytsenoidei should be in as good condition as a pugilist's biceps. Such modes of life as are good for the general health will also help to improve the voice by expanding the chest and keeping all the organs at their maximum of efficiency. In order to "know the stops" of the vocal instrument, so as to be able to "command it to any utterance of harmony," training must be directed to each of the three factors of voice. The art of so governing the breath that not a particle of it shall escape without giving up its mechanical equivalent of sound must first of all be acquired. The vocal cords must use the breath as Jacob did the angel with whom he wrestled; they must not suffer it to depart till it has blessed them. The first thing the singer has to do is to learn to breathe; he must fill his lungs without gasping, and empty them quickly or slowly, gently or with violence, according to his needs. Much has been written on this matter with which I need not perplex the reader. The problem is how the lungs can be replenished most advantageously for the purposes of the singer. The chest is expanded by pulling up the ribs, and by pushing down the diaphragm, or muscular partition which separates the chest from the abdomen. In violent inspiratory effort the collar-bone may be forcibly drawn up by the muscles attached to it, but this mechanism is seldom brought into play except in the dire struggle for breath when suffocation is impending. It is a curious fact that men breathe differently from women, the former using the abdominal method that is, pushing down the diaphragm—and the latter doing most of the work with their upper ribs. One reason of this difference is that the fair sex insist on fixing their lower ribs, to which the diaphragm is attached, with stays, which make free movement of that muscle impossible. Doctors have fulminated against tight-lacing for the last three centuries,[2] but to as little purpose as the Archbishop of Rheims thundered against the jackdaw. Fashion must be obeyed, whatever its victims may have to suffer. It is right to state, however, that stays not long ago found a champion in no less a person than the Professor of Pathology in the University of Cambridge. Professor Roy caused a little mild scandal at the last meeting of the British Association by urging that the use of stays might have certain advantages. If the Archbishop of Canterbury had stood up in Convocation and denied the efficacy of baptism, he could not have shocked his hearers more than Dr. Roy did by such a profession of heresy. The scientific ladies, who resemble the Greek statues in the looseness of their waists if in nothing else, groaned over this backsliding in high places, and their more frivolous sisters rejoiced. A Defender of the Faith, however, opportunely appeared in the person of Dr. Garson, who at once put the question to the touch by measurements made on a number of ladies and gentlemen then present. These showed that the vital capacity (which is measured by the quantity of air that can be expelled from the lungs after the deepest possible inspiration) was considerably greater in the men than in the women, and that while in the former there was a constant diminution in the vital capacity in every period of ten years after the age of thirty, in the latter it actually increased after fifty, a time of life at which the majority of ladies begin to think more of comfort than of restraining the exuberance of their "figure." The truth appears to be, however, that the slight pressure exercised by stays does not matter in the case of ladies who are not called upon to use their voices professionally, and who do not care to excel as amateurs. In the ordinary work of life stays do not cause any inconvenience, and it is only when they are absurdly tight that they do serious harm to the internal organs. In the case of the artiste it is quite otherwise; here anything which in the smallest degree diminishes the vital capacity seriously handicaps the singer.

Although the abdominal mode of breathing may be the natural method of inspiration, there can, I think, be no doubt that in singing it is not the most effective. On this point the empirical traditions of singing-masters were abandoned some years ago in favor of what was supposed to be the teaching of science, and now singers are often taught to breathe by pushing down the diaphragm and protruding the stomach. Anatomists are, however, beginning to see that the Italian masters were right in insisting that the diaphragm should be fixed, and the abdomen flat in inspiration; in this method there is great expansion of the lower ribs, and the increase in the capacity of the chest takes place chiefly in this direction. In this form of breathing there is far more control over expiration than when the diaphragm is displaced; the act can be regulated absolutely by the will to suit the requirements of the vocalist. Abdominal inspiration is apt, on the other hand, to be followed by jerky expiration, a defect which is fatal to artistic delivery and most fatiguing to the singer.

The training of the other parts of the vocal machinery, the vibrating element and the resonant apparatus, lies altogether outside my province. What I may call the "fingering" of the vocal cords and the "tuning" of the resonators can be acquired only by constant practice under a good teacher. There is no such thing as a self-taught singer. Constant imitation of the best models and the watchful discipline of an experienced instructor constitute the real secret of the old Italian schools of singing, which gave such splendid results. Tosi insisted that the pupil should never sing at all except in the presence of a master. It is important that the very best teacher that can be found should be chosen; it is a false economy to trust a young voice to an inferior man on the ground of cheapness. To masters I venture to hint that they should strive to train their pupils according to the traditions of the golden age of song before the laryngoscope was invented.

I have only to add that the ear should be not less carefully trained than the vocal organs. An old Scotch minister used to tell his flock that the conscience should be kept "as white as the breest o' a clean sark." The ear is the conscience of the voice, and its purity should be not less jealously guarded. Many singers of the finest vocal endowment fail from a defect of ear; their condition is like that of a color-blind painter. Passing indisposition may sometimes vitiate the ear as well as the temper; the artist should on no account attempt to sing under such circumstances.

Two questions in connection with the training of the voice still remain to be discussed—viz., when it should be commenced, and whether it should be interrupted during the so-called "cracking" period. With, regard to the first of these questions I am strongly of opinion that training can hardly be begun too early. Of course, the kind and amount of practice that are necessary in the adult would be monstrous in a young child, but there is no reason why, even at the age of sis or seven, the right method of voice-production should not be taught. Singing, like every other art, is chiefly learned by imitation, and it seems a pity to lose the advantage of those precious early years when that faculty is most highly developed. There is no fear of injuring the larynx or straining the voice by elementary instruction of this kind; on the contrary, it is habitual faulty vocalization which is pernicious. The sooner the right way of using the voice is taught the more easy will it be to guard against the contraction of bad habits, which can only be corrected at a later period with infinite trouble. Many of the finest voices have been trained almost from the cradle, so to speak. I need only mention Adelina Patti, Christine Nilsson, Jenny Lind, and Madame Albani; but there are numbers of other queens of song who owe great part of their success to the same cause.

As for the other point, I am still an obstinate dissenter from the "orthodox" teaching of singing-masters on the subject. I have already more than once expressed my belief that there is no reason why training, within certain limits and under strict supervision by a competent person, should not be carried on when the voice is in the transition stage of its development from childhood to adolescence. The stock argument, invariably advanced to prove the necessity of suspending the education of the voice till it has passed through the "breaking" period, is that, as the parts are undergoing active changes, they therefore require complete rest. This would equally apply to the limbs, and, in some degree, also to the brain. Yet I am not aware that it has ever been proposed to forbid growing lads from exercising their bodies, even in games involving considerable muscular violence, or to interrupt the education of the mental powers till the brain has become fully formed. Overpressure there may be, no doubt, in voice-training as in other kinds of instruction. All voices are not capable of bearing the same amount of training. Each case must be dealt with according to what doctors call the particular "indications" that may arise. My thesis holds good only as a general rule, to which there may be many individual exceptions. A judicious teacher will, however, have no difficulty in deciding as to the best course to adopt in any given instance.

After the voice has been developed to its utmost capacity, the next thing is to keep it in perfect condition. How is this to be done? As Danton said that the three things needed to insure success were De l’audace, de l’audace, et encore de l’audace, I say the three things necessary to keep the voice in good order are practice, practice, and again practice. A singer who lets his voice lie idle is pretty sure to lose some of his upper notes, his breathing-power falls below its highest standard, and the larynx becomes less supple and less obedient to his will. Another vital point is never, if possible, to use the voice when it is not at its best. The slightest cold deadens to some extent the vibrations of the cords, and the resonators are also thrown out of tune by dryness or excessive moisture of their lining membranes. Bodily weakness or indisposition is reflected in the voice; the cords do not come firmly together, and their tension is insufficient for perfect purity, much less richness, of tone. A most essential element in the care of the voice is attention to the general health. This is very apt to be neglected by singers, who have rather a tendency, as a class, to lead the life of hot-house plants, living in rooms from which fresh air is shut out almost as if it were a pestilence, and taking little or no physical exercise. It is right, no doubt, that a singer should shield his precious instrument from harm as carefully as a violinist protects his Straduarius or Amati, but exaggerated precaution may defeat its object. Even the most dainty of light tenors can not live wrapped up in cotton-wool, and the delicacy engendered by the unhealthy conditions of life which have been referred to makes the slightest exposure to cold or fog almost deadly to his artificially enervated throat. A singer who wishes to keep himself in good voice should rise, if not exactly with his brother minstrel, the lark, at least pretty early, say, before eight in the morning. Tosi says that the best hour for practice is the first of the sun, but this, I fear, is a "counsel of perfection" beyond the virtue of this unheroic age. The singer should take plenty of exercise in the open air, and should harden his constitution by leading, as far as possible, a healthy outdoor life. Nothing gives richness and volume to the voice like vigorous health; an experienced ear can often tell a man's physical condition by the full, generous "ring" of his tones, both in singing and speaking.

There is even more superstition among singers than among speakers, as to what is "good for the voice." A formidable list of things which were supposed by the ancients to be injurious is given by Pliny; it includes such a variety of animal and vegetable substances that one wonders how unfortunate vocalists could have found life worth living under such ultra-Spartan conditions. Our modern artistes tend to err rather in the opposite direction, to judge from their extraordinarily comprehensive views as to what is "good" for the voice. Every species of drink, from champagne to hot water, and almost every recognized article of food, including that particularly British institution, cold roast beef, has its devotees. I have no manner of doubt that every one of these things is really beneficial, not from any occult virtue that there is in them, but because the solids give strength, while the liquids moisten and lubricate the throat. That is the whole secret of the cordials and elixirs in which many vocalists place their trust.

A useful example of the proper care of the voice is to be found in a very unexpected quarter. The Emperor Nero, as is well known, believed himself to be a great artist, a notion of which those about were not likely to disabuse him. His dying words, "Qualis artifex pereo!" show that he had at least one feature of the artistic temperament. He sought fame by many paths—in poetry, fiddling, driving, and other branches of the fine arts—to say nothing of his scientific experiments on the bodies of his nearest relations. The imperial virtuoso was particularly vain of his voice, which I can well imagine to have been soft and sweet, qualities which often enough accompany a cruel nature. He was proportionately careful of so precious a possession. His system is worth quoting. In addition to such general measures as attending to his liver, and abstaining from such fruits and other food as he fancied to be injurious to his voice, we are told that at night he used to lie on his back with a small plate of lead on his stomach. This was probably for the purpose of checking the tendency to abdominal breathing, which has already been referred to as the less perfect way in respiration for singers. In order to spare his voice all unnecessary fatigue, he gave up haranguing his troops and ceased even to address the Senate. As in later times there were keepers of the king's conscience, Nero gave his voice into the keeping of a phonascus. He spoke only in the presence of this vocal director, whose duty it was to warn him when his tones became too loud, or when he seemed to be in danger of straining his voice. To the same functionary was intrusted the formidable duty of checking the emperor 's eloquence when it became too impetuous; this he did by covering the imperial orator's mouth with a napkin. It must have needed no small measure of courage to apply this effectual method of "closure" to the arch-tyrant of history when intoxicated with the exuberance of his own vocalization.

While laying stress on the necessity of proper cultivation in order to make the singer capable of giving the greatest pleasure to his hearers with the least amount of fatigue to himself, I venture to add that many singers who are admirably trained have rather a tendency to "o'erstep the modesty of nature" in their delivery. It was said of Flaubert's Salammbô, that it might be Carthaginian, but it was not human; in the same way I am disposed to say of certain highly "artistic" vocal displays which one is sometimes condemned to hear, that it may be song but it assuredly is not music. When listening to such tremendous performances, I often find myself echoing the words of poor Christopher Sly: ";&#39Tis a very excellent piece of work, madam lady; would 'twere done!" An old Italian writer, himself both a singer and a teacher, most truly says: "E vaglia 'l vero, dove parla la passione i trilli e i passaggi devon tacere"—leaving the soul to be moved solely by the beauty of expression. It was this quality of sympathetic expression that made the singing of Tom Moore, who had no "voice" in the technical sense, more moving than that of renowned artists. In an altogether different line, Mr. George Grossmith contrives by the exquisite clearness of his modulation to add considerably to the gayety of nations with a very limited stock of notes.

One of the most remarkable things relating to song at the present day is the scarcity of really fine voices. It will not, I suppose, be seriously argued that the human voice is degenerating, and never were the inducements to cultivate it more abundant or more powerful. Yet, if we are to believe many competent authorities, never were first-rate voices so rare as at the present time. The complaint is not altogether new, and is, in part at least, nothing more than the inevitable moan of the laudator temporis acti over the decadence of things in general. Rossini at the zenith of his fame complained that there were so few good voices, and quite at the beginning of the last century we find Tosi speaking of his own period as one of decay. Mancini also (1774) says that vocal art had then fallen very low, a circumstance which he attributes to singers "having forgotten the old systems and the sound practice of the ancient schools." Still, modern writers on singing are agreed that there is a dearth of really beautiful voices at the present time, and, as this is one of the very few points on which these contentious persons are agreed, there can be little doubt of the truth of the fact to which they bear witness. Good tenors are especially rare, even among Italians, the chosen people of song. There are no tenors now who can be compared with Mario or Rubini; indeed, one gathers from Mr. Sims Reeves's reminiscences, published not long ago, that the world is at present blest with only one really first-rate tenor. Mr. Reeves leaves his readers in no doubt as to the identity of this Triton among contemporaneous minnows of song. We have no basso that can stand beside Lablache. Except Madame Patti, whose glorious voice is now too seldom heard, and Madame Christine Nilsson, who, to the regret of all lovers of song, has quitted the lyric stage, Madame Albani and Madame Sembrich are almost the sole inheritors of the renown of the great prime donne of old. It is not only in compass and quality that our latter-day voices are inferior to those of preceding generations, but in endurance. Catalani's magnificent voice remained unimpaired up to extreme old age, and Farinelli's only died with him. Matteucci, when past his eightieth year, used to sing in church every Sunday per mera devozione, and such was the freshness and flexibility of his voice that those who could not see him took it to be that of a young man in the flower of his age. Indeed, this was not very uncommon in singers trained according to the best traditions of the old Italian school, which seems to have possessed the secret of perpetual youth as far as the voice was concerned.

Now, to what can our poverty in voices of the highest class be due? I believe to a combination of three different causes: First, inadequacy of training; secondly, the want of good teachers; and, thirdly, the gradual rise of the concert pitch which has taken place in recent years. Insufficient training arises from the breathless haste to "succeed" which is a characteristic of this feverish age. Voices are quickly run up by contract, and as swiftly fall into decay. The preference for supposed "royal roads" over the hard-beaten path that has led former singers to fame is another error which has worked almost as much mischief in song as it has in scholarship. A vocalist nowadays thinks that a year in England and a second year in Italy is all that is needed to equip him for a brilliant artistic career. In "the brave days of old" singers never deemed their vocal education complete until they had given six or seven years to the ceaseless study of their art.

The want of good teachers is closely connected with the inadequacy of modern training, for it is evident that a man who has not himself had the patience or the industry to master his art can not be a satisfactory guide to others. Show and superficial brilliancy of execution are aimed at rather than solidity and thoroughness; more attention is paid to vocal tours de force than to artistic ornament. The firm basis of experience has been abandoned for fantastic methods of teaching which are useless when they are not positively harmful. I would earnestly advise all those who profess to impart the divine art of song, like Prospero, to "drown their books," and study the production of the voice as an art, and not as a branch of Chinese metaphysics.

That the high concert pitch now generally used, especially in this country, throws an unnatural strain on even the finest voices, is a fact as to which most authorities are agreed. In the classical period of music, A (second space, treble clef) represented from four hundred and fifteen to four hundred and twenty-nine vibrations; this pitch suited the human voice admirably. The desire to get increasingly brilliant effects from the orchestra forced the pitch higher and higher, till so much confusion prevailed that, in 1859, a French commission fixed the standard pitch at four hundred and thirty-five vibrations. This is called the normal diapason, and is now generally used on the Continent; but England, with her customary insular independence, has not conformed to the general rule in the matter, and the pitch has in this country actually risen to four hundred and fifty-eight vibrations. This result is largely due to the extraordinary impulse given to orchestral music by the genius of Costa, who, so long as he could get brilliant effects from his instruments, cared little for the consequences which the rise of pitch entailed on the voice. But it will be said, since it is all a matter of convention, why can not the pitch be lowered? I believe the chief obstacle is the expense which this would involve through the necessity of altering instruments. It has been estimated that it would cost eighty thousand pounds to alter those of the military bands alone, and politicians probably think that these are hardly the times to ask for money for such an object.

But worse even than the undue height of the pitch is the difference between this country and the rest of the civilized world which has just been referred to. Herr Joachim complains that he is obliged to begin screwing up his violin eight weeks before he comes to England, in order that the instrument may not be injured by a sudden change. It is not so easy, however, for the singer to prepare his delicately strung instrument in the same way, and the result is necessarily great strain to the vocal cords and throat generally. The high pitch used in England leads to the production of very disagreeable shrieking; notes are delivered which are in no sense artistically beautiful, and which only "split the ears of the groundlings." Nearly all singers are in favor of lowering the pitch. The sole exceptions are, I believe, the contraltos, whom a high pitch does not affect so much as it does others. I know of one justly celebrated contralto who produces an extraordinary effect by her low E. If the pitch were altered this vocal feat would no longer be so wonderful, and it is natural, therefore, that this lady should wish the present state of things to continue.

Perhaps, after all, the supposed scarcity of good voices may be more apparent than real. It is possible that it is not only the pitch but the standard of vocal excellence that has risen. We know how the general level of literary style has risen, and, in particular, how the art of melodious versification has been popularized, if I may use the expression, so that every cheap magazine, and even the poets' corner of provincial newspapers, contains copies of verses which would have earned considerable reputation for the authors a hundred and fifty years ago. It is immensely more difficult now to make a name by writing. May not something of the same kind be the case as regards singing? I fear we must not lay that flattering unction to our souls. Great singers are rarer nowadays than in former times, because voice-training is almost a lost art. The remedy lies, as has been said, in a return to methods consecrated by glorious tradition, and fruitful of results which, as experience has abundantly proved, can not be attained by shorter or easier ways.—Contemporary Review.


  1. "Hygiene of the Vocal Organs," Macmillan & Co., sixth edition, 1888.
  2. Stays are generally said to have been introduced by Catherine de Medicis, who may be supposed to have had a natural genius for the invention of instruments of torture. They were, however, in use long before her time. I have in my possession a drawing made for me in 1884 by Mr. Lewis Wingfield from a MS. in the British Museum of the date 1043. It is figured by Strutt, who calls it "A Droll Devil." Mr. Wingfield more aptly terms it the "Fiend of Fashion." It represents a figure fantastically dressed in what, I suppose, was the height of fashion of the day. Its special interest in connection with the present subject is that it wears a pair of stays, laced up in front, and of sufficient constrictive power to please a modern mondaine.