People sing less well than they sang in the past, though good voices are equally abundant. They sing less well because of the lack of a right school. All second-rate musicians, all singers that through their mediocrity have failed to win renown on the stage, give singing-lessons. Having themselves been ill-taught, they cannot teach in a correct and methodical manner. They think they are doing well in seeking sonority at any cost, and claim to attain it by strength of lungs, unaware that the greater the effort the less appreciable is the sonority. By this fallacious system they rob voices of their suppleness and of the facility of emission which nature has imparted. They succeed, too, in wearying the organ, in impairing its homogeneousness, and in fashioning a being that can only shout. This fatal result makes it impossible for the singer to impart a natural expression to his song; and thus, after a few years of great exertion, the voice loses its timbre and the singer disappears from the boards, having achieved nothing useful for art, but ready to pose as a “professor of singing” and promise his unfortunate pupils to fit them for the stage in six months.
Formerly, five or six years were required to form an accomplished singer; now, people expect to become artists in three years of imperfect study. Parents, too, are to blame for fixing upon a definite term of study, when so much depends upon the bent of the pupil and upon the difficulties he may meet in the mastery of the scale and of the numberless timbres or shades of the principal timbre which the voice en-compasses, and which are necessary for the expression of feeling. There is but one school of song; for the human voice, according to its different classes. is in all lands produced by unvarying -and identical means. “Method” involves seeking the facile and homogeneous emission of the voice in its whole range.
This end can be reached only by the prudent and assiduous study of mezza voce. Some aver that singing piano tires the voice. This is absurd. The voice is a vowel which, united to a consonant, becomes a spoken word. Song, in this case, is the word sung. No one shouts when speaking. By singing piano one secures the suppleness and elasticity of the muscles that cause the vocal instrument to act; by singing forte these muscles are stiffened. As one of the last disciples of the ancient school, I have developed these theories more fully in my book, “Esthetique du chant et de l’art lyrique.”
Modern music is, in my opinion, not exactly a reflection of the age we live in, but rather a praiseworthy search for novelty. The effort is at present more or less successful, but the end is not yet attained. The stage represents a fiction fashioned upon nature, like all representative art, and realism will never, I should say, achieve its ideal of this reproduction of nature unless it enters the domain of fancy and legend. In modern music composers seek new formulas, often with the aid of processes sometimes ill suited to the voice, and depend upon the great effects that can be got through the orchestra. This may be inconvenient for the ill-balanced singer, but not for him that has studied the effects of resonance of the voice through the displacement of the harmonics of the tone emitted by the broadening of the vibrations of this same ‘:one in the buccal cavity, and the articulation of prompt and incisive syllables on the regular continuity of the breath. Strong vibrations of tone must not be produced by a forced expulsion of air, but by regular and continuous pressure, aided by vigorous articulation and by the swelling of the tonethat is, by a broad and round vowel. The masters of old expressed it, “Swell the sound in the mouth while raising the thorax.”
The influence of Wagner’s music on song has been to place in evidence, above all, the power of “sung declamation”la declamation chantee. A somewhat worn artist, if his diction be incisive, may renew his triumphs in a Wagner opera, because the voice is kept in its natural center, and the departures, therefore, are peculiarly syllabic accents, and accents of diction. This music is a sort of reflection of the ancient recitative, but keeps much more closely within the natural limits of the human voice. Hence, from the standpoint of song it is to be preferred to other modern music.
The worthy efforts toward the creation of a new style of theatrical music, added to the influence already attained by Wagner’s music and Verdi’s last operas, should bring about a tempered style that would bear some relation to the ancient traditions, while substantial, new, and meeting the aspirations of the mod-ern worshipers of art, who would unite the beauties of symphonic music to clear and sustained melody. I think this end may be attained if one examines closely some works of our modern composers and compares them with those of ancient masters. In Verdi’s latest operasin “Aida,” for exampleone finds a complete change of the rhythmic form, the melody remaining pure and fluent amid well-drawn and powerful orchestration in the modern style. In “Falstaff” one may note that the master, while following a poem with a continuous dialogue, has preserved his melody pure and shapely, according the orchestration, mean-time, its prominence and might, and all without dam-age to the illusion of the continuity of the drama.
Fournier, in his “Physiology of the Voice,” says that nature has expended its best upon the human voice. Hence the human voice is naturally accurate; and yet we often find ill-defined timbres, dull, weak, or guttural tones, and sometimes tones that are nasal, strident, or strangled. If the human voice is naturally homogeneous, the defects I refer to can only be the outcome of bad habits contracted through carelessness either in speaking or reading or in the ill-directed use of certain syllables in certain languages. Listen to a peasant or a workingman singing and vocalizing a melody while at work, and it will be observed that his voice is spontaneous, even, true, and supple. The old masters counsel to sing naturally, without altering the tones, without forcing them, and without abandoning the breaththat is to say, keeping its regular continuity, and not expelling it violently from the chest. It is mainly through the observance of this precept that they gave to the drama the great artists whom our modern stars are far from equaling.
Hence the right school of song is simply and laconic-ally defined in the injunctions of the ancient masters. Yet the professor should possess a general guide to correct the defects I have mentioned. This guide may be summarized as follows :
1. Regulate the pupil’s breathing so as to render it easy and natural.
2. Cause the sounds to be emitted wholly by the vowel, mezza voce; for when one speaks or sings inhalf-voice the vowel organs retain their natural elasticity.
3. Exercise the pupil’s voice in its natural center, which forms the ring conducting to the upper and nether extremities, and only allow it to leave this center by small steps, according as the voice itself seeks to expand.
4. Make the voice sound throughout its natural range in the buccal cavity and in the pharynx.
5. Broaden, afterward, the voice by swelling the vowel without exaggeration and without forcing the breath or compressing it.
6. Promote the suppleness of the movements of the veil of the palate and of the tongue, to attain by this means a fresh emission of the voice, by broadening and narrowing the isthmus of the throat and of the buccal cavity, in order to obtain all the shades of the timbres required for expressive song.
7. Having conducted the pupil’s voice to the stage reached through the course described, and always by means of the vowel, with no word articulated, proceed to the study of coloratura, to endow the voice with all its elasticity and avert the danger it might encounter in declamatory song.
8. After these studies the pupil should proceed to the study of articulation, bearing well in mind that the organs of articulation are the tip of the tongue, the teeth, and the lips. He should beware of articulating by the base of the tongue, for this would involve an alteration in the position of the larynx, and affect the timbre or the vowel.
The study of style, diction, and expression should follow. It develops in the pupil feeling and the analytical spirit, and enables him truthfully to repro-duce the sentiments of the drama. The study of pose and gesture comes next.
The study of coloratura is as natural as that of dramatic song; and the artist that knows how to use his voice must sing with equal facility all styles of vocal music. The singer of declamatory music will not grow weary if he has mastered the principles of economy of the breath and those of articulation on the end of the lips.
“Sung declamation”la declamation chanteris governed by the same rules as spoken declamation, and in studying it, so to speak, specially, the pupil must nevertheless keep to the written intonation of the music, carefully assimilating to the vowels of the syllables those of the sounds, with respect to their degree of acuteness; thus, while it is almost a special study, sting declamation must harmonize with the good and easy emission of the voice. It must remain with-in the limits of spoken declamation, and reap the benefit of its spontaneousness and suppleness. The singers of the past studied thus “declaimed song”le chant declameand in several ancient operas they demonstrated its worth.