To sing is to use the voice in accordance with musical laws. Singing is a musical expression of thought and feeling through the medium of the voice and the organs of speech generally, by means of two technical operations – vocalization (the work of the vowels) and articulation (that of the consonants). A passing word on the meaning and nature of music will hardly be out of place, as from common English par-lance it might often be inferred that singing is distinct from music, and that music means instrumental music only.
Music may be accepted to signify sounds in succession or combination regulated by certain natural and artificial laws, the result of which has been the establishment of a series of these sounds (called a scale) having certain proportions to, and relations with, each other, and being susceptible of combinations capable of affording deep emotion. The effect of abstract musicthat is, music without wordsupon the soul, though vague and undefinable, is so incontestable and all-powerful that its immediate origin in nature it-self can hardly for a moment be doubted. Musical combinations and progressions seem at times to recall something that does not belong to the present order of things, and to inspire almost a conviction that in an-other existence only will the full scope and significance of abstract music be understood.
From the time of man’s first awakening to the influence of that which was not purely animal, or at least from the date of the earlier forms of organization and civilization, it is probable that singing in some form has had its place as an individual solace or as a convenient means of expressing a common sentiment, either in war-cries (afterward war-songs) or in addresses to the deities or idols (afterward chants and hymns).
Much has been said of the “language of music.” This is but a rhetorical figure. Language is definite and states facts, the significance of which will depend upon the greater or less sensitiveness of the hearer. Music does precisely what words do not do. It represents a state of thought and feeling, more or less continuous, awakened by the statement of factsa brooding over what has been said after the words are supposed to have ceased. Hence the propriety of pro-longing syllables and repeating words, which the cynic-ally disposed are often inclined to ridicule as opposed to reason and common sense. This inclination to ignore the high office of music (that of expounding what passes in the mind and soul) is one great cause of the frequent tameness of singing; and this same tameness it is that in reality makes singing at times ridiculous and opposed to reason and common sense. And if this higher view of music in singing is not to be takenif all that is to be looked for is a rhythmical tunethen by all means let it be played upon an instrument, as the intonation will be safe, provided the instrument be in tune; and the head may nod, and the feet may tap, the ear will be tickled and the soul unruffled. Be-sides, the power of using the voice for the purpose of communicating ideas, thoughts, and feelings, and of recording facts and events (to be set down in characters, and thus transmitted from generation to generation), being a special gift to the human race, and the attribute which most thoroughly separates man from the lower animal tribe, the inane warbling of a tune is an anomaly.
It scarcely matters which of the many theories may be the right one of the origin of musical sound, i.e., of the manner in which it first presents itself to the ear. Any continuous sound in nature may call our appreciation into activity. It is certain that it appeals to some-thing in our inmost nature which responds as directly to it, and that its effect is a reality; otherwise it could not take its active part in the expression of thought and feeling, or rather be, as it is, the real manifestation or representation of a state of thought and feeling only suggested by words. Its appreciation by the mind and soul through the medium of the ear cannot well be a matter of development, but is rather a revelation, from the simple fact that it is distinguished from noise by the isochronism of vibration; and the difference between the two could not but be marked the moment it presented itself, as a brilliant color, distinguished from surrounding neutral tints, at once attracts the eye. The manner in which a musical sound arrests the attention of a child too young to understand, or of an animal, is a strong proof of its being a special sense of which we shall perhaps know more in another state of existence. Some sort of language, we may conclude, came first, and syllables were prolonged for the sake of emphasis: The continuous note having presented itself through some sound in nature, the power of imitation by the voice would be recognized. Rhythm, the innate sense of accent the spirit of me-ter, as time is the letterwill also have been awakened by some natural sound, such as the slow dropping of water, or the galloping of an animal. The ideal pendulum once set going within us, words would adapt themselves to it, and poetry, or at least verse, would come into being. The substitution of a musical note for the simple prolongation of the spoken sound would not fail to take place in due time. With the awakening of a purer religious feeling, the continuous note would be found a suitable means of keeping together large numbers in singing chants and hymns, the splendor of many voices in unison would be felt, and ecclesiastical music would assume something of a definite form.
The stages in the rise of music may have been, therefore, as follows: first, nature’s instrumentsthe cleft in. the rock, the hole in the cabin, the distant trickling water, or the wind blowing into a reed; then the imitation of these sounds by the voice, followed by the imitation of these and the voice by artificial instruments. Again, the increased accuracy of artificial instruments imitated by the voice; and finally the power of expression of the voice imitated by instruments, vocal and instrumental music aiding each other.
An idea of what remote nations may have done in the way of music can only be gathered from representations of instruments and obscure records of the various periods, and these indications are naturally too vague for any precise estimate to be formed, but there is no reason to imagine that it reached a high point of development with them. A painting on plaster in the British Museum, taken from a tomb at Thebes, represents a party of comely Egyptian ladies, about the time of Moses, enjoying some concerted music. Three are playing upon instruments of the guitar or lute kind, a fourth upon a double tibia, while a fifth appears to be beating time by clapping her hands. If domestic mu-sic was customary so far back, why was the wonderful development of modern times so long in being brought about?
Even the Greeks, with all their boundless love for, and appreciation of, the beautiful, and their power of its reproduction, cannot be supposed to have gone far in the cultivation of music. Their use of music seems to have been to form an accompaniment to oratory and to furnish rhythmical tunes for dancing. With their voices they seem to have been inclined at times to indulge in mass of sound rather than music properly so called, if we consider Plutarch’s warning to his disciples against indulging in too violent vociferation for fear of such calamitous consequences as ruptures and convulsions. The student then, as at the present day, apparently took upon himself to make all the noise he could against the advice of his instructors. But this is not important to the present purpose. It is enough that we know with tolerable certainty that we are indebted to a long line of pious and learned men for the gradual development of the material with which we have to work. The spread of Christianity required that Church music should be purified and put into something like form. This was commenced by St.
Ambrose in the latter part of the fourth century, his work being continued and amplified two centuries later by St. Gregory.
Down to Palestrina’s time melody had been held of too little account by theorists. This great reformer knew, beyond all others, how to revivify dry contrapuntal forms with music in its great and ultimate capacity as a manifestation of thought and feeling, and thus brought to its gorgeous perfection the polyphonic school, soon to be thrust aside, never, perhaps, to re-appear in its integrity, but later to assert its great master’s mighty spirit in the works of those of his successors capable of receiving it.
Until the end of the sixteenth century, singing as an independent art, solo-singing, had been held of little account, and had been the vocation almost exclusively of troubadours and other unscientific (though often sympathetic) composers of popular music. Its great impulse was given by the creation of the opera out of an attempt toward the close of the sixteenth century, on the part of a little knot of disciples of the Renaissance, to revive the musical declamation of the Greek drama. The result was not what they intended, but of vastly wider scope than they could have anticipated. In connection with this movement was the name of Vincenzo Galilei, the father of the great astronomer known as Galileo. From these small beginningsa few cantatas accompanied by a single instrumentwe have the magnificent combination of music, poetry, and scenery of the present day.
Though in the music of Palestrina the doctrine is exemplified and carried to its conclusion that to be truly beautiful polyphonic music must be melodious in all its parts, still this form was impracticable for the purpose immediately in hand. In all times of reaction the vibration of the chain of events throws it far out of its center. Hence the almost immediate abandonment of the polyphonic in favor of the monodic form, instead of a healthy combination of the two.
The first true Italian opera was the “Euridice” of Jacopo Peri, given in i600 on the occasion of the marriage of Henry IV of France with Maria de’ Medici. The first result of the movement was the recitative, in something very like its present form. But the outcry against the so-called interruption of dramatic action by the introduction of the aria, set concerted piece. and formal chorus, is only reasonable when directed against the abuse of these means of expression so legitimate in their proper place and at their proper time. In everyday life (the principles of which-, in an. exalted and artistic form, must be the basis of all dramatic action), events, though they succeed each other quickly, have their moments, if not of repose, at least of the working out of their immediate consequences, and these give the opportunity for the expression of the (for the time) dominant state of thought and feeling. Even musical decoration, wisely chosen and put together, adds immensely to the general significance.
What, then, besides the creation of opera, were the causes of the great development of the art of singing in Italy, its stage of perfection for a time, and its deteriorationlet us trust for a time also? Italy, inheriting the proud position, from Greece, of foster-mother to the arts, could not neglect music as one of her foster-children. But while other countries vied with her, and at times surpassed her, in musical science, the tide of vocal sound, the power of using the voice, could not but flow into the channel prepared for it by nature and art. The gradual evolution of the Italian out of the Latin language, the elimination of every hard sound, where practically consistent with the exigencies of articulation, and its refinement to a state of almost perfect vocal purity, brought about a facility in producing vocal sound possessed by other nations only in so far as their respective tongues contain the elements of the Italian. The Italian language is almost entirely phonetic, and is preeminent in the two respects of vocal purity and amount of vocal sound. Its vowels are not only Italian; they are the pure elements of language in general, resembling in idea the painter’s palette of pure colors, and offering therefore the material by which to gauge the purity of other languages.
A short inquiry into the difference between speaking and singing in the five languages to which the largest amount of vocal music has been composedItalian. Latin, French. German, and Englishwill not he out of place. Of all languages the Italian is most alike in singing and speakingEnglish the least. The four essential points of difference between speaking and singing are, first and foremost, that in speaking (as in the warbling of almost all bids )the isochronism of vibration is never present for a period long enough to make an appreciable musical note. A sympathetic speaking voice is one whose production of tone most nearly approaches that of the singing voice, but whose inflexions are so varied as to remove it entirely from actual music. The word “cant” not improbably has its origin in puritanical singsong speaking, and the word has been transferred from the manner to the matter, and applied to hypocritical expression of sanctity or sentiment. In singsong speaking the exact opposite of the above combination is generally found an approximation to musical notes, and an abominable tone-production. The second distinguishing point is the fact that in ordinary speaking little more than one third (the lower third) of the vocal compass comes into play, while in singing the middle and upper parts are chiefly used. The third point of difference, and that which most especially distinguishes singing from speaking. in English, is that short syllables that is to say with the accent falling on the concluding consonant) cannot exist, as such, since the accent in singing is upon the vocal portion of the syllable. This, indeed, is the case in reading Italian, and even in carefully speaking it. Lastly, singing tends to preserve intact the relative purity of a language; speaking, to split it up into dialects and peculiarities.
Italian, then, takes the first position as having the purest vocal sounds and the largest amount of vowel. Latin, as sung, comes next. Its vowels are the same, but it has more consonants. The classification of French and German requires qualification. In amount of vocal sound French takes the third place. The ens tom of pronouncing, in singing. the otherwise mute syllables prevents consonants from coming together, and words from ending with hard consonants, but the quality of some of the vowels requires very great care to prevent its marring the pure emission of the voice.
The proper management of the final n and m must be also closely studied. A great quality in the French language, as sung, is the fact that the amount of vocal sound is always at the same average. No sudden irruption of a mass of consonants, as in German or English, is to be feared. In vocal purity, though not in amount of vocal sound, German takes precedence of French, as containing more Italian vowel, but it is at times so encumbered with consonants that there is barely time to make the vowel heard. The modified vowels ii, o and a are a little troublesome. The most serious interruption to vocal sound is the articulation of ch followed by s, or worse still, of s by sch. But if the words are well chosen they flow very musically. The first line of Schubert’s “Standschen,” “Leise flehen meine Lieder,” is a good example, all the consonants being soft except the f. In contrast to this we have “Fliisternd schlanke Wipfel rauschen” with thirty-one letters and only nine vowels.
Polyglot English requires more careful analysis than any other language before it can be sung, on account of the nature of its vowel sounds and the irregularity of its orthography, consequent upon its many derivations. Its alphabet is almost useless. There are at least fourteen different ways of representing on paper the sound of the alphabetical vowel i. There are nine different ways of pronouncing the combination of letters ough. The sonnd of the English language is by no means as bad as it is made to appear. No people in the civilized world speak a language so abominably as those who speak English. Not only are we, as a rule, inarticulate, but our tone-production is wretched, and when English-speaking people begin to study singing they are astonished to find that they have never learned to speak. In singing there is scarcely a letter of our language that has not its special defect or defects among nearly all amateurs, and. sad to say, among some artists. An Italian has but to open his mouth, and if he have a voice its passage from the larynx to the outer air is prepared by his language. We, on the contrary, have to study hard before we can arrive at the Italian’s starting-point. Besides, we are as much troubled as Germans with masses of consonants. For example, She .watched through the night,” “The fresh streams ran by her.” Two passages from Shakespeare are examples of hard and soft words. The one is from “King Lear,” “The crows and choughs that wing the midway air.” In these last five words the voice ceases but once, and that upon the hard consonant t. The other sounds are all vocal and liquid, and represent remarkably the floating and skimming of a bird through the air. The other is from “Julius Cesar,” “I’m glad that my weak words have struck but thus much fire from Brutus.” The four hard short monosyllables, all spelled with the same vowel, are very suggestive.
All these difficulties in the way of pronunciation can be largely overcome by carefully analyzing vowels and consonants. Voice-production, that difficult and troublesome problem, will be in a great measure solved thereby, for it should be ever borne in mind by students of singing, as one of two golden precepts, that a pure vowel always brings with it a pure notefor the simple reason that the pure vowel only brings into play those parts of the organs of speech that are necessary for its formation, and the impure vowel is rendered so by a convulsive action of throat, tongue, lips, nose, or palate.
In studying voice-production let three experiments be tried. 1. Take an ordinary tumbler and partially cover its mouth with a thin book. Set a tuning-fork in vibration and apply the flat side to the opening left by the book, altering the opening until the note of the fork is heard to increase considerably in volume. When the right-sized opening is found, the sound of the fork will be largely reinforced. In like manner, in singing, the small initial sound produced by the vibrating element of the voice-organs is reinforced by vibrations communicated to the air contained in the resonance-chambers. 2. Next take an ordinary porcelain flower-vase. Sing a sonorous A (Italian) in the open, on the middle of the voice, then repeat the A with the mouth and nose inserted in the flower-vase, and the vowel sound will be neutralized and the vibration to a great extent suffocated. In like manner the sound which has been reinforced by the good position of some of the resonance-chambers may be suffocated and spoiled by a bad position of any one of the remaining ones. These two experiments, simple as they are, are conclusive. 3. The third, less simple, consists in whispering the vowels. The five elementary sounds of language (the Italian vowels) will be found in the following order, i, e, a, o, u, or vice versa, each vowel giving a musical note dependent entirely upon the resonance of the chambers, the larynx giving no musical sound, but only a rush of air through the glottis. I gives the highest sound and u the lowest, the pitch of the notes having been fixed by Helmholtz. The importance of these three experiments consists in their clearly showing how the smallest deviation from a certain position produces a marked change of resonance in the note, and an alteration in the color of the vowel sound.
Though foreign singers are often indistinct, radical faults of pronunciation are rare with them when singing their own language, and this on account of the less complex character of their respective tongues, and the greater simplicity of their orthography. The difficulties of English are considerable, but this does not excuse the irritating indifference of many amateurs and would-be artists in the matter of languages generally. It is not at all unusual for a student when training for a singer’s career to study a large amount of foreign music, extending over a considerable time, the words being always carefully translated to him, the roots explained, and the analogies between the foreign language and his own pointed out, in the hope that at least a little might be picked tip in the time; and yet, in the end, to find that he exhibits total ignorance of even the definite article. In some cases the pronunciation has been more than fairly acquired, which makes the other failure the more unpardonable. Nor is the common utterance of blind prejudice particularly edifying. It is frequently said. “Oh. French is a horrible language to sing; it is all nasal!” or `”German is a wretched language to sing; it is all guttural!” A language is in a great measure what a singer makes it.
Enough has been said to show that all the purer and more sonorous parts of language in general are Italian. We thus arrive at a first reason why singingshould have naturally flourished in Italy. The unsatisfactory treatment of our own language is a first reason why it does not flourish as it ought with us. In using foreign languages we dread affectation, and are glad to comfort ourselves with the reflection that the world at large will not recognize our defects. Whom ought we really to considerthe many who nay not recognize the defects, or the one or two natives who may be present? Dread of affectation must be got over by careful study and habit.
Another cause for the development of singing in Italy was the necessity for finding the best singers for the papal service, in which females were not permitted to take part. Boys were employed, and counter-tenors, or falsetto singers, chiefly Spaniards. But Ls solo-singing increased in importance, the counter-te airs no doubt began to realize the fact that by cultivating the falsetto they were ruining their more robust registers, and the fact became more and more patent that as soon as a boy was beginning to acquire some cultivation of taste his voice left him. This led to the custom of preventing the voice from breaking, by artificial means. In the case of these singers there was hardly any cessation in the course of study from early to more mature years. There was not the total stoppage of work, the enforced interval of two or three years for the voice to settle, and the recommencement under totally different conditions. The long course of uninterrupted study would bring the art of vocalization to perfection, and these perfect singers, who were afterward introduced upon the stage, became, as the art progressed, models of style and execution ( according, be it under-stood, to the taste of the period), and furnished many of the best singing-masters. The first representative was the Padre Rossini, admitted into the Pontifical Chapel in 1601, and nearly the last was Creseentini, who died in 1846. The last papal falsetto singer was Giovanni de Sanctos, who died at Rome in 1625.
In addition to the influences already named. ecclesiastical authority would have its effect. at any rate in the early stages of study, in exacting the necessary application on the part of students. Subordination to teachers existed in times gone by. and the gradual development of volume of voice and the power o f exact execution, without the sacrifice of quality. and the cultivation of taste (the abstract of judgment. a sense of proportion and fitness) were the results. The observance of the second golden precept in studying singing, “Work for quality, and power will take care of itself,” has not been sufficiently carried out in later times.
At a not very remote time no females were permitted to appear on the stage at Rome in any entertainment, operatic, dramatic, or chorographic, the singing parts being filled by the best-looking artificial soprani and contralti that could be found. It is an injustice to ascribe to these a deficiency of intellectual power or personal courage. History sets this question quite at rest. Nor were defects in the powers of articulation peculiar to them. Scarcely one in a hundred of ordinary mortals is free from some failure in this respect.
Very little seems to be known about solo singers be-fore the beginning of the seventeenth century. the period in fact at which they were really required. Caccini, the composer, and his daughter are said to have been both fine singers. The monodic form growing with Caccini and his immediate successors brought with it, of necessity, a corresponding growth of the vocal art. The great stride made by Monteverde and Cavalli toward the modern opera, their amplification of the orchestra, and the improvement of the recitative by Carissimi and others, gave so great an impulse to the study of using the voice, that in a comparativeiy short time there was without doubt some very fine singing, if music of the middle of the seventeenth century had adequate interpretation; and if not its continued production would speedily have come to an end. Among the cantatas of Luigi Rossi is one in particular, “Gelosia” (composed about 164o), requiring all the qualifications of a fine singervoice (tenore robusto, high barytone, or mezzo soprano), declamatory power, pathos, and agility. Another, by Carissimi, “Vittoria,” demands vigorous singing. The dramatic force ex-acted by a just rendering of the kind of music named, naturally brought about by the creation of the recitative, by degrees gave place to a more mechanical style of singing. The constant recitative became monotonous, and rhythmical airs, more and more formal, came into vogue, their formality being afterward relieved by set passages or divisions. The singers above referred to brought their vocalization to such a grade of perfection and exactness that they must have sung really with the precision of an instrument. This wonderful power of exact execution culminated in Porpora’s famous pupils, Farinelli and Caffarelli.