Consistency of approach in the “Old Italian School”

I recently acquired a copy of the 1950 book, “The Foundations of Singing”, written by Franklyn Kelsey. Kelsey was born in 1891 in Hartlepool, and died in 1958.  He sang at Covent Garden from 1926 to 1934 as one of their principle Basses.  He taught singing at the University College of South Wales and the Cardiff Technical College.

He was a student of the French bass-baritone, Marcel Journet.

In reading the book, I’ve come to the realization that the training methods of what is considered the “Old Italian” school were so closely tied to the observation of natural vocal phenomena, that the ensuing freedom would ensure a voice that was free, agile, and supple; capable of dramatic and florid singing. This was also regardless of the nationality of the singer as well, as Kelsey states:

If a study is made of the recordings of, say, six representative sopranos of the old school, each of different nationality, e.g., Lilli Lehmann (German), Patti (Italian), Donalda (Canadian), Melba (Australian), Destinn (Czech), and Calvé (French), the fact emerges with startling clarity that every one of these voices, of widely different nationalities, displayed a characteristic tone, common to every one of them, which is no longer heard to-day in any soprano voice, Italian or otherwise. Each of these singers possessed a vocal quality which, quite apart from its own highly individual quality, was shared by all the others, and which, in fact, might be termed the characteristic quality of the soprano voice when used in a certain way. That vanished quality of the soprano voice is best described by the word “ethereal”. There was an “other-worldliness” about it, an “angelic” quality, particularly as it regards its head tones, which seemed to remove it from the storms and stresses of the workaday world, and which has all the appearance of a “hall-mark” – the hall-mark of the method in which it had been trained. Now you may choose any half dozen records which, to your idea, represent the six finest soprano singers of the last-quarter century, either of various nationalities or all Italian, and you will find, on comparing them with the records I have mentioned, that the old ethereal soprano quality is gone. However fine a singer the modern soprano may be, her voice now stamps her as being essentially a creature of earth.”

The foundations of singing. Williams & Norgate, 1950.

Here are representative YouTube Clips of Lehmann, Patti, Donalda, Melba, Destinn, and Calvé.

3 thoughts on “Consistency of approach in the “Old Italian School”

  1. Ooooh, Kelsey is 100% on-point. I wish I could get my hands on a copy of that book. This topic is something that I think about nearly every single day, and it’s related to the other comments I’ve left tonight.

    BUT I know of one very lucky, very special piece of evidence that can be offered for it. And I offer it to as many people as care to listen; the whole scene was not on YouTube until two nights ago, when I uploaded it for this purpose. Of the above named sopranos, there is only one who left an electrical recording, and that’s Melba, who possessed surely the finest, most exceptional soprano voice since Patti. This was recorded live, at her farewell concert at Covent Garden. Melba is 65 years old. Even so, the voice is remarkably fresh, young, and yes… angelic.

    It’s my belief that the quality to which Kelsey refers is a part of the *very* much older (like the 1700s) Italian vocal/tonal ideal—the one that was established by the castrati and subsequently taught by those who (or whose own teachers) were taught by castrati or who heard them. In the later singers’ voices—Patti’s, Melba’s, Calvé’s—we’re hearing some of the last echoes of a cultural memory. Several written accounts of these women’s voices refer to a sexless but childlike quality -and- a silvery, acidic quality, all of which can also be found in descriptions of the castrati. Calvé, even after having studied with Marchesi and García, went to study directly with the castrato Domenico Mustafà for a time (he helped her find her “fourth voice,” which she uses at the end here: Listen to some of the similarities between Melba and the very bad recordings the not very castrato chorister Moreschi.

    I have lots of thoughts on what the specific features are in terms of registration and how that particular registration balance is achieved—and how the exact same methodology translated and can be translated into male voices. But hearing this Melba recording really is a key that complete unlocks the world that preceded it—both in terms of what acoustic information is lost in pre-electrical recordings and the qualities the older tonal ideal itself.

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