Braying like an ass on the pathway to perfection

Sir Charles Santley, who studied with Manuel Garcia, had some rather pointed remarks for students learning to sing, and those who do so from a place of love and respect, and one of gain:

If there are many so-called masters who cannot teach, there are many more would-be pupils who cannot or will not learn. If Rossini said, “Voice! Voice! Voice! is the only requisite of a singer” (which I do not believe), with all due respect to his memory I say he did a great deal of harm. Human beings, especially young ones, are not prone to be industrious, and a great man having told them, as it pleases them to believe or fancy, that voice is all-sufficient, they shirk everything in the way of work. A simple scale may be made interesting by a combination of voice and soul, and most uninteresting by a voice without the soul (the soul which lives to work!). Any ass can bray without a soul, but I doubt whether his music is interesting even to his own species; he may astonish them (all kinds of asses like to be astonished, it is their greatest pleasure, they are willing to pay dear for it) with the amount of noise he produces, but from which most animals not of his species fly in affright or disgust.

What a laudable aim to have in view, to bray loud enough to drown the efforts of one’s fellows! Yet it seems the aim in view of many singers who ought to have become worthy of assisting the angels in their song, “Holy! Holy! Holy! Lord God or Sabaoth”! and so have used their gifts in praise of their Giver. Shame! Shame! Shame! on their idleness and neglect! And yet there is some excuse for the younger of their number who see that one who can bray louder than his fellows stuffs his pockets with gold, decorates himself jewels of price and is decorated with unearned or ill-earned honours. I would put this plain question to those who take the trouble to read this: Is it not disgraceful that a being, having received a heavenly gift, instead of using it in the service of the Giver, simply barters it for money? I like money as much as any man, but I like to earn it honourably, and I say distinctly that though such may earn their wealth by the sweat of their brow, they earn it with dishonour to themselves and their Creator.

Your voice is not your possession; it is a seed intrusted to your care, to cultivate that it may grow up a fruitful tree. The métier (if I may use the word) of Art is not to make money for the professors of Art; it is a Divine office; it’s productions, the picture of the painter, the statue of the sculptor, the work (prose or poetry) of the author, the song of the singer (vocal or instrumental), are meant to satisfy the cravings of the purely artistic soul, and to solace the soul to which the seed from which Art fruit is produced has been denied.

Your duty is to cultivate the tree grown from the seed intrusted to you as long as a drop of sap flows in it, that the fruit may become as perfect as human efforts can make it.”


Santley, Charles. The art of singing and vocal declamation. Macmillan, 1908.