The Twelve Differences

I could NOT resist sharing this article that was posted back in 2002 on the Singer’s Legacy website by James Anderson. It has since been removed, but I am posting it in its entirety below and adding in recordings of the singers mentioned for easier cross-referencing.


What are the differences between older singers on record and current ones? Here are a quick dozen:

1. One of the most striking differences is that many of the earlier singers were willing to make a ‘higher’ sound than now. Luisa Tetrazzini and Tito Schipa, for example, sound much higher than most modern opera sopranos or tenors. Clearly, they were much more willing to work with this quality in their singing. One or two modern singers even know this – as Renée Fleming says in the recent Divas in their own Words book, ‘I also believe the style of singing has changed, and I suspect that people used to sing more in head voice than we do now.’

Now you may say that there are plenty of old singers who seem in fact to have the richest of sounds up high – and that to call their sound just ‘heady’ or ‘in head voice’ – doesn’t quite seem to explain it. But in truth this core of ‘high’ sound serves them for all their dynamic range. You will often find they were able to go from loud to soft (or vice versa) on a high note without any break or change in the sound. It is as if they could strengthen that high kernel of sound into the richest of tones and back again – and without any appreciable physical effort. So working with this ‘high’ sound facilitated extraordinary accomplishments. Battistini, the baritone, or de Lucia, the tenor, give many early recorded examples of this – and there are plenty of other ones from many other singers up to about 1980.

2. You might say too that the earlier singers had a much more ‘focused’ sound than now. There is some very identifiable core to their sound that keeps your interest and lets you know exactly what note they are on. There is hardly an early singer who does not have focus, but out of the countless examples here, what about the excellent baritone Giuseppe de Luca? One well-known British critic recently said to the audience at a private music club, ‘Nowadays you pay expensive seat prices at the opera, to wait all night in the hope of hearing even one singer with some focus.’ I have a friend who’s a young professional cellist. His teachers told him you must try to play like a singer. He replied, ‘But it’s so difficult with modern singers to know what to imitate – there is no centre to their sound.’

3. Most of the older singers seem to have a bigger freedom of delivery. Their notes seem to leave them with less obstacle, or contrivance, or forcing, than now. And this is just as true of the lower voices as of the higher ones. For instance, even low voices such as say Peter Dawson’s, or Clara Butt’s seem to ‘speak’ to the listener with directness and simplicity. And they carry this ability right to the top of their (often very large) ranges.

4. This ability to ‘speak’ clearly with the voice gives the older singers some very decided rhythmic advantages over their successors. Modern opera singing is often behind the beat, or ‘smudgy’ or slow (in attack). It is often compensated for by some very rhythmic orchestral playing, but on the older records you cannot fail to be impressed by how very in charge of their own rhythms the singers are, and very clearly they come over. This is the case whether they are a coloratura singer like Tetrazzini or a dramatic voice like Emmy Destinn. As a conductor or orchestral player you would have had so little difficulty in following them. (Remember until the second half of the nineteenth century there were not even baton-beating conductors for opera. Singers led.)

5. The ability to ‘speak’ also gives the advantage of better diction. This is one area where nearly all observers of the scene are in complete agreement. It’s one of the first things that somebody with just the slightest knowledge of the past will say: ‘the older singers had marvellous enunciation.’

Renée Fleming points this out in Divas in their own Words : “From recordings that one can hear, people sang more brightly…and this was partly for the projection of the text. One could always understand the words. Today, in addition to singing with a fuller, richer sound, and very often with a darker timbre, there’s less emphasis on diction. The public is familiar with the works, we have super-titles to help us, and we’re often singing in foreign languages in our own country, where most of the audience doesn’t understand us anyway.’

6. From the best of the old singers, you get the sense of a flow of sound that can start and stop at any moment with ease. It can build into excitement very easily, it can calm itself into relaxation very easily. But you haven’t lost the feel of a line of music, or of the tune. The sound seems to ‘spin’. Patti might be an excellent example here. Modern schools of singing would of course also claim to have ‘legato’, but their style by contrast comes over as more ‘held’ and laboured, less free and spontaneous. In fact, if you ask modern critics what it is they would like to hear in a modern voice that they don’t (and we have asked some major British critics exactly this question), they will most often answer ‘legato and portamento’.

7. You also get the impression from many of the older singers that their sound is more effortless. That is one of the impressions a newcomer to their records has. But of course it was always the advice of the old teachers – it’s not right unless its easy. That has changed so much in recent years. You can tell this by comparing radio interviews with singers now and forty or fifty years ago. Then an interviewer would be praising the ease of their singing, now the interviewer seems to reinforce the view that ‘it’s very hard, isn’t it’. Curiously there is even praise to be had – but only from within the industry – for making it look hard these days! For sheer joy and effortless singing, have a look at Rosa Ponselle’s screen tests on the video “The Art of Singing”.

8. This point is tied to so much else but has to be singled out. Compared to modern singers, the older ones have such clear, ringing high notes. In the last twenty years of going to the opera in Europe, we have not heard that many artists who can sing high notes in the same true fashion. And at worst, the women can make a sound that is unclear or spread, the tenors can sound constipated or strained, and the baritones and basses can be foggy or dried out.

Of course there are exceptions but we think you only have to go back about fifty years to get much truer vocalism in this particular aspect. No good old singer made their top notes sound any different from, or more difficult than, the rest of their voice. The top of the voice then gave the sheer glory it is supposed to convey. It is always a shame now to hear a student being told that the top is going to be difficult! There used to be for instance a whole wealth of tenors (not just tenorinos) with glorious tops – Gigli, Martinelli, Pertile, Lauri-Volpi, and Tagliavini, just to mention a few Italians out of a vast and international list.

9. Another feature of the older singers is a consistent emission of sound. The best of them can produce a line of sound, and within it encompass the markings or nuances or ornaments given by the composer – but without breaking the final impression of a ‘spun’ line. This creates two advantages for the listener. One is that the smoothness of emission can give a pleasurable, almost tactile feeling to the listener – for instance, with Claudio Muzio a feeling perhaps of being cloaked in velvet. Secondly, this ease of emission gives an ability to cope truly with any turn of phrase in the music, but not destroy the overall line or tune – for examples here, listen to Melba in her opera recordings.

10. The ability of the older singers to sing clean, clear intervals is another notable difference. Within the line of music, they could in a fraction of a second leave one note behind and arrive thwack in the middle of another one. At an important interval in a phrase, or at a cadence, this can be very exciting. Listen to Edouard De Reszke’s Porter Song for how even the most sonorous of bass voices can do this.

11. The voices of the older singers come over as more individual. That ‘high’ quality in their sound seems to show more of their own timbre and personality, and make them more recognizable. With older singers, it is often easy to identify a singer on record within a few bars. A story we like is this one. After hearing an audition behind screens, the head of the panel, Isobel Baillie, pulled the singer out and said to him, “Your voice sounds like Walter Midgeley’s – who are you?” It was in fact Walter’s young son Vernon Midgeley! This ‘high’ or ‘heady’ quality also carries the emotion, and can quickly convey the varying moods of a piece. The records of a singing actress like Geraldine Farrar are a fine example here.

12. Last point for the moment – but it may be one of the most important of all – you do get an impression with the older voices that they haven’t tampered with Nature so much. The older singers sound nearer to ‘natural’ voices than modern ones. Let’s just take sopranos, for example. To one extent or another, we all know what a teenage soprano, untaught, can sound like. It seems the older teachers were happy to keep some of this quality and work with it rather than against it. Today, in a singing college, they will be trying to change any ‘teenage-sounding’ voices into something else. Occasionally, they will let one voice remain as it was (e.g. to do the maid parts).





4 thoughts on “The Twelve Differences

  1. Great post! My own teacher—who was firmly entrenched in the Old School—taught her students that great singing embodied two simple principles: high placement and low support. That the first concept is considered to be impossible by modern vocal pedagogues simply reveals a lack of knowledge of—and appreciating for—generations of performance practice.

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