The Old Italian Method, Part 1

From Etude Magazine, February 1898:

Distorted, degraded, demoralized; sheltering beneath its plausible respectability presumptions of the grossest sort; a scapegoat compelled to answer for every crime in the vocal catalogue; loaded with the stigma of every possible grade of incompetency; a shield behind which ignorance wards off the thrusts of disappointed hopes; a cloak in which charlatanry and pretense enfolds itself and beguiles the unwary and aspiring student into confidences which are followed by despair and wreck;—all because of a name which, except to the few, comprehends only an indefinite significance, even that being borrowed from the faded glories of a remote past and forced into artificial existence in an unnatural and unfriendly soil. The partially equipped status of the vocal profession is accountable for this in part; not less, however, than the credulity of the average vocal aspirant.

Our purpose is to answer clearly the question, so frequently put and vaguely answered, “What is the old Italian method?”—and in so doing to settle, beyond cavil and finally, the necessity at least for further impositions—and to remove the mask of mystery surrounding the subject, which has been its greatest charm. The old Italian method relates strictly to the mode of technically developing the vocal instrument, irrespective of its quality or condition—the process illustrating a sequence absolutely perfect so far as the uses to which voices are to be put can be related to it. In other words, the training afforded by this system held in view the perfect rendering of the music most in vogue when that system was formulated—viz., the Italian opera.

“Irrespective of its quality or condition.” By that is conveyed the truth which so many, unfortunately, overlook. They associate the Italian method with a certain quality of tone, a certain manner of taking a tone, or a certain condition of vocal attainment in some way distinctive. The old Italian method does not begin with tone production or the study of the quality, and has but little to do with the peculiarities of the instrument; it takes the tone as it finds it, in whatsoever condition, and beginning there, subjects it persistently to a prescribed routine, which routine is as fixed and unalterable as a system can be made by the combined experience of master minds covering a period of nearly two centuries. This is indisputable. While many, perhaps most of the old method writers allude, in their inevitable and stereotyped prologues or introductions, to quality, they, knowing well the utter hopelessness of expressing their ideas in type, proceed at once to the business of singing—that is, of training the voice as they find it by the old Italian formula, trusting to that formula to enlarge, strengthen, and qualify the voice for its prospective use, and, while so doing, to eradicate the defects existing in the voice; and, happily, but not strange to relate, the results are consistent and satisfactory. All we find relating to the old Italian method in the writings of those whom we can quote as authority is of no value in the way of suggestions as to how tone formation, pure and simple, should be acquired. Such terms as tone placing, or voice building were not known or rarely indulged in, except as they were alluded to synonymously in the advanced stages of development. As before stated, the system presupposed the tone an established fact, ready to be acted upon, expanded, and matured by the old Italian method. It seems almost superfluous to illustrate, but to avoid any misunderstanding let us compare the tone of a promising and established voice to a perfectly formed and talented child. The old Italian method recognized the voice already existing clearly an entity, characteristic and worthy of development, no less truly than the parents look with pride upon the possibilities of attainment of their perfectly formed and talented child. In either case, the process of culture may comprehend infinite improvement and the incorporation of endless charms and graces not even suggested at the outset; but such amplification would shed luster upon the system by which either the voice or child were developed, bearing no relation whatsoever to the formation of the voice or the gifts of the child. It is to this peculiar power of maturing and enlarging the scope of the instrument that the old Italian method is indebted for its glory and its influence. When properly understood and traditionally followed, this influence is as potent to-day as when so generally and successfully practiced.

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