Loud, Louder, and Loudest (or Mack Truck Singing)

Pupil: You have made mention of two great basses, Lablache and Staudigl, which leads me to a remark you made some time ago about some bass singers enlarging their tone too much. I would like to know something about the proper action for the bass voice, as it is plain to me that I have had ideas which you would not consider correct. For instance, I, on one occasion, heard an eminent vocalist sing E, with what you would designate an open tone. The effect was very startling, for the passage required great power.

Teacher: It is probable that the effect would be startling, but was it agreeable to the ear?

Pupil: Well, I thought so at the time; or rather — I am not sure that it occurred to me to think whether it was agreeable or otherwise. I expected a loud tone, and it came, consequently I was not disappointed; but as to expecting a tone pleasant to the ear, I do not think I should have desired it: the passage called only for loudness.

Teacher: Then it might as well have been one noise as another. By “loudness” you, of course, mean noise. Now, let us see how that idea would operate. The violinist wishes to gain greater power from his instrument than it is capable of properly producing; and we speak of the rasping effect. The cornet-player desires more tone than his instrument can properly give, and we speak of the noisy blare. The tragedian forces his voice, and we accuse him of ranting. So you see, that loudness is not the only thing desirable. Legitimate power we do want, but that does not consist in shouting. But you have hit upon a matter which needs some attention. A great many bass singers do just this thing of which you have spoken. Let us now go back a little to the action of the organs, and again repeat, that all sound in the voice is the result of vibration of the vocal chord. A certain number of vibrations per second produce a given tone, and a certain number more per second produce a certain higher tone. Now, it is evident, that, with the same chord, the only way to increase the rapidity of the vibrations, is by shortening them. But let us take an example which all must understand. The ophecleide is a large brass instrument, formerly made use of as the bass in a brass band, — a very effective instrument indeed, and in the hands of Hughes, a remarkable performer in Jullien’s orchestra, one of the richest of solo instruments. I heard this gentleman play the “Star-spangled Banner” at one time. This is a tune which extends over a considerable range, and, when sung by a bass, is usually, I believe, taken in the key of G, which carries the highest note to D. The line in which this occurs is the fifth, “And the rocket’s red glare; ” G A B B C D and the usual way to do it is to give a perfect yell, for I can call it nothing else, on the D. Now, how was it with the ophecleide? The tone gradually pointed off as it ascended, the upper tone being full and resonant, but in proportion. This was not owing to the playing of Hughes: it was the law of the instrument, and may be noticed at any time. But it must strike you that the tone which was sung was wholly out of proportion to the rest.

Pupil: Then you would designate the tone which I thought so fine by the name of “yell” ? It seems to me that you are very hard to please: do you ever hear any thing or any body that is right ?

Teacher: Now you are repeating what many others say. I understand that some people do me the honor to believe my standard to be so high that none can attain to it. I think you will find, however, that I have endorsed some singers as being good examples of their art. You will find that I only oppose wrong that is proved to be such. I am not hypercritical, but aim at genuine progress. I detest humbug and false show. I admire sincerity in all things, singing included. I despise the man who does a good action for the sake of popular applause ; and I equally despise the vocalist who sings only for popular applause. As one should do right for its own sake, so one should sing honestly for no other motive than because it is right and just to his composer and audience. I am perfectly aware that my position is rather a quixotic one, so considered; but I am in earnest in my views. Now, having spoken of the wrong way of doing things, let me return to the two great artists we have mentioned. I imagine, from all accounts, that Lablache and Staudigl were both as near perfection as possible. There are many living who have heard both, and the testimony is not conflicting. I once knew a baritone singer, who claimed to have been a pupil of Staudigl. He had a splendid voice, but was a bad singer, which led me to think that he had not been a faithful student; but one thing was very noticeable: he could sing high G with perfect ease; his voice tapered off beautifully, from which I gather that he was so taught by the great master. Badiali was a wonderful singer, with a delivery of tone easy and natural; no trying to make tone too large ; all was beautifully shaped. He was an old man when he died, but preserved his powers to the last. The present race of Italian teachers seem to aimat making the upper part of the voice large and shaky. It may be said that the first fault induces the second. What is the effect ? The real beauty of the voice disappears, and the tones become dry and unsatisfactory. I always feel troubled when I find people so mistaken, knowing as I do, that they might be far more acceptable singers, if they would be more natural. There it is again, they should be more natural. The effect of that would be to make them sing as they would speak, and consequently deliver their voices in the same way for both. I heard a singer, not long since, having a charming voice, but a wrong delivery, and thought to myself, “How I should love to have you hear your own voice once, that you might realize how far superior it is to this false voice, which you think is yours.” But he will probably never know what a treasure he has, nor will anybody else who listens to his artificial tones.

Daniell, William Henry. The Voice and how to Use it. JR Osgood, 1873.

One thought on “Loud, Louder, and Loudest (or Mack Truck Singing)

  1. Zinger! We can barely define or find “natural” these days. Finding “natural” is well worth the trouble.

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