Secrets of Svengali – Part 1, Tone Production

George du Maurier’s novel Trilby, published in book form in 1895, was one of the great successes of its time. It is set in Paris in the 1850s and centers around Trilby O’Ferrall and her voice teacher Svengali.

Svengali transforms Trilby into a great opera singer through hypnotism (the supernatural was all the rage in Victorian London). The novel is the inspiration for Gaston Leroux’s celebrated The Phantom of the Opera.

In 1922, John H. Duval wrote an amusing book on singing from Svengali’s point of view. There is much to admire in the book, and it’s format is one of the more interesting ways of disseminating vocal knowledge.  I’ll be sharing chunks of the book, including ‘Svengali’s exercises’ in this series.

In the excerpt below, Duval takes issue with sustaining tones, believing that it is too difficult for the beginner. In most cases this is true; I myself only attempt sustained tones in singers that already have some basic chest voice function, preferring the exercise of a five-tone scale at first, and often using messa di voce in the lowest tones to prevent singers from going too deep and hard in this register. The messa di voce helps the singer to maintain a balance of muscle in the lowest part of the voice so that chest voice doesn’t become aggressive or overly-dominant, preventing its combination with the head/falsetto. Additionally, the movement of the five-tone scale prevents rigidity or ‘locking’ in the chest voice as the sustained tone is more of an isometric (contraction, no movement) exercise.

Teacher’s Note: Duval (Svengali) begins his exercising in the middle of the lower voice (on D4 – an area that rests right UNDER the first register transition point of E4). I interpret this to mean that he is beginning in an approach that is more ‘head-dominant.’ We’ll be covering more about this in future posts, but in my opinion, the approach of a “middle voice first” pedagogy is functionally problematic. This area of the voice often requires the greatest amount of care, balance and time in proper structuring, and so to begin there can cause imbalance of the registration, especially if the middle becomes too heavy (TA dominant). A too light middle voice will prevent the singer from having the expressive qualities necessary for much of the classical literature.

Ideally, the vocal cords should be exercised so that they have maximum contractibility (CT) against a balanced tension (TA). This is done by working at opposing ends of the voice for a time, not in the middle where these systems interact the most intensely. I also, unlike Duval, do think that practice in [i] and [u] is beneficial, as they are primary vowels and affect the registration of the voice.

Part 1 of this first blog covers “Tone Production” and describes Trilby’s first voice lesson:

Oh, don’t be frightened! This book is going to be no work on physiology, and I’m not going to use terms a child couldn’t understand. I don’t intend these pages to enrich scientific literature. I want singers to read them and profit thereby.

How should I teach Trilby to sing if she had the body, face, nose, teeth and lungs that Du Maurier gave her, an ordinarily good ear, aptitude — not unusual — but an aptitude for music?

Let me hypnotize you, readers — and myself —

Trilby enters the studio.

I look at her.

She looks at me.

Not into the whites of my eyes, for they are not discernible. No, No, no! My eyes look away. I talk to her of something light and gay, not of singing. Singing is too serious for Trilby just then. I tell her I’m going to let her try to sing, but not to care about the first attempts. They’re sure not to be up to much, for we must learn.

Let us hypnotize ourselves even into thinking that I cannot tell what Trilby’s voice would be like, for I don’t get any timbre as she talks to me! She is so frightened I can only about catch what she says. I strike a simple do-mi-sol-mi-, do-mi-sol-mi-do rather quickly, and I bang it out loudly on the piano to give her confidence. I take these notes beginning on the low D of her voice, D — F sharp, A — F sharp, D, etc., two or three times, always in a rather lively fashion.

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Now just sing as loudly and deeply as possible but with utter relaxation of the lips ; that is the first step toward tone placement. Let the jaw drop, Trilby, as if you were asleep with your mouth open. Keep thinking of “relaxing the lips,” and sing as loudly and deeply as possible so that we can hear your voice. Perhaps you, yourself, will hear it for the first time.

Sing Ah — only Ah (Italian a)!

It is the most natural vowel, and no school of singing has any relationship with the old Italian school if it teaches any thing else.

The two words the child first says are Ma, Ma, and Pa, Pa. It is the same in English, French or Italian. Children running and screaming will always use “ah,” to yell by, and what wonderful tones we often hear from their happy little throats.

The teachers, “voice builders,” voice specialists, etc., who try to teach with ees and oos — especially before a voice is brought out are in a class with those who try to make you sing a long, sustained tone to begin with.

A long, sustained tone is too difficult. One must sing medium fast scales first. If we begin with the long, sustained tone the young singer is sure to hold the voice in his throat, as priests do when they chant, or if he lets go, a tremolo will develop to a certainty. Either a throaty, stiff tone or a tremolo will result from practising the single sustained tone.

So I should go on up and down the scale with Trilby.

I shouldn’t have to tell her much about her position as I see her before me, as you remember how Du Maurier drew her. Her head was set on her body just right. Du Maurier knew that without that straight neck — straight up the back — such a voice would be impossible.

Ah, he knew a great deal about singing, poor Du Maurier — and how he loved it!

We don’t have to tell Trilby to keep her chin in — nor the breath a little high in the body as she ascends the scale, her natural position does that for her. Then we stop and rest.

This rest is absolutely necessary to develop the voice, and by developing I do not mean just making it louder — I mean keeping it rich, mellow, velvety.

We then give her the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, fourth, third, second, first of the scale twice in a breath, progressing by semitones from the beginning — not the extreme of her lower voice up as high as she can comfortably go.

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Then another rest.

Now we’ll take exercise number one again. Keep the lips relaxed and sing as loudly and freely as possible; and this time as we approach the notes that are a little difficult for her, in the higher register, we tell her simply to open the mouth a little more for them, loosely and freely, still keeping the thought on the utter relaxation of the lips.

We must be sure the head is not thrown forward as the mouth opens more, and the opening must be done with all possible relaxation.

During a half hour these exercises are repeated with rests between each one.

Then Trilby goes home with instructions to go through these same exercises a half hour twice daily, at least two hours after eating, to come to me three times a week and one day each week to rest the voice completely and not to sing at all.

I should insist on Trilby learning a little general music ; she should play the piano a bit, etc., and she should study Italian. No, I don’t mean Italian is necessary for everyone who wants to sing English or some other tongue, but we’re making a Trilby now, and what really great singer hasn’t known Italian?

Duval, John H. The Secrets of Svengali on Singing, Singers, Teachers and Critics. JT White & Company, 1922.

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