Secrets of Svengali, The Pianissimo

There you are, Trilby. I am so glad to find you again. I thought maybe you had gone to another dance with that impossible Jules Guinot or that “sale zouave”, Gontran.

Well, now, we must begin to learn the modulation of the voice. We’ll start by singing softly, piano; and then very softly, pianissimo.

When I first began to teach you your slow scales, I told you to sing as deeply and loudly as possible, always remembering to keep the lips relaxed. (ed.:This approach of singing ‘deeply and loudly’ develops the chest register. ‘Svengali’ was interested in building that register first in his training.) Then as your voice came out more and more, got deeper, richer, more sonorous, I said not to sing quite so loudly — just rather loud, mezzo forte, mf ; and since then I have never ceased telling you that you must never sing as loudly as you can — never — never — never! For if you do the voice will not develop that wonderful resonance that is growing from week to week on all your tones, uniting them, covering the changes of register, making it possible to slip all the different vowels in them, still keeping the same tone quality and the vowels of equal size. If you sing with all possible force the resonance will not continue to develop, but will first get hard and very metallic and then gradually disappear.

You feel as if you can just add to this resonance at will. You feel as if you can turn on the stream of intensity or take it off as you desire.

But you have never tried to take it off, still singing deeply, have you ?

Do so.

There! There is the piano!

Now take it off still more . . . and there is the pianissimo! It is the pianissimo of your voice. It has the depth, the full ness, a slight shade of the resonance which is so profuse when you sing out forte or mezzo forte, but it is soft and mellow.

For the singer trained from the first by the method Trilby is getting, the pianissimo is an easy accomplishment. We learn the pianissimo in the lower and medium tones first. We just do it a little each day — one arpeggio in the lower part of the voice and one in the center, then after a few lessons we go into the beginning of the higher notes.

The soft effects of the high notes should be studied very little at a time, as nothing is more apt to tie up a voice than the excessive singing of the pianissimo, and a singer must be a great master of vocal technic to be able to sing it to the highest notes in the voice and still retain the loud ringing- quality necessary in forte passages.

Artists who have had the most thrilling high tones, with the most beautiful quality and ring in them, like Melba and Caruso, in their best days, and Titta Ruffo among the younger singers, seldom employ the pianissimo in extremely high passages. I have never heard a soprano with a beautiful, intense B flat or high C, who sang pianissimo much in her high register.

I shouldn’t like it thought that I do not appreciate the be witching effects many great singers get with their demi tints. The diminuendo and prolonged pianissimo McCormack sings in “The Dream” from Massenet’s “Manon” so entrancingly, and Galli-Curci’s “pianissimi acutissimi,” as well as Jean De Reszke’s high B natural pianissimo I shall never forget; but none of these artists has or had wonderful quality in their high notes in forte passages. Jean De Reszke’s upper voice was decidedly pinched. Sbriglia told me he could never succeed in making him thoroughly understand how to let go, still retaining the head quality. Galli-Curci takes her high tones with great address and facility, but we who have heard Patti, Melba and Sembrich in their best days must long for the exquisite sensation of their clear, vibrant A’s, B flats, B’s and C’s.

High notes! Clear ringing high tones! What moments of delight they give us. Old, sour, dyspeptic critics may write volumes on why we should not be moved by them! They may as well tell us not to love color in painting — the accents of bright, pure color that so often are the very life of a master piece. We can’t go against Nature, and it is natural to enjoy a marvelous autumn sunset or the high G of Titta Ruffo.

The crystallized beauty of Melba’s B’s as she sang “Anges purs, anges radieux” will live in my mind as long as I can appreciate sound.

But . . . pianissimo . . .

Let us return to our pianissimo.

What’s that, Trilby?

I told you not to sing pianissimo?

Ah, you can already sing it in the center of your voice and on the low notes; and I said it wasn’t necessary on the high ones?

Now look at me, Trilby — look into the whites of my eyes!

Did I say that?

No, I did not !

I said that to sing them much — often far up in the extremely high register would tie up your beautiful high tones. But you must learn how, and once learned, just practise them enough to keep them going — and don’t try to go high on them too soon. Wait for the G. to become easy before trying the A flat and so on up to B or C.

With the beginning of what I shall call the higher register, (soprano, or tenor F sharp; mezzo-soprano, contralto, C sharp; baritone, C; basses, B) to sing the high tones pianissimo, the breath which is held high in the body for the loud, high notes, is of the utmost importance. It should be held in the same position but with the least possible effort. The tone should be placed lightly behind the nasal openings. As you go up the scale each successive note is more inclined to stiffen, so the effort for suppleness must increase. You must almost try to make a tremolo on the very high notes. If you feel as if they are almost going to trill, they’ll come out just right, but if you do not do so, they’re likely to be stiff — that steam whistle effect.

Remember the breath must be held high in the body but very little must go into the head, where the sound is made. Anything like pressure there will result in a real tremolo.

The mouth must open loosely; stretching or forcing it open will result in a hard tone.

Many singers when rendering a pianissimo phrase ruin the whole effect by pronouncing too loudly. The whole secret is to have the pronounciation as soft as the tone. Think of Melba’s “Good Bye, Summer, Good Bye, Good Bye.” In singing pianissimo you must whisper the words.


Duval, John H. “The Secrets of Svengali on Singing, Singers, Teachers and Critics.” (1922).

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