Singers of the Past Define “Classical” Singing

Since the latest discussion on defining classical singing, I’ve gone back into my library of books.  I’ve been looking for common threads of its definition from great singers and teachers of the past.

Surprisingly, their remarks were mostly in agreement (unlike our present day discussions): a successful technique of singing was to be built on ease (Lamperti), an evenly registrated scale (Tetrazzini), analytical listening (Wood), and an intense following of Nature and her laws (Amato).  What they shun is any type of voice training that leads to some kind of pre-calculated, fixed, rigidly-enforced end (any attempts to ‘sound classical’ perhaps?).

They decry teachers that teach to an END (end-gaining?) and all agree that the singing voice should sound and appear completely and totally natural and easy.

Throughout their discussions I’m reminded of a Latin term:

Summa ars est celare artem,

The height of art is to conceal itself.

One of the first quotes is by G.B. Lamperti (1839-1910), who had this to say results of vocal training:

There is no ‘attack,’ no ‘mouth position,’ no ‘tongue control,’ no ‘voice placement,’ no ‘fixed chest,’ no stiffening of any part of the body; in fact, nothing that would not spring from instinctual utterance.

The incomparable coloratura Luisa Tetrazzini (1871-1940) was one of the most lauded singers of the early 20th century, along with her compatriot Enrico Caruso.

The height of vocal art is to have no apparent method, but to be able to sing with perfect facility from one end of the voice to the other, emitting all the notes clearly and yet with power and having each note of the scale sound the same in quality and tonal beauty as the ones before and after.

Conductor Henry Wood (1869-1944) is best known as one of the developers of the Proms concerts in England. He also worked with Manuel Garcia, Jr., and had this to say on vocal training:

Method can only be founded on long and wide experience couple with a definitely analytical ear.

Speaking of Manuel Garcia, Jr., here are some remarks on Garcia’s work from his pupil and biographer Malcolm Sterling Mackinlay:

His Method may be perhaps summed up in the doctrine that it was not a method – in the sense that he had no hard and fast rules – his object always being to make each pupil sing in the way most natural and involving the least effort.

Pasquale Amato (1878-1942) was an Italian baritone who had this to say on classical training:

We might say that the Italian method was a method and then again that it was no method. As a matter of fact it is thousands of methods – one for each case or vocal problem. For instance, if I were to sing by the same means that Mr. Caruso employs it would not at all be the best thing for my voice, yet for Mr. Caruso it is without question the very best method.

I should say that the Italian vocal teacher teaches, first of all, with his ears. He listens with the greatest possible intensity to every shade of tone-color until the ideal tone reveals itself. This often requires months and months of patience. The teacher must recognize the vocal deficiencies and work to correct them.

[…]

Possibly the worst kind of a vocal teacher is the one who has some set plan or device or theory which must be followed “willy nilly” in order that the teacher’s theories may be vindicated. With such a teacher no voice is safe…The good sense of the Italian Masters would hold such a plan up to ridicule.

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