Foreman’s Historical Perspectives: The Watershed

“The publication of Garcia’s Traité complet de l’Art du chant represents the end of the Old Italian School of singing. This may seem like heresy. Was he not the son of a great exemplar of that school? Did he not have a long career preparing singers in the way he was taught by his father?

Yes and no. There is no question that the performance materials in the Traité represent the old tradition, and indeed are a valuable source for the singing of the period from about 1790 to 1840.1 But the pedagogical materials are founded on—let us say “corrupted by” and be done with it—Garcia’s investigations into the mechanics of vocal emission. Even before his visual observations, his logical mind had systematized a fluid approach to teaching into a series of “laws” or dicta which may or may not represent more than one approach—his father’s—to teaching voice.2

The technical discussion of the structure of the organism is perhaps permissible as a summary of anatomical investigations into the nature of the voice going back at least to the 16th century. But such a discussion, and the pedagogical principles extrapolated from it, are the antithesis of the traditional Italian method, as a review of Tosi, Mancini, et al. previous to this time demonstrates. The nearest thing to Garcia we find in the earlier literature is Maffei’s Discorso, with its anatomy lessons—not accurate, but empirical—and the French tradition of Mersenne, whom we have not really mentioned at all.3

To reiterate briefly the traditional position: The teacher’s concern was to get the sound right, which proved the rightness of the means of producing the sound. He needed to know little, if anything, of the structure and function of the musculature,4 achieving the sound.

Garcia, starting with the mechanism, attempts to explain in what way the sound is produced, how it can be induced and manipulated to achieve the results which were desirable in his own day, results which were at extreme variance with the traditional Italian school. The introduction of Duprez’ high chest notes and timbre oscure changed the ground rules and forever clouded the traditional manner of emitting the voice.5

The timbre oscure aroused a great deal of interest amounting to alarm, and on June 1, 1840, two French scientists, Diday and Pétrequin, presented a paper to the Académie des sciences, “Mémoire sur une nouvelle espèce de voix chantée” (Memoir on a new species of singing voice). It was a study of the technique of Duprez, who had by now been exhibiting his high notes in chest voice, and his timbre oscure for three seasons at the Opéra.

Garcia took umbrage at the idea that Duprez had invented this, claiming to have been teaching the timbre oscure with its lowered laryngeal position since 1832.6 He may have misunderstood Diday and Pétrequin’s paper, which discussed the specifics of the consciously lowered larynx producing an upward extension of the chest voice, and the resulting “covered” tone of the tenor’s high notes.

The musical climate had changed as well, and the “new” singer had to know how safely to make dramatic effects with accents and colors previously not imagined by composer or performer. The conflict between the old and the new is everywhere apparent in Garcia’s Traité.

As to his fundamental grounding in the traditional school, his father’s history suggests that his own training was haphazard,7 and that this presented a flaw in Garcia II’s knowledge as well. However that may be, the Traité is not a summary of the old school, but the introduction to a new approach, and so marks the end of the one, and the start of the new.

If we look to the treatises published in the 19th century for information about the old school, we will find it adjusted, altered and misunderstood. The old school was one of extraordinary simplicity requiring a long, slow training period begun quite early. The vocal triumphs of the latter half of the 19th century—and there is no denying many of them—are as much the triumphs of the individual personality and innate coordination, as they are of teaching methods.”



Foreman, Edward. Authentic Singing: The history of singing. Vol. 10. Pro Musica Press, 2001.


  1. The intricate analyses of ornamented arias in the back of Vol. II, preceded by a large selection of final cadenzas and points d’orgue gives an overview of the amazing nuances and attention to detail which was typical of the period, and gives the lie to the idea that singing was only about showing off the singer’s agility. Garcia includes arias from Sacrifizio d’abraham and Matrimonio segreto by Cimarosa (“Pria che spunti,” one of the arias for which his father was most famous, presumably with his variations); “Idolo del mio cor,” which Crescentini composed to insert into Zingarelli’s Romeo e giulietta; Velluti’s favorite aria from Morlacchi’s Tebaldo e isolina; and a bass scene and aria from Rossini’s Semiramide. Unfortunately, the numerous final cadenzas and points d’orgue are not identified as to opera, but given as exemplars, not to be copied.
  2. It is reported by his biographer, Mackenzie, that in later years he admitted that he did not teach according to what he had written earlier in the Traité. Comparison between the Traité and Hints on Singing reveals a simplification of many points in the earlier book.
  3. Even though he had a great interest in the Italian style, Mersenne remained a Frenchman, and thus outside the demonstrable path of transmission I have been pursuing. [Ulrich’s Concerning the Principles of Voice Training (1973)] contains a good deal of material from Mersenne.
  4. In the early writings which discuss the nature of the mechanism, from Maffei on, what we get is a functional model that works in the sense that it seems to describe cause and effect, without being anatomically accurate. There was, obviously, no need to be anatomically accurate in order to achieve the end result of good vocal emission. This is the traditional basis for mistrust of science: Until science can produce the kind of track record which empirical teaching has and still does produce, why bother?
  5. The timbre oscure is also called la voix sombrée ou couverte (the somber or covered voice) or timbro chiuso in Italian.
  6. The timbre oscure had been in use as a nuance, as may be seen in the annotated aria from Tebaldo e isolina. But to use it for the whole voice as Duprez did, was new, and a cause for concern.
  7. He sang a good deal in Spain before he ever came into contact with the Italian method, and then his lessons with Ansani covered a brief period, and could well have been devoted more to ornamentation than to basic vocal emission.





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