Foreman’s Historical Perspectives: Garcia, Part I

The Traité complet de l’Art du chant was published in two parts and several editions. It was probably the most often published text of the 19th century, in various accurate and inaccurate editions and piracies. Part I came out in 1840, and again in 1847, accompanied this time by Part II. The whole was reissued periodically during Garcia’s lifetime in various formats. The modern English translation has already been noted.

It is important to notice the chronology of the Traité, because the publication of the whole preceded Garcia’s invention of the laryngoscope (1855)—a system of mirrors illustrated in the 1872 edition and again in the Hints on Singing of 1894—and is thus based on empirical observations rather than direct viewing of the larynx in action. Emendations in the 1872 edition reflect to some extent the results of his visual investigations.

It is significant that with the publication of the Traité, a new kind of vocal pedagogy is introduced, the “analytical” approach, an intentional change of direction.

Garcia begins, in the Preface, by saying that he is trying to set out his father’s method “by trying to reduce it to a more theoretical form and by attaching the results to the causes.”1 He has turned his analytical mind to the physiology of the voice so that everything “can be analyzed and conveyed in a perceptible form.”2 He believes that each problem should be isolated and studied separately.3 Herein lies the destruction of the old Italian method.4

There are no vocalises in the Traité, because they are too difficult to be rewarding.

Such are the motives which have caused us to prefer the analytical method to the con-
trary system more generally adopted.5

In the Preface to the 1872 (6th) edition, Garcia starts by saying that the study of the mechanics of the voice can be as useful for the student as for the physiologist.

In fact, nothing can be more valuable to him than to know by what procedures the vocal instrument manages to produce the vibrations…etc.

He believes that such knowledge will assist the student in avoiding problems.

He discusses the invention of the laryngoscope and the advantages of seeing the larynx in action. What he does not discuss is the accuracy or not of singing with a small mirror in the back of the mouth, or the limitations on vocal emission caused by the tongue being pressed down in order to observe pitch changes.6

Chapter I is devoted to “General Observations” on aptitude, common sense and the manner of study. There is also a mention of reserving the study of the messa di voce until later, since to study it at the beginning “would succeed only in fatiguing the student without teaching him anything.” Scale exercises of an octave ascending and descending are given, to be practiced at gradually increased speeds.

Chapter II is devoted to the “Classification of Cultivated Voices,” three for women, Contralto, Mezzo-soprano and Soprano, and four for men, Basso-Profundo, Baritone, Tenor and Counter-Tenor (Haute contre).

Chapter III is divided into two sections, “The Formation of Tones,” and “Timbres.” He compares the action of the lips of the glottis (vocal folds) to the lips of a horn player. The speed with which puffs of air are passed through the vocal folds determines the pitch.7

The registers are discussed next from a mechanical standpoint. Firm closure of the glottis produces brilliance in the tone and economy of the air. “We urge students to immerse themselves well in these observations; they are of the utmost importance.”8

The intensity of the tone depends upon the quantity of air which makes each lively explosion.

It is necessary to pinch the glottis in proportion to the amount of pressure one gives the air.

What Garcia has missed here is that the messa di voce, correctly practiced as described by Maffei, Tosi and Nathan, perfectly poses the vibration and the breath, producing the “medial compression”—which he calls “pinching of the glottis”—which modern science discovered sometime in the 20th century. If there were a “secret” in the old Italian method, this would surely be it. Instead, Garcia would introduce the concept of the coup de glotte, and start a huge controversy.

Timbre is the result of the glottic opening, the superior tendons, and the pharyngeal shape, which he calls “the vocal tube.” A short and slightly curved tube produces the clear timbre, a long and curved tube produces the sombre timbre.9 He has so far said nothing about the vertical position of the larynx. The discussion of timbres is a little confusing, but he promises to come back to them in “The Emission of the Voice.”

Chapter IV deals with “Breathing,” and introduces “control” of the breath.

In order to inhale freely, hold the chest erect, the shoulders back without stiffness, and the chest free. Lower the diaphragm without jerking, raise the chest by a slow and regular movement, and set the hollow of the stomach.

Abdominal breathing by itself reduces the “element of strength” the singer needs.

The mechanism of expiration is the opposite of that of inspiration. It consists of exerting a slow and gradual pressure on the lungs filled with air.

He gives four exercises for developing the elasticity of the lungs. They are very fatiguing, and should only be practiced for short periods at first.

This is the physical means of obtaining the steadiness of the voice, about which more will be said later.

Chapter V is “The Emission and Qualities of the Voice.” Every fault arises from something in the tube.

The purest tone is obtained: (1) by flattening the tongue along its entire length, (2) by slightly raising the velum, (3) by separating the pillars at their base. Then the opening of the larynx is uncovered, and the pharynx reflects the sonorous column from the beginning in such a manner as to direct it toward the forward part of the palate.

The singer should then shape the instrument from the glottis to the lips in such a way as to direct the sonorous waves against the osseous part of the palate and to reflect them in the direction of the axis of the mouth, which amplifies the tone and is favorable to the emission of it.

Obviously, acoustics was not Garcia’s specialty. This kind of imagery, coupled to this kind of impossible mechanical manipulation, gave rise to two more variant schools of teaching voice. Add to that the “scientific” methods which arose after the invention of the laryngoscope, and we find the origin of a great deal of vocal mischief in the Traité.10


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


  1. All quotations are from the Paschke edition.
  2. Whether consciously or unconsciously, the Traité is a rejection of the old school taught Garcia by his father, a method which had failed him and caused the loss of his voice and his career as a singer.
  3. This is the first deviation from the traditional method, which taught the voice as a Gestalt.
  4. On this, see Taylor, David C.: New Light on the Old Italian Method. NY, 1916, esp. pp. 65 ff.
  5. I believe that this statement reveals Garcia’s lack of comprehension of the older school, and a certain disdain for that which he does not understand.
  6. The laryngoscope probably opened the floodgates of scientific investigation into the voice. Perhaps we should consider burning Garcia in effigy.
  7. What he does not say is what controls the speed of the puffs. The theory was later taken up—without acknowledgment—by Van Broekhaven.
  8. I am only going to mention this once, and let it stand as the critical challenge to this entire system: Local control of these factors is not possible, and knowledge or awareness of them is of absolutely no value in the learning process.
  9. There is a useful illustration of this in Hints on Singing, p. 11.
  10. I suspect that a good deal of the veneration in which Garcia is held is due in part to his longevity—101 years is impressive—and to the fact that most voice teachers only know the Hints on Singing, which is far less mechanistic, and a good deal easier to understand. Of course, the “scientific” community admires his pioneering efforts.

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