Foreman’s Historical Perspectives: Controversies – The coup de glotte

Two major controversies arose in the 19th century, stemming in large part from Garcia’s Traité. The first, directly attributed to his work, centered on the coup de glotte. The other concerned the proper way to breathe for singing.

The coup de glotte1

The entry into the pedagogical field of “scientists,” in this case Dr Louis Mandl2 in Paris and Dr. Emil Behnke in London, drew the battle lines clearly. Mandl was a consultant to the Paris Conservatoire and like most of those who disagreed with Garcia, did not understand the explanation of the coup de glotte as set forth in the Traité. Mandl confused the “stroke” of the glottis with the coup de poitrine, the “stroke” of the chest, which is a glottal plosive, and destructive.

Behnke was a surgeon, and in collaboration with Lennox Browne,3 a voice teacher, developed a theory of three types of attack, of which the coup de glotte was one, but they did not understand Garcia’s instruction to “pinch the glottis,” thus keeping the vocal folds in approximation.

Sir Morrell Mackenzie,4 a laryngologist and consultant to Queen Victoria, wrote an extremely influential book in which he endorses the coup de glotte while misunderstanding it as the “exact correspondence between the arrival of the air at the larynx and the adjustment of the cords to receive it…”5 Mackenzie, the hard-headed man of science, still speaks of directing the column of sound at the roof of the mouth, a faulty image he no doubt picked up from Garcia.

The idea that the sound—whether a “column,” a “sonorous column,” “rays,” or whatever image appeals to you—can be directed anywhere has led to the pernicious use of the word “placement” to suggest that sound is an object which can be “put” somewhere.

Similarly inaccurate words common in vocal parlance and born in the 19th century, are “projection” and “support.”

Sound is waves; it can neither be directed to a specific location nor can it be projected, which is a property of rays, not waves.

As for “support,” this concept is probably even more dangerous, since it suggests the concrete firmness of a pillar or muscular structure of unyielding and inelastic “push” under the sound.

None of these concepts is met with in the literature before 1850.

The three types of “attack” set forth by Browne and Behnke were: the aspirate attack, in which breath passes through the vocal folds before they approximate to make a sound; the hard attack, which is the plosive “stroke of the chest” described by, ascribed to, and warned against by Garcia; and the coup de glotte, by which they really meant the “simultaneous attack” as described by Mackenzie. They did not grasp Garcia’s concept at all.

Later in the century a group of writers advocated the coup de glotte as the closure of the false vocal cords, which lie above the true vocal folds. Browne and Behnke debunked this idea, and it receded into the mists.

The most virulent attack on the coup de glotte came in 1896, with the publication of H. Holbrook Curtis’s book Voice Building and Tone Placing.6 Curtis was a New York laryngologist and friend of many opera singers, especially Jean De Reszke, who shared his enthusiasm for vocal mechanics. Curtis not only consulted with his friends as a doctor, but also pursued his interest in singing and vocal pedagogy with them.

The shock, or coup de glotte, is death to the voice; it is born of ignorance, and to teach or allow its continuance is a crime. We have no words strong enough to properly condemn it. having seen the dire effects upon many pupils of those who advise it, are we not justified in considering its advocates parties to either gross ignorance or atrocious malpractice?7

The vocal system advocated by Curtis, and taught by De Reszke after his retirement in 1901, involved what is still called chanter dans le masque (singing in the masque). This requires the sound to be directed (!) forward into the facial and nasal spaces for maximum resonance, an effect achieved by relaxing the soft palate and directing the breath through the nose before the sound is commenced.

On welcoming my dear friend Jean de Reszke to my house after his fourth return to our shores I said to him: “Jean, have you any new facts for my poor book? Have your studies during the past year taught you anything which may be of use to me?” “Yes,” he responded, “I find that the great question of the singer’s art becomes narrower and narrower all the time, until I can truly say that the great question of singing becomes a question of the nose—la grande question du chant devient une question du nez.” 8

Parenthetically, Curtis also took a position on breathing in the “high chest” school, violently opposed to abdominal breathing.

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

NOTES

  1. There is a thorough discussion of this issue in Stark, James: Bel Canto, A History of Vocal Pedagogy. Toronto, 1999,pp. 14 ff.
  2. Mandl’s book was Hygiène de la voix. Paris, 1876.
  3. Browne and Behnke’s book was Voice, Song and Speech. London, 1883. Behnke, a surgeon, had previously published The Mechanism of the Human Voice. London, 1880.
  4. Mackenzie’s book, Hygiene of the Vocal Organs (London,1886) went through at least nine editions. I own a copy of the Eighth and Ninth editions, the latter pub. 1928. Stark only knew of seven editions.
  5. Mackenzie, op. cit., 9th edition, p. 120.
  6. Stark says it went through three editions. This is not strictly accurate. A new edition, with a Foreword by Oren L.Brown, was issued in 1973 by Pro musica press as Volume V in the series “Twentieth Century Masterworks on Singing.”
  7. Curtis, op. cit., p. 159.
  8. Op. cit., p. 160.
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