Foreman’s Historical Perspectives: Controversies – Breathing

As we have seen, the old Italians said very little about breathing, except not to breathe in the middle of words, to practice long phrases on one breath, all very common sense; they left no direct instructions to “manage” the exhalation. It has been assumed—and not without some justification—that the extraordinary breath capacity of the castrati made it unnecessary to learn how to “manage” the breath; they had so much available, all they had to do was use it in a logical way, and it would suffice. Of course the embellishments which have come down to us suggest that the Italian method taught women as well as men how to sing very long phrases unbroken, and on this evidence the theory of “the secrets of bel canto” as a “lost tradition” involving a “method” of breathing arose.

Careful study of the 19th century literature reveals a quite different reason for the concern with breathing: In an effort to rise to the demands of larger orchestras, thicker orchestrations and higher tessituras, singers were routinely forcing the voice to achieve more power. “High note” specialists like Duprez and Tamberlik1 set a high mark for other tenors which could be reached only through forcing the voice. The results—wobble, early deterioration of the voice, and loss of flexibility—can be read both in contemporary accounts like those of G.B. Shaw, and in the music itself, which requires less agility and more power.

Before we embark on the confusion—all right, I really want to say “hopelessly confused mess” here—created in the 19th century around breathing “methods,” a controversy which is not yet resolved despite extensive “scientific” investigation, I want to reiterate what seem to me to be some obvious points:

  1. At no time in the literature prior to the Traité have we encountered specific instructions about the manner of taking breath, holding it in, or otherwise consciously managing it;
  2. The various quotations attributed to this or that sage, such as “the school of singing is the school of breathing,” “He who knows how to breathe and how to pronounce knows how to sing,” and so on, cannot be found in the literature associated with the names to which they are attributed;2
  3. The results of this seeming indifference to specific control of the breath by the Italians were demonstrated every time a fine artistic singer appeared in public, an enviable track record;
  4. The deduction I make from the foregoing points is that posture, and the messa di voce will take care of the breath.

By 1850 singers were routinely forcing the voice, unable to sustain long phrases, and losing their agility. Obviously, breathing must be the central problem, since breath provides the motor power for the voice; or so the theory went. One question which no one answered satisfactorily was, If the breath creates the sound, where does the breath go after it leaves the glottis? The old test—which is first articulated in Garcia—of holding a candle in front of the mouth to test for efficiency, suggests that the breath does not exit via the mouth, or at least if it does, it has no force left in it.

None of this mattered to those who wished to learn to control the voice by controlling the breath. A word was coined, appoggio, which was supposed to suggest “leaning the breath against” either the chest or the head or the uvula, or some specified point—physical impossibilities which suggest the increasing intrusion of imagery into vocal pedagogy. As with most of the “magic words” in vocal pedagogy—support, placement, projection—appoggio can be defined to suit the user.

Among the first to use the term was Francesco Lamperti,3 a non-singer who taught several of the leading Italian artists of the latter half of the 19th century. Lamperti was attracted to the ideas of Dr Mandl:

Mandl maintained that the lutte vocale4 is primarily the struggle between the abdominal muscles and the diaphragm, and that this struggle is reflected in the contractions of the larynx as well. When the mechanism of breathing and the movements of the larynx and pharynx are all favourable to the singing voice, there results a balance which he called bien posée.5 He added that the prephonatory set of the glottis is one of the most important aspects of the pose de la voix.6  His ‘pose of the voice’ is thus a complex balance of respiratory and laryngeal muscles.

Francesco Lamperti embraced these remarks, since his own opinions ‘coincide with those expressed by the celebrated Dr. Mandl of Paris.’ In his treatise, Lamperti gave the orthodox description of three methods of inhalation—diaphragmatic, lateral, and clavicular. He admonished the singer to avoid noisy breathing. ‘Diaphragmatic respiration is the sole kind that should be comployed [sic] by the singer, for it is the only one of the three that allows the larynx to remain in a natural and unstrained condition.’ He elaborated on this point with the statement, ‘Let him take the deepest inspiration he can, making use of the diaphragm and muscles of the belly. Any effort about the chest-ribs in breathing must be absolutely and entirely avoided. It is here that the evil lies.’ What Lamperti may have been implying here is that the elastic recoil forces of chest-rib breathing could cause the singer to unwittingly close the glottis and raise the larynx against the breath pressure that can result from such recoil forces. On the other hand, since belly breathing is accomplished largely through relaxation of the abdominal wall, such unwelcome recoil forces are absent, and the singer has greater control over both glottal closure and laryngeal height. Whether or not this interpretation is correct, it is clear that with these remarks, Lamperti unequivocally established his preference for what is now called ‘deep’ breathing or ‘belly out’ breathing.”7

There is a coda to this tale:

N.B. Much controversial nonsense has been, and is still written, spoken, and taught where breathing as applied to singing is concerned, ever since the Italian teacher Lamperti wrote some eighty odd years ago that correct breathing lay in the use of the diaphragm only. This half-truth polluted the atmosphere, coming as it did from such a famous teacher. The dictum was avidly, slavishly, unquestioningly adopted by thousands of singers, teachers and pedagogues the world over for generations—and still is. And this, in spite of the little known fact, then as now, that Lamperti himself, realizing his mistake two years afterwards, courageously recanted and denounced as wrong his own abdominal child in a public lecture in Milan, adding that “the natural and only way to breathe in singing was a balanced combination of diaphragm and lower ribs”. But the corrective denial was in vain. His book had gone round the world and with it in print the abominable abdominal dictum. The mud stuck, as it always will with people ignorant of principles and precepts who seize upon anything outlandish and apply it willy-nilly.8

The damage had been done, and the battle between ways of “managing the breath” was long and bitter, and has not yet been resolved.

A survey of the literature from 1850 onwards9 reveals conflict and confusion. Direct control of the diaphragm—a physical impossibility—is advocated by some; exclusively abdominal breathing by others; clavicular—“high chest”—breathing is advocated for women, doubtless because of corsets; a combination of costal—rib breathing—and abdominal or diaphragmatic or clavicular can also be found.

Before we condemn this situation out of hand, let us remember that the demands on the voice had changed. Bellini, like Wagner and Verdi after him, was accused of “ruining voices” with his music, etc. Singers and voice teachers alike were incapable of rational responses. Some believed that a revival of bel canto—which they defined to suit their own methods—would solve everything; some believed that a new technique had to emerge to cope with the new music. Physicians studied the voice from one angle, voice teachers from another, and even when they agreed to communicate, it was usually the opinions of the physicians which prevailed despite their lack of experience as singers.

Many physicians, like Mandl, Behnke, Mackenzie, and Curtis, set themselves up as experts on singing as well as on physiology. They didn’t mean “singing” at all; they meant “vocal emission,” which is what they reduced the art of singing to in their ignorance.

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


  1. Tamberlik [Tamberlick], Enrico (1820-89), Italian tenor. He studied with Zirilli, Borgna, Guglielmi, and De Abella. He debuted in 1841 in Naples. He was in London 1850-64. He was in St Petersburg several seasons from 1850-63, and created the role of Don Alvaro in Verdi’s La forza del destino there (1862). He was famous for his high notes, and Rossini is said to have asked him, when he called, to leave his C# on the coat rack.
  2. Crescentini, Pacchierotti, Anna Maria Pellegrini-Celoni, et al., seem innocent of actually having written these things down. If they were “studio” observations, they are certainly not part of the legitimate literature, and serve, by the obscurity often associated with such epigrammatic, Zen-like sayings, to confuse the issue thoroughly. Every author who refers to them puts a different spin on them, or may quote different forms of the same advice, or ascribe the same quote to different sources as suits him; all of which leads to the suspicion that they are called into use to legitimize an otherwise shaky position favored by the quoter. They have no basis in researchable fact. But they do turn up all over the place in the later literature of what I think of as the “decadent” period, especially when the author is seeking some legitimization-by-association with the old Italian school.
  3. Lamperti, Francesco (1813-1892), studied with Rizzi and at the Milan Conservatory. He was for a time co-director of the Teatro Filarmonico, Lodi. In 1850 he went to Milan and taught voice at the Conservatory until 1875. Among his students were Albani, Artôt, Italo Campanini, Stolz and Waldmann. His first book, Guida teorico-practica-elementare per lo studio di canto, was published in 1864. Some of his books were translated into English.
  4. “Vocal struggle.”
  5. “Well-placed.”
  6. “Posture of the voice.”
  7. Stark, op. cit., p. 100.
  8. Herbert-Caesari, E.: Tradition and Gigli, 1600-1955, A Panegyric. London, 1958 and 1963, p. 58.
  9. In addition to Monahan, op. cit., there are two other valuable books to consult: Fields, Victor A.: Training the Singing Voice, An Analysis of the Working Concepts Contained in Recent Contributions to Vocal Pedagogy. NY, 1947; and Burgin, J.C. Teaching Singing. Metuchen NJ, 1973. The three are linked. Monahan studied the period 1777-1927; Fields the period 1928-42; and Burgin brings the study up to 1970.

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