Foreman’s Historical Perspectives – 20th Century Pedagogy, Part III: The Big Question

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

The fundamental question faced by every voice teacher ought to be: How can I help the student to bring out the best in his/her voice?

The old Italian school had no problem answering that the voice was a simple mechanism which responded to specific exercises which would produce a predictable result.1 I have already referred to Garcia’s Traité as “the watershed.” After the publication of the Traité and Garcia’s Mémoire in 1855, the way in which voice teachers answered that fundamental question became increasingly complicated and diverse—not to say confused and crackpot—because of the new information about the function of the voice which researchers saw—or thought they saw—as they observed the larynx in action.

The availability of new and often very subjective interpretations of every aspect of vocal emission was a reaction to the increased demands on singers made by the new music being composed with less and less regard for the capacity of the voice. The vocal profession was not prepared to deal with these changes from the standpoint of traditional “methods”—how could it be? Who could have predicted the vocal styles of Verdi and Wagner? Or who could have foreseen the consequences for singers of increased orchestral forces, more melodramatic and “expressive” singing? I am inclined to describe this as “panic”; and certainly the frantic efforts of teachers and singers took a variety of directions.

Previously, composers had themselves been singers who understood the nature of the voice and the limits on tessitura, volume and “declamatory” singing, and operatic music was tailored to the individual singer’s abilities. Neither Verdi nor Wagner had such training, and in consequence, neither understood that opera is about singing and the subtle and unique expressive nuances available only through the varied palette of the voice. They were abetted by a generation of singers who reveled in the opportunity to “act” with the voice in a new way—Pasta, Rubini and Malibran are exemplars, Schroeder-Devrient the extreme. At the same time, the rigorous training of the castrati had given way to shorter periods of study for the “natural” voices, and the esthetics of performance had undergone a massive alteration consistent with the rise of romanticism.

What was clear to many—but not all, as we have seen in the last chapter in the attempts to revive the old traditions—was that the ground rules had changed, and that vocal pedagogy had no reliable and tested systems or methods it could fall back on.

The diversity of opinions in the 19th century has been discussed in Chapter V. The situation got no better in the 20th century, except that most of the teacher-authors began to recede from the field, to be replaced by complex “scientific” studies of various of the vocal functions. Operatic composers did not stand still, either and in the late 19th century more extreme forms of declamation were called for in the operas of Mascagni, Leoncavallo, Giordano and others of the young Italian school.

The Germans followed suit, and the vocal writing at the end of the 19th century culminated in works like Alban Berg’s Wozzeck and Lulu, which can hardly be said to require “singing” at all.

The composers had reached a plateau of dominance which changed the balance between singer and composer, apparently forever; this left the teaching profession in disarray, looking for ways in which to cope with the new repertoire. There was a flurry of attempts to deal with the situation, which resulted in essentially four types of literature:

  1. The “traditional” type, of which David C. Taylor is an early 20th century example, and which includes the “natural” type;
  2. The “scientific” type, often doctors or researchers who published their theories based on observation, deduction of the problems, and mechanical solutions to those problems;
  3. The “personal” method authors like Lilli Lehmann and J. Van Broekhaven;
  4. The “celebrated singer” type, which includes Caruso, Tetrazzini, Santley and Jerome Hines’ collection of interviews.2

Regrettably, the great majority of books on vocal pedagogy in the 20th century seem to have been written by people looking over their shoulders to a great and imagined past, rather than trying to learn to cope with the very different demands made on the singer from about 1850 onwards.

The following table lists chronologically a random selection of texts from my personal library illustrative of the four types; a key is appended below explaining the column “Type”:

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C = Celebrity (singer)

T = Teacher

S = Scientist (Medical doctor or researcher)

P = Personal method approach

NB: Dates in italics are dates of editions in my personal library, and often represent second or later editions, or revisions.

[The publications of Pro musica press are not listed, although we have a series “20th Century Masterworks on Singing.”]

There are more than a few cross-overs, where “science” is used to buttress an historical-traditional approach, or where a “personal” adaptation of either “science” or “tradition” is employed.

Most noticeable is that the majority of books written in the 20th century are polemics without much in the way of exercises, at least in the old style. Few vocalises, fewer solfeggi, but cross-sections of the head and throat, diagrams of various methods of breathing, diagrams of “tone sensations,” suggest that a purely mechanical approach has replaced common sense and a trained and perceptive ear.3


  1. That this was not uniformly true is demonstrated by Tosi’s remarks about inferior teachers (1723), and is echoed by the controversy between Mancini and Manfredini in the 1770s.
  2. Hines, Jerome: Great Singers on Great Singing. Garden City NY, 1982.
  3. This format also suggests that these authors have come to believe you can learn to sing from a book—their book.

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