Vincenzo Cirillo on Scientific Learning (and Boston Connection!)

I have been reading the very short essay by Vincenzo Cirillo entitled, “A Lecture on the Art of Singing” published in 1882. Wow – it’s a gem. And short!

My only acquaintance of Cirillo was from his famous quote on breathing. When asked how to breathe by a student, he is reported to have exclaimed: “Mio Dio! If God hasn’t taught you how to breathe it’s time you were buried!”

I was not aware that he lived here in our mutually adopted city of Boston teaching voice and directing a church choir.  As a Bostonian, I’ll be anxious to see what other local traces I can find to Cirillo! I am always amazed by the rich educational connections to great teachers and singers that I find right here in my own back yard.

The Church of the Immaculate Conception of Boston, where Vincenzo Cirillo was director of the choir and composed several of his own compositions, including his Stabat Mater for Six Solo Voices. Today, the building lies vacant.

According to my colleague Daniel Shigo, blogger of, as well as author of the wonderful book Hidden in Plain Sight: The Hermann Klein Phono-Vocal Method,  Cirillo’s biographical information can be found in the November 1882 edition of Music and Drama. 

Vincenzo Cirillo, the bass of the Church of the Unity, in Boston, is a teacher who represents the old, sincere, laborious Italian school. He came to Boston in 1873, under an engagement to teach singing at the National College of Music, and after the collapse of that institution, continued in the city, engaged in instructing his numerous pupils till the year 1880-81, which he spent abroad in the inspection of the best schools of singing in the Old World, and in the study of the latest phases of teaching as practiced in Italy. Signor Cirillo is a graduate of the Royal Conservatory of Naples, and a member of the St. Cecelia Academy of Rome, as well as the holder of eight diplomas from various societies in Italy. His first teacher was Alessandro Busti. During his master’s sickness, Cirillo taught his special pupils, and after his death, continued at the Conservatory for five years, till the increase of his private pupils compelled him to resign his position. He also studied under Alfonso Guercia and Domenico Scafati, who shares with Lamperti and Vannuccini the honor of heading the list of modern Italian teachers. In 1879, Cirillo was appointed director of the choir of the Church of the Immaculate Conception of Boston, where he produced several of his own compositions, the chief being a brilliant and original “Stabat Mater” for six solo voices. He has published a lecture on the Neapolitan School, a method of vocalization in three divisions, and a large number of secular compositions. He is now at work on an opera founded on a Grecian story. 

Reading Cirillo, one is yet again struck by the simplicity and logic of his way of working and thinking “the old, sincere, laborious Italian school.” Cirillo was a member of a family of teachers and writers in the 19th and early 20th century that tried to move against the tide of scientific teaching gaining such traction at that time. He lays out his argument on the differences of approach as being one of nationality – an interesting concept when you consider that TO THIS DAY much of the science of singing continues to emerge from the United States alone.

It is impossible in Italy to teach any art by a written method, because the Italian mind is not scientific, but artistic. It sees the beautiful intuitively, it does not reason it out. In this respect, the Italians differ from all other races, even from the Spanish and French, who have the same Latin blood, and belong to the same family. Here, I may observe that these two races have no school of their own. Their famous singers studied in Italy and sang Italian operas, although they could never rival the Italian singers, who were always the most famous in the world.

We will not compare the different races in respect to their musical ability, for comparisons are always odious; but it may be said that the intuitive school of teaching ceases with the Italians, to whom music is a second nature, and all other races have to get into the mysteries of the art step by step.

I have observed, since the very beginning of my experience as a teacher in this country, that there is an instinct in the American people which makes them ask “why” of everything new that is taught them, particularly when they are studying an art. It seems as though they wish to reduce all beauty to theory and rules; but they are mistaken, for science is not art, and the old masters taught the art in two words, – namely, “Imitate me.” This was the school of Nuzar, given to his pupils; this was the school of Porpora, and also the school that made Michaelangelo, Raffaelo, Benvenuto Cellini, and many others.

But what can be done with a pupil who asks at the first lesson: “What is your method of breathing?” “Do you want me to breathe from the diaphragm or from my intercostal muscles or from my abdomen?” “What is your method?” “How long does it take to become a perfect singer?” “What do you call my voice?” “To what celebrated artist’s voice can mine be compared?” “Do you teach the oratorio voice? I mean that broad voice, rather solemn and pompous?” “How long shall you require me to practise every day?” And many other questions of the same kind.

To read this essay (which I recommend considering Cirillo’s impressive pedigree) visit and download it from Daniel Shigo’s resource page, found here.

And for some tantalizing glimpses into his potential work in vivo with students, you can find his book of 40 Vocalises here. The exercises have been ‘Progressively Arranged to develop the Voice and Render it Flexible.’

I like those pedagogical priorities.

Edited to add: Did some more digging on Cirillo, and found an interesting connection: Cirillo’s beloved teacher was Alessandro Busti at the Conservatory of Naples. Busti wrote a book of daily exercises. Busti’s teacher was NONE OTHER than the celebrated castrato and teacher Girolamo Crescentini, who is one of the truly great teachers of the earliest bel canto of the 18th century! So, it’s possible to draw a direct line from the 18th century castrati right here to Boston, Massachusetts.