A lively and rewarding conversation with my wonderful teaching colleagues centered on ‘chronological snobbery,’ a term coined by C. S. Lewis to indicate an argument that the thinking, art, or science of an earlier time is inherently inferior to that of the present, simply by virtue of its temporal priority.
I wanted to replicate my ideas here with a few amendments, mainly as a safeguard for my own reference and continuing path of discovery as I learn more about singing and teaching. I close with a poem that speaks to my heart very deeply about our connection to the past by the poet James Elroy Flecker.
Michael Reeves, president and professor of theology at Union School of Theology in Oxford who has written about chronological snobbery said:
But what Lewis found—and what reading old books makes very clear—is that every age works with a large set of assumptions that seem to it so self-evident that they are never questioned. Like the proverbial frog in the kettle, we find it almost impossible to get a real sense of the water we inhabit, and can thus be blissfully unaware of how faddish our beliefs are. It is very tempting for me now to don the grand airs of a sage cultural critic and attempt to list what our unquestioned assumptions are today. But anyone reading this in fifty years’ time would only chuckle at the profound issues I had overlooked. They are simply part of the air we breathe every day, and as such are quite invisible to us.
This allies in toto with historical pedagogy and the research that I continue to uncover on the subject. The ‘self-evident’ subjects for the Old Italians seem to have been centralized on the topics they included and equally OMITTED, most tellingly on the subject of breath management and resonance (the latter term being coined in the early 20th century according to Herbert Witherspoon, writing in 1925). The oldest writings say nothing on these matters – taking breath management or resonance as SELF-EVIDENT.
(SIDEBAR: To give a modern spin, I’m immediately reminded of the usage of ‘self-evident’ in our United States Constitution – “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness….” we continue to battle over the term ‘self-evident’ as the Founders understood the term in this preamble – drawn into sharper relief when considering that these men owned slaves).
Coming back to the subject, a tantalizing clue to breath and resonance perhaps rests in the importance they placed on long tones and the messa di voce, but that is merely my conjecture as to how this may have been tackled from the evidence (messa di voce being a combination of breath management and resonance into a gestalt). What they INCLUDED shows what they valued, in particular, vocal style and the delight (“delitto”) of the listener. An early treatise states that the goal of singing is to ‘muovere gli affetti’ (move the emotions), this tracks with the visual evidence we have from Baroque art, which became a high point of EMOTION in artistic expression, as evidenced in the sculptures of Bernini, depicting scenes of high emotional content through movement.
Tosi and Mancini operated on completely different sets of assumptions than Garcia, and later Vennard (although I think there are others during the span of those years equally important but unmentioned here). But understanding assumptions is the first step in understanding the wisdom of previous generations because, despite their assumptions, the human singing voice flourished – as the historical literature, treatises, and surviving music demonstrate. (Lest I find this vexing to my current set of modern assumptions and sensibilities, a recent visit to Italy to see the remnants of previous generations gave me even greater respect for their efforts – Brunelleschi’s Duomo in Florence being a particularly staggering example to me of achievement without modern technology. One felt connected to him through space and time in a way that could only be described as ‘mystical.’)
Combatting one’s tendency to fall prey to chronological snobbery is given a cure by Lewis, who beautifully wrote that ‘The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds.”
Writing in the introduction to On the Incarnation, by Athanasius (London: Centenary, 1944; repr. Crestwood, NY: SVS, 1998), 5.:
It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones. . . . Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.
As benediction, I’m including Flecker’s poem as a meditation on the traditions of our vocal past.
The great vocal pedagogues of the past wish to speak to us. They carry messages of importance and inestimable value.
Will we be willing to listen?
“TO A POET A THOUSAND YEARS HENCE”
I who am dead a thousand years,
And wrote this sweet archaic song,
Send you my words for messengers
The way I shall not pass along.
I care not if you bridge the seas,
Or ride secure the cruel sky,
Or build consummate palaces
Of metal or of masonry.
But have you wine and music still,
And statues and a bright-eyed love,
And foolish thoughts of good and ill,
And prayers to them who sit above?
How shall we conquer? Like a wind
That falls at eve our fancies blow,
And old Maeonides the blind
Said it three thousand years ago.
O friend unseen, unborn, unknown,
Student of our sweet English tongue,
Read out my words at night, alone:
I was a poet, I was young.
Since I can never see your face,
And never shake you by the hand,
I send my soul through time and space
To greet you. You will understand.
By James Elroy Flecker (1884-1915)